Friday, August 28, 2015

When English speakers can't understand each other

When University finished last year, my then 19-year-old son wanted me to drop him off at a mate's place to relax. Some of his friends rent a house in town together, a perfect place for young bachelors, and my son's been known to stay with them for a fortnight at a time. The guys make no plans, but tend to take each day as it comes.

I asked him, "How long are you staying for this time. It'd be nice if you could give us a clue when you'll be back."

"One day," he said, with his head behind the fridge door.

I took that as a definite response, meaning just one day. I thought he'd only stay overnight and be back by tomorrow. I was surprised, but quite pleased. "Good. Thanks."

Half an hour later, we were parked in front of his mate's driveway, and I said, "I'll see you tomorrow then."

He blinked at me and started protesting. "No you won't. I told you, I haven't planned when I'll be back."

Then it dawned on me that he didn't mean those words, one day, the way I'd chosen to take them. He meant them in a vague, cheeky, "When you see me," sort of way.

How easily people can misunderstand each other, even when plain English is spoken clearly and not misheard. I've often thought such communication gaps are a bit of a joke, but this incident reminded me how easily they can happen. I've enjoyed similar misunderstandings when they happen in stories.

I remember reading 'Ramona the
Pest' to my children, about a little girl who was proudly starting school. Her teacher, Miss Binney, was assigning seats and said, 'Ramona, you can sit here for the present.' The young heroine was certain the teacher was promising her a gift-wrapped type of present if she remained seated, and it led to lots of mix-ups at recess time when her friends wanted her to come and play. 'No, if I stay here, Miss Binney's going to give me a present, and I can't wait to see what it is. She's taking a long time though.'

Another favourite character of mine was good old Amelia Bedelia, the weird maid who always took things literally. Her employer once asked her to draw the curtains at
noon, for example, and came home to find hot afternoon sunlight pouring in on her expensive fabric upholstery. It turned out Amelia had executed a perfect sketch of the open curtains and coloured it in. Several times, Amelia Bedelia only managed to keep her job because she was such a good cook.

Some historical misunderstandings have had far more serious repercussions. Jesus' disciples assumed that He was planning to inaugurate a different type of kingdom to the one He really meant. As we know, Judas decided to take matters in his own hands, when he got tired of waiting for the type of political coup he was expecting.

In 'Becoming a Prayer Warrior', author Elizabeth Alves tells a true anecdote of a young mother who complained that her baby's diaper/nappy rash wouldn't respond to treatment. Alves advised her to 'apply the word of God.' This young lady ripped pages out of her Bible to place in her baby's nappy whenever she changed it. The best part of the story is that it cured the rash. 

I wonder if misunderstandings happen more often than we may realise. As English is a crazy old language in many ways, I'm sure they do. Not only do some words have more than one meaning, but they are often fluid and not fixed, as we might expect. I'm often interested watching my kids and nephews communicate with my parents. One of the boys may make a statement such as, 'That's really sick!' and their grandparents believe that they are expressing criticism instead of admiration.
Here are some of my recent reading examples which I've enjoyed a lot. 

1) Like a Flower in Bloom, by Siri Mitchell.
Like a Flower in Bloom
The heroine, Charlotte Withersby, was relieved that no gentlemen wanted to marry her. However, she'd accidentally accepted several proposals at the same time, just because she didn't get the terminology they used when they popped the question. A hilarious read.

2) The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New Things

 The hero, Peter, is a missionary to aliens on another planet. The extra-terrestrials have learned some rudimentary English, but there is quite a mix-up when he wakes up one morning and tells the tribal chief that he is anxious to 'pass water.' 

3) The Greenfield Legacy by Meredith Resce, Amanda Deed, Rose Dee and Paula Vince

The Greenfield Legacy

I'm most fond of this one because I had a wonderful time having a go at composing these mix-ups myself. We four authors each wrote from the point of view of one of the four main characters. My character was young Brooke, one of the granddaughters of the matriarch, Mattie. Brooke was forever puzzling over the intended meanings of whatever people said to her, especially Aidan, the young man she was in love with. 'Did he mean it this way or that? Was that supposed to be an insult or a compliment? Am I supposed to respond or let that one pass?' Her mind was always ticking over and the confusion it caused her never ended.

(If you think our collaboration sounds interesting, you might also like to click here.)

I'd have to say that writing Brooke's part in the Greenfield Legacy is probably what helped me realise what a lot of scope there is for misunderstanding each other in English. As it's such a vast and rich language with a long, piecemeal history and speakers from many totally different backgrounds, I suppose it's no wonder. I have more funny examples in this article about waving cat syndrome, featuring times when I was the one who got confused.

Have my examples of this phenomenon sparked off any memories of your own? I'd be interested to hear them. That in itself may be another example. One man may ask, 'Have you heard the news?' and his friend will reply, 'Yes,' meaning that he's read it on Facebook or Reddit, and then the first man will wonder who told him. Where does it end?


  1. Glad someone appreciated The Book of Strange New Things as much as I did.VEry thought-provoking.

    1. It was an amazing book. I just had to keep turning the pages.

  2. I like yoru site it beautiful , my friend

    1. Thank you, Stefan. Working on it is a labour of love. :)