Linguist Lynne Murphy talks about American English versus British English

Lynne MurpheyLynne Murphy is a linguist and author of the blog Separated by a Common Language, where she tackles the divergences and parallels between American English and British English. With entries ranging from adverb placement, the use of please in restaurants, and cars that hoot versus honk, she reveals how our language differences can say a lot about our cultural differences as well.

Before we jump into the nitty-gritty (do the British use nitty-gritty?), tell us a little bit about yourself. What was your inspiration to start a blog like this? What fascinates you about these differences in Englishes?

In my professional life, I’m an academic linguist, so I can’t help noticing things about languages and how people use them. More precisely, I’m a lexicologist—my research is mainly about the structure of vocabulary. Getting a PhD in linguistics and declaring oneself a lexicologist is not the most straightforward path to employment. I went into the field with the knowledge that if I wanted to do what I love, I’d have to be willing to move for it. So, after growing up in New York State and getting my degrees in Massachusetts and Illinois, I took jobs at universities in South Africa, then Texas, then England. Each of these has involved linguistic eye-opening for me, but England has been the one I’ve stuck with and the one that coincided with the invention of blogging. I’ve been here thirteen years, become a UK citizen, and acquired a British family. The blog has been going since 2006, and it’s become increasingly clear to me that there are (and have been and will be) enough differences between British and American forms and uses of the language that I will never run out of material. What’s amazing is how there can be so much difference—in pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, and usage—and yet we still understand each other relatively well. Many of the differences are so fine that they’re not always recognized in transatlantic interactions.

Good job (or as the British would say Well done) spotting the Americanism in your question. Nitty-gritty is originally American, but it’s now just about as common in British English as in American.

Most people are familiar with, say, the o/ou differences (color versus colour) and the old standbys, such as elevator versus lift. But what are some more surprising differences between British and American English?

The rarer spelling differences often surprise—like mollusc versus mollusk (my UK spellchecker did NOT like that). But what fascinates me most are subtle differences in meaning and use. I was always disappointed when I ordered soup in England until I realized that while mostly the same things can be called soup in the US and UK, what we think of as “prototypical” soup is different. There’s a theory of meaning that holds that meanings are not represented in the mind as definitions, but as “ideal exemplars” or “prototypes.” That fits well with my experiences ordering soup. The American ordering chicken soup or vegetable soup expects a broth with stuff in it because our prototype for soup is something like chicken noodle. The British are not surprised to find that the whole thing has been put through a blender because their prototypical soup is more like tomato or cream of mushroom. (Britons would call some American soups broths or stews rather than soup.)

Blog and Twitter correspondents often pick up on differences that I might not have noticed because they are so subtle. One pointed out that a British newspaper had used disentangle when he would have used untangle. Both dialects have both words, but a closer look shows that American English distinguishes untangling as something you do to a single thing (like a rope) and disentangling as something you do to separate two things. British English uses disentangle like that too but also uses it as a synonym for untangle. This is the kind of thing that dictionaries don’t tell you about. They’ll identify the two meanings, but not that the dialects use them in different ways or at different rates.

The other surprising differences have to do with the use of words to effect politeness. There’s a tendency to assume that the British are “more polite” because they say please and thank you more. But if you look at what “politeness” means in the two cultures, you see that please and thank you aren’t relevant to politeness in the same ways. British politeness is often predicated on maintaining privacy and social distance. One says thank you a lot not because one is grateful, but to mark that both parties are playing their approved social roles in an interaction. (It thus takes five to eight thank yous to buy a latte in a British coffee shop.) Americans are more likely to consider people polite because they were friendly and helpful. “Friendly” does not come into the British politeness equation. They might be friendly, but that’s not the same as being polite. All this comes out in the differences in the use of “polite” linguistic forms.

What are your favorite and least favorite American word imports? And what words are Americans missing out on?

Sometimes it’s hard for me to tell what the imports are; my brain houses a transatlantic mush of vocabulary. There are Americanisms that annoy me whether they’re said by Americans or Britons, for example my bad. (Do women ever say that? To me it’s a frat boy thing to say.) A lot of British expressions are making their way into the US these days, so it’s harder to think of ones you’re missing out on, since they keep appearing. I like the false-modest expression For my sins (For my sins, I’ve been asked to do this interview.) Another useful one is the lurgy (or the lurgi) to mean a nondescript illness.

