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Guide to English English

December 08, 1985|JACK PITMAN | Pitman is an American living in London.

LONDON — You travel to England not only for such glories as the Tower of London and Harrods, but with anticipation for the sound of our common language as it should be spoken, in the euphonious Oxford vowels of a Ronald Colman or Greer Garson.

You will, of course, come across such bespoke English, but you will also hear a lot more of the other kind.

Hollywood and "Masterpiece Theater" notwithstanding, the most common accents and idioms bear the brand of "Downstairs," not "Upstairs." Maybe 1% of the English, today or at any time past, speak upscale posh. The rest all speak something else, a babble of accents and dialects of region and the low-born.

And that's just England--never mind Wales and Scotland.

A Certain Charm

Some of this sub-English English has a certain charm; to a sensitive ear, a lot more of it just grates like the dickens.

Even more than the babble, what may surprise a first-time visitor is the discovery that our common lingo really isn't all that mutual. Although the language is the same, the vocabulary is often bewilderingly different.

Consider some examples of the linguistic divide.

You're behind the wheel of an auto for the first time in the U. K. and, naturally, you're very nervous. After all, the steering wheel's on the "wrong" side and so is the traffic.

Then comes a real complication--a road sign saying "diversion," which you pass in puzzlement until it dawns that you missed the detour. At which point you may start to wish you had hired a chauffeur-driven limo instead.

You're looking for the subway and you finally find it, only to discover it's a subterranean passage for pedestrians. What you really want isn't a subway but the Underground, sometimes known as the Tube because that's the shape of the tunnels in which the trains run.

A Suburb That Isn't

Also confusing is the way the English define "suburb." By us, a suburb is a distinct corporate entity, but not here. Very few Londoners live in London. Nearly all live in the suburbs, meaning any district outside of the original walled Roman fort, which later became the financial district konwn as The City. (Are we clear so far?) Anyway, it thus follows that "city" editors and reporters on the newspapers cover the financial, not the metropolitan, beat.

One more in this rich vein. As we use it, the adjective "bombed" refers either to someone who's drunk or a flop show. In confusing Britain, on the other hand, the expression "it did a bomb," or it was a bomb, means that the show cleaned up, hit the jackpot, etc.

Useful Lingo

Next, some slang that may prove useful to clip for reference.

Quid--the pound sterling, as in one quid, five quid, etc.

Nicker--very downscale synonym for quid, as in two nicker, five nicker, etc.

Knickers--female underpants, not to be confused with nicker.

Loo--the toilet.

Convenience--a euphemism for loo, used by those who fancy themselves respectable.

Blower--the telephone.

Fag--a cigarette, not a queer. (Don't smirk--it's a dead giveaway that you're a Yank tourist.)

Plonk--very ordinary wine.

Circus--a plaza or square, as in Piccadilly Circus.

Football--the game of soccer.

Banger--can mean either a sausage or a jalopy. (The sausage, be warned, will be meatless. Remember your history--this is the land of the Puritans.)

Besides the babel, what may also astonish a visitor expecting everyone to talk with the grace of Mrs. Miniver is the babble of Britain, the slurred speech and the linguistic anarchy that can produce syntactical abortions such as "You didn't ought to 'ave went." (The dropped "h" didn't ought to 'ave went either, if you ask me, but a lot of Englishers seem to have misplaced it.)

Where Are the Standards?

Just as the French bitterly complain about the corruption known as franglais, so the English forever bemoan the decline of standards where their own language is concerned. And with good reason, because no one abuses it more than they do. Not even the Australians, who anyway speak something utterly different.

Bernard Shaw once bitterly complained that the English "have no respect for their language and will not teach their children to speak it." Of course not--they can't speak it any better themselves. Nor are they willing to learn, either, because that would be like carrying coals to Newcastle. After all, it is their language, isn't it?

Consider the weird syllable stresses heard here--conTROVersy, caPITalist, manDAtory, staTUtory, etc., thus flouting their own Oxford English Dictionary, let alone our Webster's. What's an unaccustomed ear to make of all that, too?

And what's a sensitive ear to make of those Cockney and other grating vowels? Henry Higgins made something of it in the case of Eliza Doolittle, but only because "Pygmalion" was a Shavian fantasy. For years Shaw conducted a dedicated battle to get the English to speak better English.

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