Friday, February 22, 2008

Asking for Leek and Potato Soup

I was back in the student cafe this lunchtime: the one where a student memorably ate chips with cheese and gravy - yuck yuck yuck - a couple of weeks ago.

"Please may I have some leek and potato soup?" I asked nicely. I was taught to say this when I was very small. My eleven-plus teacher, the venerable Mr Storey, was very hot on the difference between "may" and "can". Heaven help you if you said "Please can I sharpen my pencil?" You'd get a long lecture on how you probably could, if you were determined to and had the necessary pencil-sharpening skills, but you would need his permission first, and to achieve this permission you would need to ask using the word "may".

So, brought up on this important difference, I have the MAY word ingrained in my soul and would feel really, really naughty if I were ever to say "Please can I have - "

The student next to me had no such scruples.

"Can I get some leek and potato soup, please?"

There was a small whirring sound as Mr Storey spun rapidly in his grave, but the student didn't notice.

I opened my mouth to say something along the lines of "Well, I expect you can, if you're prepared to vault over the counter and pick up a bowl and a ladle," but I didn't.

Then the next student stepped up.

"Can I get a cup of coffee, please?"

Okay, there's something going on here, because this is the third week that I have noticed this "Can I get?" phrase. Student after student using it.

So. Is it wrong, I ask you?

Well, technically, yes, I suppose so. But the language changes all the time and a few hundred years back there'd be people saying stuff like "Verily, 'tis not you, 'tis thou that thou should'st be saying".

To me there's a difference between sloppy speech or writing - which I don't like - and new uses of language, which I find rather interesting. I don't like some uses that creep in because people have heard them wrong - "couldn't of" annoys me instead of "couldn't have" for example.
"She couldn't of bought it because she didn't have enough money" -- no, I hate it!

But "Can I get a cup of coffee?" Hmm.

Where has it come from? The USA, that's where - I've often heard it in television programmes (that's "shows" for any American speakers who may be reading this).

But is it wrong? D'you know what, I don't think it is. The meaning is perfectly clear, and it's not just an English phrase that's being used wrongly.

I think it's a new phrase, in the same way that, once upon a time, "pyjamas" was a new word.

And my version, "Please may I have - - " now sounds very old-fashioned, like something out of a 1950s British film where the word "back" is pronounced "beck". Though I expect I'll keep on saying it: Mr Storey's powers remain supreme from beyond the grave.

In a few years' time the conversation might go like this:

"Can I get some leek and potato soup?"



Blogger Silverback said...

U stik wit ur edukated ways, lady.

'Can' and 'may' and when to use them were drummed into me at school too. Of course my version of your teacher can't turn anywhere really as he was cremated but that's another Storey.

Oh stop groaning, you set me up !!

My pet peeve used to be 'very unique' or 'one of the most unique' when unique is just that.....unique. But it seems it's ok now and like you say, languages change.

After all, English is one of the most unique languages in the world. Well apart from French, Chinese, German, Irish oh and 9,236 African dialects.

5:32 pm  
Blogger Jennytc said...

I always thought 'Can I get' was one of those American phrases which has travelled across the pond.

7:13 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was well impressed by a cautionary tale I heard at school about the man who fell overboard, crying
"I will drown and no-one shall save me,"
so, of course, at his insistence, he did and they didn't.

12:38 am  
Blogger John said...

Papua New Guinea, it is, apparently, that has the most languages, for one country. Can't remember the exact number but it's seven or eight hundred. Seems like every tribe and cliff-top dwelling community speaks a different tongue. The road signs must be massive.

8:18 am  

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