The Perils of Pigeon English

You can only really ask someone to repeat something twice (or, in an emergency, three times) before you have to just smile, nod politely and issue a non-committal, “Mmmm”. Over here the vast majority of the population go through every day speaking their second or third language and this can result in some quite extraordinary misunderstandings. I should like to make it clear that I have huge admiration for people who are able to communicate in anything other than their mother tongue. I am, you see, a shame-faced monoglot, with just a smattering of schoolgirl English HouseFrench (which frequently borders on Del Boy-esque Franglais: “Bonnet de douche et tout le monde, mon petit filous?”) and a vague recollection of GCSE Latin (somehow I got a grade B. I remember learning most of Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid off by heart so I could just write it out in full, rather than translate the specific passage that cropped up in the exam). I am deeply in love with the English language and have been for as long as I can remember – and I find its etymology endlessly fascinating (did you know that the words frog and frolic stem from Old Norse / Middle Dutch cognates, derived from a Proto-Indo-European word for “hop”, so that frog literally means “a hopper” and, frolic, “hopping for joy”…) but, alas, I’m just no good at learning other languages…

“You have lived in the Middle East for nearly three years and you don’t speak Arabic?!” you might well say to me and, by gum, I deserve such censure. I can say hello and thank you in Arabic. And that’s about it. I’ve tried to learn other words but I just don’t get a chance to use them and they soon get archived somewhere in a dark, forgotten brain-cupboard. The thing is, other than these pleasantries, it is actually quite tricky to get anyone in shops, restaurants – or anywhere really – to converse with you in anything other than English, as most of the working population here are immigrants just like me. It must be very odd for the local residents to have to spend much of their daily lives in their own country conversing in a language that is not their native tongue. Just IMAGINE if that happened in the UK – the Daily Mail would have a field day.

Last night we were eating in a lovely French restaurant being served by a delightful young Indian chap. The menu was in French, we ordered in English and our waiter wrote down our choices in Hindi. This is the sort of wonderful multi-linguistic world we live in out here – but it’s easy to see how mistakes could be made along the way. Actually, last night things went surprisingly smoothly, apart from the explanations of the specials. Our cheery waiter told us that the starter de jour was “Bill in pastry”. Now, I don’t know what poor Bill had done to deserve this fate, but I can only imagine he was a less-than-efficient sous chef or perhaps a customer who complained too vociferously. We asked the waiter to repeat it several times, which he did with a broad smile on his face, until it all got too embarrassing and we had to accept that he was definitely saying, “Bill”. Poor Bill. May he rest in peace. And pastry. Two glasses of red wine later, after squinting at the specials board for some time and applying my smattering of schoolgirl French, I deduced that he must have been saying “veal”. It was a great relief to all of us, and Bill too, I expect.

Booking things over the phone, without even the benefit of gesture or lip-reading, can be particularly hazardous. My first name is Lucy and I have, in the past two and a half years, received orders addressed to Miss Lacey Martin, Miss Leecy Mertin and even Mam Licey Merkin (which doesn’t bear thinking about). In April 2011, I booked a table in a pub for a group of friends to have lunch and watch the Royal Wedding. We arrived to find our table reserved for a ‘Les Martin’. Now I don’t know about you, but I imagine Les Martin to be a large fellow, positively beefy Les Martinactually, with thinning grey hair and a sort of sweaty, blood-pressurey look about him. I imagine he might be enthusiastic about DIY, and like nothing better than a pint of lager and a game of darts after a hard day at the second-hand car dealership. Nonetheless, for the afternoon of the Royal Wedding, 2011, I was Les Martin. Good old, sweaty old patriotic Les.

