Can You Understand English? ...by Bill Knell
There is a lot of talk about making English the official language of the USA. That would stop the need to spend so much money printing out things like drivers license, tax, voter registration and other official forms in so many languages. If people come here, they will simply have to learn English. However, is it really that simple? English is anything but a virgin language. It has roots in the tongues of many nations and one word can mean many things. If you travel around our great nation, you will discover some extreme examples of that fact.
Several years ago, I visited Pennsylvania Dutch Country with my family. Most people have read about the Amish people, but it's something you have to see for yourself to believe. They first came to North America to escape religious and political persecution in Holland and the Netherlands. Most live in Pennsylvania, some in Ohio and Indiana and a few have established closed communities in Canada.
The religious life of the Amish tends to dominate all they do. While they appreciate the freedom that America offers them, they want none of what they consider our vices. Most of the traditional Amish people refuse the use of electricity and modern conveniences like telephones, cars and machine driven farm equipment. The majority are Farmers who use horse drawn carts for their transportation and horses for plowing, pulling wagons and other heavy work.
The most amazing sight you can see in Pennsylvania Dutch Country is an Amish barn raising. The entire community gets together when someone needs a new barn and builds the bulk of it in just one day! The men construct the barn while the women cook and provide refreshment. I guess that when it comes to the Amish, it takes a village to raise a barn!
Because they consider waging war a sin, the Amish are generally classified as Conscientious Objectors with Selective Service. They have their own schools and churches and teach that being self-sufficient is vital. They do use banks, save a great deal of the money they earn from farming for the future, give ten percent of their worth to the church and refuse to participate in the Social Security program. The Bible says to make no image of any thing on the earth or in heaven. You will not see any religious statues in their churches. They do not use cameras of any type and the Amish dislike having tourists take their picture.
Sometimes it is hard for tourists to resist the temptation to photograph these unusual people because they look so quaint. The Amish dress in what might be described as very plain clothing. The men wear dark pants with suspenders, light shirts, a wide brimmed hat and a dress coat for special affairs or cold weather. Most have beards and stop shaving when they are engaged or marry. The women wear dresses, no pants, and most will never cut or trim their hair. None of the Amish wears jeans, anything with a design on it or buttons. They use hooks and eyes on their clothes because of a tradition that says their persecutors in Holland wore large buttons on their coats as a sign of pride. Most wear large dark colored shoes and none wear sneakers or dressy footwear.
The Amish speak their own language that has been described by dialectologists as an old form of Dutch mixed with German and some Old English. It is their attempt to speak modern English that really gets your attention! If I were outside our house and needed my wife to give me a diaper for the baby I might say, "Honey, throw a diaper out the window. I need one for the baby." However, the Amish would say, "Father, please throw the baby out of the window a diaper." Yikes! Maybe that's where Michael Jackson got the idea of dangling his kid out of the window. I guess we're all lucky that's all he decided to dangle out the window?
This whole Amish style of speaking made me think about the English language and some of the odd ways in which we describe things in different parts of the USA. Like all Americans born here, I guess I have been short with those who come to America from somewhere else and have trouble learning our language. I mean, how many times should I have to say 'BIG MAC' at McDonalds to actually get one? It's frustrating, but imagine how people who come from other places feel when confronted with English?
After doing a little research I discovered some reasons that the English language is confusing to those who speak other tongues. The main problem seems to be that one word simply has too many meanings. Let's take the word love for example. A child says, "I love you, Mommy," and tends to mean I need you and miss the comforting feeling I get when I don't see you. A baseball fan says, "I love that team!" They mean that they are a fan of that team. To go further, their commitment to the team may vary. Do they attend every game? Follow their team on the road? Have box seats? How much do they really "love" that team?
A man says to a woman, "I love you." Does he mean for now, for the moment, until someone he thinks is better comes along? The old Stephen Stills song, Love The One You're With illustrates one example of what love can mean to a person. It seems that the meaning of the word love can be very different for a man then it is for a woman.
For men love often means sex. While a man might say "I love you" and mean I like the way you look and want to have sex with you, a women might say "I love you" and mean that she finds the man attractive in many ways and sex is merely the ultimate expression of all else that she feels. I believe that women, in contrast to men, can have a greater depth to their feelings for another person. Is this because they tend to be more emotional to begin with?
I have noticed that women tend to have friendships and associations that are deeper then those enjoyed by men. While women will probably share their most intimate thoughts and feelings with a close friend or associate, men will not. They will generally talk about business, sex, politics or sports. No wonder people trying to learn English get confused. It seems that Americans simply cannot say what they mean, mean what they say or even agree on what they mean!
The Clinton scandals of the 1990s illustrated the problem with English. When President Clinton spoke of sex, he meant intercourse between two people. Others argue that intimate bodily contact of any kind is also sex. Surveys at the time tended to show that most men agreed with the President's definition, but didn't support him. Most women did not agree with the definition, but supported him! Others say that what the president did with Monica Lewinsky was merely petting. Imagine a first day English student from a foreign country listening to a man say, "I love my dog, I pet her everyday." Later the same man says, "I love my wife. I pet her every chance that I get!"
