"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: My Baptism of and Conversion to American English (II)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

My Baptism of and Conversion to American English (II)

This first appeared on March 25, 2006 in the print edition of Weekly Trust

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Sometime in the mid-point of 2005, I had cause to teach my students lessons in intercultural communication. I remember that they were all shocked when I told them that in Nigeria when people say “you have lost weight,” there is always an undertone sympathy, sometimes even disdain, in their facial expression, whereas in America there is usually an overt tone of approval when the same expression is uttered.

Americans vilify excess flesh, but Nigerians celebrate it—if it is not superfluous, that is. I told them of cultures in southern Nigeria where prospective brides first go to fattening rooms for months to put “flesh in the right places” so that they will look desirable to their husbands after the wedding. My students couldn’t believe this. So one of them asked, “Mr. Kperogi, are you just being silly?”

I was transfixed, mortified. Silly? What have I said to deserve this gratuitous insult from a spoiled American brat? I wondered. However, I realized that nobody, not even the few American Blacks in the class, was shocked by the “insult” to me. They all looked at me eagerly, even leisurely, in expectation of a response.

That warned me to restrain my emotions. What was more, I thought the student had no reason to insult me because her grades in the course, which is a core course, depended solely on me. So I simply deflected the topic. I neither said I was being silly nor that I was not silly.

I immediately shared my experience with my colleagues when I got back to the office. It turned out that in American demotic speech, being silly means to be deliberately funny or playful in an affectionate way. So the student actually just wanted to know if I was merely kidding because she didn’t imagine that there are cultures anywhere in the world where fat people are not vilified. (America has an excess of obese people because, whereas other countries are contending with the problem of under- or mal-nutrition, Americans are contending with the problem of over-nutrition!).

Some days after this incident, I told one my professors that if I didn’t tutor my instincts and school my emotions, I would have descended on an innocent girl who asked if I was being silly in class. I told him that in British English, “silly” is an adjective of disesteem that usually denotes and connotes stupidity and subnormal mental capacity. He had a good laugh and asked, “So it was that experience that taught you the meaning of silly as we use it here?” When I answered in the affirmative, he said, “It’s such a shame.”

I felt humiliated again. And the man instantly noticed the change in my countenance. My suppressed rage and my wounded pride were so nakedly transparent that he could feel, even touch, them! So he asked why my enthusiasm had suddenly evaporated in our conversation. I told him there was nothing to be ashamed of in not being familiar with the queer deviations of American English from the "real" English, that he was being unfair to me because he could neither speak my own native language nor does he know half as much British English as I know American English, and should therefore have shown me more respect.

His subsequent query disarmed me. “When did I ever say or imply that you should be ashamed because you do not understand American English?” he asked. I then referred him to his statement that “it’s a shame” that I didn’t know what silly meant in American English.

Well, the end of the story is that in American English, the expression “It’s a shame” is just another way of saying “it’s unfortunate.” My professor was empathizing with me for having the misfortune of having my dander up by an innocuous query from a curious student.

After we resolved our differences, I said “Oh, I’m sorry. It’s such a shame that we are both victims of harmless miscues!” We both had a good laugh. Well, I have later found out that the expression, “It’s a shame” to mean it is unfortunate has now permeated even demotic British speech.

About a year after this incident, I had cause to interview a University of Ohio professor of political science who lived in Ghana for a one-year sabbatical leave at the University of Ghana. I interviewed her for a news magazine to which I occasionally contribute articles and stories here.

The professor told me her experiences in Ghana that were the direct opposite of mine. She narrated how a Ghanaian professor with whom she had been on very friendly terms literally threw a feet and almost ate her raw when she said to the man, “Don’t be silly.” She told me that it was the quick intervention of the staff of the school that saved her from the raw rage of the Ghanaian professor.

She said she learned the hard way that in British English the word “silly” is an insult. I secretly felt happy that I was not alone in the clash of languages. There is security in numbers, as they say.

But my baptism is not always this emotionally charged. At the end of my first semester here, I was told that there would be a “commencement exercise” to which we were all invited. I had not the remotest clue what the hell anybody would be commencing at the end of a semester.

I thought “commencement exercise” was the American equivalent of our matriculation, and wondered why students would be matriculated at the end of a semester. I later learned that “commencement” is actually the American equivalent of our convocation while “orientation” is their equivalent of our matriculation.

My friends told me that the logic of the word commencement to denote graduation is that when people graduate, it is really the time that they "commence" the journey to the real world.

And during “commencements,” they don’t award certificates; they award “diplomas.” Diploma here is the generic word for all manner of certificates—bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees; it does not mean a sub-degree qualification, as it does in British English.

Again, "certificate" is not a generic word for paper qualifications; when it is used in an educational context, it usually implies a document certifying the completion of a short, crash course. And “college” is the generic word for university. When somebody is described as “college-educated,” it means he has at least a bachelor’s degree.

Americans also have a whole range of expressions that are simply exclusive to them. One day, one of my friends asked me if I wanted to “work out.” I was tired of asking for the meaning of such strange expressions. So I simply said “Yeah, I will like to work out,” hoping that it meant no more than something I could do.

We later found ourselves in a fitness center where I saw people lifting weights, jumping, and generally doing what we call “physical exercises” in British English. That was how I learned that “work out” simply means to engage in a physical exercise. Now, when I want to exercise, and want my friends to go with me, I also ask them, “Do you want to work out today?” I am learning fast.

Sometime ago, one of my professors was concerned that I didn’t have the appropriate clothes for “working out,” because I had just arrived from Nigeria where I was used to dressing in traditional northern Nigerian attires, so he said he would give me some of his “pants.” I said, “No, thanks” with all the alacrity I could muster. But I discovered only a few days later that Americans use the word “pants” to mean trousers and use “underpants” to mean pants.

Next week, I will share more experiences, and also talk of the pronunciational difficulties I initially encountered here. Have a nice census weekend.
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