08 October 2013

Our Common Language


by Dale C. Andrews


The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.

     George Bernard Shaw
     Attributed

We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.                                                             
                                                                                                                                                              Oscar Wilde
                                                                                  The Canterville Ghost

       For whatever reason, the language of Shakespeare seems to invite inconsistencies.  Writer H. Beam Piper has attributed this to the very foundation of the language:  "English is the result of Norman men-at-arms attempting to pick up Saxon barmaids and is no more legitimate than any of the other results."   While that might be a bit over the edge, we are still left with a perplexing language.  Bill Bryson, taking a more scholarly approach, has observed that "English grammar is so complex and confusing for the very simple reason that its rules and terminology are based on Latin, a language with which it has precious little in common."  It is relatively easy to find examples of the resulting inconsistencies.  "Debt," a word we likely adopted from the French, nonetheless carries a non-French silent "b," which tracks its lineage back to the Latin word "debitum."  And look at our simple rule that putting the prefix "in" in front of a word turns the word into its opposite -- inhumane, inconsistent, inflexible are examples.  So what about invaluable?  Such internal quirks in the language only intensify when those speaking it are geographically separated.

       Years ago, when I was in private practice, an attorney with whom I worked traveled to Japan to make a presentation before the board of directors of one of our major clients. The attorney was accompanied by a representative of the client, a Japanese man who had lived most of his life in the U.S. and, as a result, was well positioned to straddle the differences between the two cultures. After the attorney’s presentation the chairman of the board stood, offered his hand, and as they shook said “Thank you for the presentation. Our views are completely parallel.” After leaving the board room the attorney turned to the company representative and said “I thought that went really well.” The representative’s eyes widened. “How can you say that? It was a disaster.” “But,” the attorney responded, “the chairman said their views were completely parallel.” “That means,” the representative said, shaking his head, “that they never intersect.” 

       This anecdote is a bit afield from the Shaw and Wilde quotes set forth above, since the countries involved were the United States and Japan, but it still illustrates the point. Just as species of animals and plants evolve differently on different continents, so, too, words, each of which is a work in progress. 

       In the new novel Lexicon (which premises a world in which words are used for their magical powers by a group of wordsmiths referred to as “poets”) author Max Barry notes, for example, that the word “cause” is in the process of changing from meaning strict causation to denoting the causation of something bad. (He was the cause of the problem). And, as noted by Shaw and Wilde, the evolution of words can proceed differently in different regions, even those purporting to speak the same language. This can be true regionally within a country, and can become even more pronounced in different countries, geographically separated, that start off with a common language.

Barney and Clyde, Weingarten & Clark, Copyright 2013,
The Washington Post
       In the United States, for instance, the word “moot” is used to denote a settled situation, one that is no longer open for discussion. By contrast, in England an issue that is “moot” is one open for discussion. Similarly, when we “table” an issue in the United States the issue becomes off limits for discussion, whereas “tabling” that same issue in the U.K. indicates that it is next up for discussion. 

        Reflective of all of this, a short guide for the English speaker (both U.K. and American) has been circulating on the internet the past couple months that further defines the separation between the two English speaking countries. First reported in an article by Alice Philipson of The Telegraph, the chart might as well make a stop here at SleuthSayers as well. 

WHAT THE BRITISH                 WHAT THE BRITISH                 WHAT FOREIGNERS
            SAY                                          MEAN                                UNDERSTAND

 I hear what you say                   I disagree and do not want to            He accepts my point of 
                                                 discuss it further                               view

With the greatest respect            You are an idiot                               He is listening to me 

That's not bad                            That's good                                     That's poor 

That is a very brave proposal      You are insane                                 He thinks I have courage

Quite good                                 A bit disappointing                            Quite good 

I would suggest                          Do it or be prepared to                     Think about the idea, but
                                                 justify yourself                                  do what you like

Oh, incidentally/ by the way        The primary purpose of                     That is not very important
                                                 our discussion is

I was a bit disappointed that        I am annoyed that                           It doesn't really matter

Very interesting                          That is clearly nonsense                   They are impressed

I'll bear it in mind                         I've forgotten it already                    They will probably do it

I'm sure it's my fault                    It's your fault                                   Why do they think it                                                                                                                          was their fault?

