Humor of Imperfect Attempts at English

Humor of Imperfect Attempts at English by foreigners is adapted from Mark Twain’s book Following the Equator [1897] when he discusses the native use of English in India in the 1890’s:


The little book which I am quoting from is called "Indo-Anglian Literature,"

and is well stocked with "baboo" English--clerkly English, hooky English, acquired in the schools.

Some of it is very funny, --almost as funny, perhaps, as what you and I produce when we try to write in a language not our own;

but much of it is surprisingly correct and free.

If I were going to quote good English--but I am not.

India is well stocked with natives who speak it and write it as well as the best of us.

I merely wish to show some of the quaint imperfect attempts at the use of our tongue.

There are many letters in the book; poverty imploring help--bread, money, kindness, office generally an office, a clerkship, some way to get food and a rag out of the applicant's unmarketable education;

Strange as some of these wailing and supplicating letters are, humble and even groveling as some of them are, and quaintly funny and confused as a goodly number of them are, there is still a pathos about them, as a rule, that checks the rising laugh and reproaches it.


Here is an application for the post of instructor in English to some children:

"My Dear Sir or Gentleman, that your Petitioner has much qualification in the Language of English to instruct the young boys; I was given to understand that your of suitable children has to acquire the knowledge of English language."


As a sample of the flowery Eastern style, I will take a sentence or two from along letter written by a young native to the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal--an application for employment:

"Honored And Much Respected Sir,

"I hope your honor will condescend to hear the tale of this poor creature. I shall overflow with gratitude at this mark of your royal condescension. The bird-like happiness has flown away from my nest-like heart and has not hitherto returned from the period whence the rose of my father's life suffered the autumnal breath of death, in plain English he passed through the gates of Grave, and from that hour the phantom of delight has never danced before me."

It is all school-English, book-English, you see; and good enough, too, all things considered.

If the native boy had but that one study he would shine, he would dazzle, no doubt.

But that is not the case. He is situated as are our public-school children--loaded down with an over-freightage of other studies;

Apparently--like our public-school boy--he must work, work, work, in school and out, and play but little.

Apparently--like our public-school boy--his "education" consists in learning things, not the meaning of them; he is fed upon the husks, not the corn.


From several essays written by native schoolboys in answer to the question of how they spend their day, I select one--the one which goes most into detail:

"At the break of day I rises from my own bed and finish my daily duty, then I employ myself till 8 o'clock, after which I employ myself to bathe, then take for my body some sweet meat, and just at 9 1/2 I came to school to attend my class duty, then at 2 1/2 P. M. I return from school and engage myself to do my natural duty, then, I engage for a quarter to take my tithn, then I study till 5 P. M., after which I began to play anything which comes in my head. After 8 1/2, half pass to eight we are began to sleep, before sleeping I told a constable just 11 o' he came and rose us from half pass eleven we began to read still morning."

It is not perfectly clear, now that I come to cipher upon it.

I think it is because he is studying history. History requires a world of time and bitter hard work when your "education" is no further advanced than the cat's; when you are merely stuffing yourself with a mixed-up mess of empty names and random incidents and elusive dates, which no one teaches you how to interpret, and which, uninterpreted, pay you not a farthing's value for your waste of time.

Yes, I think he had to get up at halfpast 11 P.M. in order to be sure to be perfect with his history lesson by noon.

With results as follows--from a Calcutta school examination:


A dozen or so of this kind of insane answers are quoted in the book from that examination.

"What is the meaning of a Sheriff?"

"27. The man with whom the accusative persons are placed is called Sheriff.

"30. Sheriff; a tittle given on those persons who were respective and pious in England."

We must remember that these pupils had to do their thinking in one language, and express themselves in another and alien one. It was a heavy handicap.



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