One of the pleasures of writing for me is that you get to mess around with words the way a painter plays with color or a musician tinkers with sounds. You take a dictionary, spill the contents all over the floor, and then choose the ones you want to use before assembling them on an empty canvas. Sometimes your composition works really well. Other times the meaning gets clouded or vanishes completely. Every now and then a reader “gets” exactly what you are trying to say and is moved by what you’ve written, which makes all the effort worthwhile. As long as you follow certain rules, there’s really no absolute right or wrong way to do it–just variations in how you express yourself, and even those rules can be broken if that’s what you need to do to get your message across (although it’s probably a good idea to explain this to your editor beforehand).
I am currently on contract with an international company that employs about 2,000 people (and roughly as many languages). In a normal working day I might hear English, Dutch, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Polish and Russian. There are many others and I can now recognise a lot of them just by the sounds, even if I would never be able to speak them. Some, however, are almost alien. The other day I passed a woman who was saying something like “widuwiduwiduwiduwiduwida” in a high-pitched voice. She sounded like a cat doing an impression of a Shanana LP played very loudly at 45rpm*. I have no idea what language she was speaking but somebody must have understood her because they responded, also with the same sound.
No doubt you have bumped into one of those websites that makes fun of how other countries mutilate the English language on signs and packages and such. While these can be funny, I soon find I get bored with them. They are too obvious and the mistakes tend to sound much the same after a while. What I prefer is the small errors that are pretty close to what is correct, but which are just far enough off the mark to change the meaning.
Being in such a multi-cultured environment, I see this sort of thing all the time. For example, I was attending a presentation recently and the man at the front was giving a little information about his background. He proudly announced in a thick accent that he was originally from the “comical industry”. What he meant to say was that he had previously worked in the “chemical industry”. I have nothing against people working with chemicals, but his version was much more interesting and made the presentation substantially more bearable. Another example is something that happened to some friends while they were trekking along the African coastline. They wanted to get from the road to the beach and so they started cutting through an area of dense bush. On cue, a warden turned up to see what was going on. My friends tried to speak to him in his own language, but he was determined to practice his, obviously very weak, English. The result? “Do not destroy the indogenius plants!” My friends managed to keep a straight face, but only until the warden had gone. We never did figure out exactly what an “indogenius” plant is. Presumably it is particularly intelligent species of flora from the Indian subcontinent.
Of course, being a foreigner myself, I do my own share of language mutilation. The reason I ended up working in Holland is because I learned Afrikaans at school. To be honest, I always thought studying Afrikaans was a complete waste of time for the simple fact that it is only spoken in two countries. I didn’t realise it at the time, but Afrikaans and Flemish are actually very similar. In fact, Afrikaans is pretty much 17th century Dutch and Flemish is a Dutch dialect. So, although I had never really spoken Afrikaans outside the classroom, I landed a contract in Belgium based on my ability to grasp what Flemish people were saying. Now, while Afrikaans and Flemish are similar, they are by no means identical. For example, the expression “excuse me” is “verskoon my” in Afrikaans and can be heard quite often on a busy South African street. And so I used it in Belgium, mainly out of habit. I would bump into someone, smile apologetically, and say: “verskoon my” thinking I was being polite. I got some strange looks, which I put down to my accent. Later on I spoke those same words to a colleague. He gave me the customary strange look before bursting into howls of laughter. It took him about a minute to get his breath back long enough to tell me that “verskoon my” in colloquial Flemish does not mean “excuse me” but rather “clean me”. It is spelled differently but sounds the same. So I had spent my first few weeks in Belgium asking random strangers to perform some sort of sanitation service on me.
That was ten years ago. I suspect my colleague is probably still laughing today.
* For those of you who are too young to know what I’m talking about here: