Sunday, 7 December 2014

Just words by Bill Kirton

Well, the post's sort of about Xmas, and it looks bare without a picture
I recently did one of the relaxing, pleasurable things connected with writing: I read through and signed a contract. As I was reading it, though, it did occur to me that it had probably taken the lawyers a day or so, three at the most, to draw it up and, on a purely word-count basis, their remuneration would be significantly higher than mine. Fine, they studied for their degrees, worked as juniors (or however the system operates today) and, if anything nasty hits the fan, they’ll have to clean it up, so good luck to them.

It is, though, rather ironic that, whereas we (usually anyway) work to make our meanings clear, their technique is to multiply the ‘howevers’, ‘notwithstandings’, ‘heretofores’, and let clauses be as promiscuous as they like and reproduce themselves inside swelling paragraphs which are desperate for the relief/release of a full stop. Different worlds, different words.

Then, when I went to post the signed contract, I stood in the Christmas queue at the counter and more words jumped out at me, two examples which I thought were interesting in their different ways. First, a woman with a quite refined PR accent said to the server ‘May I purchase this calendar?’

There are all sorts of things that could be said about such a request. The calendar was hanging on a hook, with a very evident price tag on it, so the betting was that, yes, she probably would be allowed to buy it. There was the tiniest stress on the word ‘I’ so did she think it was only for sale to a chosen few customers? But it was the word ‘purchase’ that struck me. Why not ‘buy’? Does she go home to her husband, partner, elderly aunt, or whoever she shares a house with and say ‘I purchased a calendar today, darling/sweetie/Aunt Murgatroyd/whoever’? If she does, it’s delightful to imagine the ensuing conversation, which would be full of:
‘Was the vendor helpful?’
‘Indeed, most accommodating.’
‘Will you be imbibing any wine this evening?’
‘Copious amounts, but first I must micturate.’

I’m not being nasty or superior, I love it that we have these different registers and that people actually use them, but that word ‘purchase’ seemed so incongruous in a shop full of people stressed out with Christmas shopping and having to wait to buy a couple of stamps. But the woman duly purchased her calendar and went home content.

The other example is grammar-related but interesting in a different way. A young man with a strong Indian accent was posting bundles of cards to places in the UK, France, Canada and Australia. I’ve had one to one sessions with students brought up in India and they often use a more formal register than that used by the majority of British people. In this case, it was causing a slight problem. One card in each of the bundles had to be weighed to determine the cost of the postage and, at first, through no fault of his own, the man wasn’t doing it right. The reason was that the person serving him was an Aberdonian and spoke in the local vernacular. It wasn’t that the accent was distorting the actual sounds (although that happens very often) but he was making a familiar ‘mistake’ by saying ‘Put one of that cards on the scale’. We all know that, technically, it should be ‘those cards’ – and that’s what the Indian man had been taught, so the mixture of singular and plural had him baffled momentarily. But I’m definitely not mocking either man. There are many such grammatical ‘mistakes’ that are accepted currency. The important thing is to be understood. I suppose I only noticed it this time because of my struggle with lawyer-speak and the woman’s use of ‘purchase’.

Language is constantly entertaining.

11 comments:

Susan Price said...

My money is on, 'This day I purchased yon calendar, Aunt Murgatroyd.'

Bill Kirton said...

A not unreasonable hypothesis/wager, Ms Price.

Lydia Bennet said...

Words like purchase, whilst, commence, are used quite often in semi-official contexts such as committees - perhaps this lady belongs to one such?
Indian English can be quite flowery and formal, I stumbled on some Indian newspapers online and the language register was reminiscent of older Times pieces - fascinating stuff. As authors, this kind of thing is vital, getting the linguistic register right for the time, the social context, the situation, yet so many films get it wrong as we've discussed on here before. Too much of the budget on CGI, too little on writers!

Reb MacRath said...

You could write a book on this subject and I'd stand in line to purchase it. I once dealt with an extremely, er, different Indian customer. I was expecting refinement, courtesy and flowers--and found myself dealing with a real bad-ass b---h from the Bronx. She screamed for faster service because her effing kid was waiting in the mother-effing card. Etc. I've been cussed out before but was genuinely shocked.

Reb MacRath said...

Last line should read car, not card.

Ann Turnbull said...

I'd be as confused as the Indian man. "One of that cards" sounds very strange to me. "Purchase" is familiar enough, but I don't think I've ever used it. You certainly don't hear it in my local post office!

The English language appears to have many words that mean the same thing, but every one of them means something subtly different.

Jan Needle said...

if you don't know the difference between a car and a card you got no write to play stirrup pokers.

Bill Kirton said...

I agree, Lydia. In some conversations with Indian students, I felt as if I was in a black and white forties movie. Also, as a member of the grammar police, I was reminded that ‘correct’ English can sound characterless and humourless.

I must say, Reb, that all the Indian students who came to see me were unfailingly polite. The same was true of Chinese students. In fact, their respect for me as a tutor bordered sometimes on reverence. I could have told them any old crap and they’d have accepted it. It was hard persuading them that their opinions were as valid as mine.

‘That’ followed by a plural noun is a very common part of the Aberdeen vernacular, Ann, as (and this is a gratuitous aside, which some may find offensive) is ‘een’ for ‘one’. To see what I mean, imagine sitting with someone with 2 cups of tea on the table before you, pointing at one and asking (in Aberdonian), ‘Is that your one?’

Jan, be kind to Reb. He’s foreign.

Reb MacRath said...

Jeezlaweez, Jan--I corrected my typo almost instantly. And, Ann, the Indian man was a woman--and not confused at all. She said 'car', which I mistyped as 'card.' She screamed because her kud--I mean kid--was waiting in the curd. I mean, the car.

Reb MacRath said...

Jeezlaweez, Jan--I corrected my typo almost instantly. And, Ann, the Indian man was a woman--and not confused at all. She said 'car', which I mistyped as 'card.' She screamed because her kud--I mean kid--was waiting in the curd. I mean, the car.

Reb MacRath said...

There, Jan, you can see how upset I am by my somehow duplicating the post.