One of the problems I have is that I am a native English speaker. I unaffectedly speak the language like a native. This isn’t an entirely good thing. Many years ago I was youth hostelling around the Outer Hebrides and came across a German lad of my own age. In his penultimate school year, he and his parents had discussed the idea of him attending a summer school in England. The idea was that he would both learn English, and ideally learn some geology, because that was one of his interests.
So they looked for summer schools and discovered that Aberystwyth University had something very suitable. Now his mother was no fool. She knew that Aberystwyth (is it wrong that I’m inordinately proud of being able to spell that correctly without having to look it up.) was in Wales. So she phoned them to discuss the matter. The staff could understand her concerns and assured her that not only would the course be taught in English, but at the summer school most of the students would also be English.
So she booked her son on the course then and there, and that summer he travelled to Aberystwyth to learn geology and to brush up his English. Apparently the course was a good one, he had a whale of a time. One small fly in the ointment was that it seemed that virtually everybody else on the course was from Liverpool. So when I met him I could vouch for the fact he spoke perfect, colloquial English, with a broad scouse accent.
His accent was so bad, (or so good, depending on how you look at it) that when he sat his final exams and had to do the ‘spoken English’ section of his English exam, his German born examiners struggled to understand him. They appear to have wondered whether he was actually bluffing, and couldn’t speak English at all. So they called in an Englishman who was in the city teaching English as a foreign language. He did the verbal part of the exam. After the exam was finished the other masters asked the English chap whether their pupil could speak English. He answered, “Absolutely, he speaks it like a native. Poor sod.”
When I was in my mid-twenties I went with a couple of friends to our local auction mart. One of the friends was from the deep south of the UK, the other was from Leeds. I had a calf to sell and an older farmer from ‘further up,’ came across and asked me about it. To be fair he was a bit broad, and as I talked to him I dropped more and more into dialect. Eventually he’d learned everything he wanted to know and he wandered off. My mate from Leeds commented, “I couldn’t understand him and could just about understand you.” My mate from down south just muttered something about, “Sorry but what language was that.”
About ten years ago I was at a big celebratory church service held in Wales. One of the hymns they wanted to sing was Cwm Rhondda. (Yes technically that’s the name of the tune, the words, in English, are ‘Guide me oh thou Great Jehovah’.) Obviously because of the need to follow the tune and make sense, the English and Welsh versions aren’t entirely faithful translations of each other. That’s fair enough. Also fair enough was the fact that as the Church was in Wales, the organisers were Welsh and at least a proportion of those attending were Welsh, they wanted to sing this hymn in Welsh.
One minor problem is that not even all the Welsh spoke Welsh, but at least they could be relied upon to make a decent stab of the words when they had them written down in front of them. The main issue was what do you do for the English? Well somebody have come up with the bright idea of writing down the Welsh hymn in phonetic English. So if an English person just sang what was written, it would sound close to the Welsh. You know what they say, “Good enough for Government work anyway.”
This was explained to us by the preacher, and as the organ struck up, we psyched ourselves up to sing a string of gibberish syllables. It was as we sang that I noticed an unforeseen issue. What I, and other northerners around me, was singing didn’t sound an awful lot like what some of the other English people were singing, never mind what the Welsh were singing.
Still we’d tried.
On the other hand if I cannot tackle Welsh, how would I be with Zulu? There is a hymn which has come from Southern Africa, Siyahamba. In English the words are, “We are marching to the light of God.” I am assured that in the original Zulu this is “Siyahamb’ ekukhanyeni kwenkos.”
In a desperate attempt to do something with our pronunciation we were told to sing, “Sear a hamster in a white wine sauce.”
I don’t know whether there is a vegetarian option available or not.
There again what do I know? Read the man who knows what is what!
As a reviewer commented, “Jim Webster’s sly wit and broad understanding of human nature makes his work deliciously appealing. The adventures of Tallis Steelyard, and the characters who inhabit his world, are particularly delightful. Tallis and his creator both have a dry, wry and wonderfully playful perspective, and while the tales may seem like a bit-of-fluff entertainment initially, the aftertaste is that of rich wisdom shared with a wink.”