Phil Roeland

Gogo loves neeps and tatties

A study of language oddities

English is spoken by more than 300 million people across the globe and is used as a second language by many millions more. As a result, English develops to take account of local language needs. The English language including all of its regional varieties, such as Australian English and Indian English, is known as world English.

The Little Book of World English – Oxford University Press

How many words are there in English? Major dictionaries usually have between 80,000 and 120,000 entries, but there are many more words – up to one million according to some calculations. This is due to the abundance of synonyms, the large vocabularies used in science, computing, medicine and other specialised fields of study, and the above-mentioned world English. Not to mention slang and idioms.

Thanks to the regional oddities that have developed over the years, English is not only the language with the most extensive vocabulary; it is probably the language with some of the most unusual words as well. Depending on the location where they live – and the age group or (sub)culture they belong to – people often give new meanings to old words and create new words in addition to existing ones.

Take for instance the verb to die. It has an infinite number of synonyms such as decease, demise, depart, drop, expire, go, pass away, pass (on), perish, succumb, pop off, check out, croak, kick in, kick off, bite the dust, breathe one's last, cash in, give up the ghost, go to one's grave, kick the bucket, meet one's Maker, pass on to the Great Beyond, turn up one's toes etc. Most if not all of these are considered general English. An example of world English could be the Australian expression cark it, which also means to die or stop functioning.

Have a look at the sample sentences below and see if you know any of the regional words used. Some are easy, some are impossible to guess.

Indian English
• Abba, who is a babu, likes our ayah because she runs to chacha when we’re out of aloo.

abba: a father
aloo: potatoes
ayah: a woman whose job is caring for children, doing domestic work, etc.
babu: a person who works in an office
chacha: 1 an uncle; 2 a male cousin of your father; 3 a male friend of your family

Canadian English
• The band council members were having moose milk and poutine on the Chesterfield, discussing the price of hydro and mulluks.

band council: local form of Aboriginal government in Canada
Chesterfield: any type of sofa
hydro: electricity
moose milk: 1 an alcoholic drink made by mixing rum with milk; 2 any strong alcoholic drink which is made at home
mulluks: high soft winter boots that are traditionally made with the skin of seals
poutine: a dish of French fries with cheese on top, usually served with sauce

Australian English
• The daggy chook lived in the back of Bourke with her illywhacker hubby; she had a bad case of tall poppy syndrome because they didn’t even have an indoor dunny and had to use an Esky in winter.

back of Bourke: a long way from coasts and town, in the Outback
chook: 1 a chicken; 2 offensive word for an older woman
daggy: 1 not fashionable; 2 untidy or dirty
dunny: a toilet
Esky: a bog or box which keeps food or drinks cold and which can be used for a picnic
illywhacker: a person who tricks other into giving him or her money
tall poppy syndrome: the fact of criticising people who are richer or more successful than others

South-African English
• Gogo only needed boerewors and dop to joll.

boerewors: a spicy sausage
dop: an alcoholic drink
gogo: a grandmother
joll: to have fun

Scottish English
• The gillie’s bonny lass started crying because her neeps and tatties were getting cold while the eejit was having a wee deoch and doris.

bonny: very pretty
deoch and doris: a last alcoholic drink, usually whisky, before you leave
eejit: idiot
gillie: a man or boy who helps somebody who is shooting or fishing for sport in Scotland
neep: a swede
tattie: a potato

West-African English
• A been-to in a wrapper was selling garden-eggs.

been-to: a person who returns to his or her home in Africa after studying, working, etc. in a foreign country
garden-egg: a type of aubergine/eggplant
wrapper: a piece of cloth that is worn as an item of clothing around the waist and legs

East-African English
• Wananchi, among them many mzees, were dealing with shauri on the shamba, holding pangas.

mzee: an elder
panga: a knife
shamba: a small farm or a field used for growing crops
shauri: something that needs to be discussed or causes a problem
wananchi: people

Please let it be clear that these sentences are very artificial and will probably never be used as such, but that is not the point. The point is that people from different places or cultures often use very different words for the same concept. It’s once again proof that English has become the language of worldwide communication and consequently doesn’t belong to the Queen of England anymore.

People use language as a means of communication. In order to be able to speak a language fluently, one needs – among other things – a good knowledge of everyday vocabulary. Do the above-mentioned words represent basic vocabulary? Probably not, unless you live in one of these places where this local variety of English is used on a daily basis. If you don’t, there’s really no reason to start learning all these strange words, unless it’s for fun.

What kind of English should students learn? British or American? Maybe Australian or South-African English? According to me, this is really a non-issue. It doesn’t matter what kind of English Asian students learn; as long as they attain a decent level of fluency and proficiency in any kind of English, they’ll have achieved their target. Travelling or traveling? Humour or humor? Airplane or aeroplane? Nobody notices when you speak and hardly anybody cares when you write. By the way, teachers who are overly strict when it comes to these differences have got their priorities completely wrong.

I’d like to add one final comment, unrelated to the use of world English. In my opinion, it is only useful to learn a language if you intend to use it. Adults shouldn’t start learning English unless they need it for professional or personal purposes. People who do so anyway are hardly ever good at it. If you have to use English for oral communication, i.e. conversation, you should practise speaking English as often as possible. The same goes for writing, reading and listening. Just taking lessons without ever actually using English in the real world will get you nowhere.

For young learners the situations is a bit different. With English being a world language, it gets increasingly more important to be proficient in English in order to secure a good job. Learning English is really an investment in their future. Unless they dream of becoming a rice farmer or motorcycle taxi driver, studying English could really benefit them in the long run. The key for youngsters in order to become good English speakers is of course their motivation; they shouldn’t learn and regurgitate the language like a caged parrot, but rather use it in daily life whenever possible. It sounds logical, but in a non-English speaking country, this is easier said than done.

I hope you enjoyed some of the words and sentences I used. Please forgive me for the probable mistakes I made – usage as well as well as typos; I should really get a proof-reader one of these days.


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