Uncertain English


Note: I’ve had another piece published in the New Straits Times. This one is a photo essay. Here is the link to the edited piece, and below you will find my original with a link to an online album with more pics.

In my travels throughout Asia, I have gotten a big kick out of how non-native speakers of English will translate things into English. The reasons for this are varied, from the need to connect with monied tourists to simply adding some sense of international “cache” to any endeavor.

Whatever the provenance, the results often grab my attention. They may be funny or thought provoking because they give off an unintended meaning. They may give me a clue to the structure of the original language. Sometimes they are funny due to the juxtaposition of words. Sometimes they are using the wrong word. Sometimes, I have misunderstood a local colloquialism. And sometimes, they may not make any sense at all.

For example, what is one to make of the sign I found above a phone in a hotel lobby in Mumbai that read “Lift receiver for self service”? If I have to make a call, is it really self service? Then there was the sign in Melaka that read “Hair Saloon”. If this is a saloon and not a salon, shouldn’t I be ordering a drink?

I am of course open to the possibility that my (American) sense of English is flawed in its own ways and distinct from the British, Australian, and (even) Canadian versions of the same. But I can’t help noticing the signs.

Over the past 10 months (camera in hand), I have documented many cases of signage that caught my eye. Here are a few examples, collected in a series I call “Uncertain English”. Enjoy.


  1. Mom says:

    Congratulations!! A second publication–you are establishing a trend!

  2. Cheesehead-milwaukee says:

    Hey! Congratulation for your second spread in NST – Been showing it to few of my friends here in KL – they all loved it! Cant wait for your next spread!!!!