(Un)separated by a common language?

ENG 2016Blog post supplementary to an article in English Today written by © M. Lynne Murphy

Last night, I wondered ‘aloud’ on Twitter if British-American English dictionaries are the worst lexicographical products out there. This was after flipping through The Anglo-American Interpreter: a word and phrase book by H. W. Horwill (1939). At first, when I read Horwill’s claims that Americans ask for the time with What time have you?, I thought ‘Wow, American English has changed a lot since 1939’. But as I kept reading the unexpected items in the American column on each page, the British column sounded more and more like contemporary American English. I started to suspect something was amiss. And in the preface I found it: ‘The present book is an original compilation based on more than thirty years’ reading of American books and newspapers, supplemented by what the author has heard with his own ears during two periods of residence in the United States’. The author is bragging that he didn’t reproduce information from earlier works ‘without independent verification’. But did he get independent verification about the things he experienced with his own eyes and ears?

You and I have a great advantage over Mr Horwill, in that we live in the computer age. So we can do things like look in the Corpus of Historical American English (Davies 2010–) and see that the corpus has four examples of What time have you? between 1800 and 1940, but 219 examples of What time is it? We would not conclude that What time have you? is what Americans routinely said in 1939, but we might wonder if it was used in certain circumstances or regions.

I enjoyed finding this book and its oddities because it is the British mirror of a American book that I mention in my recent article ‘(Un)separated by a common language?’ (Murphy 2016). This is the first of a series of four pieces I’m writing for English Today about American and British Englishes: what can be studied about them and how we might think about them. The essay argues that American and British differences should not be dismissed as ‘minor and uninteresting’. Whether they’re minor or not depends on one’s standards for ‘minority’, but they’re certainly not uninteresting. What they are is misunderstood.

Like Horwill, the author of Understanding British English (Moore, 1989) was an enthusiast for the other country. She watched British television, read British and Australian books, and took two vacations in the UK where she acquired some British pen-pals. The book’s listing of British English vocabulary thus contains Australianisms, some misapprehensions of meaning, quite a few questionable part-of-speech judgements, and some words that are perfectly good American English (but apparently not used by Moore).

The problem for Horwill, Moore and many other interested observers of language, is that our experience of English is deeply personal (no one else has heard/read/said all the same words and phrases as you have) and we have a deep need to generalize and stereotype. If you phrase something in a way that I’ve not heard before and we have similar accents, I might think ‘There’s an expression I didn’t know’ or ‘Wow, isn’t she poetic?’ or ‘Hey, he’s saying that wrong’. But if someone with a different accent says it, we are apt to conclude ‘Oh, that must be how those people say it’. The fact is: it still could have been an expression I didn’t know. Or poetic. Or a speech error. And another fact is: I probably didn’t notice the dozens of earlier times when they expressed a similar notion using words I would have used.

We’re so confident that we know our own dialects that we are more than willing to make conclusions about others’. It’s not just enthusiastic-but-amateur dictionary-writers who do this. Articles in the news about Britishisms or Americanisms routinely misidentify the sources of words and phrases (for examples, see Murphy 2006–). Now that we’re in the information age, we have the tools to avoid these mistakes: well-researched dictionaries, accessible linguistic corpora, and the ability to ask people on the other side of the world whether they’d say X or Y—and to get an almost immediate response. It concerns me when those tools aren’t used.

So, before you conclude that that thing you heard on Downton Abbey is ‘how the British say it’ or that Americans ‘don’t use adverbs’ (see Pullum 2014), remind yourself that:

(a) you heard an individual speak, not a nation,

(b) your mind biases you to notice differences rather than similarities, and

(c) you could look it up!



Davies, Mark. 2010-. The Corpus of Historical American English: 400 million words, 1810-2009. Available at http://corpus.byu.edu/coha/.

Horwill, H. W. 1939. An Anglo-American interpreter. Oxford University Press.

Moore, Margaret E. 1989. Understanding British English. New York: Citadel Press.

Murphy, M. Lynne 2006. Separated by a Common Language (blog). http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com

Murphy, M. Lynne. 2016. (Un)separated by a common language? English Today, 32, 56-59.

Pullum, Geoffrey K. 2014. ‘Undivided by a Common Language’. Lingua Franca (blog), Chronicle of Higher Education, 17 March. Available at <http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2014/03/17/undivided-by-a-common-language/> (Accessed September 30, 2015).



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