Posts Tagged ‘Cockney rhyming slang’

Native speakers of English, especially those who’ve never learned any foreign language, seem to enjoy saying that English is one of the hardest languages to learn. Where this urban legend got its start I do not know. But is there any truth to it? I once knew a girl from Italy who was studying tourism – or touristics, to make it sound like something one would actually study. She decided she was going to spend a year in Germany and then a year in England, at the end of which she would be fluent in both the principal languages needed by Italian hotel managers. We met during her year in Germany, and later, when she had moved on to England, I visited her in Bournemouth. In her first weeks there, she had gotten the whole enchilada: in addition to her courses in English for foreigners, she got a taste of Fabian socialism, the fabled English eccentricity, the notorious English cuisine and some of the pitfalls of English as it is NOT spoken by foreigners. She got a job in a sandwich shop making and wrapping inedible, non-nutritious meals at assembly-line speed from five a.m. to nine a.m. And she rented a room from an early middle-aged man who had somehow come into possession of a large brick house and lived an idle life renting out its rooms to foreign language students. He spent his time taking care of his renters – in ways they might never have expected. For instance, he made Steffi’s bed for her while she was at work, but neglected to remove the cat – HIS cat – sleeping in the middle of it first. So when she returned home, she found her bed with the sheets carefully tucked in on every side and the cat still trapped underneath and in a desperate state. Or he would paint the doors – but not the front or back – only the edges. Steffi only discovered this when she came home late at night and stood in the hallway chatting with her landlord – leaning against the edge of the door, so she ended up with a white stripe down the middle of her back. Some of you may argue at this point that there is a subtle but clear difference between eccentric and just plain nuts. He also painted the shelves in the bathroom – the bottoms of the shelves, not the tops – which Steffi also discovered in an equally inadvertent and annoying way. Finally, as she poured her heart out to me, she complained that, although she did all the dishes every morning as soon as she came home from work, she was requited for her troubles with the epithet “Trouble”, as if she had been the cause of it. She invited me to join them the next morning for breakfast to witness this state of affairs for myself. I arrived and had a rather lonely breakfast while Steffi did the dishes. Soon the offending landlord appeared and cheerfully greeted her, “Good morning, Trouble!” Well, not ever having spent a day of my life in London (at this point), I, of course, was well acquainted with Cockney rhyming slang and explained to her that her landlord was, in fact, honoring her with a term of endearment for “wife” or “woman”. I went on to explain how it works: that you take a couple of words that naturally occur together, such as “apples and pears”, rhyme the second element with what you really mean, such as “stairs” and then remove it, leaving only the first element, which doesn’t rhyme. So “apples” denoted “stairs”. In her case, “trouble and strife” rhymed with “wife”, so “trouble” was the code word for “wife”. The further I got into my explanation, the more Steffi’s face wilted. Even after I’d repeated it and cited more examples, she still just couldn’t get the hang of it. From that day on, she insisted that German, with its complex – but comprehensible grammar was the language for her, while English was simply beyond her ken – rather like ancient Armenian or something equally esoteric.


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