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My baptism of and conversion to American English (I)

The following first appeared in my weekly Notes From Louisiana column in the March 18, 2006 edition of Weekly Trust. By Farooq A. Kperogi...

The following first appeared in my weekly Notes From Louisiana column in the March 18, 2006 edition of Weekly Trust.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

One of the first realities that anybody who is educated in British English confronts in America is George Bernard Shaw’s fittingly pithy but ironic observation that America and Britain (and all people associated with them linguistically) are two countries separated by a common language.

Being someone with a tremendous intellectual curiosity for languages, I had studied American English enthusiastically outside the confines of the curriculum while I was an undergraduate student at Bayero University, Kano, and had always been intrigued by the patterns of its deviation from British English (or what some people call English English), with which I like to think I am intimately familiar. Knowing that I would come to study in the United States some day had always been an added incentive for me to study American English.

However, upon arrival here, I have since realized that no amount of immersion in American English grammar textbooks could have prepared me for the “linguistic shock” that I have experienced and continue to experience in this country.

My baptism, which put to shame all my years of preparation in American English, started right from the airport in Washington, D.C. sometime in 2003. After several hours of hanging in the air and being fed with strange American gastronomic concoctions that made my delicate stomach churn violently, I arrived in Washington D.C. exceedingly hungry—and drained.

While I was waiting listlessly for my guide to take me to my hotel, I spotted a cafeteria at the airport and saw people eating food that I was familiar with in Nigeria. I heaved a deep sigh of relief. So I quickly rushed there to get some food into my stomach lest I should collapse before my guide arrived.

The waiter came to me to take my orders, and gave me a menu with a seemingly interminable list of food choices. I had not the foggiest knowledge of any of the food on offer. But since I saw people eating fried potatoes, which in my British English orientation is another name for chips, I shoved the menu aside and simply asked the guy to give me "chips."

My famished mouth was already watering in anticipation of the "chips" (which, by the way, my wife has a reputation for cooking better than anybody in the world!) when the waiter brought some hard, strange-looking, yellowish things along with raw tomato sauce.

I thought he mixed up the orders. So I said, “Sorry, I ordered chips.” Instead of feeling remorseful for bringing the “wrong” order to me, the guy looked at me with a quizzical eyebrow and said, “Yeah, you have chips.” I knew something was instantly wrong.

After forcing myself to eat the “chips” for a while and finding that they violated my taste buds mercilessly, it occurred to me that I could actually direct the waiter’s attention to the people eating what I knew to be “chips.”

So I called the waiter again and told him, “This is what I asked for,” pointing to what the people sitting next to me were eating. And he exclaimed, “Oh, you mean French fries?” (Well, after France opposed the war in Iraq, a U.S. senator said the food should no longer be called French fries, but “Freedom fries!” Most Americans now simply call it “fries.” But I digress).

It was a costly linguistic baptism for me because I had spent a lot of money for the first order. (Airport food is usually needlessly expensive, not least in a busy international airport like Dulles in Washington, D.C). I had to pay extra money to order the “French fires,” which I now knew better than to call “chips.”

It turned out that what Americans call chips is what the Brits call crisps. And what the Brits (and by extension Nigerians) call chips is what Americans call “French fries”—sorry Freedom fries.

When I narrated my experience to the good-natured officials of the U.S. State Department who invited me, along with 18 other journalists from across the world for a month-long international journalism training that took us to all the major newsrooms and journalism programs in the country, they had a hearty laugh.

My story gave them the inspiration to share with me the hilarious encounter between a British man and an American lady.

The Brit was an international visitor who came to America on an official duty, and was received by a respectable, married American lady who worked for the government. In order to make the guest feel at home, the lady offered to take him out, along with other people, for a dinner in some exclusive restaurant in Washington, D.C.

But since the guest was still weary from jet lag and needed to catch a few hours’ nap, the American lady told him to let her know when he woke up from his sleep and ready for the dinner.

After exchanging the conventional parting civilities, the man wanted to affirm that he would heed her request to let her know when he was ready for the dinner. So he said, “When I wake up by 8: 00 p.m. I will come and knock you up.”

The man did not anticipate what followed. The American lady gasped for breath, and her eyes popped out. She was said to be utterly outraged and embarrassed. The man was confused. And the man’s confusion confused the American lady even more.

In American colloquial English, to knock a lady up means to get her pregnant! But in British English, it simply means to knock on somebody’s door—literally. So the American lady thought she had had the misfortune of relating with a shamelessly lewd old reprobate, and the man probably thought the lady suddenly had some nuts in her brain loose. I was not told how this intriguing socio-linguistic conflict was resolved, but I know I would certainly have made the same mistake if I was not forewarned.

Three years after my American linguistic baptism and the anecdotal account I was told by officials of the U.S. State Department of the hapless Brit who inadvertently scared the pants off his obliging American host, I continue to be confronted with interesting experiences of the curious divergences of two ordinarily mutually intelligible national varieties of the same language.

In my first semester of teaching undergraduate students at the University of Louisiana where I am also pursuing graduate studies, I fell victim to this “clash of languages” several times.

One day I had occasion to give my students homework on a Monday and I wanted them to turn it in on the Friday of the same week. Being the British English speaker that I was (still am to a degree), I told them to submit the assignment “next Friday.”

However, on the Friday of that week, nobody turned in their assignment. When I asked for an explanation, they all chorused, “But you said NEXT Friday!” Then I said, “So what? Today is/was the NEXT Friday I spoke of on Monday!” And again, they all chorused that I should have said “this Friday” on Monday if I wanted the assignment that Friday.

They were right. In American English, when “next” is prefixed to any day of the week, it usually implies that the speaker is talking about the succeeding week. Saying “next Saturday” even on a Sunday does not convey the sense that the speaker is referring to the Saturday in the week. Well, my students got away with not submitting the assignment that Friday.

On another occasion, while giving them a midterm exam, I instructed them to not write on their "question papers." They all looked blankly at me, and I initially thought that they had problems with my accent. So I not only enunciated it more clearly and more slowly but wrote it on the board.

But they still said, “What’s that?” And when I pointed to their “question papers,” they exclaimed in unison, “Oh, you mean we should not write on the tests?” Write on the test? Test is an abstract noun. How can you write on an idea? Anyway, I have since stopped calling question papers by their name; they are “tests.”

Again, when I said to them that I would "mark" their scripts and return to them, and that I would reduce their "marks" as a penalty if they didn’t adhere to certain instructions that I gave in the exam, I was greeted with bewildered stares. I later learned that the correct American English equivalent for “mark scripts” is “grade tests,” and instead of saying I would “reduce their marks,” I should have said, “I will take off points.”

After more than one year of studying and teaching here, I have gone through an arduous but fascinating process of American linguistic conversion to the point that British English now looks and sounds very odd to me. I will share more anecdotal accounts of my experiences next week.

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