Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Parlez-Vous Anglais?

          Of course I do. You probably do as well.

          I must say, I sometimes become mildly annoyed when someone refers to my language as "American". Sometimes I force myself not to jump into professor/reprimand mode to explain that English is English. Except, apparently it's not -- or, it is and it isn't.
George Bernard Shaw
          "The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language," as George Bernard Shaw famously proclaimed.

          Is it simply vocabulary -- a word here, a word there? For example (left American English, right British English):

Candy store = Sweet shop
Cookie =Biscuit
Diaper = Nappy
Appetizer = Entrée
Baked potato = Jacket potato
Balcony = Dress circle
Bangs = Fringe
Bathrobe = Dressing gown
Beer = Lager
Buddy = Mate
Busy = Engaged
Drugstore = Chemist's shop
Eggplant = Aubergine
Eraser = Rubber
Elevator = Lift
Trunk (in a car) = Boot
          OK, that ought to do it. You get the idea. But I've discovered it's much more profound and subtle than "I say toe-MAY-toe and you say toe - MAH-toe." It's in the nuances, in the caliber of the words for similar situations.

          "We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language," Oscar Wilde, said.

          Let me explain. . . I have two close English friends who live in France and we never have problems communicating either in English or in French, however, we address verbally/orally the same situations with dissimilar words. I tend to speak in superlatives while they almost always prefer understatement.

          Never have I heard either one say OMG(!), Wow(!) or Fab-u-lous(!) expressions that are simply not in their repertoire or if they are they are most likely used for situations that rightfully elicit such a response. They are more likely to say something like: "Interesting, not bad (also very French, as in pas mal), quite nice, well done,"  and so on. "Well done" is a huge compliment.

          When I am with them I try to tamp down my use of overly hyperbolic words because, when I think about it, where does one go -- semantically speaking -- when we overuse "best" when "good" or "better" are more appropriate?

Oscar Wilde
         My favorite friend and I laugh about a time she was introduced to an American who exclaimed,   "I am so blessed to have finally met you!"

         "Quite honestly, I had no idea what to say to the woman," she said. "Finally I mumbled something like 'it's so nice to meet you' or something equally lame."

          Now she and I always sign-off our e-mails or telephone conversations with "I'm so blessed to know you," then we LOL.


Déjà Pseu said...

J'adore British slang. But you're right, we Americans tend to be more hyperbolic I think, not only in language but in attitude.

Kathy said...

I really dislike the compliment "not bad". It makes me feel very judged, and it seems to have some extra meaning to it also.

I like enthusiasm, and if it's American, that's fine with me.

BigLittleWolf said...

Delightful! I am always cheerfully amused by these nuances in language (and usage), as they reflect far deeper differences in cultural approach.

We do overdo, in the US of A, don't we? I confess, in some instances I find the Over-The-Topness irritating. In others, I think it rightfully reflects our hyper-positive-wish-fulfillment culture, with a twist of genuine charm.

hopflower said...

There are a lot more differences than those as well. I grew up with them. In some ways, one needs a translator. You would be surprised at just how many things are different after all. It is also attitude that is different as well as mere words. But then, we are different peoples.

The Gold Digger said...

I had a Scottish roommate when I lived in Chile. She almost fell out of her chair in shock when I made a casual reference to a fanny pack.

angiemanzi said...

I lived in London for a few years and while setting up my household upon my arrival, I found myself at Harrods looking for a dust ruffle for my bed. I asked the ever so gracious saleslady in the bedding and linens department for a dust ruffle and she said to me, "love we sell those in the window treatments department". Thinking that was odd, I took myself to the window treatments area, and spoke to the gracious saleslady there and once again I repeated my request and she handed me a curtain valance for windows. I looked at her oddly and said to myself "this won't fit my bed. She laughed and said, "oh you mean a bed skirt love" which made sense to me after she said it. That was my first week in London. I knew then that the languages while both called English, were not the same and I was going to have to do some translation work. It always made me laugh.

Pam @ over50feeling40 said...

I always love to read about and discuss languages...I find it fascinating. I live in a city which is mostly bilingual...Texan (yes I mean Texan!) and Spanish. Both cultures are over the top...so I tend to be when I write and when I speak. But, I also love the demur and sedate cultures and my desire is to be teachable and learn from them.

That's Not My Age said...

My brother lives in NYC and has been known to utter the odd 'awesome' but on the whole we English prefer understatement.

Jeanne said...

Interesting discussion. As an American, I'm apparently too understated. I often find that my statements are not taken seriously unless I'm overly dramatic. Since I find dramatic personalities annoying and obnoxious, it's a constant issue for me.

mette said...

Coming from a totally different world, having attended a school run by Roman Catholic nuns from USA decades ago, I find American English more familiar.
Yet all the super words seem odd, funny, sometimes even extremely irritating, as we Finns are not used to express ourselves in such an ( awesome ) way.
Yet I´d like to hear English spoken by an Australian and Canadian and compare the differences.

Joseph the Butler said...

"Blessed" is the curse of the weak.

