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Crosspost – Lost in Translation: The 50 Americanisms That Annoy Brits Most

July 21, 2011

A crosspost from Tumblr–with some stuff added, as usual :)–since it seemed to fit in here.




As collected by the BBC:

14. I caught myself saying “shopping cart” instead of shopping trolley today and was thoroughly disgusted with myself. I’ve never lived nor been to the US either.

23. To put a list into alphabetical order is to “alphabetize it” – horrid!

36. Surely the most irritating is: “You do the Math.” Math? It’s MATHS.

#50 FTW.

[Angrily composing spirited, 700-word defense of the word “fanny pack”]

a.k.a., “When a history of colonialism comes back to bite you in the collective prescriptive arse”.

I’m a stigmatized-dialect-speaking American transplant to the UK, and mostly find this linguistic sibling-squabbling darkly funny by now. But, I can’t resist a few comments.

A lot of the entries are neologisms, many of which get on my nerves too. (Languages may evolve, but one doesn’t always have to like some of the directions of development. 😉 ) But, predictably, some are definitely not.

15. What kind of word is “gotten“? It makes me shudder. Julie Marrs, Warrington

27. “Oftentimes” just makes me shiver with annoyance. Fortunately I’ve not noticed it over here yet. John, London

That’s all of that group I felt like tracking down. See Chapter 5 (Archaic English Words) of H.L. Mencken’s classic The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States. The short answer to “What kind of word…?”: a classic English one, silly! OTOH, I just cannot bring myself to use “got” as a participle, since to my ear’s training it sounds about as literate as “brung”. *shrug* (And I am aware that both forms are legitimate even if you are a prescriptivist. It still sounds equally “wrong” on both sides.) A number of spelling differences–e.g., “colo(u)r”–are similar, with American English having kept an older usage than is current in British English.

Divergent development, and all that. When they increasingly converge again–as has been happening to some extent all along, but is easier with improved communication technologies–I have trouble feeling threatened by it. BTW, I do not have much patience for people raising the specter of American cultural imperialism in this context; AFAICT, none of my acknowledged ancestors was English (though between spotty/nonexistent records and bad colonial behavior, there may well have been some in the woodpile). And here I am using it as a first language, while being urged to “standardize” it in various ways depending on the setting. Sibling squabbles, indeed.

40.I am increasingly hearing the phrase “that’ll learn you” – when the English (and more correct) version was always “that’ll teach you”. What a ridiculous phrase! Tabitha, London

More ignorance, though there is the continuing North-South divide here. “Much of the local vocabulary is descended from Old English (Anglo-Saxon), but has changed or been replaced in other varieties of English further south. For instance, when a Geordie uses the verb larn, meaning ‘to teach’, it is not a misuse of the Standard English verb learn (c.f. modern German lernen), rather it is the modern reflex of the Anglo-Saxon verb læran, meaning ‘to teach’ (c.f. modern German lehren).”# That one did not need imported (though it may have been that, too, ultimately via Northern England).

ETA: I was wondering about that earlier, but did some Googling on the beforementioned “brang”/”brung”, which turned up as dialect forms. Indeed, they also seem to still be used in both Geordie and Scots dialects, and were transferred to North America from there. A too-common take in the US: “bring, brang and brung are common dialects used primarily in the illiterate south /  brought is the correct word to use.”–which is exactly what I was taught about that usage, if in a, erm, slightly more literate (if no less insulting) fashion. Yay, shibboleths! 😐 /ETA

39. My favourite one was where Americans claimed their family were “Scotch-Irish“. This of course it totally inaccurate, as even if it were possible, it would be “Scots” not “Scotch”, which as I pointed out is a drink.James, Somerset

See Michael Montgomery’s “Scotch-Irish or Scots-Irish: What’s in a Name?”. In brief: that was preferred usage when large number of Ulster Scots ended up in North America. (If you have no idea who Ulster Scots were/are, as a British person, you really need to read up on your history–less-than-pretty as the Plantation was all around.) At the time, they called themselves Scotch, which makes a big difference in my estimation. It’s kind of shitty to try to make their descendents change what they are calling themselves and their ancestors now, to bring it in line with preferred modern British usage.

Though it does still sound like some particularly vile blended whisk(e)y to me. *shudder*

Which brings me to a related point, which maybe doesn’t apply so much to that particular list, but definitely to a lot of usage differences which continue to get pointed and laughed at:

Lowland Scots came to speak one of the Germanic tongues of the Angles, which came to be called Scots.  Scots is a separate language that has influenced Scottish English and American English, as well as standard British English (words like burnbairn, etc.).  Today it is also called Lallans, from the English word “Lowlands.”

This language is also spoken in Northern Ireland, due to the heavy Scots and Scots-Norman presence in Ireland from the 1300s.  It is fascinating to read the New Testament in Braid Scots (one of the Scottish translations, or Lallans, another modern Scottish translation.

Related to the Scots language is the form of speech called Jordy (Geordie), in Northumbria.  Associated with the northeastern English city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Jordy is well-known and loved form of regional speech.  While sharing many characteristics with Lallans, which developed from the same Northumbrian Angle speech, it is now generally considered a dialect of English.

