Sunday, January 16, 2005

Separated by a Common Language

When I meet people here for the first time, they usually ask if I'm on holiday. My response is that I've lived here for about twenty years. The next predictable comment is something about how I haven't lost my American accent. I think I lost the Upstate New York nasal twang before I even left the 'States. Teaching English as a second language made me extremely conscious of my grammar, how fast I spoke and my regional accent. I spoke more clearly, slowed down, carefully chose or paraphrased and made an effort to speak through my mouth, not my nose. I was already ready for change.

If you want to fit into a culture, you consciously or unconsciously mimic the natives. (Guess I was successful when I lived in Germany; people used to stop and ask me for directions all the time!) Over the years, I've become bi-dialectal. That is, I understand both American and British. Unfortunately, many of our ex-pats have so little contact with real British people that they never learn the subtle differences. As someone said, we are divided by a common language.

Visiting tourists and unassimilated ex-pats stand out for many reasons, but in particular due to their lack of familiarity with British English. Busses are the ones used for local journeys only, including the double-deckers. Coaches are for long journeys. They’re usually bigger and have a toilet on board. That’s another difference. Americans seem somehow embarrassed to use the word toilet, the proper term for its use. Instead, we resort to euphemisms such as bathroom or rest room. (WC (water closet) is rarely used here any more.) If you go into a department store and ask for pants, you will be directed to the underwear department. Trousers are a kind of dress slacks worn by men. The British go on holiday, not vacation. At fast-food restaurants, you might order a side of chips, not fries. Crisps are thin, crispy fried potatoes in a bag which come in all kinds of flavours, including bacon, Worcester sauce, curry, cheese and onion, or beef. If you are travelling around greater London, you might take the underground or the tube. A subway is a tunnel for pedestrians to use instead of waiting for a light to change to cross the road. Calling someone implies shouting. Here, you say, "I’ll ring you tomorrow.” A substitute teacher is called a supply teacher. Q-tips are ear buds. To get your car inspected, you have to pass an MOT. You write with a Biro instead of a ball-point pen. A multilane, divided highway is known as the motorway, not a thruway. All numbered motorways have an M in front of the name: the M40, the M25, etc. Lesser roads are known as A-roads or B-roads. The word cottage implies something out of “Hansel and Gretel” to an American, but a cottage in the UK could be anything from a four-room terraced house (attached to the neighbouring building) to a four-bedroom country home. British homes may have a front garden and/or a back garden, not a yard. The sidewalk is referred to as the pavement. The black material in the road is called tarmac. I could go on and on...

Part of the delight of living here is that every day brings surprises. The language is USED so differently. It's like a razor-sharp sword. British humour can be very crude (Remember Benny Hill, Monty Python, Mr. Bean?) or incredibly intelligent and witty (I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, Not the 9 O'Clock News). Travelling around the country you can hear many regional accents and differences among social classes (unfortunately, still very evident). I am amazed by the practice of “Question Time” in Parliament where the Prime Minister has to respond to challenges each week from the opposition. They have to address each other as “The Honourable Gentleman”, but they hurl insults and cheer and boo across the house. At least there is healthy, open protesting by political opponents.

Perhaps it was the Liverpudlian accents of the Beatles whom I adored throughout my youth or my maternal grandmother’s Americanised Sheffield (South Yorkshire) accent, but I immediately felt at home when I first came to this country. No wonder it’s my adopted home. Change is good.

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