Sandy at You May Be Wandering said...

Tish - this is a fascinating post! I was aware of many of the language variations but never knew about the Americans being considered overly dramatic. Now that I think about, it is SO true!

Enjoy your day! xoxoxo

vicki archer said...

Tish, I can relate to this..:)
I have become a little accustomed to the British way after 13 years .. and when I go back to Australia it takes a little while to get used to the familiarity. I do love the enthusiasm of the Aussies and the Americans...
I find France much more formal too... xv

Amelia said...

I grew up in a third world country, was sent away to an English boarding school, and on to university in America. If Americans are too enthusiatic and hyperbolics, count me in, because I've never left...:)

Trudy said...

After 8 years in Florida I do find American enthusiasm to be quite charming, but it took some getting used to.

BTW an appetizer in the US is a 'starter' or 'first course' in the UK. Entree in the US='main' in the UK. Dessert in the US= 'pudding' in the UK. Not that it really matters...

Deb said...

Joseph The Butler: Amen!
can we talk about "awesome"? In New England, everything is awesome- socks, the weather, meeting schedules. I try to never say it, even thought I do (rarely) come across something that is indeed awesome.

webb said...

My thought is that we Americans under-use our vocabulary. THat is, we only use about half of the available words, so we overuse those and that leads to using "vocal expression" to show whether we mean "neat" or "NEAT". i think it's a shame and would like to see us use more of our words. (you might wish i would use more of my capitals, but that is a different discussion!)

catherine said...

I like the term 'brilliant'.
Of couse, being southern i say holy- moly and yeehaw.
Perhaps i should switch to 'brilliant'.

ida said...

Wow,here in the UK charming,adorable,super,lovely,divine,sweet,fabulous are certainly used in my part of the world.....surely not just the Shires?

Black mark for moi as I tend to say oh American spelling when I see colour spelt color etc,enjoy teasing my friends from across the pond about this.....still must be a tad careful as our humour is also different!! Ida

Anonymous said...

Something I've found moving from New Zealand to the UK is that Brits tend to be a lot more self deprecating and indirect when they speak. New Zealanders (and Australians even more so) tend to be more direct. South Africans can come across as blunt to the point of rudenss (it's the Dutchness, I think) but the ones I've met (and there've been many) have been lovely warm, hospitable folks.


Anonymous said...

In 1979 I came to England from Canada to live for a year, & one of the first people I met in England, a professor of English Literature, warned me, "Just be warned that this is a foreign country".

I had never thought of England that way because when I was growing up in Canada, it was still attached to the British Empire. I was familiar with British expressions, food, government & customs.

However, as the year wore on, I got teased about how I spoke, expressions I used, & so on. Some of it was not pleasant!

Canadians are neither Americans (although we are North Americans) nor are we British, but we share a lot of the same "language" with both.

BTW, superlatives don't bother me - I LOVE enthusiastic dialogue.


Janice said...

Oh pumpkin, Oscar Wilde was IRISH... now you're getting into a WHOLE different version of the English language. You can sit in a pub in Dublin, and it's all English, and still not understand a word of it...

Lost in Provence said...

Could these comments be any better? No. Or perhaps that is just my American overenthusiasm. Which when writing to my Sister means an email ending only with:!!!
or :) or ;) sigh. Yes, that's us.
One other tiny thing to add, kind of on topic are folks like myself, Americans that grew up reading tons of English literature and so get the spelling all wrong. Gray? Grey? I don't know! (yes, !)

helen tilston said...

Hello Tish

What an amusing post. I remember hearing that a friend of mine got a new davenport (sofa, couch or settee)
Dust Bin/Garbage Pail/Trash Can ..sure they are all rubbish.

Have a glorious week


ann.about.town said...

As an Australian having just visited the US, I was often mistaken for British. So I found myself uttering old fashioned Ockerisms (Australia slang) and bewildering my sister-in-law's family.

The main thing I notice is that North Americans seem to be more formal in their communications with people they don't know. Whereas Aussies treat everyone they meet as long lost family.

Thongs/Flip Flops
Sloppy Joe/Sweatshirt

That last one caused some confusion I can tell you!

rubiatonta said...

@Deb -- in my family's neck of New England, things are "wicked awesome."

Much more better kind, you know.

Shelley said...

There is something about being so exuberant that comes across as rather child-like and therefore unsophisticated or even simple, as in foolish. However, being continually understated can seem to lack engagement and warmth. It's a tough choice, but I think I'd prefer to be child-like rather than snooty. I've introduced my husband's family (children, mother and sister) to having hugs in greetings and farewells, something that was definitely foreign to them but which I cannot ever regret.

Shelley said...

There is something about being so exuberant that comes across as rather child-like and therefore unsophisticated or even simple, as in foolish. However, being continually understated can seem to lack engagement and warmth. It's a tough choice, but I think I'd prefer to be child-like rather than snooty. I've introduced my husband's family (children, mother and sister) to having hugs in greetings and farewells, something that was definitely foreign to them but which I cannot ever regret.

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