Two Countries Separated by a Shared Language

Date Created: 13.11.2013

Some thoughts on language from a British ex-pat living in the US:

If British, on moving to the US you may be astonished to discover that people genuinely cannot understand what you are saying and will listen intently to you, often with their heads tilted to one side. Speak slowly. No, slower than that. In time you will learn to soften your Ts and be more easily understood, although ordering water may remain a problem for years. Sometimes you will think that you have been successfully communicating with someone who has appeared to be listening closely to what you have to say, only to have them respond, “I’m so sorry, would you mind repeating that, I was busy listening to your lovely accent”.  Depending on where you come from in the UK, as you become more easily understood you will soon be identified as South African or Australian. Tempting as it is, do not respond to this by asking where in Canada they come from.

Sometimes it’s not the actual words used which cause confusion or misunderstanding, it’s the way in which we use them. In my experience, it is possible to cause much confusion as a Brit in the US by attempting to be wry. An automatically and authentically dry and playful British response to an American enquiry is very likely to be met first with a pause, and then a genuinely thoughtful and concerned response. Americans are naturally upbeat and humorous people, but everyday American humour tends not to be dark or sardonic: people will naturally misunderstand you and then get tangled up in their good manners attempting to respond appropriately. Your explanation that you were only joking will continue the confusion.  Practise in advance your response to, “I just love British humour, I have all of Benny Hill…”.

Your first experiences will be at the airport. US Immigration Officers are extremely professional. However they do not have a sense of humour. Never attempt to joke with them. In particular, if you are re-entering the US on an accompanying partner visa without your spouse and you are asked, “Will your husband be meeting you in Arrivals?” do not playfully reply “I damn well hope so or there will be hell to pay” unless you wish to be diverted to an interview room where your right to enter the country alone will be established excruciatingly slowly.

More confusion of intention: you don’t mean mad, you mean crazy. Mad is angry. If you are pissed (never pissed off) you are angry, not intoxicated.

Same word, different sound: in America Craig is pronounced Kreg and Graham is pronounced Gram. Just so you know. Saves confusion at the school gates. And at the supermarket, when you are trying to track down Gram’s Crackers which are the sweet biscuits, not in fact crackers at all, which your son liked at someone else’s house. Or, indeed, Golden Gram’s cereal which strictly should not be classed as a breakfast food. When fighting the hopeless battle against wildly over sweetened and coloured American breakfast cereals in your new home, remember that you are looking for granola not muesli. Oh and whilst at the supermarket, which incidentally is the market, not the supermarket, never, ever offer help to the checkout clerk who is packing your groceries. This is an entirely unexpected and frankly unwelcome intrusion; you are the customer and they are providing a service - they are likely to think that you are being critical of the speed at which they are working.

More services: in America a general builder is a contractor. A decorator is not a painter and decorator, a painter and decorator is a house painter. A decorator is an interior designer. Confusion over this point may prove expensive.

More useful American home improvement words: polyfilla is spackle (my personal favourite) and a rawlplug is a wall anchor.  A plug for your bath is a stopper. Actually it’s a stopper for your tub, as your bath is your bathroom. If you attempt to buy a bath plug you will be sold an insulated rubber electrical plug. When asking directions to the spackle in Home Depot (that’s an American B and Q equivalent and that’s a long E in Deepot), “in back of you”, or “in back of me”, means behind you. Or me.

Manners and language: Americans are extremely polite people. Brush up your manners. They are, however, sometimes very direct, particularly in a service situation. This is not rudeness. Do not insist that your children continue to say “please may I have…” or, “I’d like…” in restaurants or fast food establishments, you are only making them more different and awkward. Remember, they are already struggling enough with people asking them to say, “I can’t believe it’s not butter..” simply for the entertainment value. (Try this in both accents in your head). No matter how jarring it is to the English ear, the correct phrases are “I’ll take…” or “I’ll have…”. No rudeness is meant by this and no offence is taken.

Going native: When I first lived in the US, my British friends and I used to be very struck by the massed sound of ‘home’ as we arrived back at Heathrow airport on leave. The sound of thousands of Brits speaking English in an airport arrivals lounge is very different to the sound of thousands of Americans speaking very nearly the same language, and in your early years this sudden immersion may well make you feel rather emotional. Added to that, everyone you speak to understands everything you say. First time! And if they are looking intently at you it may well be because you are speaking a little slowly and they are being kind…

Of course what happens as the years go by, is that that same homely sound will slowly start to seem loud and jarring and hard-edged. One day you will fly back into the US to find that you feel suddenly comfortable as the soft, musical sound of thousands of massed Americans talking all at once, flows gently over you. And the polite, efficient and immaculately dressed immigration official will check your residency visa and say, without a hint of irony, “Welcome home ma’am…”