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Divided by a Common Language

March 21, 2016

I like to think I’m pretty good at English. This isn’t bragging, but I’ve spent a lot of my time speaking the language. Also, to my credit: I’m an English major. So I came to London to learn more about it, and it’s the first time I’ve felt self-conscious about saying the right thing since second grade.

In my defense, English isn’t easy to master, and this is because there are infinite Englishes. I know Massachusetts English best, and will fight someone if they insult my use of the words “bubbler” or “wicked.” But generally, my language is widely
accepted in New York.

London, however, is a different story. The city is the birthplace of English, which is of course the bastard child of German, Latin and basically any other language that someone happened to speak while passing through England. The language is constantly changing in both space and time because we absorb words we like from anything we please. Any region you go to will have a different English. Yet the gulf between America’s and England’s English is perhaps the largest. Unless you count ebonics, I suppose, but let’s not talk about ebonics.

First, there are the aesthetic differences. Most of these were thanks to Noah Webster, who looked at the English way of spelling things and decided it was pretty dumb. For the most part he was right, and that’s why we don’t spell things like “gaol” or “theatre.” It should be noted a lot of his spellings didn’t catch on, though, so we don’t spell believe like “beleev” or women like “wimmin.” But excluding his many flops, the “American Dictionary of the English Language” set us on the path to American English.

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Next, there are the words that don’t exist in America. I was taking a quiz on the Guardian’s website the other day to find out how millennial I am (don’t ask) and one of the answers to “It’s SATURDAY NIGHT. What are your plans?” was “Nowt. I’m skint.” Apparently this means “Nothing. I’m poor.” Another example is that instead of taking coffee “to-go” they just get it “takeaway.” And if you say “to-go” you get glared at like you’re a bloody div.

And lastly, there are the cultural differences that impact language. One thing I was dying to ask a British person was if they used the baseball metaphor. The one for sex, I mean. I thought they wouldn’t because the only sport with bases they have is cricket, and that only has two. So either they use cricket and things
progress a lot quicker on dates, or they use a different metaphor altogether. Alas, I was informed that they don’t use a metaphor at all, which is unfortunate.

In all, English and English are pretty similar. But perhaps the greatest difference of all is that when the British come to the United States, people swoon over their accents — there’s actually an ad for Las Vegas here that says “Visit a place where your accent is an aphrodisiac.” Sadly, the American accent in London doesn’t work that way.

Email Thomas Devlin at [email protected]

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