Monica Fairview’s Post: Anglophiles Beware!
Many of you will have seen the media uproar that followed the “revelation” that Jane Austen didn’t know how to spell. My response to the whole uproar is very well expressed by Mark Twain, who unfortunately didn’t like Jane Austen (to say the least), but I won’t hold that against him: “I don’t give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.”
The bottom line is that we have to remember that language is in a constant state of flux, and that the whole concept of standardized spelling only came up when Johnson published the first authoritative dictionary of the English language in 1744. Even so, the dictionary was not widely available as it was very expensive. It must have been very confusing, having spelt (spelled?) things one way all your life, to suddenly no longer be allowed to chuse (choose) how to spell your words just because someone came up with a dictionary.
The issue of different standards strikes a familiar chord for me because I have to deal with it constantly as an author who has one foot in the USA and the other in the UK. Going back and forth means switching between the two forms of English and struggling to remember the rules for each.
I can tell you, at times the randomness of it all seems totally mad (meaning insane).
For example, the British version of “The Other Mr Darcy” (or should it be single quotes according to British usage?) has no full stop (translation=period) after Mr. because that is the norm in British English. Now this may seem like a minor point (literally) until you are asked by your American editor (as I was for my story “Nothing Short of Fairyland”) to add a dot after each Mr.. I tried to do this the easy way by using the find/replace commands and ended up with dots all over the manuscript (called typescript in British), particularly after Mr.s.
It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, why these random rules get applied one side of the world and not the other? I can understand this happening in older forms of writing, but why does it still apply, for example, to newer forms of writing such e-mails? Why do the British have no comma after addressing someone in an e-mail:
Dear Mr Bennet
but Americans do?
Dear Mr. Bennet,
I like to make up my own reasons (to keep me sane). For example, in the days of typewriters, Americans could be more extravagant and use up more ink, whereas the British, following post-war frugal practices, rationed their punctuation whenever possible.
I’ve been talking about more subtle differences between the two languages. But Anglophones, beware! There are bigger pitfalls awaiting you if you try to switch between languages. This is particularly striking when it comes to everyday items like clothes, food and common objects.
Do Americans, for example, really still use blackboards in classrooms? My British-speaking daughter didn’t know what those were. Here teachers and pupils use whiteboards. British schoolchildren wear plimsolls or trainers for their PE so they can’t sneak up on anyone, and they rub out their mistakes with rubbers, not erasers. Oh, and by the way, they study Maths not Math, which I suppose means they get more of the subject. State schools are public schools in America and private schools are public schools in England. Go figure.
What about jumpers and cardigans? A jumper could be a pinafore or a sweater, depending where you live. A cardi is – well, a cardi – a jacket I suppose. A rain jacket is an anorak or mac. Tights are panty-hose (without the British-inspired dash) and in many schools they wear polo shirts for their uniform which don’t have roll-down collars and have nothing to do with turtles.
Crisps are chips in America, but British chips are French fries. Zucchini is courgette, squash is marrow, while eggplant may resemble eggs (???) but it’s really aubergine. And for those of you who are Louisiana residents out there, you may be chagrined to find that your gumbo is made with lady’s fingers.
In America you take the ramp off the freeway whereas in England you take the slip road (hopefully not slippery) of the dual carriageway. If you walk on the pavement in England that’s perfectly normal (sidewalk), but not in America, since it’s the middle of the road. In England a car with a hood is a convertible, whilst an American car’s hood is a bonnet (which makes you wonder about bonnet-dramas).
My favorite (favourite) of course is pants, as it seems all Americans like to walk around in their (male) underwear, particularly when they’re also wearing vests (another form of underwear).
It might have been fun to see Mr(.) Darcy in his pants and vest, though.
So when they tell me Jane Austen didn’t know how to spell, I can’t help but think: that’s the least of our problems, thank you very much, mate. I’m much more concerned whether what you think you understand in America bears any resemblance to what you think you understand this side of the pond, or vice versa. If that makes any sense at all.
To help me preserve my sanity, can you tell me some of the differences you’ve noticed between the two languages?