London: Divided By a Common Language


Illustration by Grace Halio

Noah Webster was responsible for many of the American changes to the English language.

Thomas Devlin, Staff Writer

I like to think I’m pretty good at English. This isn’t bragging, because 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 because there are countless dialects. I know Massachusetts English best, and will fight anyone who insults 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 the bastard child of German, Latin and basically the language of any traveler passing through England. The English language is constantly changing spatially and temporally because we absorb words we like from any language we please. Any English-speaking region has 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 that.

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 “jail” as “gaol” or “theater” as “theatre.” But excluding his many flops, the “American Dictionary of the English Language” set us on the path to American English.

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 the question “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 idiomatic language. One thing I was dying to ask a British person was weather they used the baseball metaphor. The one for sex, I mean. I thought they wouldn’t because their only sport with bases is cricket, and that only has two bases. 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.

All in all American English and British English are pretty similar. But perhaps the greatest difference of all is that swoon over British accents — there’s actually an ad for Las Vegas here in London 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].