Friday, June 8, 2007

Divided by a Common Language? Are We Sure about That?

Having read all sorts of English fiction, poetry and essays over the years, without ever having actually set foot in the British Isles, I've never thought much about the differences in usage between the U.S. and the U.K. In fact, except for noting obvious variations in spelling and vocabulary -- honor vs. honour, sedan vs. saloon, etc. -- I'm not sure I've ever been all that conscious of specific stylistic differences. The differences between Kingsley Amis and John Updike weren't any more notable in context than those between Updike and Norman Mailer. One language, different voices was as much distinction as I ever admitted to.

Only recently have I encountered new reasons to pay closer attention. The first arrived -- courtesy of the Fox soccer channel -- with the advent on American television of games from the English Premier Football League. (Make that the obligatory Barclays Premier Football League. The British may laugh at Pizza Hut Park, but they have their own problems with commercialism in sport.)

In listening over time to the match commentators, I gradually became aware of all sorts of hitherto unsuspected divergences in usage. Here are some examples:

British: On the floor.
American: On the ground. (Only indoors is it the floor.)

British: He's got pace.
American: He's fast.

British: Into touch.
American: Out of bounds.

British: Fixture, match
American: Game

British: tie (a competition for one of the many football cups)
American: tie (a game in which both teams have or end up with with the same score.)

British: Kit, strip
American: Uniform

British: A foul on so-and-so (So-and-so has been fouled.)
American: A foul on so-and-so (So-and-so has committed a foul.)


Add all of this up, and it's hard to avoid noticing that you're not in Kansas any more -- or in New York or Alabama either, for that matter. I might have dismissed this as simply a difference in sports dialects, but for the fact that at the same time I found myself reading more in the way of news and political commentary from British sources on the Internet: The Guardian and Independent, as well as the Economist, Prospect, the BBC, the Times, etc. Differences I hadn't noticed before began to jump out at me. For example:

British: It wasn't the best thing anyone has ever said about him, but nor was it the worst.
American: It wasn't the best thing anyone has ever said about him, nor was it the worst.

British: Did I do it? Well no, but I might've done, if....
American: Did I do it? Well no, but I might have, if....

British: The engineering team have decided to pursue the recommended design changes.
American: The engineering team has decided to pursue the recommended design changes.


(American translations are my own.)

Not all of this was new, of course, but I was seeing it in a new light, possibly because there was suddenly so much of it around me. I also realized that the loo, or the telly, knickers, or napkins weren't the interesting parts. What was far more interesting were the grammatical, or if you like, syntactical differences -- the way different choices of word or phrase were both derived from, and in turn led again to different rhythms of speech and writing. It was those rhythms which had been steadily diverging over the last two hundred plus years, a divergence which had only been partly attenuated by the fact that, increasingly, we share a single literature.

At that point, I realized that being a voracious reader as a kid hadn't been entirely without its disadvantages. Whenever I'd encountered something new and tasty then, I'd simply incorporated it, as kids do, into my own linguistic toolkit. Unfortunately, once I had it firmly in my possession, all hope of provenance was lost. It took me years to grasp that I couldn't just insert what some Oxford wag had said a century before -- or rather his manner of saying it -- into my own speech or writing, not without seeming either a pedant or a mutant.

Mmm...so far so good. Then I realized something that led all the way around the circle to my starting point again. Look at the following two examples of regional American usage:

Manhattan:

I gave them bupkis. BUPKIS, I'm telling you. (Yiddish)

We spent hours on line, just waiting for the place to open. (on, not in)


Rural Alabama:

It was laying over yonder, behind the barn. (lay/lie, archaic
yonder instead of there)

Y'all going over to the store later? Carry me with you, I need a few things myself. (entirely regional use of
carry, and then, of course, y'all itself.)

Would the idioms of residents of Manhattan necessarily be more familiar to a rural Alabaman, or vice versa, than any of the Britishisms listed above? I suspect not, which leads me to conclude that the British/American versions of our common language aren't as different as we might be tempted to think, and thanks to things like the Internet, probably won't diverge significantly more in the future than they have already.

28 comments:

certifiedprepwn3d said...

OK - I do know from regional differences South to North. Here are some of the idiomatic usages that drew negative responses from yankees when I went up North to college -

CoCola - for Coca Cola

I might could do that - for "I could do that, but I have some reservations about it"

fetch - for get

as a sampling . . .

Introvert Girl said...

Where I'm from we always say "pop," and living in the Northeast I still find "soda" giggle-inducing.

If I were being pedantic, William, I'd lower-case "about" in your header ;)

You make a really great point. My husband and I understand each other far better than I understand people from Boston, or, say, Queens. And it's not just the accents.

