Bill Bryson’s Notes from a small island is full of perceptive observations about the British (for diverse comments on How to be English, see here). These vignettes also make a companion to my posts on the challenges of communicating in Chinese and Greek.
On a trip to Glasgow, Bryson finds that one doesn’t have to venture to exotic climes to experience the language barrier:
I wandered along a series of back lanes and soon found myself in one of those dead districts that consist of windowless warehouses and garage doors that say NO PARKING GARAGE IN CONSTANT USE. I took a series of turns that seemed to lead ever further away from society before finally bumbling into a short street that had a pub on the corner. Fancying a drink and a sitdown, I wandered inside. It was a dark place, and battered, and there were only two other customers, a pair of larcenous looking men sitting side by side at the bar drinking in silence. There was no-one behind the bar. I took a stance at the far end of the counter and waited for a bit, but no-one came. I drummed my fingers on the counter and puffed my cheeks and made assorted puckery shapes with my lips the way you do when you are waiting. (And just why do we do that, do you suppose? It isn’t even privately entertaining in the extremely lowlevel way that, say, peeling a blister or cleaning your fingernails with a thumbnail is.) I cleaned my nails with a thumbnail and puffed my cheeks some more, but still noone came. Eventually I noticed one of the men at the bar eyeing me.
“Hae ya nae hook ma dooky?” he said.
“I’m sorry?” I replied.
“He’ll nay be doon a mooning.” He hoiked his head in the direction of a back room.
“Oh, ah,” I said and nodded sagely, as if that explained it.
I noticed that they were both still looking at me.
“D’ye hae a hoo and a poo?” said the first man to me.
“I’m sorry?” I said.
“D’ye hae a hoo and a poo?” he repeated. It appeared that he was a trifle intoxicated.
I gave a small, apologetic smile and explained that I came from the English-speaking world.
“D’ye nae hae in May?” the man went on. “If ye dinna dock ma donny.”
“Doon in Troon they croon in June,” said his mate, then added: “Wi’ a spoon.'”
“Oh, ah.” I nodded thoughtfully again, pushing my lower lip out slightly, as if it was all very nearly clear to me now. Just then, to my small relief, the barman appeared, looking unhappy and wiping his hands on a tea towel.
“Fuckin muckle fucket in the fuckin muckle,” he said to the two men, and then to me in a weary voice: “Ah hae the noo.” I couldn’t tell if it was a question or a statement.
“A pint of Tennent’s, please,” I said hopefully.
He made an impatient noise, as if I were avoiding his question. “Hae ya nae hook ma dooky?”
“Ah hae the noo,” said the first customer, who apparently saw himself as my interpreter.
I stood for some moments with my mouth open, trying to imagine what they were saying to me, wondering what mad impulse had bidden me to enter a pub in a district like this, and said in a quiet voice: “Just a pint of Tennent’s, I think.”
The barman sighed heavily and got me a pint. A minute later, I realized that what they were saying to me was that this was the worst pub in the world in which to order lager since all I would get was a glass of warm soap suds, dispensed from a gasping, reluctant tap, and that really I should flee with my life while I could. I drank two sips of this interesting concoction, and, making as if I were going to the Gents’, slipped out a side door.
One is reminded of the classic Billy Connolly story:
To be fair, Bryson has problems in the American south too (The lost continent):
Maybe things were picking up. Maybe now I would see chain gangs toiling in the sun and a prisoner in heavy irons legging it across fields and sloshing through creeks while pursued by bloodhounds, and lynch mobs roaming the streets and crosses burning on lawns. The prospect enlivened me, but I had to calm down because a state trooper pulled up alongside me at a traffic light and began looking me over with that sort of casual disdain you often get when you give a dangerously stupid person a gun and a squad car. He was descended from the apes like all the rest of us, but clearly in his case it had been a fairly gentle slope. I stared straight ahead with a look that I hoped conveyed seriousness of purpose mingled with a warm heart and innocent demeanor. I could feel him looking at me. At the very least I expected him to gob a wad of tobacco juice down the side of my head. Instead, he said, “How yew doin’?”
This so surprised me that I answered, in a cracking voice, “Pardon?”
“I said, how yew doin’?”
“I’m fine,” I said. And then added, having lived some years in England, “Thank you.”
“Hah doo lack Miss Hippy?”
“I say, Hah doo lack Miss Hippy?”
I was quietly distressed. The man was armed and Southern and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying to me. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m kind of slow, and I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“I say” — and he repeated it more carefully — “how do yew lack Mississippi?”
It dawned on me. “Oh! I like it fine! I like it heaps! I think it’s wonderful. The people are so friendly and helpful.” I wanted to add that I had been there for an hour and hadn’t been shot at once, but the light changed and he was gone, and I sighed and thought, “Thank you, Jesus.”
Several commentators take Bryson to task for getting cheap laughs at the expense of people who are different (e.g. here; cf. Molvania), though some defend him. Indeed, I tend to feel he’s laughing at his own preconceptions and incomprehension.