Since moving here, I have been taken to entirely the wrong place in a taxi (some ten or so miles from where I needed to be), I have ordered several God-awful desserts (including an unspeakable cheesecake which was quite literally a Cheese Cake, hastily rustled up with what tasted like rancid cheddar), and I have accidentally declared war on my local branch of HSBC… All due to messy misunderstandings with language. Pigeon English is clearly a dangerous bird – an unpredictable, feral creature with no homing instincts whatsoever. One of my favourite linguistic pickles took place in Boots quite recently. I went in to buy some indigestion medicine and asked the Filipino sales assistant where I would find it. I have no idea how it happened, what bizarre wrong turns our short conversation must have taken, but when I eventually came to purchase my bottle of Gaviscon, the sales assistant was under the distinct impression that I was buying it for a cat who was suffering from wind. “Is he large cat or small cat?” she asked, concerned, scrutinizing the dosage (unsurprisingly, the directions didn’t mention the appropriate dosage for cats, regardless of their size). I’m ashamed to say I didn’t even attempt to put her straight. The situation seemed to be utterly, irretrievably beyond help, so I nodded, smiled and said, “Yes. Lovely. That’s perfect, thanks,” and rapidly left the shop, making a mental note never to go back there again. Sometimes it seems like this city is filling up with places I can never go back to again… Unless I want to spend another afternoon as Les, of course.

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44 Comments

  1. Oh this is so funny. Poor Bill. Thank you for the laughs, Les.

  2. Brilliant brilliant post. I understand exactly how you feel. I moved to Italy 5 years ago, but still managed to compliment the Auntie of Mrs Sensible, on how wonderful the dog we had just eaten was. It was prime beef steak. Dog and meat (carne & cane)

    • You see I still got it wrong .. Dog = cane & Meat = carne. I think

      • Glad you enjoyed the post, Pecora Nera 😀 I am very impressed with your attempts to learn Italian and I reckon carne and cane are close enough in meaning for it not to matter significantly… Especially if you’re cooking hot dogs 🙂

  3. I can sooo sympathise with you! When we were in France last year we were looking at the menu and were discussing what the dish of the day could possibly mean. the waitress was sulky and made no attmept to help. The word was ***** *** couer (or similar spelling) remembering my schoolgirl French I said to hubby, you know I have a horrible suspicion that is heart. A french guy at the next table chirps up. Yes, its stuffed heart. I looked in horror and chose pizza!

    • Wow – stuffed heart!! Looks like the old schoolgirl French could have saved you from a very nasty surprise 😀

  4. Rick

    Reminds me of the time I asked an Asian lady in a chemist shop if she had something to stop the odour of insoles (in my shoes). I was offered cream for piles. What did she think I was saying? Another hilarious post Luce. Wonderful stuff.

  5. Too funny. As someone who has lived on three continents now, I can most certainly sympathize. My mother once told a chap in Hindi that she was looking for some nice cloth for a kurta for herself. The poor man looked quite confused and slightly concerned. Later on my father told her that the way she pronounced the Hindi word for cloth turned it into ’tile roof shingles’.

    • Fantastic 😀 Dabbling in other languages is clearly a dangerous business – she could have been accidentally reroofed!

      • hahahaha. That made me laugh out loud. And today I sorely needed that. Thank you!

  6. hey Les, this is TOTALLY HILARIOUS!!!! I’m in stitches over here!! so funny!! and I know the feeling, has happened so many times. Must go and write a post about it! thanks for cheering us all up! 🙂 🙂 inshallah!

    • Hello! Goodness – I forgot about in sh’allah – that’s another one I know! x P.S. Les is proving to be a liberating alter ego 😀

  7. That was so much fun…thank you.
    I keep thinking of somone I know called Bill wrapped in pastry and served to a less than enthusiastic public…better, he could be sent back to be rebaked…
    I wouldn’t worry about your franglais…there are some in the Britpack living in France who aren’t at your level after ten years…

    • Merci beaucoup, Helen – or should I say, shukran?! Poor old Bill – I wouldn’t like to be in his choux 🙂

  8. Hilarious post, Les!
    My best ever misunderstanding was actually in good ole’ South End, or Sarf End as the locals pronounce it. In a Chinese Fish and Chip Shop. The Chinese woman seemed to be asking me if I had a sore finger.
    “Er, no it’s fine” I said, already quite certain I had completely misunderstood.
    Sore Finger, she repeated. She shouted it about five times and then furiously slapped a salt cellar and a bottle of vineagar on the counter.

    • I love this – utterly BRILLIANT – I’m particularly fond of a fish finger with sore finger 🙂

  9. Living in the US with a fairly complicated (to an English speaker) Italian last name, I stopped bothering to correct strangers trying to pronounce it. And when someone does ask for help, I have an anglicized pronunciation to the ready. Life of the expat. This post was hilarious!

