Have you ever thought why it is that in English speaking countries, our language is quite diverse? Howdie y' all, g'day mate, greetings my dear...I bet we can all make a stab at the origins of these phrases; perhaps be even more precise about location after a second glance and we might even wonder about the period of time.
If you haven't already read Bill Bryson's book Mother Tongue...and you are interested in syntax and lexicography...it's a great read.
Consider for a moment why we don't speak the same English from one side of the Atlantic to the other.
Bryson's take on the issue is that we, in Britain, developed and changed our language whilst the pilgrims, who took off across the Pond, kept the King's English as it was. This has resulted in differences in UK and US English which, nowadays, are drifting even further apart. That came as a surprise to me because I thought the New World would have been more responsible for new English. I also thought that with ease of travel, language might be more homogenised.
Certainly there are fewer differences between Australian English and British English than between American English and British English, because those who left to go to the Antipodes went later than those who deserted our shores for the Americas. By the time we were shipping convicts down-under, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, our language had already evolved a great deal, whilst in America people were concentrating more on building new cities and in moving the wild frontier than changing their mother tongue in a radical way.
Bryson cites Shakespeare as having had a great influence on our language but there was a host of others as well who rang in the changes. He reckons that the truth in his espousals come from looking at the language in old books and plays to compare how words grew and developed. How a play or poem, say, in 1550 might compare to a play or poem written in 1750 or in 1950 etc., will shine a light on how nations evolved in their speech. And he is not alone. As Bryson relates in his book Shakespeare:
'Spevack in his magnificent and hefty concordance - the most scrupulous, not to say obsessive, assessment of Shakespearean idiom ever undertaken - counts 29,066 different words in Shakespeare but that rather generously includes inflected forms and contradictions. If, indeed, you treat all the variant forms of a word - for example, take, takes, taketh, taking, tak'n, tak'st, tak't, took, tooke, took'st and tookst, his vocabulary falls back to about twenty thousand, not a terribly impressive number. The average person today, it's thought, knows about fifty thousand words. That isn't because we are particularly expressive, but simply that we have at our disposal thousands of common words - television, sandwich, seatbelt, Chardonnay, cinematographer - that Shakespeare couldn't know because they didn't yet exist.' (from Shakespeare by Bill Bryson)
A quick check of the Internet came up with phrases, we all use today, that were thought to have originated from Shakespeare's work. For example: 'seen better days, full circle, a sorry sight,' and 'strange bedfellows'. But, there are thousands more. He coined the words 'bedazzled' and 'lackluster', for example, or so I'm led to believe.
I have no idea how large my vocabulary is, and I wouldn't know how to measure it. I guess it grows with age and experience and then falls back a little when one's brain fails in its quest to pluck a cached word from the depth of somewhere unfathomable. This happens to me daily now that I'm in my sixties.
What is truly fascinating is that, having come late in life to writing, I have had a tardy insight into how diverse American and British English has become over the years. You may note that I said 'has become.' For American readers, I tend to avoid British/English that might be construed as Bad English. In B/E, I might have chosen: 'has got' but not... 'has gotten' - which is from over the Pond but, somehow, despite my British ear, actually sounds better!
You are taller than me! This is perfectly acceptable in B/E. We would only use ‘I’ if we continued the sentence. You are taller than I am. With the introduction of a new verb, we need I as the subject. If I am writing for a US editor, I would probably write,You are taller than I...but it sounds so wrong and my English grammar book agrees with me.
It’s not just grammar that differs. Leaving an American friend at the airport one day, I kissed her on the cheek and announced that I'd see her in a fortnight.
'A what?' she asked, bemused. Equally bemused, I asked her what her problem was. A fortnight is our word for two weeks, but it's not common in the US and she had no idea what I was talking about.
In the US, words that came along long after the Founding Fathers' arrival were absorbed into US/E. Words such as 'faucet', 'tuxedo', 'sidewalk' and 'overpass' are not often used in B/E. We would say, 'tap', 'dinner jacket', 'pavement' and 'flyover,' respectively.
I had never heard the word 'acclimated' and had to look it up. Of course, it's just our 'acclimatised' with a different ending.
We also have double ‘l’s, for example, in ‘travelled’ and often finish our words with 'ise' instead of 'ize'.
I organise things, but when I write this, I immediately get a squiggly red line underneath because my correctional facility doesn't like it if I’m using the US version, which I may or may not do for P&S depending on how the mood takes me.
Here are sample sentences in B/E using a US spelling/grammar check: I like to practise good behaviour but it doesn't always work. In my defence I live a colourful life and feel that I have a licence to bend the rules a little. Count: 2 sentences. 5 squiggles! The spelling is correct for B/E but not for US/E.
My editing for P&S goes the same way for irregular verbs, such as 'to spell' because in B/E the past participle is 'spelt' - not 'spelled'. We also have learnt, smelt, spoilt and spilt, but these irregularities are also acceptable in US/E - not squiggled at all.