All those developments and divergences you mention ... do you think they develop just like language itself does? A symptom that is born of the people and geography and lifestyle and values and very weather of the place in which it forms?

As an aside to that, I'm not sure you can really separate the style from the words themselves. Scottish people have a completely different way of speaking from the English, too, and their vocabulary seems to complement their style (to my ears). The word "dreach," for example, for a sort of damp, gray, cold, intermittently blustery day. Saying, "Ach, it's right dreach" sounds hugely different from, "It's kind of dreach today, isn't it," even if you mean the same thing in both contexts.

Introvert Girl said...

Sorry, forgot to add something. Just a side note that the increasing popularity of British fiction here is probably bringing our languages a bit closer together. It wasn't so long ago that Hollywood wouldn't make a movie of Lord of the Rings because it was "too British" for an American audience. Then Harry Potter took over the world, and even though the American publishers change some of the Brit-specific words, the syntax certainly stays the same.

William Timberman said...

Yep, certified, I know all those phrases. Of course, since I was an Army brat, I got it going the other way as well. After two years in Medford, N.J. (Fort Dix), at the age of nine, I wound up just outside Gadsden, Alabama (Fort McClellan.) Y'all wanna talk about culture shock, well I'm telling' ya.

IG, all good points. I don't know whether the words get suited to the habits of speech, or vice versa. I suspect the former. It's a truism, I guess, that rural speech is slower, and more musical, ie., short and long, rising and falling, than urban speech. I suspect it's something like that.

Something from Pound to illustrate:

Up, up thou sluggard, rise
I can see the white light
and the night flies.

Try that on someone from the Bronx, then someone from Savannah.

(Oh, and your copy-editing expertise is my command. Title correction made.)

Introvert Girl said...

>>Oh, and your copy-editing expertise is my command.<<

Would that everyone would say that! Actually, most of my employers would capitalize it because they go by a four-letters-or-more rule, which seems irritatingly arbitrary.

Your post has given me much to mull. I'm going to sign off for the night and mull in bed.

certifiedprepwn3d said...

WT - I am actually a North/South mutt - My mom is from Queens and my dad is from south Georgia. The tale goes that during the early days of their courtship (living in Virginia at the time), if she went home to visit her folks, he would wait three days to talk to her so the accent could fade a little.

IG - my sisters and I giggled for days the first time we heard a westerner ask if we wanted a pop. To us, all carbonated beverages were "cokes" . . .

Every region has its own melody - live somewhere a while and you can get in harmony with it. (Though, perhaps tv and hollywood will make the world speak mid-atlantic with the occasional huzzah)

certifiedprepwn3d said...

oh - and, WT the Pound bit is excellent - thanks!

Introvert Girl said...

certified, the thing about Southern English is it's so darn addictive. We go down to Tennessee for the National Storytelling Festival every year, and every year I walk around with a Southern accent for an hour just after making the hotel reservations over the phone. Not just the accent, but the word choice and sentence structure seep in pretty quickly. On the other hand, I've lived in the New York area for almost 5 years, and not only have I not acquired the accent, I still cringe when I hear it.

Karen M said...

I'm another military brat, and spending a lot of time on SAC bases when I was young meant acquiring that "accentless" midwestern accent. Although... sometimes, people would think I had a tiny trace of Irish or English something. I attributed that to my father's family-- I think my grandmother actually had a brogue. Every one of my siblings talks pretty fast, though none of us as fast as our father did. He grew up in Southern Illinois, so I can't explain that.

In the end, I've picked up lots of regionalisms. Paul (my bf) laughs if I use "fix" in what I guess must be a southern way.
The Philly accent is one that holds little charm for me, though. Same for its idiomatic expressions. Like I'Girl, I've actively avoided picking up the accent.

certifiedprepwn3d said...

Fixin' to do something! One of my favorites - and often more accurately expressive than "Preparing" or "Getting ready."

Tennessee has some of the best accents - I could listen to Tennesseeans read the phone book out loud, and I would speak that way if I could . . .

(and, three years in NYC plus one generation from Belle Harbor and I, too, actively avoid the NY accent)

William Timberman said...

Certified, my Dad was from Erwin, in East Tennesee. (He never just said Tennessee.) My Mom was from Ramsey, New Jersey. He taught her to cook southern-style, with some help, on occasional visits, from his mother. (Luckily, my mother had the patience of Job.)

When years later, when I made the mistake of telling a black acquaintance of mine that I grew up on soul food, she gave me one of those yeah, sure, white boy looks. It was literally true, though. Turnip and mustard greens and collards, fatback and fried chicken, fried apples, blackeyed peas and red-eye gravy, grits and sweet potato pie, salt and pepper on our watermelon, etc., etc.

