Tag Archives: English language

Damn these Americans and their screwed up English!

Notice how I couldn’t avoid two Americanisms in my title complaining about Americanisms! ;-)

This is the root of the problem, some Americanisms are darn fine ones but others just drive me completely bonkers crazy. Take the word “guess” for example. The way I use it it is a fine complement to the English version of “suppose”. I can say “I suppose you will be holidaying in Tuscany again this year?” meaning I don’t know for sure but there has been at least an element of deduction or calculation involved (say because the person has been to Tuscany the last five years in a row). I can also say “I guess not.” when I’m asked whether Obama will win the next election, giving the impression that whilst I still have an opinion, I really am guessing. Damn is a good, more widely known, alternative to sod in a similar way that screwed up works well instead of buggered up and there are many more Americanisms that I am happy to embrace and use. Should be said I’ve worked with Americans for a lot of my career so am more tolerant than others.

Where it goes horribly wrong is with phrases like “reach out” or the current favourite, “space”. I was listening to a podcast, I think Harvard Business Review, and the lady being interviewed was using space so often it was genuinely hard to follow what she was saying. I forget the details but she would say something like “We were testing atheletes who were operating in the basketball space.” instead of saying “We were testing basketball players.” and as the interview went on it was clear that the word space, in its new role, had almost unlimited applications. I might have let this go as a one-off nutty professor moment but it has been cropping up with annoying regularity so it would be great to head this one off at the pass!

The other example, “reach out” has been around for a while now and because of that has started to cross borders. What was purely an Amercian thing has now invaded the UK and shows no signs of stopping, hence the need to raise emerging dangers such as space at an early stage in the hope they don’t cross the Atlantic. Essentially, reach out is used to signify an attempt to communicate with someone but without being specific as to what method will be used. “I will reach out to him next week.” or “He reached out to me to discuss the situation in the Eurozone space.”. Saints preserve us!

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The problem a with the English

Said it so many times, but never here – compared to Polish, English is an extremely easy language to get to the stage of good conversation, advanced or even very advanced level. However, to take that next step and to get your English (British English) to the stage where you can be considered truly fluent (with a fair degree of intelligence and artistry) is, I would say very much harder than with Polish and is verging on, if not actually impossible. Not only for foreigners, many Brits can’t get there either! Once you get beyond a certain stage with the English language there are just so many different ways to play with the thing and so many very subtle nuances between the different options that it must seem like knitting fog. It becomes more of an art than a science whereas, I think, the Polish language, although equally beautiful, is more constrained, more concise and therefore easier to stop it getting away from you. I have not looked up the number of words in the English language versus Polish but I expect there’s a big difference and that’s before you start trying to put the combinations together! My deepest sympathies go out to any foreigner who’s ambition in life is to be truly fluent in English. Also to anyone who’s job is to translate novels or verse (I would have to add the word ‘quality’ in there) between one language and the other. I expect someone like Dan brown is pretty easily translated, others definitely not so.

Still, have no fear because even with English at basic up to advanced level we can all have a lot of fun! Here are a few of the main culprits that appear to have even the best English speaking Poles tripping over their tongues / typewriters:

The (with a side helping of ‘a/an’) – This one I understand. There is no such word in Polish and certainly nothing that is used in anything like the irregular ways that the word “the” (or “a/an”) is used in English. It is therefore understandable that most Poles struggle with this. Many are so confused by it that they either use it far too much or far too little. Those who get the quantity about right usually insert them in the wrong places. ;)

Numbers – This one is strange because there seems to be no excuse at all. I’ve met Poles with quite excellent English who still say 2,200 as “two hundred thousand hundred……ooo errr”. My experience is that this is an entirely one-way thing. Most foreigners grasp Polish numbers very quickly and make few mistakes. Most Poles struggle with English numbers. The words zielonego pojęcia spring to mind.

Borrow / Lend – This I understand. In Polish there is only one word for both of these – pożyczyć, so it makes sense that this might be a tricky one to grasp.

He / She – Still baffled by this one. Why he/she should be any more complicated than on/ona, I have no idea. And yet, it is one of the most common errors.

Recognising a question – I sort of understand this one because in Polish you have to send out a signal that there is a question about to follow before you embark on the question. Just slip the word “czy” up front and bingo, you have a Polish question, without “czy” you have nuffink! In English, questions are more subtle and normally you don’t find out (unless you’re advanced enough on tones of voice, sentence structure, body language and stuff) until later in the sentence, or even after it seems to have finished. This is a particularly annoying one because it leads to a serious outbreak of premature ejaculation on the Pole’s part and lot of repeating of “Let me finish, this is a question, not a statement” on the Brit’s part.

Homework – please translate back and forth the following sentence, He asked her “Do you think it would be okay for you to lend me the 2,250 zloty you got from a bank on that street behind the library?”. She told him, for what seemed like the 115th time, that he should only borrow 740 zloty. Unless he really liked hospital food?

Let’s not leave thinking that the Polish language is straightforward though. Borrowed from Wiki (to save typing time):

  • Ala ma kota – Alice has a cat (when spoken with a different sentence tempo and accentation, this sentence can be understood as mildly offensive idiom “Alice is crazy” or “Alice is a loony”)
  • Ala kota ma – Alice does have (own) a cat (and has not borrowed it)
  • Kota ma Ala – The/a cat is owned by Alice
  • Ma Ala kota – Alice really does have a cat
  • Kota Ala ma – It is just the cat that Alice really has
  • Ma kota Ala – The relationship of Alice to the cat is one of ownership (and not temporary possession)

From my own experience, I can say that tone of voice is pretty important when distinguishing between the above, especially as there are probably no more than three versions that anyone would be expecting to hear.

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