A Letter to the English Language
I hope this letter finds you in the best shape with your vowels intact. Thanks to your recent anonymity, I will be sending this letter to ten countries where I suspect you may be hiding under different names. It’s rumoured that the Queen was unhappy with the way you were being used in America and wrote a letter to the Americans revoking their independence. Is this true? Is this why you have absconded? Do you not want them to fight over you? Understandable.
Though I have known you for long, you continue to amuse me. These days, I spend my time studying at the Seagull School of Publishing hoping to understand you better.
I began studying you from when I was four years old—learning to write each letter of the alphabet carefully and enunciating each word clearly. I found you to be the easiest and the best fit. I chose you as the medium through which I wished to communicate with people and animals alike. You and I became inseparable, a good pair, like a man and his moustache.
It was only after a few weeks of classes that I realised that you have got quite a few parts which I didn’t know existed, parts I had forgotten about and parts that you’ve simply grown to confuse people. Oh you beautiful, beautiful, self-mutating creature! Last week, I learnt more about how creatively, dangerously and, sometimes, lazily you are being used across the globe, with emphasis on British and American usage. Not that we Indians are any less creative; the next time you visit us, you must bring your camera along and shoot photos of the signboards in this country. You may know that Indians are familiar with both forms—British English because of our history with your creators and American English because of Friends and all the television programmes that followed it. Anyway, we learnt that both forms differ in the use of several common words and sometimes differ in the use of common idioms and phrases. I was aware of some, though not all. But little did I expect the difference in the meaning of so many common words to vary so much. I may have to consider standing a metre away from the next American I talk to, insure my teeth even. Let me give you an example of what I mean.
An Englishman wrote the following short note to his American mistress. Please bear in mind that she had only recently moved to Birmingham.
This is what he wrote:
Madeline my love,
I received several hampers and a potted plant at my office last evening. I wonder who sent them. By the way, I wore my new jumper—the one you gifted me—to work today. I must say, I looked quite handsome in it. Remind me to buy you haberdashery and the scented rubber from Wilsons’ before I visit you next week. I may knock up some spaghetti for dinner, wish me luck. I hope you are feeling homely in Birmingham.
And this is what she understood:
Madeline my love,
I received several baskets of dirty clothes and marijuana at my office last evening. I wonder who sent them. By the way, I wore my new sleeveless dress—the one you gifted me—to work today. I must say, I looked quite handsome in it. Remind me to buy you men’s clothing and the scented condom from Wilsons’ before I visit you next week. I may impregnate some spaghetti for dinner, wish me luck. I hope you are feeling ugly in Birmingham.
Poor Richard. Simplicity may be one of the several intended results of evolution but I am afraid that in your case it may have backfired. I am perplexed and I seek clarity. The editors at school have been teaching me/us to use you wisely.
What about the rest of the English-speaking world? Do the meaning of common words vary so much? Do please write to me about that.
I wish you the very best. Write to me.
Suraj J. Menon