Some time ago, I was asked to go over the written work of an American friend. This was a tit for tat arrangement since he also helped me with my writing. I rarely picked up any problems in what he composed, but I often noted an entirely different seasoning that can only be described as a cultural difference in his expression. His descriptions were pristine in their clarity and they demonstrated wonderful imagination and insight into human characteristics; I was privileged to be allowed to preview it.
However, we had a series of exchanges over his use of the verbs, 'to lay' and 'to lie'. I think that the verb 'to lie' is reaching extinction in the US.
He wrote, 'The rifle was laying across his lap...' I did my bit, as a nit-picking reader, and told him he was wrong to use the verb 'to lay' because that verb needs an object. For example: A hen lays eggs or I lay the table every day (simple present tense). Each sentence has an object. However, I lie down. I lay down yesterday. I have lain down for an hour already. There's no 'thing' as the object of these sentences, so the verb should be 'to lie'. 'Lie', 'lay' and 'have lain' all come from 'to lie'. (Present, past and pres perf). 'Lay', 'laid' and 'have laid' all come from the verb 'to lay' - the one that needs an object!
We had a few laughs because the verb 'to lay' has other connotations but he eventually changed the line to 'The rifle was lying across his lap.'
This made pedantic old me, reviewer with the Union Jack, a very happy bunny. His prose, under my scrutiny, now became a masterpiece of perfection in my opinion. I only made that one suggested change; the rest was mellifluous and engagingly faultless.
Perhaps it should have been left as the original, though, because despite American university websites saying it's a common mistake, my friend’s usage has become so well accepted that even CNN newsreaders use 'to lay' instead of 'to lie'. (I shout at the TV with a futile wail when I recognise to lie’s demise.)
Can you imagine Bob Dylan's 'Lay lady lay' as 'Lie lady lie... across my big brass bed'? I give the second 10/10 but I doubt that classic will change now.
In return, my friend drew my attention to a word I'd used in an essay. The word was 'whingeing'. It means complaining in a whining, spoilt brat way. It was new to him but I hadn't considered that it was a B/E word. It seems it is. It can also, interestingly, be spelt with or without an 'e' before the 'ing'. Another thing he pulled me up on was my spelling of tit-bit...he wanted me to change it to tidbit but the former is right in B/E.
As a Scot, I have a plethora of lovely words which I daren't use on P&S. Words like: 'thole' meaning to put up with or endure, 'glaikit' meaning vacantly stupid and 'gallus' meaning bold or acting like a rascal.
Interestingly, 'gallus' is from the same root as gallows, which is where we sent our criminals in days gone by.
Orig. derogatory, meaning wild; a rascal; deserving to be hanged (from the gallows). People would come out to be entertained by the fate of the poor unfortunate fellow who was to meet his death by hanging. They'd bring their picnics and make a day of it. How gruesome, but, nevertheless, true! This is the root of 'gala' - from a day of festivities at the gallows. Something to be remembered the next time we have a gala day.
The funniest misunderstanding happened to me a few years ago. I went to a wedding in China. The groom was an American gent in his fifties and his grown up daughters were guests. I found myself sitting next to one of them and she was a charming lady attired in an expensive looking short cocktail dress. She said, 'Dorothy, I had such difficulty knowing what to wear for Dad's wedding. He told me that he didn't mind what I wore as long as I didn't wear pants.' In B/E 'pants' are underwear - 'briefs' being an alternative word. He obviously meant 'don't wear trousers or slacks' but I thought he meant ‘don’t bother with underwear’ and there was a tiny gasp of surprise before I realised my mistake.
This made the 'fanny -packs for sale’ notice less shocking when I met with it in Florida. In B/E 'fanny' is our slang word for vagina. Seeing 'fanny-packs' advertised openly in shops in the US was pretty saliva spraying for me the first time I saw those words displayed!
Needless to say, I'm going to watch out for cultural differences which are not mistakes.
I haven't decided if 'off of' is a mistake or truly another difference but it has come up a few times. 'He jumped off of the bridge' sounds weird to me because the 'of' seems redundant. (off of is incorrect in American English - ed.) My resolution is to ignore this and pay more attention to the content!
Variations, within acceptable parameters, are just richly different building blocks in what is fundamentally the same language. My respect for my US neighbours is intact over most things, but even if we differ sometimes in ideology... or spelling... we also find other places to concur whole-heartedly and do so with lasting friendships. We cannot be issued from the same mould, nor would we want to be. (I thought I'd get another red squiggle here but the fickle checker is happy with mould instead of mold!) (P&S' s spellchecker shows one squiggle in two uses - ed.)
What can I say but vive la difference!
♦ Dorothy Taylor is a retired Scottish podiatrist who loves traveling and lived for many years with her engineer-husband in China.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.