Strange, but true. The only thing my father wouldn't eat was chittlins; maybe that was the racial dividing line, I don't know.

Karen M said...

I don't think I really know the Tennessee accent, unless Gore has a vestige of it. Is there some other public person who has it that I would know of?

My fixin' was usually more along the lines of going to fix dinner, to which he would reply, "why is it broken?"

Wow, I just noticed that nearly everyone has a little graphic or avatar, and I don't. I'll have to do something about that, I guess. Maybe a crumpled piece of paper? ;~)

Karen M said...

Oh, that southern food. My father's cooking brought us milk gravy with biscuits (sometimes with chicken hearts or other parts in the gravy), cornmeal mush, bacon (and its grease) for seasoning any kind of green vegetable. All that stuff I can't eat any more since I had to give up wheat and dairy. [sigh]

I still love sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, and grits. In fact, grits have been my lifesaver. I use them to make a quick microwave souffle with an egg or two and other goodies.

I'll be someone has done some research or written a paper about the relationship between southern speech and southern cooking. Surely, cooking has a grammar, too.

William Timberman said...

I don't know about a grammar, Karen M, but for sure it has a syntax. You always think you know what goes with what, until you get a real cook in the kitchen.

William Timberman said...

Karen M, about Tennessee accents, surely you haven't forgotten Fred Thompson already?

I prefer the deep south accent myself -- Mississippi or Georgia. Did you hear the Shelby Foote interviews when Ken Burns' Civil War series was on PBS? Pure tropical fruit, that voice, and almost every single-syllable word turned into two, at least. Wow!

certifiedprepwn3d said...

My shipments of grits from home did raise some eyebrows up north, that is for sure. Collard greens, black eyed peas, pulled pork - yes. Chitlins might be the racial dividing line, because we never had those.

Karen - It has never even occurred to me that "fix dinner" could imply it is broken - the blindness of origins!

IG, I will try to come up with a good Tennessee exemplar - can't think of one now, not with all the sleepy.

Unrelatedly, I have been quite preoccupied with the "thinking in metaphors" issue all darn day - it might result in a post (probably for the opoyul~ pages) about mandelbrot sets, ants, and free climbers traversing vertical faces.

certifiedprepwn3d said...

g'night all!

Karen M said...

Oops! I stayed away too long... First, we had to discuss the goings-on in the kitchen.

And then I was move to draft something for here (maybe). Feel free to peek at it. It's very much a rough draft, though, and feels very self-conscious still. And it may be more appropriate for Bread Crumbs than here.

Mandelbrot sets are a great metaphor for food. I'm sure I've seen biscotti that referenced them.

Oh, yeah, Fred Thompson, the actor who campaigns in a red truck, but then drives home in a sleek, silver luxury car. That Fred Thompson?

Fixing and brokenness was less about blindness here than about P's trying to get my goat. (Source, anyone?)

Jeff W said...

IG: Where I'm from we always say "pop," and living in the Northeast I still find "soda" giggle-inducing.

Why says the US is really divided into "red" and "blue" states—when all we have to do is look at the Great Soda/Pop Divide! (I call it "liquid candy" myself.)

I think my favorite regionalism—for sheer strangeness—is the use of the word cabinet in Rhode Island for milkshake. When I lived in Providence, we'd order "chocolate cabinets" just to experience the never-ending amazement when we would actually get a milkshake!

WT: I loved that soul food story.

Re British English:

I liked your perfect explication,William, of the differences in word style, syntax and all that. (The Economist likes to use "and all that" it seems.) But I'm always struck by the understatement and irony in British English. As a teen, I was in England for just a few days and had the feeling that everyone seemed to be engaging in a collective "in-joke"—every person we talked to seemed, well, just so funny. The sensibility was so unlike anything in the US.

That said, the most cherished stereotypes about British and American humo(u)r are, perhaps, just cultural myths?

Introvert Girl said...

WT and Karen, I loved those food stories. Just read them this morning and now you've made me hungry -- even after I had breakfast. God, all that Southern food...certified's, too.

WT, my yoga classes are in Ramsey. Random little connection there. Bet it's changed a lot -- no farmland left.

Karen, just call up any ol' hotel in, say, Johnson City, and ask a question about rates and availability on any random date. You'll get the accent :-)

As for food having a syntax, I'd say certainly. Have you ever read the articles in, say, Saveur? Or a better example: My mum-in-law gets me British cookbooks as gifts, and there's certainly little ways of talking about food there that's different. "Add a grind of pepper" is one that delights me for some reason.

