The English Language

I wrote this post quite a while ago and it stayed as draft since. A few days ago, during Oracle Open World 2017, I had a long chat with Jim Czuprynski and somehow we got to talking about the English language. As you well know by now, I’m not a native English speaker, but Jim is. I still managed to bring up some anecdotes and taught him a thing or two about English in different countries in the world. After that talk I decided to go and publish this post. It’s not technical at all, but I like it and I think you might find some of the things amusing.

Over the years, I have been exposed to different English speaking countries and people. My wife is originally South African and I speak English with her parents. I’ve been to New Zealand for 2.5 months, and in Australia 3 times (about 4 months total) and now I live in Canada. When I moved to Canada and really needed to use (and sometimes learn) daily English words, I found that the differences in the English language between the counties is amazing and quite funny.

When speaking about English in different countries, the most common and trivial words come up. Everybody knows, for example, that elevator and lift are the same object, but one is the British word while the other is the American. The same goes for mobile vs. cell phone. Other objects have many different names (usually one is common per country). Example will be soft drinks that are also called soda, pop or fizzy drink. And last example will be toilet, restroom, washroom and even the slang terms: john or loo. With these words, you can say whatever you want wherever you are and people will probably understand you, even if it not the local term. But it gets trickier with other words and phrases.

In some cases, you use a word and people simply don’t understand you. In other cases the same word means something else in the local English version, this is where things are starting to get really funny.

When I came to Canada, I was used to the South African version of English (which is similar to the British one). So for my son used a dummy (if you don’t know what I mean, you’re probably more familiar with the North American English), it took me a while to understand that in Canada they call it a soother. If you still don’t know what it is, you probably call it pacifier. He also used a pram (stroller in North America) and a nappy (diaper).

When I was traveling in New Zealand many years ago (and was more used to the American English mainly because of TV), I was hiking with someone and when I got tired from climbing, I said that I wasn’t in shape. He didn’t understand what I meant, he thought I meant something about my actual physical figure. When I explained what I meant, he said “Oh, you mean you are not FIT”. It was the same when I needed to fill gas in my car, they call it petrol, gas in a completely different thing.

But now lets get to the really funny stories. Imagine a torch, OK? If you imagined a wooden stick with fire, you are probably from North America. If you are from England, you imagined a battery operated light device (i.e. flashlight). Now think about a British guy going into home depot asking for a torch…

Let’s play that again, think about thongs. If you thought about, well, a certain type of underwear, you are probably not Australian. Because Australians would think about what the rest of the English speaking people will call flip flops (as far as I know only Ozzies call them thongs).

Now think about a robot. I’m sure that all of you imagined a metallic human-like machine, right? Not if you’re a South African. In South Africa that’s actually a traffic light.

And last one, and I think this is only a Canadian thing and it’s very confusing. What is a pavement? It’s the sidewalk, right? Wrong. in Canada, while the people walk on the sidewalk, the pavement is the actual road, where the cars go.

I think my English is quite OK, but when you actually move to a different place (being a native speaker or not) you will find that there are words that you don’t understand, or have different meaning than you are used to, and that makes things sometimes weird, sometimes funny, and sometimes both.


3 thoughts on “The English Language

  1. Interesting blog. FYI I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and what many call flip flops were always known here as thongs. Calling them flip flops now is merely a concession to the new vernacular to avoid confusion.

    Also, many years of British TV have taught me that the British also use the word pavement for what we call sidewalks. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Being a native Aussie brought up on a big diet of American and British movies and TV shows, I knew all of these variations – except for robot vs. traffic light and pavement vs. sidewalk.

    Another one related to child-rearing is the phrase “nurse the baby”. Here and in Britain (I think) a man might offer to nurse a baby, which simply means to hold it. In America, I’ve been told, people would be confused, thinking that the man was offering to breastfeed the child 🙂


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