TWO COUNTRIES DIVIDED BY A COMMON LANGUAGE
“Hi, folks. So, where are you guys from?”
“Well, we’re from Old England visiting New England.”
“So, you are here for the fall?”
“The fall? The fall of Man? The fall of the Holy Roman Empire? The fall of the interest rate? The fall of the government? The fall of the last wicket?”
It is untrue that our American cousins lack a sense of humour, but it was rapidly becoming clear that, though we were both speaking English, we were in effect speaking a different language. I was of course being deliberately obtuse – a conversational trait that, to the best of my knowledge, the Americans do not readily recognise – for I knew perfectly well that over there (we were on holiday in New England to experience the glorious colours of the foliage) they have a different word for ‘autumn’. In many ways I prefer the term ’fall’; it sounds more poetic. In fact, ‘fall’ was the original Anglo-Saxon word used for the season but owing to the French influence on our language after the Norman Conquest in 1066, we adopted the old French word for it, which derived directly from the Latin ‘autumnus’.
Which set me thinking….I had always believed that it was Winston Churchill who uttered the memorable phrase, “two countries divided by a common language”. After all, he would have been the prime suspect. As one of our wittiest prime ministers, he spawned a host of memorable aphorisms, some with his tongue firmly in his cheek and some holding a universal truth. Furthermore, and this is often forgotten, he was half American, so he knew of what he spoke. His mother, Jennie Jerome, an American socialite, heiress and noted beauty, had married Lord Randolph Churchill and when asked of the circumstances of his birth, Winston replied, “Although present at the occasion, I have no clear recollection of the events leading up to it.” Well, I did say he had a ready wit.
In all likelihood, Churchill did utter this phrase when he visited America during the Second World War to drum up support for the struggle in Europe but if he did, he was repeating the words of George Bernard Shaw, who had more than a few famous quotes attributed to him, but nobody seems to remember when and where he said this one. In fact, Oscar Wilde had made the same quip even earlier. On his American tour of 1887, he told his audience, “We really have everything in common with America these days, except, of course, the language.” No matter. Let us not argue over provenance of the phrase but its universality. It sounds like a truism, but is it?
We had returned to New England on a nostalgic trip to where we had spent a very happy year on a teaching exchange when the children were young. It was not long after we had arrived (the first time) that we discovered, far from sharing the same language with our hosts, every day was a minefield of linguistic booby traps. The explosion when a careless foot trod on one was unrestrained hilarity: “Oh, you Brits are soo cute!”
“Mom,” said our 5-year-old son on returning from the local kindergarten (it hadn’t taken him long to learn that), “Mom, I just godda Noddy note.”
“Have, you darling? How nice!” my wife responded, not a little touched that Enid Blyton had made her way onto a school reading list in the depths of Connecticut.
A couple of days later, she was phoned by Joe’s teacher.
“Did your son tell you about the Noddy note?” she was asked.
“Yes, that was very good of you. Noddy and Big Ears – who would have thought it?”
“No, Mrs Murder, I do not think you understand. It was a naughty note!”
I can’t remember the nature or the seriousness of the infraction, but it made us laugh then and it still makes us laugh now.
Our 8-year-old daughter at the same school, in a worthy attempt to make her feel included, was asked to clean the blackboard. She looked around for means to do just that. “Where’s the rubber,” Kate asked in all innocence. The rest of the class were not that innocent that gales of laughter did not break out. “No, Kadie,” her teacher patiently explained, “We call it an ‘eraser’.”
In order to augment our meagre income (the exchange rate was dire at the time), my wife worked in the school general office, the scene of many a humorous moment, largely brought about by this ‘common’ language of ours. She was instructed one day to put a check alongside a list of names. A check? Or a cheque? Was that a promissory note or a bill? At length the light dawned. “Oh, you mean a tick.” Several moments elapsed before her friendly colleague was able to wheeze, “No, Lin – a tick is what you get in your ears!”
This reminds me of an American mother of a boy at Malvern who was in the school shop kitting her son out for the cricket season. She went down a list of equipment she needed to buy for him, anxious that he should lack for nothing.
“Boots – check, I mean tick. Bat – check, I mean, tick. Gloves – check, I mean tick. Pads – tick! Helmet – tick. Now, what’s next? Oh, I see. I shall need a box to put it all in.”
Back to Connecticut…I had been tasked with running the girls’ Under 15 football team. I beg your pardon; I mean the girls’ sophomore soccer group. Given that the Americans call a coach a bus, I should have avoided the pitfall towards which I was inexorably heading. I had become a little irate at the time it took them to get changed and was anxious to get underway for the long drive back to school so as not to miss their supper. “Come on, girls,” I cried a little testily, “Jump on the coach!” They all fell about in mock paroxysms of shock and horror, as if I had let slip that I was in fact a bit of a sex pest.
