SUSIE DENT: There never has been a golden age when everything was as it should be ever. Even though we tend to think that English is now at its most dumbed down, always; I think every generation has thought that.Read More
Growing up in England reading American books and watching American films and TV, I deduced that 'pants', 'biscuit', 'chips' and 'fanny' don’t mean the same in the US as they did at home. But I thought I was on familiar ground with the word ‘please’. Technically ‘please’ does mean the same thing in both places, but I had absolutely no idea it is deployed quite differently on our respective sides of the Atlantic.
Until the piñata of my ignorance was smashed open by linguist Lynne Murphy, who has been researching ‘please’.
LYNNE MURPHY: Several people have observed that the British say ‘please’ twice as much as Americans do. But they generally hadn’t looked at if there was a reason for that, other than assuming the British are more polite - more particularly, the English are more polite than Americans. So we wanted to go in and look at when British and American people are using ‘please’, and see if it’s just that Americans don’t bother so much, or are they using the word for different jobs?Read More
Most of the questions I get asked about the English language can be boiled down to this: why is English such an idiosyncratic mess? And why has nobody tried to sort it out?
Well, some people did kind of try. For hundreds of years, English had been a swirling concoction full of Latin, German and French thanks to all the invasions of Britain, plus words English had nicked from other languages, all refusing to behave regularly or obey rules consistently, and riddled with silent Gs.
300 or so years ago, some decided they had HAD ENOUGH.