Since we're talking backgrounds (or ya'll were last night), I'm a mutt of a different variety. My mother's a 3rd-generation Westerner, wheat-farm girl, and my father's from the Soviet Union. My syntax and especially sentence structure are a little affected (in both ways). It's fun to grow up in a meat-and-potatoes family that eats borscht, too!

Jeff, I don't think the differences in humor are cultural myths. The best examples are British television shows, like Blackadder, Yes Prime Minister, Absolutely Fabulous, etc. The strange thing about British humor is that it's both more restrained (the irony, the implied joke) and far more crass than American (think Monty Python's Meaning of Life).

William Timberman said...

My ex-wife, who's a superb cook, has gifted me -- there's that word again -- with a subscription to Saveur for a number of years now. It's magnificent, but it's amazing how few recipes you can actually cook from it without access to a Parisian vegetable market, or a Mexican one, or a real Italian salumeria. Frustrating. On the other hand, I bought a copy of the Gourmet cookbook, the yellow one, and virtually everything in in comes out foolproof the first time. I am content.

Ah yes, the Brits: coster sugar, gas 5, rocket, double cream, golden syrup, and then the metric measurements. Actual Fench recipes -- in French -- are often just as easy to translate.

And sigh, I haven't seen Ramsey in over fifty years. When they say you can't go home again, they're not kidding. Hardly anywhere I've ever lived was more than faintly recognizable a decade later, even in Europe. (The exception, in Europe, seems to be the town centers, which were already a thousand years old, some of them, when I first saw them.)

Introvert Girl said...

Sorry, WT, left this on the wrong thread:

William, it took me some real mess-ups with baking from my British cookbooks to realize that even our flour is different. I'd never heard of self-raising flour before. At least now I've figured out how to make it. But how confusing!

Isn't "rocket" a lovely word for a lettuce?

I think I could deal with changes of "home" if they were for the better rather than worse (big box stores, McMansion developments ...)

Karen M said...

I sometimes read Saveur in Borders, but I don't buy it often, just because there are too many magazines in the house already.

However... food writing is high on my list of favorite genres. Every so often, I'll dip a toe in, and try to write something about my own relationship with food (which has changed significantly in recent years).

When you write about food, you're writing about history and geography, economics, chemistry, culture, the senses, aesthetics, all kinds of things, but mostly hunger.

My daughter wanted to borrow somethng by MFK Fisher, but I bought her a collection of her own in paperback instead. There are some things that even a mother just can't share.

Speaking of food writers, I read Calvin Trillin's book about his wife, Alice, recently, and have to recommend it.

WT, you must have a pretty good relationship with your ex-wife, for her to think of such a thoughtful subscription gift.

[To all: I started another draft of something that might be fun as a group collaboration. If you agree, just add to it, and if not, please add why you don't like it. That will add something, too. The other draft is something I have to mull over for awhile, because I'm not quite happy with the tone. But feel free to make any notes in or on it, as well.]

William Timberman said...

IG, it's from the French roquette, no? Filtered through that wonderful British practicality with foreign languages -- the one which turned Infanta de Castilla into Elephant and Castle, or so the legend goes.

Self-rising (American version of the name) flour was big in the south of my childhood. It had baking powder in it was all, and consequently had an expiration date. You almost had to get up and make biscuits every morning to get the most out of it. Which, for a number of years, my mother did. Bless her.

KM, yes, me and the ex get along better now than we did in the day. (It's not just the cooking, which we collaborate on occasionally, but the cooking is at the heart of it. The two of us catered her parents fiftieth wedding anniversary/family reunion a few years back, which was great fun.)

Anyway, I'm gonna go back to California next May and dance at her wedding. Her long-time partner is a great guy, and they're way overdue in tying the knot.

Introvert Girl said...

How I love British ... such an Anglophile. Give me a cream tea any day of the week.

ALL
This'll be my last comment for a couple weeks (relieved?) as I'm going out of town, and will probably not have any access to Internet. If I do, I'll check my email. If you send me an email and I don't respond, it probably got eaten and discarded by the junk mail filter. If you send it again after the 22nd, I'll get it.

Yammer well, fellow lingophiles, or whatever we call ourselves! Mostly, have fun.

Karen M said...

Have a lovely time, I'Girl!

...but we'll miss you.

If anything really outrageous happens here, I'll paste it into an email for you...

- K

Karen M said...

Frankly... I changed the permissions, so that you and everyone else can edit other posts. In general, I would expect that we won't edit other people's work without first being invited, but if we want to collaborate at all, it makes sense to set up the permissions this way, and trust each other.

certifiedprepwn3d said...

Hey all - I am out and about most of this day and some of tomorrow - will check out the posts and probably work something -

best to all,

cert'3d