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Satis Shroff

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The Charms of Spoken English (Satis Shroff, Freiburg)
by Satis Shroff   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Wednesday, May 09, 2007
Posted: Friday, March 02, 2007

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This is an article about how charming it can be to talk in English with people from different continents. The point is to be understood, to express and not to impress someone. There's no such thing as 'correct' spoken English.Vive la difference!

The Charms of Spoken English (Satis Shroff, Freiburg)

Whether you hear Radio Nepal, the BBC, CNN or the Voice of America, there’s no such thing as ‘correct spoken English.’ There is no standard as such, even though the Queen’s English is regarded as a measuring yard. As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘No two British subjects speak exactly alike.’ Whether you have a Cambridge, Oxford, Cockney, provincial or colonial dialect is immaterial. You don’t have to be shamed of it. A Rato Bangala1 or St. Xavier’s slant is just as good as a Texan drawl.

Being understood is the point. You try to express, not impress. You speak presentably. There are naturally circles wherein your choice of words should stamp you as a ‘cultivated person as distinguished from an ignorant one’. That is where either one puts one’s best foot forward and throws in all the rules of rhetoric and the performing arts and makes a show of it, or perhaps makes a fool out of oneself. But that’s another matter.It all depends upon whether you’re from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the British Commonwealth or some other Anglo-American area. Or even Kathmandu or Timbuktu.

Take two German friends of mine, Monica and Yogi Rudolph, who visited Nepal sometime ago. Monica’s an English teacher who now works in a bookstore, whereas Yogi is a trained-geologist. When they came in contact with Nepalese people in the countryside during their Jomsom trek or even in Kathmandu, Moni put on her best English accent, with the result that the people didn’t understand her at all. Yogi, however, with no English background, spoke Ginglish (German-English) with the verb always at the end of the sentence, in a slow soft-spoken manner and always managed to get his message across.

And that’s the point. You have to adapt yourself every time to the person you’re speaking with, not only in your choice of words and expressions, but also pronunciations. With an academician you could afford to adopt an elaborate style, letting your fantasy run, dashing out warmed-up idiomatic and current expressions and bombastic words with a bit of Latin and French thrown in. But when you’re talking to a simple, honest-to-God farmer or Sherpa along the trail, you have to switch into a simple, restricted language, without jargon. Yet there are people who go through life without having understood this simple rule.

A foreign student from India at our local Freiburger Goethe Institute once asked an American girl: ‘Vat is the medium auf instrukshun in yer kuntry?’ The baffled American student’s eyebrows shot up like a pair of boomerangs and her mouth opened. She hadn’t understood a word. One must admit that it does take quite sometime before you can train your ears to a new accent or a new dialect. The Indian student had asked: ‘What-is-the-medium-of-instruction-in-your-country?’ It must have sounded like a sack of potatoes being unloaded on a wooden floor. What he meant was, ‘In which language do you teach in the USA?’

 Some features of English as spoken in the Indian subcontinent are: ‘Arre baba, he-be-God or Vat-are-you-doing? Most travellers to the subcontinent are confronted with the question: ‘Where-you-come-from? Or ‘Which kuntry you are from?

India has over 50 million jobless people, in comparison to Germany which has 4.5 million, and the frustration in applying for government jobs goes thus: ‘Indian gormenta, no gooda gormenta. Apply, apply , no reply. British gormenta, gooda gormenta. Morning apply, evening reply’.When I listened to Elvis Presley singing ‘You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,’ which is a case of double negation, my aunt, Mrs. Dong, who was a teacher with King Edward’s Own Gurkha Rifles stationed in Hong Kong, would say, “Eh pagla! Don’t listen to such American songs. You’ll spoil your English.’’

 In Germany for instance, the people in Baden have a totally different accent and dialect than those coming from Bavaria or even from Schwabenland. As a foreigner you tend to understand the conversation only in snatches. The Badener pronounces the word ‘sympathy’ as though it were ‘symbady’. Which incidentally reminds me of some of my Newari college friends in Kathmandu who have problems with the word ‘that’, which is pronounced ‘dat’, (der = there, hot =what, iz = is). Newari is a language with monosyllables and is spoken in the Kathmandu valley. It makes the language colourful though. Patience and goodwill helps. Or as the Germans say: one has to speak with one’s hands and feet. And gesticulate a lot.

Just as English is taught in Nepalese schools by teachers, who have no real contact with England or America or the Anglo-American way of life, there are also teachers in Germany who teach their pupils German-English, with the result that a lot of students have inhibitions about speaking a foreign language, scared that one might make slips. As though to err wasn’t human at all. One must admit that the chances that a German teacher may go to England or the USA, to widen his or her English-horizon, is bigger than that of a teacher in the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal. As a result, one learns only idioms and expressions that are passed along the grapevine. Expressions that are obsolete in a culture that has remained conserved and isolated. That’s also why Microsoft has different standards of English depending on the country: Australian, Belizean, British, Indian, Irish, Jamaican, Canadian, Caribbean, New Zealand, Philippine, South African, Trinidadian and US American English.

