Paul is from Yorkshire and sometimes I don’t really know what he’s talking about. I’ve spent most of my life under the mistaken assumption that because English is my first language, I have a really good handle on it. I even studied it in university. Living overseas has changed all that.
Today, he looks troubled, which is unusual for someone I usually see with a wide grin on his face. He walks into the staffroom, puts his teacher’s guide down, sits in the office chair across from me and stares intently into space. I look at him a moment and then turn back to my own desk and continue writing my lesson plan.
“What do you call a full stop?” he asks, looking at me.
“I don’t know,” I say, setting my pen down. Working together in Korea, these conversations come up once in awhile. He might get a text message from his Canadian girlfriend that I have to decipher. Or someone uses the phrase “fanny pack” causing confusion and hilarity: fanny does not mean the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic.
He picks out a textbook from the colourful row of them on the shelf and opens it on the desk beside me. He points to the end of a sentence.
“That,” he says. “What do you call that?”
“A period,” I say.
“Well, why do you call it that?” he says, glaring at me.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Why? What do you call it?”
Every English-speaking country seems to have their own version of the language. It means you can understand one another ninety percent of the time, but then it betrays you in places you never expected.
“Do you know,” he says, completely ignoring me, “that I’ve been telling the gifted class to use full stops for months? Every day when I look at their writing, I say, ‘You have to remember your full stops at the end of sentences.’”
He sits down in the chair next to me, shaking his head.
“Then, today, Jody puts up his hand and says, ‘Teacher, what is a full stop?’” The corner of my mouth is twitching. “For a month they’ve had no idea what I’m on about.
“Period,” he says, looking at me. “Stupid word.”