You must come for dinner            It's not an invitation, I'm just             I will get an invitation soon
                                                  being polite

I almost agree                             I don't agree at all                            He's not far from agreement

I only have a few minor                Please rewrite completely                 He has found a few typos
comments

Could we consider some              I don't like your idea                         They have not yet decided
other options

       This helpful little guide can doubtless get you a long way in conversing on either side of the pond, but even it does not cover all contingencies. As an example, if you ask the clerk at the front desk of your hotel “to knock you up” just before breakfast the result is likely to be decidedly different depending upon which side of the Atlantic your hotel is located!

       All of the foregoing examples focus on words that have evolved different meanings in different regions.  But that is not the only problem.  Even when words retain a common meaning pronunciation differences can render them unintelligible to those in different regions.  One of the best detective series that has been broadcast in the last year has been Broadchurch, which aired on BBC America.  Half way through the series, having been unable to understand some critical exchanges, I found that the best way to watch this English language series was with sub-captioning turned on.  And one can encounter similar dialectic challenges without crossing the Atlantic.  Last year I went into a liquor store in Gulf Shores, Alabama to purchase some scotch.  I handed the clerk my Mastercard and she looked at me and asked "Daybit?"  I was perplexed, but only for a moment, before replying "No.  Credit."

      Having led off with Shaw on the difficulty of maintaining a common English language, we might as well let him have the last word as well. With a little help from Lerner and Lowe, that is . . . .


6 comments:

David Dean said...

Very good, Dale, and very funny, too! I'm not taking up speaking English anytime soon, though. It's too darn hard. I'm sticking with American!

But for anyone who appreciates the English language written well, check out Dale's latest in the current issue of EQMM--great writing and great mystery. But if the clues were "fair play", Dale, how come I didn't figure it out?
Never mind, do not answer that.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Good one, Dale. LOL re the Norman men-at-arms and Saxon barmaids. As for the list, it lacks a column for Americans. I found some of my interpretations fit into what the Brits really mean and others into the "foreigners" column.

Dale Andrews said...

David's words are very kind.

But, my story aside, there is a great reason for all to secure a copy of the December EQMM -- David's moving story "Jack and the Devil," which is featured in the issue.

Writers are like Stanislavski method actors -- everything we go through, no matter how painful, we retain, and catalog,against the possibility of using it later. David's portrayal of the agonies of hospice care, both for the patient and for the grieving care providers, rings completely true, and is wrapped around a compelling mystery.

One of the great things about EQMM (and AHMM) is that they provide broad venues embracing the full range of mystery stories. Room for fair play along side a theological thriller.

By the way -- the intro in the December issue to my story notes that my first Ellery Queen pastiche, "The Book Case," garnered second place in the EQMM 2007 readers' choice contest. It was David who secured first place for his story "Ibrahim's Eyes."

John Floyd said...

Fascinating column, as usual, Dale. I love these discussions of the quirks of language.

By the way, sincere congratulations to you AND David. What a great track record both of you have, at EQMM.

Dixon Hill said...

Great post. Loved the list -- and the barmaids! LOL

Your "day-bit" story reminds me of the time I was home on leave, and my dad said my bank had called about an electronic transfer I'd requested. Dad said, "Your banker, Karen, called."

I thought a moment, then asked, "Did she call and say: 'Hey, this is Kay-em,'?"

He nodded.

"Yeah, Dad," I said, "Kay-em is North Carolinian for Kim, not Karen."

Fran Rizer said...

Dale, I enjoyed this so much that my blog next Monday will be a spin-off.