Posts Tagged ‘British’

7 words brought to you by British colonialism

No Comments » Written on April 29th, 2013 by
Categories: UK
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

The British Empire once shaded fully a quarter of the world’s map pink. The political reach of Britain was unparalleled, and throughout history it was one of the most dominant countries worldwide. (Research shows that throughout all history, only 22 countries haven’t faced an incursion by British forces.)

The Empire brought trade, literature and governance—of a sort—to far-flung nations. The cotton trade, British imperial sea shipping lines, and the need for raw materials to power the Industrial Revolution are arguably the reason why, decades after the sun set on the British Empire, English is still the global language of business.

But it’d be wrong to think it was all one-way traffic. The spread of language wasn’t just top down, from colonisers to colonies. With the spread of the Empire came the diversification of language and the bottom-up rise of certain loan words from colonial languages.

Words we use every day in modern English owe their inclusion in dictionaries to a British army officer picking up a few slang words from the cotton traders in Bangalore, street food vendors in the Caribbean, or the Boer warriors who fought against Britons just over 100 years ago. They brought them back to the homeland and they spread, becoming as British as Shakespeare, scones and smog over London.


Place yourself in the shoes of a rich Englishman—the type likely to lead foreign expeditions—in the late 1700s. You live in a grand country house with vast surroundings; perfectly manicured lawns and ornate fountains. Suddenly you’re thousands of miles away on the Indian subcontinent, and all around you is a thicket of strange trees. What do you call it? You hear your Hindi guide calling it a jangal. You start calling it that, and bring it home. Your descendants call their home town a concrete jungle without second thought, not imagining where the term originally came from. That’s the beauty of language.


Nowadays we are a nation of armchair pundits, waxing lyrical on football plays as if we had played in the big leagues. But in Hinduism prior to the 17th century, you could only be called a pundit if you had committed vast screeds of the Vedas, the Hindu holy books, to memory.Panditsas they were called in Sanskrit, were few and far between—but when Britons picked up the term, we used it in a more generic know-it-all sense, and threw the praise around a little more loosely.


It seems incredible to think, but before British colonialists first came across Indian Muslims wearing baggy trousers akin to harem pants, called pai jamahs by the locals, in the early 1800s, pajamas didn’t really have a name. But now they do, and have become a pants and shirt ensemble, rather than simply describing the lower half of our nightwear.


Of course, not all of the colonial loanwords in the English language come from colonies themselves. A whole host of naval terms—including avast, skipper, keel, freight, and cruise—come from contact with other colonists maintaining their empires. The Dutch had a colony in India, and traded regularly with Britons. It’s likely there, in the lively banter of business, that one Dutch term—beleaguer—came into the English language.


South Africans today are often bilingual, speaking in a hodge-podge of Afrikaans and English. Back in the early 1800s, Boers, inhabiting South Africa, would load up their ox-drawn cart with belongings and go on cross-country treks. Contact with the British brought the term into English by the 1840s, and it became used for any long journey—not just one driven by oxen.


The word, and the symbol, stem from Buddhism – when both had a much less mendacious association than that used in conjunction with Nazism. The svastika in Sanskrit was a sign of inner harmony and well-being, with its root word svast meaning good health.


As we’ve seen above, the Indian subcontinent was one of the richest linguistic seams mined for English. And one of the words we now use most in politics—juggernaut—came from the religious tradition of Hinduism. The Jaganath Krishna was so named from a Sanskrit compound word that meant a world-moving god. Locals would have used the term to describe actions such as the British Empire’s overtaking of their land, and the term found its way into the conversations of the soldiers who encountered locals.


Article taken from mental_floss on 25 April 2013.

What Paddington tells us about German v British manners

Are Germans ruder than the British? Are Britons more dishonest than Germans? Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on blind prejudice for answers. Serious academic research has been done on both sides of the North Sea.

There are Britons in Berlin who get taken aback by the directness of Germans. And there are Germans who get really annoyed when Britons (and Americans), in an effort to appear friendly, say things they don’t really mean. Some Germans call this “lying”.

So, what do the experts say on the matter?

Professor Juliane House, of the University of Hamburg, has studied groups of people interacting in controlled situations, watching with academic rigour how they behave as human guinea-pigs.

She found (or verified) that Germans really don’t do small talk, those little phrases so familiar to the British about the weather or a person’s general well-being, but which she describes as “empty verbiage”.

In academic language, this is “phatic” conversation – it’s not meant to convey hard information but to perform some social function, such as making people feel good.

The German language doesn’t even have an expression for “small talk”, she says. It is so alien that in the German translation of A Bear called Paddington – Paddington unser kleiner Baer – it was omitted.

So this exchange of small talk occurs in the English original: “‘Hallo Mrs Bird,’ said Judy. ‘It’s nice to see you again. How’s the rheumatism?’ ‘Worse than it’s ever been’ began Mrs. Bird.”

In the German edition, this passage is simply cut.

Paddington stories reveal a lot about this cultural difference

Might a German talk about the weather, then?

“In a lift or a doctor’s waiting room, talk about the weather in German? I don’t think so,” she says.

So does that mean the British are more polite? No, just different.

For their part, the British have what House calls the “etiquette of simulation”. The British feign an interest in someone. They pretend to want to meet again when they don’t really. They simulate concern.

Saying things like “It’s nice to meet you” are rarely meant the way they are said, she says. “It’s just words. It’s simulating interest in the other person.”

From a German perspective, this is uncomfortably close to deceit.

“Some people say that the British and Americans lie when they say things like that. It’s not a lie. It’s lubricating social life. It’s always nice to say things like that even if you don’t mean them,” says House.

Blunt or direct?

For Britons it’s German directness that most often gives rise to bafflement or even fury. House, who married a Scouser – a native of Liverpool – gives an example from her own experience.

She would tell her husband to bring something from another part of the house – without the British lardings of “would you mind…?” or “could you do me a favour…?”

He would hear this as an abrupt – and rude – command.

This gap between German directness and British indirectness is the source of much miscommunication, says Professor Derek Bousfield, the head of linguistics at the University of Central Lancashire, and one of the editors of the Journal of Politeness Research.

There are many documented cases where the British understate a very serious problem with phrases like “there seem to be one or two problems here” or “there seems to be a little bit of an issue with this,” he says.

A British listener knows there is a gap between what is said and what is meant – and this can be a source of humour, as when the Grim Reaper’s arrival at a dinner party in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life “casts rather a gloom” over the evening.

Sometimes it’s endearing, or at least the British think it is, as when this announcement was made by British Airways pilot Eric Moody in 1982, after flying through a cloud of volcanic ash over Indonesia: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.”

But it can also be confusing if you’re not used to it.

When BMW bought the British car manufacturer, Rover, it took a while for the seriousness of some of the problems at Rover to sink in. All too often, British managers spoke in euphemisms that their German counterparts took at face value.

Beach towels at dawn

Both professors reject the idea that one nation’s manners are better than the other’s. Each has its own rules of communication, or patterns of behaviour, and neither can be blamed, they say, when clashes occur.

What about those sun-loungers – the seats by the pool, which German holidaymakers allegedly grab at the crack of dawn?

“I think what you’ve got there is a clash of prototypical German efficiency with the prototypical British sense of fair play,” says Bousfield.

House reckons the British do get the sun-loungers in the end, by one means or another.

“The British want the sun-lounger, but they do it differently,” she says.

“Are the British devious? Yes, but why should you directly go for something if it doesn’t work? Devious is not a bad thing.”

Article written by Stephen Evens, BBC website