American English is especially influenced by Scots-Irish speech patterns, due to the heavy immigration from Scotland to America under the settlement policies of King James I of England and VI of Scotland and heavy immigration in the 1800s from both Scotland and Ireland.  This was greatly supplemented in the major northern and eastern US cities in the huge Irish influx following the so-called potato famine.  Appalachian culture and speech derive largely from Scots-Irish and northern English rural cultures and speech.

Bolding added; I left the previous paragraphs in as background. Also, when you look at that “heavy immigration…from both Scotland and Ireland”, you also end up with a lot of assorted actual Irish and Highland Scottish linguistic elements, from the mid-17th century on in some places. Which look like a heavier influence in the part of Appalachia I’m from, AFAICT; Highland Scots who spoke “English” at all when they hit the colonies would seem likely to have learned Scots instead, though. And I have written rather a lot here about the cultural influences being much more complicated than is generally acknowledged; the linguistic influences/local dialects coming from that also vary a lot, depending on who ended up clustered where. For instance, my maternal grandmother’s family really did include a number of “Scotch-Irish”, and they were using recognizable Scots grammar and vocabulary, while only 40 miles away or so my maternal grandfather’s older relatives used less obvious Scots but were peppering their speech with Gàidhlig and Tsalagi words and phrases. And younger family members have mostly been shamed and hassled into doing away with both (non/sub)standard styles of speech, for at least a few generations now. (While, stubborn person that I can be, it’s also made me want to learn both endangered languages, Gàidhlig and Tsalagi.)

My mom noticed a lot easier time understanding and getting understood by our Glaswegian (!) neighbor than the majority of people on the street when she was visiting here, both with turns of phrase and speech rhythm/cadence. Somewhat interestingly, my own (Virginia middle New River Valley) speech has apparently gotten read as Irish by a couple of rather hard-of-hearing older Irish people here, who just assumed I was also Irish, even after talking to them. (At least one Estuary English speaker said he could sort of see that, when I was laughing about one “Hmmph! I guess you can depend on an Irishwoman to help a person out!” interaction earlier that day.) And, I do seem to keep subconsciously doing the thing mentioned here, after he returned to the US:

Throughout my time in Sweden, I developed an uncanny ability to pick out English speakers. So much so that I could hear them over the din of my iPod on the subway. Unfortunately, this ability is now akin to being schizophrenic. I keep hearing voices, and they are all talking to me.

I keep getting false “American” triggers here from (especially Northern) Irish speakers, more than assorted Scottish speakers. When really listening, they don’t sound all that alike, but at some level, the rhythms and cadences are enough more similar that I pick up on it. That is also a good bit of the reason I have not been picking up much in the way of Estuary English in my speech after 7 years so far, to the point that people keep commenting on this: it’s just very, very different. Even though I usually tend to unintentionally try to match other people’s speech patterns. (ETA: That was also how I noticed just how much lipreading I had automatically been doing, with screwy auditory processing: right after I moved here, I had serious trouble understanding people’s speech for a while–with extra need for lipreading which just did not work well, as differently as people hold and move their mouths depending on dialect. This has all improved with time and exposure, though I am strongly considering trying to find a speechreading class now that I realize how much of it I do anyway.) Had we ended up moving to Dublin with Mr. U’s work after all, I suspect the accent-changing situation would have been different–and I suspect this speech-matching tendency may have something to do with maybe sounding more Irish when talking to Irish English speakers, yeah.

I know these differences in influence have led to (continuing) attempts to standardize certain “backward”, “uneducated” dialects out of existence, within the US–and within Scotland in the recent past, class-associated as dialect (still) is within the UK. I do find it interesting that the most perceived-as-Scots/Irish-influenced dialects among (Scots/Irish-influenced) American English are also among the most stigmatized. I also cannot help but think that this overall difference in linguistic influences before centuries of divergent development is also part of the transatlantic sneering factor. (The history of colonialism plays in both ways, within the US and from the UK.) See also 5 Reasons Why Some Dialects are Unpopular, which includes the headings: “Regional/Cultural/Ethnic Animosity” and “Divergence from prestige dialects”.

ETA here: There are some very good points in another Dialect Blog post, though: Americans: Intolerant of Regional Accents?:

Perhaps this speaks to a dirty secret: for all our friendliness, we Americans may actually be less tolerant of regional dialects than the British are. Given, we don’t mock you mean-spiritedly because of your accent. We just politely ask you to “tone it down.”…

America and the UK seem to be going in opposite directions. British accents are becoming more similar to one another while, paradoxically, the British public is tolerating regionalisms more. Meanwhile, American accents are becoming more fractured, while we cling more and more to “standard American English.”

Actually, speakers of some stigmatized dialects in the US will be outright mocked. I know I have been–besides running into the speech therapist in elementary school who considered my then-Southern West Virginia accent a speech defect to be corrected. While choosing to work in a closely neighboring area of Southwest Virginia, with a slightly different but similarly “bad” local dialect. *scratches head* (My parents were really thrilled when they found that out. And that is the main reason I haven’t been doing any videos: listening to my own voice recorded still gives me panic attacks, after some of her abusive “correction” techniques.) But, overall, yeah. I was glad to see that it wasn’t just me who found some of the “humorous” mocking and really horrible “comedic” impressions here more than a little OTT and mean-spirited, actually.

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