LONDON - London and its inhabitants never fail to amaze or impress me. This marvelously modern and thoroughly medieval capital still resonates with ideas, exotica, and contradictions, all expressed in the king's clipped English. To walk the narrow lanes of the city is to wade through history and to find oneself in the past, present, and future all at the same time.
A train ride from central London's Victoria Station to the southern suburb of Bromley is as predictable as a Swiss timepiece. Here on public transportation the celebrated English reserve and the stiff upper lip are on full display. People, young men and women and older pensioners, travel absorbed in their own world in stony silence. Each one traveling in his own invisible cocoon. Conversations are almost nonexistent even among friends traveling together. It is just not proper.
And when they do speak, they speak proper English. The headline of an article in the Times of London begged for attention. Helena Echlin, an Oxford graduate in English studies, wrote the article under the screaming headline: “How the Ivy League strangled literature.” While a PhD student at Yale, she was appalled by the dismal state of English language and literature. To her the American language was “gibberish” and Yale, the American mecca of English literature, a Disneyland version of Oxford where the faculty and students are averse to studying literature. I could hear echoes of the irrepressible Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. Only the roles had reversed. Needless to say, Ms. Echlin left Yale without finishing her doctorate.
Languages are living and breathing creatures. In order to evolve they have to absorb new ideas and new words. Even though there is a discernible difference between the colloquial language spoken on the streets and the “proper” language taught in schools, it is the everyday lingo that enriches and sustains a language in the long run. The town is the exciting laboratory from where the gown borrows new ideas and innovative phrases. Herein lies, in my simplistic view, the difference between the English spoken in England and the language we speak in America.
The English, in their archaic but extremely charming ways, hold on to their centuries-old expressions and phrases and would not under any circumstance part with them. The results can be hilarious. A family physician's office is called surgery even though no surgery is performed there. To make things a bit more amusing, they call the district office of the members of the parliament surgery also. Just imagine our Marcy Kaptur receiving constituents in her surgery located in downtown Toledo.
Drunken driving becomes drink driving, talk shows are chat shows. A lieutenant is pronounced as leftinant even though there is no “f” in the word. If you are English you do not back down from a previous position, you stand down. Why does one pronounce Leicester Street as Lester Street without any regard for the three extra letters squirming in the middle of the word?
When I was in 6th grade, I insisted on pronouncing “know” as “kanow.” My brother, who had read English in college, said the “k” in the word was silent. Why do we need a silent k in a word, I persisted, when it does not serve any useful purpose? With a not-too-gentle slap on the back of my head the bully declared that when God made the English language, He said so.
Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade. E-mail him at email@example.com.