Yeah, But WHICH English Do You Speak?

Courtesy: moritz320 @
It’s a… shifting C spanner wrench?

I’m [revamping a website for a client] and working on localizing their marketing materials for different regions (they sell globally).

I’m running aground on one of the problems I’ve often discussed in my language consulting and teaching: “What do you call this thing?”

The makes “fancy tents”–what I (from the US) would call a “pavilion”. I was talking to a colleague in the UK, and he commented on my choice of words “You mean marquee, nobody calls them pavilions” and I bounced back with “Nobody calls them marquees”. The problem is: We’re both right–for our own locations.

I’ve run into this situation many times in many situations. About 25 years ago, I was part of an industry mailing list1For you kids, that’s like Facebook before the internet had these “website” things. filled with industry pros (and students) from the US, UK, Canada, and Australia. We were all in the same industry, all used the same equipment, and all spoke the same language–except… not really. I remember a couple hours of messages bouncing back and forth trying to figure out what a “shifting spanner” was2That’s a Cresent wrench to us yanks.; and all but the Aussies were flummoxed over the term “poofta plug”.

I once sat in a Chinese restaurant at a company dinner, and offered some cilantro to another guest to spice up her dish. “Smells like corriander, I don’t like corriander”. “No” I replied, “it’s cilantro.” Umm… yeah. They’re the same thing. Oops.

English has spread all over the world, and has become the lingua franca of business. That’s great. It makes it easier for us to share our commerce, our culture, and our commonalities. However… English–being English–has adapted and absorbed as it spread across the world, bringing in new words, making choices about the options of old words, and making up things as it goes along.  So while we, technically, speak the same language, we really don’t. We’re speaking a hundred dialects that are mostly–mostly–close enough to understand. Those of us for whom English is a native language sometimes forget that “our” English isn’t necessarily someone else’s English.

I have a friend who jokes that he once spent a year translating English into English3He was editing English written by Dutch speakers, and making it fit American usage and expectations.. I have frequently had to correct Chinese speakers when they innocently misused words or phrases (e.g., explaining to two students that “we were looking for a parking space” is correct, while “we were parking” is… probably not).

And… the less said about the time I called a student “a chicken”, the better.

So, as you venture out into the global marketplace–whether as a seller or a buyer, a host or a guest–try to remember that things aren’t always what they seem, and… that word? “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

This post originally appeared on Geekistan: 2016-01-26 and has been edited.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. For you kids, that’s like Facebook before the internet had these “website” things.
2. That’s a Cresent wrench to us yanks.
3. He was editing English written by Dutch speakers, and making it fit American usage and expectations.

Leave a Reply