MISLEADING SIGNS


I wonder how many people have seen signs or read notices that cause an involuntary smile whilst being read? Like: ‘TOILET OUT OF ORDER. PLEASE USE THE FLOOR BELOW’ or that seen in a London department store: ‘BARGAIN BASEMENT UPSTAIRS’. As a retired teacher, I’ve also seen some very funny words written by children and young people; even by the not so young when caught off guard, or writing in English as a foreign or second language.

We tend to think of English as belonging to those of us who consider English as our native language – and that any deviation is wrong. You know the kind of thing – no split infinitives and if you are speaking, then watch those glottal stops and do not drop any aitches. But really, what does it matter as long as we are all communicating and getting our point of view across to others?

I am fascinated by the sounds of people talking – in whatever language or dialect. Each has a special music, although I have to admit, some are easier on the ear than others. For fear of giving offence, I will not elaborate. I found that having a musical ear also enabled me to hear and even imitate the music of different languages and dialects.

My late husband always laughed at me when we were travelling abroad because of my desire and pleasure in ‘tuning-in’ to the local language. He assured me I became completely uninhibited the moment we got off the boat or aeroplane and I began engaging in trying to communicate. Having few inhibitions and great expectations was an advantage, unlike the lady who wrote a complaint to the travel company:

            “When we were in Spain, there were too many Spanish people there. The receptionist spoke Spanish, the food was Spanish. No one told us that there would be so many foreigners.”

Or the lady who came in to the travel agent on returning home to say:

       “On my holiday to Goa in India, I was disgusted to find that almost every restaurant served curry. I don’t like spicy food.” 

       Then there was the couple who complained that they had gone to Jamaica and was not best pleased that:

“It took us nine hours to fly home from Jamaica to England. It took the Americans only three hours to get home. This seems unfair.”

I think that such happenings may now be a rarity, but the problem of communication still exists because the different Englishes spoken all around the world are bewildering in their scope and variety. I am sure there are many who, like me, have been frustrated by trying to hold a conversation with call centre representatives from Mumbai, or some other such place when hoping to put through a call or enquiry to a bank or service facility. Even British Telecom no longer has telephone operators in UK. Too many firms seek to cut costs by using these overseas call centres and seem to care little about their customers who experience great difficulty in understanding or being  understood.

Most of the young people at the call centre are likely to be university or college graduates who have also paid handsomely to attend language schools that promise to ‘neutralise’ their ‘Indianess’. Promoting English is now big business worth millions of pounds to publishers and educationalists around the world. It is also the favourite language for international commerce. Not bad for a mixture of Germanic tribal languages that came to Britain via the Anglo-Saxons when they arrived here on the tail of the departing Romans. Mind you, it did have a helping hand from the colonial aspirations of a small country with a few big ideas. Now where have we heard that before?

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