Do You Understand English?!

If Shakespearean English is the benchmark, then not many of us know English. Even simple interactions sound odd and wordy. Take the opening of Hamlet:

BERNARDO:        Who’s there?
FRANCISCO:       Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.
BERNARDO:        Long live the king!
FRANCISCO:       Bernardo?
BERNANDO:       He.
FRANCISCO:       You come most carefully upon your hour.
BERNANDO:       ‘Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco.
FRANCISCO:       For this relief much thanks: ’tis bitter cold, And I am sick at heart.

You can kind of understand what is being said, but some sentences seem too flowery like  “unfold yourself”, too wordy like “you come most carefully upon your hour” or jumbled up like “for this relief much thanks”. Remember it’s only downhill from there in terms of understanding Hamlet!

Are You Hank Marvin (starving)?

But that’s historic “olde” English you may argue. So let’s look at some contemporary versions of English starting with cockney rhyming slang, which originated in the East End of London. Can you understand the following sentence?

It nearly knocked me off me plates – the septic was wearing a syrup! I couldn’t believe me mincers, so I ran up the apples, got straight on the dog to me trouble and we had a Turkish.

It’s hard to understand, but the words true meaning is what they rhyme with. Here’s a dictionary to help translate:

plates-of-meat = feet

septic tank = yank

syrup of figs = wig 

mince pies = eyes 

apples and pears = stairs 

dog and bone = phone 

trouble and strife = wife 

Turkish bath = laugh 

So it would translate to:

It nearly knocked me off me feet  – the yank was wearing a wig  I couldn’t believe me eyes,  so I ran up the stairs , got straight on the phone to me wife and we had a laugh ”

You can find more rhyming slang terms here. 

Singlish, lah

Other variations of English can be found in the countries once ruled by the British. Take Singapore, there “street” English or Singlish has developed over the years. It mixes Chinese, Malay and Indian influences with “standard” English. If you ever go to street markets you’ll hear this distinctive form of English. Some of the modifications include:

  • Topic/conversation reference tend to come first in sentences
  • The verb “to be” is usually absent. So “the weather is very warm in this country” would be said as “dis country weather very hot one” (topic first and no “is”)
  • Yes/no questions often get answered with the verb. So “can you give me the cup?”, you answer “can” or “cannot” rather than “yes” or “no”

There are also new words like “wah lau” which is a sign of exclamation: “wah lau, i have so much work”. And of course, we can’t forget the addition of “lah” to the ends of sentences. It usually softens the sentence, so “drink lah” (“just drink“) or “okay lah” (okay, don’t worry about it).

My English is First Class, yaar

Staying in Asia, Indian English or Hinglish is worth understanding. Some of the unique features include:

  • What is your good name” , rather than “what is your name”– a uniquely Indian way of asking for your name.
  • Answering “how are you?” with “first class” rather than “I’m well
  • Hindi words often get mixed into English sentences like “she is my sabse [very] best friend
  • Archaic ways of speaking like “please, do the needful”, which means “do what is necessary”.

Like Singlish, Hinglish also has some random filler words. One is the sound/word “toh”. It would be used in a sentence like “he toh is very rude”. No-one quite knows what it means, but it pops up all the time in English conversations in India.

Yo, Dude, It’s Like Totally Cool English

Of course, the biggest standard bearer of English are the  Americans, who have developed their own version of English. Americanisms include the phrase “what’s up?” – which means “what is the update?” or “what is happening?”. There’s a whole bunch of American words that may not be understood by non-Americans:

ballpark – doesn’t mean stadium, but rather expectations. “I hit it out of the ball park” (I did much better than expected), “here’s a ballpark figure” (here’s my estimate of the figure)

flake – doesn’t mean “flakes” on a croissant, but rather someone who can’t be relied upon: “he’s such a flake”.

going postal – doesn’t mean you will be sending something by mail, but rather someone is about to get very very angry. Originates from overworked postal workers who went on shooting sprees in the 1980s.

Monday morning quarterback – doesn’t mean someone playing American football at 9am on Monday, but rather someone who criticises someone else after the event.

A subgenre of American English is American slang spawned by hip hop.  New words include:

stunting or flexing – showing off (eg “you needa stop flexin’“)

mane – man (eg “gimme that drink, mane”)

trill – someone who is well respected. It combines “true” and “real” (eg “We all got families to feed. So all I can do is be trill”)

homie – very close friend. Derived from “homeboy” or someone from a similar background as you.

balling – to be rich. (eg “Dat mane is balling”)

lo, HAY (hello, how are you)

Finally, the digital era has taken English literally into a new  dimension. This has created “text messaging” English, which are often acronyms that shorten words. Well known ones are: 2nite (tonight), BTW (by the way), FWIW (for what it’s worth), IMHO (in my humble opinion), and OMG (Oh my God). But here are some less commonly known ones:

143 – I love you

7k – sick, really cool

BEG – big evil grin or a wannabe

CUA – clean up afterwards, see you around,

DBBSWF – dreamboat body, shipwreck face

ESH – experience, strength and hope

GAHOY – get a hold of yourself, or adolescent suffering from “teenage” issues (acne, breaking voice)

J5M – just five minutes

KYR – know your rank or role

ONNA – oh no, not again

PXT – please explain that, or picture message

SHID – slap head in disgust

TOBAL – there oughta be a law

u8 – you ate?

YTTM – you talk too much

So before you think you know English, think again, and learn some English. Even the BBC is recognising this with its own (Nigerian) pidgin english site!