I was attempting to ring my parents back in England, which involved some tricky communication with the lady on the school telephone exchange. Eventually, contact with the UK was effected. “Hi, there, Andy,” interjected the voice of our friendly telephonist, “You all good?” Politely, I replied, “Yes, thank you – I’m through.” With which, she promptly pulled the plug and much sought after contact with home was immediately lost.
Slowly but surely – our children were much quicker than us – we learned and adapted. The Americans kept a spare ‘tire’ in the ‘trunk’; we keep a spare ‘tyre’ in the ‘boot’. If an American is ’mad’, he is angry, whereas a Briton who is ‘mad’ is probably insane. If you are ‘pissed’ in America, you are taken as being cross, irate, our ‘pissed off’. If we are ‘pissed’, we are drunk, a state into which of course Americans never slip. If we are too drunk to make it up the stairs, we take the ‘lift’ to reach our ’flat’; an American ascends in an ‘elevator’ to reach his ‘apartment’. Incidentally, on our recent trip, I can’t tell you how many times we arrived down in the basement of our hotels, forgetting of course the ground floor is 1st floor. Anything below the 1st floor is where the car park is – er, sorry, the parking lot.
The point is that there are differences between British English and American English, which reflect the changes in language that came about once the 13 colonies decided to go their own way after 1775. The differences are many but minor. I have to admit that as a teacher of English in an American school for the year, I had consciously to refrain from underlining in red (actually, we were not allowed to use red ink - too aggressive, too condemnatory) when certain words appeared in written work: honor, color, flavor, labor, humor, traveled, maneuver, catalog and practice (the verb, though I know of plenty of British students who cannot differentiate between ‘practice’ and ‘practise’). Let us not be snooty or imperious about American spelling. More often than not, they have preserved the original 16th and 17th century spelling – and sometimes the meaning – whereas British English has adapted more readily to influence and change. Take for example ‘gotten’. Condescending critics berate the American use of the word as an ugly import, but as more enlightened students well know, ‘gotten’, the past participle of the verb ‘to get’, was the correct form in 17th century English. The Americans have preserved it in aspic; we have shortened it to ‘got’ (though the form still survives in certain cases, such as ‘ill-gotten gains’). As for the divergence in pronunciation….The way an educated American speaks is in many respects more archaic than that of the current educated Englishman, based as it is on the way the English were speaking in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Consider, by way of an example, the pronunciation of the word ‘taught’, a not infrequently used word in the lexicology of my profession. We sat ‘tort’; they say ‘taarght’. Or ‘cort’, as opposed to ‘caarght’. Perhaps it does my heart good to know that that American English would sound more familiar to Shakespeare than the vowels my mother drilled into me, to avoid speaking ‘common’, as she understood it. Pronunciation in the Mother Country has changed more than it has in its former colonies on the other side of the Atlantic. Why? Maybe it has something to do with the long tentacles of trade throughout the length and breadth of the British Empire, opening up the language to constant change, whereas the Americans had only to colonise their own continent – vast as it was - to fulfil their imperial ambitions.
Then there is the accent. Some people find an American accent grates, but I suspect that is more to do with America’s geopolitical status in the world order than linguistic snobbery. If the Australians, or the South Africans, or the West Indians, or the Indians were the so-called leaders of the Western world, as indeed Britain once was, no doubt they would be despised in some people’s eyes as much as the Americans are now. Once again, I am indebted to George Bernard Shaw for his observation on how people speak: “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” (Pygmalion, 1916). He was actually referring to speech within the British Isles, but it is equally true that anybody within the English-speaking world can open his mouth and his place of origin can straightaway be identified (and presumably hated and despised by somebody else).
There is a rolling cadence to American speech that I find beguiling, quite different to our more clipped dialect. Listening carefully to those Americans around me on our recent visit, I was struck by how infrequently they use the contracted form of the verb, whereas we shorten ours at the drop of a hat. Take, for example, John McEnroe’s infamous outburst at the umpire in the chair during the 1981 Wimbledon Championships. “You canNOT be serious!” he screamed. Not, “You CAN’T be serious!” as a Brit would have shouted (if, God forbid, a home-grown player had ever questioned an umpire’s eyesight). ‘Should not’, ‘could not’, ‘would not’, ‘shall not’ etc tend to elongate the sentence and provide the archetypal American drawl. This is yet again an example of American English remaining relatively conservative, whereas the educated English accent (generally called Received Pronunciation) has undergone considerable modification (just listen to those old recordings of BBC announcers).
I have to admit that there was something reassuring, half-closing my eyes, imagining that I was talking to William Shakespeare, our waiter at table, though I think the Bard might have been disconcerted by the concept of “building your own beef burger for breakfast, together with French fries”. Of course. Americans have French fries with everything. They discovered French fries while fighting in the trenches in Belgium in the First World War….and brought them back home with them. Together with something else.