    • Thanks Camparigirl! I would like to apologise on behalf of all native English speakers for our mangling of other languages – particularly names. I was recently introduced to a Chinese boy who had an extraordinarily long and complex name. I struggled to pronounce his name and asked him to say it for me. “Just call me Bob,” he said, wearily.

  10. Me

    I wish I could learn another language, and yet I, like you am a monoglot who doesn’t even have the benefit of latin from school and just standard French like Oui, still it has gotten me past the last 40 odd years so I don’t see it as much of an issue, but I would still like to learn it. But being a brit abroad, I commend you, that would be a scary environment for me and would result in a lot of pointing and shouting in English, because we all know that if you point and shout you will be understood.

    • Absolutely – I find frantic comedy miming is also helpful. And not at all embarrassing 🙂

      • Me

        haha, no not at all 😀

  11. Brilliant! I also love words and etymology and even reading dictionaries. And I laughed and then felt guilty for laughing at poor Bill and Les. Thanks for the smiles.

    • 😀 My pleasure, Barbara – thanks for popping in!

      • I’ve been a bit under the weathe, so not showing up much. But I always enjoy your posts.

      • Thanks, Barbara – that’s good to know 🙂 I do hope you’re feeling stronger and brighter soon.

      • 🙂 Thank you – I hope I am, too. Big test results coming next week, so cross your fingers for me, please?

      • Of course I will. Best of luck! 🙂

  12. Great post that rings many bells with me. A friend of mine went to the local pharmacie to ask for cream for an allergy on her neck, and came home with a cream for piles- she had badly pronounced “cou” (neck) and the chemist had understood “cul” (arse).

    • Oh no! The perils of pigeon French! I shall add “cul” to my French vocabulary list. You never know when it might come in handy 🙂

  13. Very interesting to hear the view from the other side of the fence… I am bilingual and pride myself on my fairly decent command of the English language, but every now and then, my tongue slips, my accent thickens, my pronouns betray me, and my kids convulse with laughter at their mom’s English.

    • Wonderful! And you have my absolute admiration for being able to speak more than one language fluently! The mistakes make it all much more fun 🙂

  14. Lovely storytelling, particularly liked the Gaviscon for cats conversation! 😆 I also relate to appearing to be dimwitted when it comes to learning new languages, yet fairly skilled at English. I left school with no foreign language skills despite studying French for more than 3 years! For several years my work in the UK brought me into contact with many people from all over the world, yet I picked up less than 5 foreign words. I’ve also managed to travel to Spain, France and Belguim, speaking less than 5 words that weren’t English, I’ve had more trouble communicating in Wales, Scotland or Ireland than elsewhere. 🙄

    • Hello Growl Tigger – it’s comforting to come across a fellow monoglot! Just enjoyed a good look around your blog, by the way – loving the nostalgia!

  15. Barbara Backer-Gray

    Hilarious! But . . . they have pubs and a Boots in Dubai?!? How homesick can you possibly be? The best of England with lots of sun. 😉

    • Ooh good point, Barbara… Maybe its because it has got all these elements of home but they’re not quite right it makes it sort of worse… In a way I’d prefer it if it was ‘properly foreign’ 😀

      • Barbara Backer-Gray

        I know what you mean. They have bunches of flowers here in the grocery stores, but the combinations are hideous and the flowers already look terrible when you buy them. Some people know that it’s a Dutch thing to bring flowers when you visit, but I’d rather not have flowers at all than be reminded of how much cheaper, better and prettier they were in Holland.

  16. This post really made me laugh. I lived in the Middle East for 5 years and can understand where you’re coming from! Its a fascinating place even though sure can be frustrating at times. Ha i think each member of my family have had to declare war on their bank at some point too. There’s always a good story to tell at the end of the day 🙂

    • Hi Nomad, thanks for commenting. You’re right – it’s all about the stories. That’s what we’re all here for 🙂

  17. Alex

    Love it – the Guardian on Saturday used to have a section dedicted to linguistic misunderstandings; I’d buy it simply for this, and then there is the Radio 4 news quiz. Travelling in Japan revealed some howlers, although I’d always feel bad about for doubling up becasue they were trying! And Dubai, can just picture Les …

    • I agree – the effort other people make with our nonsensical language is rather humbling. But there is much comedy in an unfortunate mispronunciation ;-D

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Lucy Strange

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