Friday, November 9, 2012

Language and lingo in the Burmese war

George MacDonald Fraser, author of Quartered Safe Out Here (see my Nov. 5 post), writes beautiful English, which is why his books have been so popular for so many years. Even as a very young soldier in Burma near the end of World War II, his mastery of the language probably had a lot to do with his battlefield promotion over older, more experienced men. So for the most part, Fraser's book makes easy and entertaining reading. Yet there are still three language-related problems for readers.

1. Military lingo. Most groups of people have their own lingo that, to some extent, separates them from outsiders, and the British soldiers fighting in Burma were no exception. Fraser introduces us to a number of terms used by those soldiers. A mucker, for example, was what a man called his immediate comrade. To stand stag meant to have guard duty.

2. Hindustani words. More problematic are the many native words that the soldiers adopted during their time in Burma. Porridge became burgoo. Tea was chah. An embankment was called a bund. Fraser has a footnote whenever these words are introduced, and a glossary at the end helps if you forget one or can't tell what it means from the context.

3. Scottish dialect. Most difficult of all is understanding what these soldiers, most of them from the Cumberland region, are saying to one another. Fraser may have trouble, after more than half a century, remembering all the details of what he did in Burma, but he somehow remembers entire conversations that go on like this:

"Awreet - Ah'll oondoo it for thee meself'. Then we'll baith git a drink - oot o' thy bottle!"

"Ye miserable sod, w' at difference does it mek w'ee's bottle we soop frae?"

"That's w'at Ah'm saying'! W'at fer should we use my bottle 'stead o'thine? Y'are always on the scroonge, you! Guzzlin' big-bellied git!"

In small doses, especially if read aloud, these conversations can be understandable and amusing, but Fraser continues them sometimes for a page or more at a time, and it is tempting to skip over them entirely.

No comments:

Post a Comment