This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, say potAYto, and language says potAHto.
Coming up in today’s show: Britain. The USA. United by a common language, driven apart by minor linguistic differences. We can’t even agree on whether pants are the garments you wear under or over your pants! How did it come to this, listeners? That’s the question we’re addressing today.
Thanks to Squarespace for sponsoring this episode of the Allusionist. Maybe you’ve been thinking, “The internet must be nearly full by now, right? Everything’s been done, so I should just put a lid on my brilliant idea and just live out the rest of my days quietly, thinking, "Oh, if only...” No! There’s still plenty of room for more ideas, so channel your thoughts and use Squarespace to build a website for them, get a domain, host your content, etc. The whole shebang. Visit squarespace.com/allusion for a free trial, and when you’re ready to make it official and launch your site, save 10% on your first purchase of a website or domain with the discount code ALLUSION.
On with the show.
LYNNE MURPHY: We mostly speak the same language, and that's obvious in the fact that we are having this conversation now.
HZ: Lynne Murphy is a professor of English Language and Linguistics at Sussex University. She writes the blog Separated by a Common Language and has a new book out, The Prodigal Tongue, all about how Brits and Americans use English differently.
LYNNE MURPHY: I'm from upstate New York and was educated in the US, but I've lived in the UK, particularly in Brighton, England for 18 years now; and so, as I go through my daily life, I notice a lot of differences between British and American English.
HZ: You heard Lynne Murphy on the Allusionist before, in the episode about the word ‘please’.
CLIP of 'Please':
LYNNE MURPHY: The theme of the posts by British people was, “If you don’t say ‘please’, you sound bossy,” and the theme of the American commenters was, “If you say ‘please’, you sound bossy.”
HZ: And ever since, I’ve been second-guessing myself whenever trying to be polite in the USA.
Now, one thing Britain and the US seem to have in common is the enthusiasm for noticing we use English differently. Every week my inbox is full of Americans asking, “Why did you British person say this thing which isn’t how we say it here?” and Brits saying, “Please confirm my prejudice about this which I perceive to be an Americanism.”
And yes, we’ve all noted by now that Americans don’t spell colour or neighbour with a ‘u’ because who needs it, and Brits snigger uncontrollably at ‘fanny pack’. We know American and British Englishes are different, but the question is “Why?”
LYNNE MURPHY: People will say to me, "Why do British people say this and American people say that?" and I'm like, "Well, because they learned English in different places." There's no real philosophical explanation for it. It's just that you learnt English around people who were saying one thing or the other, and it happened.
HZ: I’ve said before that a significant reason for differences is that there’s an ocean between us. Geographical separation enables separate evolution. But, there’s also an ocean between Britain and Australia, and Britain and Canada, and Britain and South Africa, and Britain and every other country that has its own strain of English. So why is it that the difference between American and British Englishes in particular seems so much bigger than the others?
LYNNE MURPHY: In terms of the language, in terms of how different they are linguistically, they are more different than the other ones; and there are a few reasons for that. One is the American English got started earlier than the other ones, so the first English people settled in what's now the US in the early 1600s; whereas it was the 1800s for Australia and South Africa. So you've got a 200- or 150-year head start for the language.
HZ: In the 19th century, the US and British English began diverging more when the physical distance between them grew greater as, in the US, people pushed west.
LYNNE MURPHY: Up until the Revolution, most people who were in America lived - 'most people', most white people, most Europeans of America - lived on the East Coast. And there were new people coming in from Britain all the time, so there was a lot of contact between Britain and America. And then after the Revolution, obviously there was less immigration; Australia was looking more appealing; Canada was looking more appealing. So we had less contact with Britain; and at the same time people started moving westward. And so as people moved westward, they had less and less contact with the book publishers of the east and the people coming over from England and all that sort of stuff. So they were moving west and they were very mixed group of groups of people moving west, so they had what we called 'dialect leveling'. They started talking more the same as each other and that sort of started sounding American. So they're moving west = more distance between Britain and America. And the other thing that's happening then is we start getting large numbers of immigrants from other parts of Europe - from Germany, from, later, Scandinavia, Ireland, Italy; and so with those people coming into the mix and English developing in its own way, there was a lot less attention to what Britain was doing
HZ: Coupled with a deliberate departure from what Britain was doing.
