It’s time for another of my 20 Books of Summer now and what a good read this was. I’m having a bit of a non-fiction July so far but I find non-fiction so varied and entertaining, from dinosaurs to language variants in two books, for example. This one was a no-brainer for me to pick up, as I enjoy reading the author’s Separated By A Common Language blog: when she mentioned it on there, I snapped up a copy, although it’s then taken me over a year to get to reading it. As a US-English to UK-English localiser, I was going to find this particularly interesting, and I found it so both professionally and personally.

I’m constantly on the listen-out and look-out for new language variants (just the other day I came across “five and a half pounds” when talking about money, which I’m assuming is a British Midlands expression by the producer, but I’ve never heard it before as far as I can tell) and reading this historical and contemporary survey was a real joy.

Lynne Murphy – “The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship between British & American English

(29 March 2018)

Fun fact: this book’s subtitle in the US is “The Love-Hate Relationship Between American & British English”, and the two editions have been copy-edited according to the two traditions, for each region. And yes, I sort of want to get the other one, too.

This is an excellent book looking at the attitudes of British and American English users towards their own and the other language variant, written by an American-born professor of linguistics at a British university (and who better?). She makes it clear that the waters of what is actually American are far muddier than we think, makes an urgent case for tolerance and interest regarding the “other” English

What if instead of tutting, we marvelled? Humour me with that for the length of this book. Then, if you must, you can go back to complaining. (p. 4)

and explains with examples how American English really is not taking over British speech and writing. It’s peppered with anecdotes about her own struggles with bacon and soup, and with lots of linguistic and historical nuggets. I love some of the American coinages:

Recombobulation – The process of putting yourself back together after clearing airport security. (p. 45)

There are some really interesting comparisons with the only possible language pairs you can do that with: Brazilian and European Portuguese or Canadian and European French, and more usefully for me, learning Spanish from a US app at the moment, Latin-American and European Spanish, but finds this really is a special case. There is also some fascinating detail about how regional British dialects might have influenced American and even African-American Vernacular English. And I won’t forget in a hurry how American English is removing the French from English by tending towards simpler rather than fancy, Romance, terms, thus making learning English more democratic and less elitist. There are also some fascinating points about how US dictionaries are used by people in the US but not intended for export, whereas the British create many more learners’ dictionaries, leading to a muddle over which variant gets learned by people outside the Anglophone countries.

The section on words that exist in both languages but mean different things is hilarious, and there’s also a good case for words entering the other variant if there’s a gap, rather than taking over a word that’s already there – I hadn’t really thought about that and it makes a lot of sense. A quick shout-out here also for her mention of British Midlands speakers’ use of Mom rather than Mum, which does tend to get ‘corrected’ by those not in the know.

She makes the linguistics approachable by only introducing expert terms when she has explained them, and so it’s a friendly read with a refreshingly gung-ho attitude to calling out other style guides, books and articles on the topic. There’s so much in this book and I recommend it to anyone with even the slightest interest in language.

This was book number 4 in my 20 Books of Summer project.