As an experienced Speaker, I have had the opportunity to travel all over the USA and Canada. Whenever possible, my wife and children joined me during summer months. It was on these trips that we first realized how words that people use could mean very different things depending on where you live in the United States. We all feel the call of nature, for example, but not all of us go to the same place. On more then a few occasions, my wife and kids had to come and ask me where the facilities were and which door they should use.
In much of the Northeast where I am originally from, we go to the Bathroom. Now unless youíre at home or staying in a hotel, you are unlikely to go in a bathroom to bathe or shower. Some people got tired of saying bathroom and created another common term. They would ask to use The Facilities. Try doing that in most any restaurant in others parts of the USA and they will think you want to rent a banquet room. In some parts of New York City, they keep it simple. People go to The Toilet.
In New England and various other parts of the country, they go to the Necessary Room. Many of the older restaurants, stores and snack shops in those regions have just one Necessary Room. For someone not used to that, it can get embarrassing, confusing and downright painful if you have to figure it all out while your bladder is ready to bust! Using bi-sexual toilet facilities can get complicated. In addition, what about that term?
Today, Bi-Sexual has a connotation that generally refers to oneís sexual preferences. Yet it wasnít that long ago that it just meant a place used by or available to both men and women. For example, almost every Hair Salon that accepted male and female customers had the term Bi-Sexual in their front window during the 1970s. You are unlikely to see that today!
In the South and Southwest, they use the universally accepted term of Rest Room. Here is another case where smaller establishments often have just one Rest Room. Those that have two often put one of those universal symbols on the door. I hate those. Sometimes parts of the symbols are worn off or heavily painted over. Then youíre supposed to figure out which one to enter. The newer symbols are even more annoying. They are almost asexual and itís hard to know which door to choose unless there is also some text to give you a clue. On the other hand, just can just wait and follow someone else in. If theyíre wrong, you arenít the only one who gets to look stupid.
In the Midwest and Northwest they get specific by saying, they need to go to the Men's Room or Ladies Room. That is what I like! Keep it simply and life gets easier. Unless you have to go to the Menís or Womenís Lounge. Years ago, many simply referred to it as the Lounge. Rest Rooms in better establishments often had one or more rooms that made up their facilities. Men had a sitting room that allowed them place to sit, smoke, adjust their tie or get a quick show shine via attendant or coin operated machine. Women also had a sitting room with well-lit mirrors and make up chairs so they could powder their noses in comfort. However, the word Lounge became confusing.
Better hotels and restaurants used to like to call their Bar a Lounge. You would see three or four signs that read Menís Lounge, Womenís or Ladies Lounge, Lounge, Upstairs Lounge, Downstairs Lounge, etc. Finally, they just started giving their Bars colorful names to avoid the issue. It might be the Watering Hole in a western-themed hotel or the Rogues Roost in a waterfront establishment where a pirate theme might be in use. However, much to the dismay of any front desk hotel clerk with class, people have always and still often do ask where they can find The Bar.
When we speak of a Bar, is that a Bar of Justice as in a courtroom, a place where alcohol is served as in the Corner or Local Bar, something that holds weights for weight lifters or a Sand Bar out in the ocean? It's like the word Bench. There are park benches, picnic benches, places where people sit in almost any situation and the JudgeĎs Bench. Imagine what foreigners think when they go to Court and a Judge says, "Approach the bench!" How can they? They are sitting on it!
Finding a place to go potty isnít the only challenge to those who travel around the good ole USA. If you want a carbonated beverage, you have another problem. In the Northeast, it's a Soda. In New England, it's a Tonic. In the Midwest, Northwest and some of the South it's a Pop, Soda Pop or Fountain Drink if itĎs on tap. In Texas, it's a Pepsi that might be an orange Pepsi, root beer Pepsi, Pepsi cola or even a Coke Pepsi! Texas is definitely a Pepsi place. Iím sure that at one time ordering a Coke in Dallas, for example, might get you invited to a Necktie Party. Thatís a hanging for those unfamiliar with Old West slang. If all else fails, just join the politically correct folks and order a cola flavored carbonated beverage.
Food can sometimes present a problem to those who speak even the best English. Anyone who loves cold or hot lunchmeat and cheese stuffed into an oblong roll with any number of condiments needs to order a Hero, Sub, Submarine Sandwich, Philly Cheese Steak or Grinder depending on where they live and what is in the sandwich. People who like pastries filled with fruit can have a Danish, Mini Pastry or Snack Cake depending on their location.
All Americans should speak English, if we can ever agree on what that is. In the meantime, I think I am going to start speaking Amish. The next time I want to tell my wife that I love her, have to go to work and that I want to share intimacy when I get home, I'll just say, "Mother, I will go feed myself to the chickens today so you can later repair the bed and we can birth the baby in nine months."
Making English the official language of the United States is a good idea. It would save the taxpayers some money and encourage new arrivals from other places to learn the most used language of our nation. However, politicians are using this issue to promote feel good legislation that has nothing to do with saving tax dollars. It's a sideshow designed to deflect from all the sneaky little pork projects they shove into every bill they can.