I mentioned travelling. Mrs Pobaan and I are on a tour of the Thai kingdom in the company of Mrs Pobaan’s sister and brother-in-law. They’re the ones that were laughing at the hapless student on an iPad.
And well they might. Mrs Pobaan speaks three languages and her brother-in-law speaks two. The garland of achievement, however, is rightly draped around the elegant neck of Mrs Pobaan’s sister who is fluent in four tongues: a variety of Chinese, Thai, English and—living as she does in Austria—the language that passes for German in that snowy land of cake and dirndl dresses, not forgetting leather shorts. Also cheese.
Struggling as I do to order a bowl of noodle soup in the Thai language, despite having been, as they say, totally immersed in it for five years, I am full of admiration for these language skills. I have tried—God knows I’ve tried, as do regular readers of this blog in whom I have confided my linguistic inadequacies in the past.
This is the context within which we will today consider the treatment of the English language by those for whom it is not the mother tongue.
Quiet please at the back for today’s speaker. Thank you, Chairman. First slide, please. Ahem... There’s no point going to other countries if you would prefer, or even expect, everything there to be just as it is at home. The English language is no exception to this rule. As a stickler for correct usage and even a reasonably enthusiastic supporter of a consistent approach to spelling, I am drawn to typos in books like a moth to a flame, like Mrs Pobaan to a bowl of freshly stir-fried chickens’ feet.
‘I’m not actually in the mood for chickens’ feet today.’
‘Maybe the simile will work tomorrow.’
‘Maybe, but what’s a simile?’
How did she get in here? As I was saying, it’s the same with menus. I can’t peruse a bill of fare without my eye being drawn to the steamed crap, the sweat and sour pork or, to drink, perhaps a Diet Cock.
And signs are an equally fertile source of novel mis-usages: the hotel is irresponsible, we are told; we pass a van advertising Cuntry Park Transport; a shop says it sells kitchen where; and so on.
All my adult life, on all my travels, this tendency mentally to edit my textual environment has added to my experience of new places and provided an occasional source of mild amusement.
But in Thailand, this way madness lies. If I were to take on the task, even in my head, of correcting all the misplaced apostrophes, plurals that should be singular, singulars that should be plural, misspellings and other confusions I would surely go loopy. So, apart from looking out for the more entertaining bloopers, I now do my best to ignore these errors and accept them not as examples of wrong English so much as correct examples of a different English.
How PC is that? [Pause for applause; a modest bow.] I thank you.
But a man can be pushed too far. I find that there is a level of provocation so great that the schoolteacher in me, suppressed by years of living with signs for books shops and shops selling curtain and furnitures and so on, is reactivated, rising up, blue pencil in hand, to edit another day (as James Bond might have said if he had been more bookish).
Such an incident occurs today when I do nothing more unusual than buy a light bulb in a lovely electrical shop near Naklua market. It’s one of those shops that, if left alone, I could spend an hour in, examining the dusty boxes they tuck away on high shelves and rummaging around among the stacks of gadgets they have for every conceivable electrical application. If I dug deep enough, I’m sure I would find Faraday himself hiding in there somewhere.
The light bulb comes in a box on which are printed four operating instructions. Surprised that there are four things I might need to know about operating a light bulb, I adorn my nose with a suitable pair of reading glasses and study these directives carefully.
I won’t burden you, gentle reader, with the whole sorry text. Instead I will extract for you the highlight of the piece, Instruction 3, which reads (and I quote): ‘lamp cups light wthen does not have to ues the nand direvt touching lamp cup, or the lamp gallbladder, in order to a wold scalds.’
And there we have it, surely a perfect example of the, er, different English to which I have referred above. [Pause for gasps from audience.]
I re-read the instruction in case there is something important I need to do when operating the light bulb. I begin to see that there is more to this different English than I had realised. It presents me with new insights into the meaning of light bulbs. It’s, well, beautiful, man. It’s... isn’t it... actually... poetry? Would not the Bard of Avon himself have been proud to have penned these words? Thus:
‘Prithee, coz, what is’t in yonder box?’
‘A lamp gallbladder, gentle sir.’
‘All’s well in’t?’
‘Aye, coz, all’s in order to a wold scalds.’
Exeunt, stage left.