By Adriana Adarve – Owner of Adarve Translations & Donnamarie Leemann – Head of Marketing at Adarve Translations
There are myriads of words and phrases that are different in British and American English. These words are often abbreviations or slang and many of them change quickly over time. Some, however, have staying power (they endure). In the UK, a mother lays her small child down in a “pram” (short for “perambulator, a Victorian term), or sits the child up in a “push chair.” In the USA a mother lays her child down in a “baby buggy” and sits her child up in a “stroller.”
In the UK, a baby wears “nappies,” while in the USA the baby wears “diapers,” though both terms are being edged out by the more universal “pampers,” spelled with a small “p” just like kleenex started out as a trade-marked name with a capital “K” but became a generic term with a lower-case “k” and edged out cloth handkerchiefs in the last century.
Brits eat chips, biscuits and watch the telly; Americans eat fries, cookies and watch TV. The word “football” means two quite different games in the two countries; Americans call the game “soccer.” Meanwhile, what the Americans call “baseball” is recognized as a variation of the British game, “rounders.”
In the UK, a “rubber” is an eraser that removes pencil marks from paper. In the USA, it is a condom that is used to prevent disease and pregnancy during sexual intercourse.
Words pertaining to clothing frequently do not match up. A British “jumper” is a pull-over sweater to an American. One enters a mine-field of misunderstanding with words like “vest, “knickers,” “braces,” and many other terms.
However, these differences only add up to differences in vocabulary, they do not rise (or descend) to the level of dialect. While the terms are different, they are for the most part mutually understood.
There is a famous quote that the British and the Americans are two peoples divided by a common language. It is typical of the Anglo-American situation that the quote cannot be definitively ascribed to anyone. Contenders are Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw and others.
In fact, the differences between The Queen’s English and American English, as codified in the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language (the UK) and the (Samuel) Webster Dictionary of the English Language (the USA) are not all that significant. I am not a linguistic scholar but I have paid a great deal of attention to the English language for a very long time. The only significant grammatical difference that I have been able to discern is that, in British English, a collective noun requires a plural verb (“the government have decided…”) while American English conjugates the verb like the French do, in the singular (“the government has decided.”)
Here in Switzerland where I live, people who live on the other side of a nearby mountain are hard put to understand the dialect spoken by neighbors who live a piddling couple of hundred kilometers away. Most non-Italians think that Italian is a solid language, but they’ve never listened to the faulty communication between south-western Italians from Sicilia and north-eastern Italians from the Veneto.
Speakers of English—be they from Britain, the USA, Australia, Canada, India or English-speaking enclaves in more scattered parts of the word—can usually communicate much better than can Swiss-German neighbors or Italian country-men.
I think that this is true because of the lingua-franca, free-for-all, wild-west nature of the English language itself. English is not a Romance language descended from Latin, though it has borrowed much from Latin, especially after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Even though it borrowed a lot, it retained much of its earlier Anglo-Saxon character, and so gained an extra level: the Latin that was super-imposed over the earlier, more vulgar language, and the English acquired an extra level of vocabulary and culture.
While the descendants of Latin languages evolved into codified sections (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese et al,) English led a merry life of its own. Brits raised cows, sheep and pigs and ate beef, mouton and pork. They added a raft of new terminology to their language, while the French Conquerors shut out new terminology.
The Brits were too busy trying to fend off aggressors, from the Vikings to the Normans to Spanish Armada and beyond, to give a whole lot of thought as to how to codify their language. In fact, they never got around to doing it, not to this very day. There is no equivalent of the French Academy, or of the German institution that sets linguistic standards, that controls the English language. The English language is controlled only by common usage.
The French Academy might consider this position common, if not barbaric, but in point of fact the English language is nourished by its speakers. It does not rely upon a highfalutin committee to set its standards. It is a living language that reflects the lives of the people who speak it. I know that the members of the French Academy are learned, intelligent people who are committed to the celebration of their language.
I admire and respect their efforts, but regret that most of them fail to see that language is a juggernaut that can in no way be controlled by their efforts. Language lives a life of its own, it goes where it will, and any effort to restrain it constrains the human spirit. Language is the door into our human past and into our future, and any effort to codify or constrain it is anathema to linguistic progress, growth and freedom.
In the meantime, I give little lessons to folks who wish to speak English better. I have a new student who wants to discuss travel in the National Parks of the USA (her proposed program having been partly derailed by the recent American government shutdown.) I have another student who wants me to help him buff up his colloquial English for social encounters here in La Tchaux. Yet another student wants me to teach him slang he can use on his proposed travels to Australia and the USA. There is the jeweler who works for an international company who wants to improve his standing at company conferences. I have a couple-three other new students I haven’t yet quite figured out what they want.