You dedicated a month to “untranslatables,” words that have no real equivalent in the other dialect. Why do you think some words or phrases make the leap between the two dialects and others don’t?

Some just aren’t going to be as useful in one as in the other. For instance, there’s a great British word jobsworth, meaning someone who sticks to their precise job description and does it uninspiringly, often getting in the way of progress. I have to say, you meet a lot more of those in the UK, in my experience. (Customer services is just not the same in the two countries—but maybe it could find a home in American departments of motor vehicles and such places.)

For others, the metaphors don’t really work. American tradespeople don’t tend to drive plain white vans so British white van man won’t travel well, and British sporting events don’t offer anything like rainchecks, so taking a raincheck on a meeting is often misunderstood when used here—with people thinking it’s some sort of compensation rather than postponement.

Other ones make it because they are useful or striking or just ubiquitous. Americans often like British words that they think sound “British,” like gobsmacked or (pardon me) wanker. An American expression that’s taken over here is Can I get a when ordering food or drink. A lot of people hate it, but American fast food culture and media seems to have brought it over.

When books make the leap across the Atlantic, they’re usually “Americanized” or “Britishized,” sometimes just by changing spellings but other times changing slang and other words. Do you think that it’s necessary that we do this? Do you think we should draw the line anywhere or at some point mark it as a translation?

I think it depends on a lot of things. There’s a toddler book that my daughter had in two versions—one was Ten Ladybugs, the other Ten Ladybirds. There’s nothing to be gained by forcing a two-year-old to engage with a dialect she’s not learning. If we changed nothing, some books would need glossaries, and for many fiction readers, I think that would be a distraction. That said, if you’re trying to create a sense of place, there’s no point in making a Yorkshireman sound like he’s from Ohio. In my experience, the Americanization or Britishization of works stays on the surface—changing spellings and some vocabulary while retaining as much of the original as possible. This isn’t the same as translation, where all the words need to be moved. If we were to really Americanize something—say, like the first season of The Office did with the original UK scripts—then you do need to credit the translators. But otherwise, it’s pretty much at the level of copyediting.

As the world shrinks through increasing international Internet contact, do you think the two dialects will eventually merge? If not, why not?

The Internet is not making us into one global community. It’s giving the opportunity for communities to arise that are not geographically bounded. For vocabulary, this has a couple of effects. First, some new vocabulary is hard to call “British” or “American” because it arose or was popularized in international online forums. Second, there’s a lot more opportunity to learn new words/expressions from other parts of the world and to find people to use them with. But that is just speeding up processes that were already there. English vocabulary is always in flux and always borrowing words from wherever it finds them.

But words are different from the rest of language. You get your accent and your grammar before you are literate and using the Internet, and your pronunciation and grammatical processes are much more subconscious than your choice of words. British and American accents are changing all over the place, and I can’t think of any vowels or consonants that are systematically becoming more alike. (Some individual words—like schedule—might become more alike, but this is a word change, not an accent change.) While we take on new words in order to enable better communication or to sound “cool,” the more subconscious parts of language are the ones that allow us to mark where we’re really from. Interacting with lots of Americans may very well make British people want to sound more British in order to distinguish themselves from Americans, and vice versa, in order to maintain our senses of place and self.

Finally, is it true that the British distinguish chips from fries?

Yes—and there are other examples like this. The linguist Alan Cruse has said that language abhors synonyms like nature abhors a vacuum. So when a language or dialect gets a second word for something it already has a word for, it has two choices: either get rid of one of the words or change their meanings so that each has a job to do. The British had chips for what Americans would call fries. Then McDonald’s came along and sold fries. British chips are generally thick-cut, so fries came to mean the thin-cut type sold by McDonald’s and similar places. (If you go to a French restaurant in the UK, they will call them frites, to show that they are thin-cut without associating their product with fast food.) Similarly, the word cookie is more and more common in the UK, but it would never refer to the hard, sweet biscuits that the British dunk in their tea (and Americans would call cookies). Cookie is used in the UK just for the kinds of cookies that have come over from America—the big, soft kind that are sold individually in shopping centers and coffee shops.

Lynne Murphy is reader in linguistics and English language at the University of Sussex and the author of the blog Separated by a Common Language.

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