By Matt Prichard
The joke goes like this: A business executive from the United States walks into a London hotel and asks a clerk where the elevator is.
The clerk answers, “The lift, sir, is just to the left.”
The businessman says, “Don’t tell me how to say ‘elevator’ – we invented it.”
商人说：“别告诉我 ‘电梯’ 怎么说——电梯就是我们发明的。”
The clerk answers, “Quite right, sir, but we invented the language.”
Actually, we in the US didn’t invent the elevator (or the lift), just a new form of the English language.
Living in China and having foreign colleagues and friends from such countries as the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and India, I have learned much more about the rich variety of my native tongue.
I have learned that “sleepers” are not necessarily weary people – they can be planks that form the foundation of railroad tracks. In the US, we call them “crossties.” “Hoardings” may not be the stashes of compulsive collectors but advertisements we call “billboards”.
I already knew some terms, having long been a fan of British films, television and novels. But I have often thought of how confusing this must be to students of English in China and other countries. It’s hard enough for native English speakers to keep it straight.
Of course, this variety is evidence that languages are living things, and while some commonality is needed in order to communicate, the world would be less interesting if we all expressed ourselves in the same way.
In China, linguistic differences have their roots in ancient times. While it is practical to make sure all children learn Putonghua (the people’s language), or Mandarin, it is encouraging that there also are efforts to save regional tongues. In Shanghai, classes are given in Shanghainese, a subgroup of Wu Chinese that is only partially understood by many Mandarin speakers.
In today’s hurry-up world, it would be unfortunate if these living remnants of the past are extinguished. The key to keeping them alive is to cultivate an interest among the young.
Because I was raised partly by my grandparents, there are some antiquated expressions in my vocabulary. When someone is sore or injured from exercise or overwork, I might say they’re “stove-up”. Most people nowadays are puzzled by that. When I looked for it on dictionary.com, it replied, “Did you mean ‘stovetop’?”
Merriam-Webster tells us it’s an adjectival form of the verb “stave up”. “Staves” can be pieces of wood used to make a barrel, and Southern Mountain Speech by Cratis D. Williams says “stave” also can mean to break to pieces, splinter, shatter – the apparent origin of my peculiar expression.
韦氏词典的查找结果是，这是动词‘stave up’的形容词形式。“stave”指可以用来做木桶的板子，而Cratis D. Williams则在《南部山区的语言》（Southern Mountain Speech）一书中说，“stave”还可以表示碎片、碎了——很显然我的独特表达就来源于此。
It gives me hope that the expression is found in the youth-oriented Urban Dictionary, so it might yet survive.
All of this may seem academic, but it shows that language is a mirror on life and a way to examine culture and history. Also, it’s comforting that my wife — raised in a similar environment, influenced by her grandmother and great-grandmother — understands when I say I’m stove-up.