I never tried to set myself up as a teacher of English. I did try to set myself up as a teacher of art to children. Because of my excellent command of the English language (not a brag but a statement of fact) people kept coming to me asking me to help them with their English. Because I love the English language I was happy to oblige them.
While I have been teaching English, I have been learning other important lessons. Language is not like swatting a tennis ball across the court. There is a give-and-take, sure, but there is so much more.
I’ll give two short related examples. When I was younger, I learned American Sign Language. I thought it was really cool to be able to talk with deaf people. It was very special to communicate with signs, but nowadays I am creeped out when I see a Hearing-Impaired-Interpreter standing alongside someone giving a report. It isn’t the hand signals that creep me out, it’s the body language. There is something so foreign to me about this kind of communication that I can’t get my brain or feelings around it, however much I revered it in years past. I am unaccountably put off by the grimaces, shrugs, twists and turns of facial expressions and by the twists and turns of the entire bodies of the interpreters. As I said, I used to think it was cool but I am now creeped out by the body language.
This morning there were seriously strong winds blowing here. One gust from the west piled up everyone’s balcony and patio furniture onto whatever barrier they had to the east. The commotion galvanized me out of my bed. I couldn’t go back to sleep. I turned on the TV and most of the programs had silent translators—I guess deaf people can only watch and understand TV in the early hours of the morning.
When regular programming resumed, there was a bit about symbols on the internet. The presenters and guests were talking about punctuation, and how punctuation can replace body language on the Internet. One point of particular interest seemed to be how to represent irony in abbreviated web-speak. An upside-down exclamation point seemed to be the symbol of choice.
I was particularly interested in how difficult presenting irony is purported to be. My daughter Liz is a wizard at presenting irony on a stage. She nails it every time. I’m not sure why this to so, because Lizy in her own person is not especially ironic. Lizy writes, acts and directs with skill but always with a reserve of tricks up her sleeve, her sense of irony being one of her foremost tricks. Having given the matter a great deal of thought, I think that Liz uses irony as an antidote to the sugary sycophants one so often encounters in the theatre and upon other stages. Irony can be a clumsy weapon that humiliates people, it can be a quick and deadly swipe of a rapier blade—or it can be the flash of a mirror that accurately reflects all the character, good, bad, strong and ridiculous, of the person whose reflection is shown.
Language is in flux. It has to be, because culture is in flux. People are searching hither and yon for symbols that might could represent abstract ideas like irony. The French Academy, the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary, the controllers of media such as Facebook, are all looking for the Next Best Thing, they are looking for the next step up in the new saga of social media and in the old saga of language itself. They forget the power of irony at their peril. Dictators, religious fanatics, ideologues of many different persuasions have focused on abstract ideas only to be defeated by the mundane background commitment of every-day people who speak about mundane every-day things. Free people can play with irony. People who must live with corruption, elemental greed and the everyday degradation of their reasonable hopes and dreams understand the power of irony and corruption and, sooner or later, rebel against it.
It seems to me that many of the new konigen are trying to direct the future course of our society in an incorrect way. I was very distressed to learn, last year, that Facebook allowed a video clip of a woman being beheaded to be posted. When I mentioned the video post to a friend he told me that, on Facebook, it’s okay to show a woman getting her head cut off but that a pic of a woman nursing her newborn child couldn’t be shown because her breast was exposed.
Adriana and Adarve Translations are on Facebook, and they are also on Twitter. I am not on Facebook. I am not on Twitter. However, I do live in the real world too. How seduced must we be by the new technology? How consumed must we be by the latest technological innovations? How easy is it to throw away all our past in favor of the chimera, of the fragile digital on-line future?
Might we take a step back before we rush crashing down into the digital unknown? Might we take a step back and look at our past before we abandon it without proper thought for a digital future?
I know that I am a dinosaur in the modern digital world. But just consider this. I worked with computers in 1975. I had my first email account (with CompuServe) in 1981. I learned umputy word-processing and computer programs. I hated the advent of the computer mouse. I didn’t like the advent of Windows. I’ve always been a klutz with computer programs, but I’ve been a klutz who’s kept on truckin’ through computer technology for longer than you’ve been alive. Communication for me, however, has not stopped there. How about you?
All the best,
Donnamarie Leemann, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, & Adriana Adarve, Asheville, NC
About the Authors: Adriana Adarve is the owner of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French), as well as pluri-cultural, multi-cultural, plurilingual and multilingual. Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums, and who collaborates at present with Adarve Translations as Head of Marketing.