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'Scuse the French!

Updated on August 14, 2010

Why Foreign People Speaking English Were at the Centre of 1970's British Sitcoms

From hapless Spanish waiters to French policemen who struggle to control their vowels, British TV has managed to pick up on the way non-native speakers parlez-vous anglais to get its audiences to laugh. And most of the time, it succeeded. But – as my French friend once said after asking me if she could “have a crap for dinner?” as opposed to a crêpe – “What so fanny?”

We've all sat and chuckled away at Manuel's unfailing ability to misunderstand instructions, or at Officer Crabtree informing us that "the poops are broken - no water is pissing through!" ('scuse the French), but were we ever aware of what exactly was making us laugh? There's no denying it, pronunciation is the most apparent feature of a non-native speaker, but accents are merely the umbrella in the piña colada of language; they add colour to what’s being said but don’t actually affect the flavour.

Phonology plays its part in comedy by altering nuances so that the word is still identifiable but differs enough from the original to create a humorous meaning. For example, in the 1970’s British sitcom Mind Your Language, the English teacher comments, “You’re early," to which the Pakistani student replies, “No, no, I’m Ali. Ali Nadim." Using phonology in such a way can prove tickling to the viewer, but the question still remains: would we get bored if all the jokes were based solely on the sound of the words?

This is where we throw in a pinch of humorous word play to spice things up a little. Recent studies have shown that vocabulary, when chosen carefully, can play a large part in getting onlookers to laugh. Our favourite character, Ali, gets the audience tittering whilst he tries to get his teacher’s attention with the words, “Squeeze me, please, Lady.” Not only has his phonological mix-up with the word “’Scuse” got him into a pickle, but his use of the word “Lady,” in this context, was somewhat unexpected.

Combine with a hint of garish grammar, et voilà, a comic masterpiece is produced. The use of standard grammar is something that often goes unnoticed by the audience, (or in broader terms, by the majority of British youths – “’Ere, where’s yoos lot off?!”), but it is in fact an important ingredient when delivering comedy. Even if the grammar itself isn’t what the audience are directly laughing at, it helps add to the overall image of the non-native character.

According to recent linguistic studies, the most commonly used non-standard grammar from that of a non-native speaker is the inaccurate use of the present tense; that is, the inability to differentiate between the simple present (“I stay”) and the progressive present (“I am staying”) due to the majority of other languages not making this distinction (in French, for example, both would be expressed as “Je reste”).

Then again, the language of comedy isn’t all about god-awful grammar and lax lexis. The glue that sticks everything together is the pragmatics – the required cultural understanding of the meanings behind the jokes. My great aunt Gertrude once told me, "Learning a language is learning a culture," and despite her senility compelling her to wrap up her cat for my 18th birthday, she wasn't far off the mark. In fact, we can see most British comedy being based on this very statement.

Mind Your Language's Spanish student, Juan, manages to demonstrate this perfectly when explaining how the horse he bet on is bound to win as, although the race starts at 2pm, his horse will win "ten to one!" One could argue, however, that this stereotype, suggesting that non-native speakers are gullible, highlights an element of what may be perceived as racism. Sitcoms such as Mind Your Language, Fawlty Towers and ‘Allo ‘Allo were evidently not deemed racist, but due to developments in the views of British society, one may well get the wrong end of the funny-stick when looking back. Be that as it may, the humour simply focused on each word-play, with no further intended meanings other than to make the spectators laugh; a serious crime if there ever was one!

Many 21st Century comedians such as Lee Mac, Bill Bailey and Michael McIntyre successfully incorporate foreign languages into their acts, be it by anglicising a translation of “Docteur Qui”, or trying but failing to order “le crème d’œuff” in a French restaurant (come on, everyone knows it's “la crème d'œuff” ...ah-hem). So we can see that even since those cheesy British sitcoms we used to chortle away at some 40 years ago, the language used by non-native speakers has strongly influenced today’s comedians and thus is still very much at the centre of British comedy.

Even so, we respect the English student’s unfailing determination to learn such a complex language. So next time that waiter asks, "And what vood you like on top of your crap, sir?" just swallow hard and tell him a few dollops of syrup will do nicely, thanks.

© 2010 by Daniella Wood. All rights reserved. Copying without permission is illegal and will be prosecuted.


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    • DaniellaWood profile image

      DaniellaWood 7 years ago from England

      Thank you, Winsome, I'm glad you enjoyed the read, and couldn't agree more - learning a language is very tricky so mistakes are bound to happen. Well done them for having the courage to speak with a native, despite not being fluent, is what I say!

      Thanks again,

      Daniella x

    • Winsome profile image

      Winsome 7 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

      Very enjoyable Daniella, thank you. Every time I am tempted to laugh at a foreign person's struggle with English, I remind myself that 1. it is not their native language 2. I would sound much worse trying to do theirs and 3. They are probably fluent in more than one language besides the English they are learning right now. It is humbling and never fails to make me appreciate and respect them more. =:)