Your English: My English
By Mohammad Ashraf Chaudhry
Pittsburg, CA

It depends on which side of the Atlantic you reside. But what about people like us who got their first exposure to English in grade six. We, the Urdu medium types, never got a chance to correctly utter even three English alphabets, namely, /p/, /t/, and /k/’, because we never heard them correctly pronounced, not to speak of the remaining 23.

My failure in the articulation of these three formidable letters is abysmal. Neither my British university, Exeter, could do much by making me unlearn first that letter; /p/ is not bilabial, i.e. uttered with tightly closed lips. It is, like the other two, explosive in expression, puffing out a good amount of air; nor have the 20-year living in America, and teaching here in Public Schools. My /p/, /t/, and /k/ remain indigenous, that is, typically Punjabi.

In retrospect, did we ever learn English language? To be honest, we never; neither in school nor in college. What at best we learnt in all those years was a set of rules, called English Grammar. We never learnt to speak English because in school we never heard it The English teacher taught it in his native vernacular. And in college, what our teachers taught us in the name of English, was, in fact English Literature. They taught us Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats and Browning, which was in reality as special a subject as Mathematics, Physics and Biology taught in English; but what they expected from us was not our proficiency in how much we had learnt about Wordsworth and Shakespeare, but about English language.

It was like sowing oats and expecting to reap corn. And perhaps the practice continues. Once I, fresh from England, in my capacity as a paper-setter of English for the F.A./F.Sc. students attempted to change the pattern of questions that specifically targeted language as learnt through the teaching of literature. I almost got fired from my job for the innovation. The attempt was construed as an act of “mischief’, a conspiracy hatched to dislodge the Chairman of the Board. It could very well trigger a wave of student protests who are used to answering questions like, “A Railway Journey”, “A Rainy Day’, or writing a note on the character sketch of “Lucy” or “Hamlet”. And the standardized answers are available in the market.

The British and Americans are famously divided by a common language, called English and the differences are quite obvious. As in art and architecture, same way in English, the Americans try to be different. This summer while traveling to Europe, in the (aero plane/airplane), when the airhostess asked me if she could remove the “rubbish”, I felt constrained to look at her rather carefully. She had not used the word, ‘trash’ or ‘garbage’ that we are accustomed to use here in America. Here are some more surprises for you.

Please don’t get upset if you hear the word, bonnet instead of ‘trunk’; ‘chips’ instead of ‘French-fries’; ‘flat’, instead of ‘apartment’; ‘cot’ instead of ‘crib’; ‘current account’ instead of ‘ checking account’; ‘drink- driving’ instead of ‘drunk-driving’; ‘driving licence’ instead of ‘driver’s license’; ‘dustbin’ instead of ‘trash/garbage can’; ‘eat in…restaurant’ instead of ‘for here’; ‘ estate car’ instead of ‘station wagon’; ‘financial year’ instead of ‘fiscal year’; ‘fire brigade’ instead of ‘fire department’; ‘indicator (on car)’ instead of ‘turn signal’; ‘ladybird’ instead of ‘ladybug’; ‘maize’ instead of ‘corn’; ‘number place’ instead of ‘license plate’; ‘lift’ instead of ‘elevator’; ‘lolly’ instead of ‘popsicle’; ‘maths’ instead of ‘math’; ‘pedestrian crossing’ instead of ‘crosswalk’; ‘patrol’ instead of ‘gasoline’; ‘post code’ instead of ‘zip code’; ‘ press up’ instead of ‘pushup’; ‘queue’ instead of ‘line’; ‘reversing light’ instead of  ‘backup light; ‘roundabout’ instead of ‘traffic circle’; ‘self-raising flour’ instead of ‘self-rising flour’; ‘sleeping partner’ instead of ‘silent partner’; ‘storm in a teacup’ instead of  ‘tempest in a teapot’; ‘terraced house’ instead of ‘row house’; ‘tram’ instead of trolley car’; ‘vest’ instead of ‘undershirt’; ‘waistcoat’ instead of ‘vest’; ‘windscreen’ instead of ‘windshield’; ‘worktop’ instead of ‘countertop’; ‘zebra crossing’ instead of ‘crosswalk’; and finally the last letter of the English alphabets, ‘zed’ instead of ‘zee’.

As an English language teacher, I still get confused when a student turns in his/her assignment, ‘on time/in time’; or expressions like, ‘cater to’ or ‘cater for’; you play ‘in a team’ as the British would say, or ‘play on a team’; ‘Monday through Friday’ or “Monday to Friday’ as they say in the UK. You enroll ‘on’ as in British English, or as in America, you enroll on/in a course. The British favor using preposition ‘at’ the weekend, Americans use on/over/during the weekend. It sound all right when we hear somebody telling us the price of a thing in such monetary terms, “a dollar fifty”; across the Atlantic it would be expressed as, “one dollar fifty”.

Since people like me learnt, (not learned), English in a hard way, (the teacher virtually taught us ‘by hand’); it is still quite encouraging to know by comparison that we are not doing so bad as we tend to think. Our pitfalls in American English are like, ‘a drop in the bucket’, and not like, ‘a drop in the ocean,’ as the British would say. We ‘keep blowing our trumpet’ in English without bothering that in America, it is the ‘horn’ that you blow. So long as we know what we are saying and are understood by others, it doesn’t matter much here in America whether we call a carpet a rug; a cupboard a closet; and we flog a dead horse instead of beating a dead horse, metaphorically, and not literally.

You will definitely get a new lease ‘on life’. But once you cross the Atlantic, then, of course, we must try to get a new lease ‘of life’. After all both sides of the Atlantic write dates differently, drive on different sides of the road; call their motorways/freeways differently; spell words differently, and even greet differently; “Merry Christmas” becomes “Happy Christmas’ once you land in England. (Repeated)



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.