I had a letter recently from a Dutch listener to the BBC, referring to my weekly record programme. “Dear Sir, I like very much your program with old bands from the pasture. It is very hard  to become such records only in some rubbish markets, if on  hand”. Imperfect English is always good for a quick giggle. But  to me  these opening lines have a certain grace and sonority that invites analysis. Some  of the  errors will be familiar to anyone who has ever groped through a sentence or two with an inventive but inexpert foreigner. It must be twenty years ago that an elderly Swiss gentleman, whose English was a triumph of personality over syntax informed me, with bursting confidence, that “you cannot become whisky in Zurich because it is  too tired”. I subsequently learnt  that  the  Swiss-German for “expensive”  sounds like “tired”, and “become” instead of “get” is quite understandable, confusing “get” as in “Get a hair-cut!” with “get” as in “Get well quick!” If we must invest even our smallest words with more than one meaning, we can’t grumble if foreigners become them wrong.  Returning to my letter from Holland, I find “old bands from the pasture” much more intriguing. At first glance, I took “pasture” to be a European equivalent of the American “corn-belt” implying that the  old bands were “corny”.  But it’s clear on reflection that my correspondent, having possibly come upon the word in a book or article,  has taken “pasture”  to be the corollary of “future”-  as indeed it would be if our precursors who moulded the language had kept their minds on the job. English is full of such pitfalls for anyone who thinks that he can decipher it by simple deduction. For instance, a foreign visitor might reasonably assume that if a vestry is a room where one puts on and takes off vestments, then a pantry is where one does the same with pantments. It would only confuse him further to warn him that, were he to do any such thing, the occupants of the pantry would certainly be taken aback and might even take affront. But he could in extreme circumstances find himself overtaken, so it seems only fair to warn him before he lays up trouble for himself in the fut. Sorry, future. There is an  old story not entirely irrelevant to this, about a Frenchman who called in the early hours of the morning on an English friend. The butler told him. “Mr X is not down yet”.  He called back in an hour,  only to be  told by his friend’s wife. “My husband is not up yet”.  Flinging his arms wide in exasperation, he cried “Pliss, when will he  be in ze middle?”

Which brings us to the rubbish markets. I must say there is nothing like a good mistranslation to cut through the euphemisms and get at the truth. In my young days as a record collector, there used to be an activity called “junk-shopping”, which meant riffling about among fifth-hand 78 rpm records in tatty boxes outside junk-shops in search of rarities. There were some gifted people, rather like water-diviners, who could sniff out and track down eight bars of Bix Beiderbecke on a record simply labelled “Rudy Strudeldorffer and his Uptown Society Syncopaters”. For me junk-shops were always rubbish markets, and I’m glad that someone has had the guts to come out and say so, even  if by mistake.

Nowadays most of our insults are monosyllabic and phonetically unimaginative – nit, twit, git and … well, and so on. When we go into Europe, I look forward to hordes of foreigners being let loose, dictionaries in hand, on some of our more boring colloquialisms. How much more resounding and formidable would be “Become stopped up, distended, crammed with minced seasoning, rammed into a receptacle or packed with material to restore a lifelike shape!” than the crude and unpoetic “Get stuffed!”  But it’s not only in the department of invective that the mother tongue has got a bit furred up. There is a now familiar  traffic regulation which says “Do not enter the box unless your exit is clear.” Now it’s Rule One in  linguistics that if you’re going to get a word wrong, you should get it splendidly and flamboyantly wrong.  I don't know what the right word is for a yellow painted pattern on the  tarmac, but any two-year-old will tell you forcibly that it’s not a box, that it never was a box and that, whether you lock at it sideways,  upside-down, or hanging from a streetlamp, it will never  be a box.  Furthermore, by definition an exit that is not clear ceases to be an exit. The word derives from the third person singular of the Latin verb exire and means literally “he goes out”. But we all know that he doesn’t go out. He  sits like a stranded whale  on the intersection, decussation, web, trellis, lattice, grid, grille, cat’s cradle or filigree (but not box) until a “malignant and filthy baboon” (Lord Macauly about an enemy) in dark blue saunters across to ask, with heavy sarcasm, if he can read. If there were any justice at all, the ability to read should in fact be a cast-iron defence.  My friend Peter Clayton, one of  the most literate of men and a non-driver to boot,  swears that he has always taken the notice to mean “Don’t go into a public lavatory if you are constipated.”  But I wouldn’t like to try that on the beak at Marylebone.

My father once found and copied out - from an old Punch perhaps, I don’t know -  some Japanese traffic regulations, translated for the benefit of English-speaking visitors. They show how even the most mundane instructions can be enriched by inspired mistranslation. “Do not pass him by or otherwise  disrespect him. When a passenger of the foot heave in sight, tootle the horn, trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, tootle him with vigour, express by word of mouth the warning “Hi, Hi!” … Beware the wandering horse that he shall not take fright as you pass him by. Do not explode the exhaust box at him. Go soothingly by. Give big space to the festive dog that shall sport in the roadway. Go soothingly  in the greasemud as there lurks the skid-demon. Avoid the tanglement of the dog with your wheelspokes. Press the breaking of the food as you roll round the corner to save  collapse and tie-up.”

If we ever achieve world government, I should like the Japanese to be in charge of transport and my Dutch correspondent with his rubbish markets at the Board of Trade. Their devastating work with the dictionary would have a healthy purgative effect on an English language that is manifestly suffering from an obstacled  passage.

Humphrey Lyttleton, Punch, August 1971

"English as she is spoke": a few links

1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_As_She_Is_Spoke

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