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 French (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 actually, 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.