LYNNE MURPHY: You've also got the political distinction. So Americans are the only ones of those who fought a war against Britain to maintain their independence or to gain independence from them. And so that meant that Americans had more interest in distinguishing themselves from the British than say the Australians or the Canadians did. So from the beginning of the United States there was a push - it was always a controversial push, it did not happen quickly and naturally - but there was a push to make ourselves a bit different from Britain and you see that in the spelling system in particular.
HZ: So would you say that it's not necessarily the distinction that's important, it's just the fact that there is a distinction - that we want to maintain differences between our versions of English?
LYNNE MURPHY: Yeah, well, language is how we express our identity in a really really big way. You can express it by how you dress or what hobbies you have or things like that. But speaking is how you show you're from a place. And so we maintain the difference because we come from different places and we want to talk like the people around us, the people who are cool who are around us.
HZ: So there is a tendency to think our way is the correct way, and the other ways are deviating from the correct way.
LYNNE MURPHY: A very common idea is that American English is somehow the child of British English. But it's not. They're both children of a common ancestor.
HZ: When you think of it like that - how many of your distant cousins do you have as much in common with as British and American English do have with each other?
Each side of the Atlantic holds presumptions about the other’s version of English, for example in Britain, it’s common to consider what one perceives as Americanisms to be new and wrong, while Americans seem to think that British English is classier and more correct. (So we got lucky there.)
LYNNE MURPHY: Any English person who's been to America will have heard people say, "Oh I love your accent," “Oh that’s so sexy.”
HZ: That's my core market. If they ever get wise to the fact that we're not smarter and better because of the accent, my career is scuttled.
LYNNE MURPHY: So there is this idea that if you go to America with an English accent you will you know have 15 to 20 IQ points granted you without question, that you can talk your way out of anything, that you'll be treated extra special. But there is a sense that the British accent is somehow special: you can buy t-shirts that say "Everything sounds sexy in a British accent" or "everything sounds better in a British accent" which of course British people get upset about because they say, "Well, there is no such thing as a British accent.”
HZ: Britain: unable to accept a compliment gracefully.
LYNNE MURPHY: So there is that sense in America that the language does come from England, that maybe the English know better about it; that maybe the way we talk is ugly and that is something that has influenced America from the beginning, and our attitude toward English. So as I say, when American English started to change, people were very self-conscious about that; they couldn't really keep track of it because there were there was too much distance between Britain and America, and no Skype calls or anything like that. So they were worried - they were a bit worried that their English was changing, and throughout the 19th century the fight was still going on about whether to spell colour with a u. And a lot of Americans felt like it's not our language to play with; we should be respecting the language of Shakespeare and such. But what we have seen is that that attitude has been lessening and lessening. For one reason, there are a lot fewer Americans with British heritage than there were 150 years ago. So fewer Americans now have a connection to the old country. For many Americans, it's not the old country. So there's not the same British centrism that there was in the early days of America. But also, I think as the world has got smaller and we have been able to talk to each other more, you get to know people as people and not just as some sort of ideal. It’s not about living England; it's about loving an idea of England that you get on Sherlock and Downton Abbey and things like that. But as the world gets smaller and as we see more of each other and talk to more different people, I think those kinds of attitudes lessen a bit.
HZ: It's interesting the cultural exports that you mention, because those do seem to skew to particular echelon of Britain - Downton Abbey is squarely upper class. That's not most people's reality.
LYNNE MURPHY: Yeah, Downton Abbey is very upper class; Sherlock's very posh; James Bond, very dapper and debonair. But then you've got all these other imports to America from Britain, like Shameless, where instead of importing the British version, they've reset it - I think it's Chicago. There are a lot of things on British television about people who are not in the posh classes. But those aren't the things that are exported in whole. Americans like to hear the accents on Downton Abbey, but when it's Shameless or when it's Till Death Do Us Part - which was turned into All In the Family in America - then the accents become a bit more different, the social situation becomes harder to understand and people aren't willing to put in the work. In part probably because it doesn't fit their idea of what it's like to be English.
HZ: But, interestingly, there are several linguistic traits that don’t fit British ideas of what it’s like to be British, and thus are chalked up as Americanisms. The suffix -ize: that was the British spelling until the 19th century, when -ise started becoming more popular. ‘Gotten’ was the past tense of ‘get’ in Middle English, appearing at least 100 years before Europeans reached what is now the United States. Also from around the 14th century in Britain is the use of ‘mad’ to mean ‘angry’. But when the spellings alter or usage of a word tails off in Britain, but not in the US, then when it creeps back into Britain, people will often assume it’s a newfangled Americanism. This is an example of novelty bias.
