Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Journey through Two Forms of English

By Sanjeewa Karunaratne, Asian Tribune

Prior to my last visit to Sri Lanka, I exchanged a few emails with my bank manager with regard to the transfer of some funds. When I met him he asked, “How long have you been in the U.S.?” I said, “10 years.” He replied, “Well, you still don’t know how to spell cheque!”

I don’t blame him, no Sri Lankan in their right state of mind would believe that, somewhere in the world, a cheque is spelled as a check. Of course, the manager must have had a good laugh when I emailed him, “Please check whether my check has reached the bank.”

When I fly across the Indian Ocean, I switch to the British form of English. My neighbor becomes the neighbour with whom I should go to pick up a crate which contains some artefacts (American: artifacts) from the Colombo harbour (American: harbor). Then, we should find a labourer, (American: laborer), and ask him to take it to my vehicle.

While speaking in Sri Lanka, I must remember to give up the American long “a” in favor (British: favour) of Sri Lankan short “a”—“Al-aaa-din” become just “Al-a-din”— as soon as I arrive at the Bandaranaike International Airport, or I would be labeled (British: labelled) as a “Yankee” who had forgotten his roots.

When I started my graduate studies in Public Policy, as the only international student in a class of twenty, our office administrator had a hard time finding my class schedule (pronounced: “shed-youl” in British English). After struggling for a few minutes, she understood what I meant when I wrote it down. However, it took a while for me to change my nearly three decades old pronunciation to fit the American form. Yet, I must remember never to pronounce schedule as “sked-youl” in Sri Lanka in fear of humiliation! Same with the word “often”—if I pronounce it with a “t,” no one would send their children to my elocution teacher. Yes, as children, we often took elocution classes to learn how to pronounce words in British English.

I learned the difference in the date format the hard way when my brother’s passport application which I filled out was rejected two days before his trip to Dubai. His birth date was, in the Sri Lankan format, 12-06-1978 (June 12), not 06-12-1978 as in the American format which is December 06 in Sri Lanka. Undoubtedly, his birth certificate had contradicted the passport application.

My journey doesn’t end there. Towards the end of it, I obtained American Express Travelers checks. At that time, I spelled out my name because my last name is usually written in Sri Lanka as Karunarathna, but in the U.S., it is Karunaratne. I went to Bank of America to cash the checks and found out my first name was misspelled as “sanjee-uu-a.” Well, I realized (British: realised) it was my mistake: in Sri Lanka, W is not pronounced as “double u.” The bank was so flexible that they understood my problem. I am fortunate I do not have to spell out wizard in Sri Lanka using the American pronunciation which may probably be written as “uu-i-sea-ard.”

In addition to “o” changes to “ou,” “ze” changes to “se” as in analyse and organise and one “l” is dropped as in enrol and fulfil in Sri Lanka, there are hundreds of other subtle spelling differences between British and American forms of English. Astonishingly, there are even slight grammatical deviations. No wonder the overwhelming majority of international students from former British colonies stick to science and engineering in the U.S.

On the other end of the spectrum, my American friend, who moved to England a couple of years ago, disagreed with my statement that the grammatical deviations are slight. She gave me an example of a run-on sentence in which an opposite grammatical rule has applied. Ironically, while my grade was once reduced from an “A” to “A-“ specifically because of writing, my friend who received “As” for her writings in the U.S. only received a “C” in England.

On my return, I got a final laugh and a reality check at the Connecticut Limo counter in the Bradley International Airport. In order to help the clerk write down my name correctly, I gave her my passport. After staring at it for a while, she asked, “Sir, is lankan your last name”? Well, in my passport there is no last name, only a surname.

Did I remember to put two spaces after each period (or a full stop)?

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