The Banaten Swabians or the Aussiedler, as Russians of German origin are called, also speak a conserved form of quaint German when they come to Germany. The German language has also moved the times, especially after the fall of the Third Reich. The younger ones adapt themselves fast as they visit the kindergardens and schools. The older generations have a tough time integrating themselves in modern western Germany. The German languages is studded with English, Italian and French expressions.

 With a hand-held translator you can get funny sentences, for instance: if you try to translate ‘Give me a ring,’ your palm-top might translate in to ‘Geben Sie mir einen ring,’ which certainly doesn’t mean ‘Give me a call.’ During my student days at the Freiburger university I read a message on the university wall which made me chuckle with delight after I’d understood what it meant: how up du high-knee. It means something close to: ‘Get lost!’ Most Germans who don’t know much English want to become strange things. It’s not the post-war complex. It’s just that many English words sound familiar to them and they use them in the German sense of the word.

There’s a famous case of a blonde German Fräulein who goes to a butcher’s shop and says, ‘Can I become a steak?’ The word ‘become’ means ‘to get.’ When a German says, ‘My daughter Gabi goes to the Gymnasium’, it doesn’t mean that she does gymnastics in a hall. I must admit that I’m a great admirer of P. G. Wodehouse and Richard Gordon and in my schools days I’d laughed a lot when I read their books. Then I chanced to get copies of their works in German. The books were well translated but I couldn’t laugh at all. The jokes and the pointe were all lost in translation.

It is remarkable to note that many English words have come to stay in the Nepalese conversation, if not Nepalese literature. Words like: habituated, hobby, compulsory, cinema, TV, entrance-exam, syllabus, boring, restricted, Hollywood, Bollywood etc. The list increases with the passage of time. And time and again people protest in a lot of countries regarding the infiltration of English words in their respective languages.

The French have protested now and again and so have the German and demanded the weeding out of foreign words from their lovely languages. But globalisation makes it impossible to isolate languages, for we all communicate with foreign words, and feel proud of it, nicht wahr? It is just as charming for a German to order a cup of Ilam tea in a restaurant in Namche Bazaar in the local lingo, as for a Nepalese to order a cup of Cappucino in Italian. Es lebe die Vielsprachigkeit.At one time I was with some people from London and Liverpool at a cocktail party and I said I was originally from Nepal.

It was amusing to hear, “Oh, Nepaul?’’ The blonde woman had been raised on Kipling, I presumed, with all those nautch-girls, snake-charmers, sepoys and wallahs.Names are always distorted by foreigners. And so are most words.

During my visit to Ilam in eastern Nepal in 1995, a bus driver used English words with a nonchalance that was really disarming. Words like ‘birik’(brakes), ‘esteering’ (steering-wheel), ‘turuck’ (truck), and his companion who cleaned the car was a ‘kilinder’. On the other hand my German grandma, who watches spy-thrillers in TV, is fond of James Bond whom she calls ‘Rogger Mooray’, because the last letter is always pronounced in the German language, and not silent.

Have you heard a Frenchman speak English? I used to know a young man named Pascal originally from Paris but I’d met him in Neufchateau, and he had the habit of beginning his sentences with: ‘I preferrr...’ in that funny, elaborated French way. When I heard that, I thought the Nepalese school-kids who do the School Leaving Certificate exams were much better off with their knowledge of English as a second language. It’s just that the Nepalese pronounce the words with a Nepalese flair.

Spoken English does have its charming side. You can made it a game to find out the origin of the speaker, for despite the much cultivated attempt to speak a foreign language, you can at most times discern the rough geographical origin of the person talking. And that makes it all the more amusing. Vive la difference!


About the Author: Satis Shroff writes regularly for and its affiliated 21 newspapers in the USA, in addition to a Swiss blog ( He has written over a period of three decades, what the Germans would call a “Landesumschau,” for his readers with impressions from Freiburg, Venice, Rottweil, Prague, Paris, London, Frankfurt, Basel and Grindelwald.

Satis Shroff has worked with The Rising Nepal (Gorkhapatra Sansthan), where he wrote a weekly Science Spot and editorials and commentaries on Nepal’s development, health, wildlife, politics and culture. He also wrote weekly commentaries for Radio Nepal.

 He has studied Zoology & Geology in Kathmandu, Medicine & Social Science in Freiburg, and Creative Writing under Prof. Bruce Dobler (Pittsburgh University) and Writers Bureau (Manchester). He sees his future as a writer and poet. He was awarded the German Academic Prize.

Satis Shroff’s bicultural perspective makes his prose and poems rich, full of awe, and at the same time heartbreakingly sad. In writing ‘home,’ he not only returns to his country of origin time and again, he also carries the fate of his people to readers in the West, and his task of writing is a very important one in political terms. His true gift is to invent Nepalese metaphors and make them accessible to the West through his prose and poetry.

Satis Shroff writes in German & English.Please read his poems & prose in, & search under: Satis Shroff Freiburg.   

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