LYNNE MURPHY: So novelty bias is that you notice things when they're different. We've all got a bias toward noticing the things that we don't usually hear, not noticing the things we usually hear, and then making stereotypes based on the things that are new.
HZ: Brits get furious about the idea of these foreign invaders, coming here like the grey squirrel and wiping out the home squirrel. But do you get that the other way round? Does the USA have similar resentment of Britishisms coming over to infect the vocabulary?
LYNNE MURPHY: There's a little bit of consciousness about what comes over from Britain in America, but mostly what people notice is British are the words that are sort of cute, like 'gobsmacked', or a lot of naughty words that come over from Britain like 'bollocks' and 'wanker', which Americans think are funny because they heard them on Austin Powers or something.
HZ: And to be fair, they are funny words… But not all funny words are British. For example: ‘bumbershoot’.
LYNNE MURPHY: Americans believe that 'bumbershoot' is a British word for 'umbrella', and that's why it's in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and that's why it's in the mouth of Daphne in Frasier; and we stereotype British people as saying 'bumbershoot', but of course British people have no idea what it means because it's an American word.
HZ: So the assumption is, if a word sounds silly, it must be from Britain. And even if the application of this maxim is not always correct, there is evidence for it in each country's respective terms for evacuating one’s bodily waste. As we don’t say in Britain.
LYNNE MURPHY: In terms of the bodily functions, yeah, you've got ‘wee’ and ‘poo’, which I think of as very babyish words; but grownups use them, they say, "I'm going for a wee; don't step in that poo." And in America you do have those kinds of things - or you have the sort of avoidance euphemisms like "I'm going to the bathroom" or "I have pain when I go to the bathroom", which is very clearly not about the journey to the room; it's about some physical act of evacuation. So yeah, the different slightly different kinds of avoidance. I mentioned the pee and poo thing because I was sitting in my doctor's office and there were signs there - it said ‘pee’ instead of ‘wee’, which I found interesting - but it said "If there's blood in your pee, tell your doctor immediately" and I immediately googled American public health signs to see what they said, and they'd say 'urine'. And instead of saying 'poo', they said 'stool'. So Americans were avoiding being crude by using these terms that you'd only use in the doctor's office; and Brits were avoiding being crude by using sort of cutesy baby words.
HZ: But as ridiculous as British English is characterised, Lynne reckons that Americans have an inferiority complex about their version of English.
LYNNE MURPHY: Americans are very conscious - well, not all Americans obviously, but probably the type who listen to your podcast - tend to be very conscious about linguistic rules. And so you do get tendencies to hypercorrection, like saying "between you and I" instead of "between you and me".
HZ: That example is certainly not exclusive to Americans - but hypercorrection is the assumption that there’s a more prestigious version of language than the one you’re familiar with, and in trying to emulate it you overapply or misuse the rules.
LYNNE MURPHY: But you also get a lot of rules in America that aren't really hard and fast rules in Britain: things like the rule in America that if you have a singular subject you have to have a singular verb - we always say something like "the band is breaking up" or something like that rather "than the band are breaking up" or "the band are on tour", which you'd hear a lot more of in Britain. Americans like to have one rule that does the job and not a lot of room for debate about which would be the right form. Another example of that is the which/that distinction, so that the difference between "I have a hamster that goes under the sofa" versus "I have a hamster which goes under the sofa." If you make the distinction, then the first one means I have a hamster, I might have two hamsters, one that goes under the sofa and one that doesn't; the other, I'm only saying that I have one hamster and I'm telling you something about it. So that's the difference between restrictive and non restrictive relative clauses.
HZ: Hi, British person here - er, what? Could you run me through that again?
HZ: I never learned that stuff in England.
