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to choose; to select from several options; to conclude; to resolve
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Newsletter June 05 - 2007FREE email English course
It's difficult to mistake chalk for cheese or vice versa. Pretty obvious, isn't it? I mean if you asked for a cheese sandwich (or as most people nowadays say 'baguette') and when you sank your teeth into it and they came across a huge lump of chalk after they'd penetrated the bread, they'd kick up a fuss, wouldn't they? That's why when we want to point out differences between people, we often say: They're as different as chalk from cheese.

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Conversely when we want to talk about similarities, we frequently say: They're alike as two peas in a pod. Come to that even out of the pod, they're also similar. Mind you, fellow peas may well have another perspective and spot the differences without demur. This idea of comparison can extend also to the way people speak. You notice this in families. Daughter sounds just like mother and son just like father. They are different of course but there is a common timbre or tone in the voice. Impressionists manage to make a living out of this and do impressions of famous people. Politicians are a favourite target. It's somehow vary satisfying making someone sound like a politician and then making them say ridiculous things – well more ridiculous than what they normally say. There was a programme some years back on the TV where puppets were made in the likeness of the famous and their voices were impersonated. It appeared under the title: Spitting Image. This comes from the expression where you comment on a remarkable likeness: Did you know you are the spitting image of Bill Gates?

But back to the sound that people make when they speak – or more precisely the accent that they use. Many years ago I had to entertain a very important student to dinner who had just enrolled at an English language school where I was working. I won't say which country he came from. Suffice to say he was a professor at a famous university. As we sat down to dinner, making no bones about it – coming straight to the point – he announced in a very serious voice: I wish to acquire a flawless accent. Tall order (difficult task) I thought to myself to achieve this in two weeks! Then of course there was the language: I wish – would we really say this for something like that? Perhaps "I want" would fit the bill (be more suitable) in that case. Acquire? Sounds a bit formal and awkward and usually associated with trying to possess or get hold of. I think I'd have gone for "achieve". Then there was "flawless". Well, perhaps "perfect" would be better. Such were the thoughts going through my mind as we tackled the tomato soup. At the end of the two weeks his accent hadn't changed. He still went on speaking English the way he always did. At his age he found it difficult to speak English any other way. It was ingrained in him (part of his nature) or as we say (not that I said this face to face with the distinguished professor): You can't teach an old dog new tricks. And what does it matter after all what accent you have as long as people understand what you're on about? This is a topic that gets quite an airing (frequently appears) on one of our forums – What do you want to talk about? (

In the play Pygmalion (later turned into a very successful musical My Fair Lady) by George Bernard Shaw, the Irish dramatist, a phonetics professor takes a girl who sold flowers in London and tries to coach her into speaking like a 'lady'. You have to appreciate that the play is set in 1914. Professor Higgins has some choice names to describe Eliza Dolittle (the flower girl in question). One of which is: draggletailed guttersnipe – I'll let you look up the meaning of that – just to say my spell checker hasn't batted an eyelid about it (totally ignored it). Eliza has to recite certain words to help her with her vowel sounds: The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain – How now brown cow? Incidentally the one I like (not in the play), which has brought fame to the small port of Leith in Scotland and is used to practise clarity of diction is –The Leith police doth dismiss them. Doth is an old form of 'does'. Try saying that slowly to yourself when there's nobody else around.

Throughout the vast areas of land where English is the first language such as USA, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand and even in the relatively tiny neck of the woods in the UK there are a variety of different accents none 'better' than another and we all seem to understand each other despite the use of different words and expressions here and there. What a boring place the world would be if we all went around spouting to each other in flawless accents! Long live the differences, I say! Now back to where I started – I want you all to say 'cheese' and if you do that, you'll all be smiling and ready to have your photograph taken.

Alan Townend

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