LYNNE MURPHY: Yeah, but I was let known that if I wanted to sound like a sophisticated user of English, I had to make a distinction between ‘that’ and ‘which’. And that's a completely fake rule - so that was a rule an English style guide writer devised because he thought it would make English more elegant, and then Americans just took it to town; and so American make the that/which distinction, especially in printed writing, much much more than British people do; and British people are either unaware of the distinction or that a distinction can be made, or just don't care, because it's not how people talk - and you don't have to learn about English because you'll already know English. Americans like to have these books that tell them, "You say it this way and you don't say it that way. You say ‘the team is’, you never say ‘the team are’." Whereas British style books will say, "Well, ‘the team is’, ‘the team are’, it's hard to tell; there's no real rule. You just have to have an ear for it, and otherwise, well, it's a bit of a mystery and maybe you'll get it someday.” Whereas the Americans have this deep belief that you can always improve if you work hard. That's not necessarily the reason why you want to learn about grammar - you want to learn about grammar, for me, so that you can talk intelligently about paragraphs and things like that; when you come to have written something, and need to have a conversation about how it could be better. That does help. But also you want to learn about grammar because, my God, this is the most central part of being human, using language, and why wouldn't we want to understand it better.
HZ: Despite their differences, British and American versions of English have both been extremely successful languages since they sprouted from their shared root. But how are things looking for them in the future, Lynne?
LYNNE MURPHY: We saw, in the 19th century, English made its mark very much through the British Empire, and through the United States becoming an English-speaking nation and becoming a very populous one. So it's called, the 19th century, the British century - the British English century. American English really came into its own in the 20th century, became powerful then because of television, film and that sort of thing, and the American economy more generally. And then as we go into the 21st century, the number of English speakers speaking it not as their first language, from other countries than these two, is greater than the numbers speaking as the native language. And so those are the English speakers who will be taking English into new directions now and who are increasingly speaking to each other without Americans or Brits as middlemen, who are making an English that can be considered a sort of world English. And when people talk about how they often worry that that means that the traditions of British English and American English are going to be lost: they won't. We'll still be speaking the way we speak. But there may be might be a form of English, that is more accessible to more people, that you might hear more of on the international news or things like that.
HZ: And this is nothing to panic about.
LYNNE MURPHY: English deserves our love, but it doesn't deserve our worry, because it does take care of itself and we should just admire it and see where it goes and and appreciate that it doesn't have to be just one thing.
HZ: Lynne Murphy’s new book is The Prodigal Tongue: the Love Hate Relationship between British and American English.
LYNNE MURPHY: Unless you live in America, in which case the subtitle is The Love Hate Relationship Between American and British English.
HZ: Of course.
This episode of the Allusionist is sponsored by Babbel, the number 1 language learning app in the world. You can learn fourteen languages via Babbel - including French, Russian, Norwegian, Turkish - and indeed you can learn both British English AND American English. Also Babbel tailors its language tutorials according to your native language, because they know that the way an English speaker learns Spanish differently to how a Portuguese speaker learns Spanish. Clever stuff! You can learn via Babbel on their website, or their Android and Apple apps. The lessons are interactive and only 10-15 minutes each, so easy to fit into your day. And you get 50% off your first 3 months when you go to babbel.com/allusion and use the discount code ALLUSION.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best podcasts in the world. Including Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything, of which a new series has just started, Benjamen goes deep into the real and the fake, how we got to where we are and how we can live with this new reality. If it even is real. I can’t trust anything anymore! Well, I can trust Benjamen Walker to make something fantastically original and entertaining, even if it makes me too paranoid to sleep. Find Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything, and all the Radiotopian shows, at radiotopia.fm, where you can also seek out tickets for the Radiotopia tour in May, to see Benjamen and me and a clutch of other Radiotopians performing a live extravaganza in cities in the eastern USA.
Radiotopia exists thanks to you kind listeners. Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
vigesimal, adjective: relating to or based on the number twenty.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with Martin Austwick, who also makes the music you hear on the show. Find allusionistshow on Facebook and Twitter, and as spring is springing, why don’t you get an Allusionist t-shirt from chopshopstore.com? Over on the Allusionist website there are links to the live events I’m doing - come to see me in June in Sydney. There are also transcripts of each episode. There is additional material about every episode topic, and a photo of the full dictionary entry of the randomly selected word of the day, if you want to check the spelling. There are links to lots of different ways to hear the show - by the way, if you listen via the Apple podcasts app, make sure to keep your subscription alive because if you don’t listen to the most recent four episodes, it stops updating your feed with new ones, and I keep hearing from listeners asking if I retired. I’m not ready to retire. You can find me keeping on at theallusionist.org.