Saturday, October 14, 2006

On the 'English' Language

My husband is British. Welsh, to be exact.

I don't mean this is the sense that you so often hear people who are native to America speaking of themselves as 'Italian' or 'German'. When my brother and sister-in-law announced that their daughter was getting married, somewhere in the conversation it was mentioned that her fiance was Irish. I expected a skinny, rosy-cheeked man wearing track pants and sporting a lilt. Turns out he's a hulking red-head from Long Island. A bit of free advice from someone whose maternal ancestors were old Yankees already in the early 1600s, and who on her father's side is the grand-daughter of Ukrainian immigrants who went through hell to get to these shores so that I could live here - face facts: If you were born here in the States, you're an American. The rest is detail.

But my husband really is British, right off the boat. Or the aeroplane, if you will. Welsh, to be exact. Please, I beg you, do not call him English. Please don't ask him if he's from Australia. Have a heart for the woman who has to listen to him expound on your ignorance after you've gone.

Reading over my shoulder, he asks me to let you know that he in fact supports Wales, and anyone else who is playing against England.

One of his favorite jokes is to say that we are two countries divided by a common language. He also says that he and I get on well because he speaks a bit of American, and I speak a bit of British. This is partly aided by the fact that we both are avid readers of mysteries. But the funny thing is, while he likes the hard-boiled American detective stories where things blow up, people are shot and there are dismembered bodies strewn all over the landscape - each described in loving detail - I prefer what are called 'village cosies'. This is a particularly British form of literature where there is a body, but it's over on the other side of the room partly hidden by a divan. It is of someone who in life was a perfectly reprehensible cur and like dog sick on the carpet, we don't look at it too closely. We just try to figure out who put it there.

The nice thing is that I now have a translator for things such as Cockney rhyming slang and other forms of British-isms. It is rather convenient when reading in bed at night to look over to the next pillow and ask, Honey, what does it mean when they say they're going to have a butcher's?

For my part, I think the Brits have quite a way with their native tongue. They are true artists of the form in the manner in which they name places and characters, the expressions that they use. Being an American - and especially being an American from New York - my spoken language has always been more direct and up-front. New Yorkers and Yankees (as distinguished from 'Yanks', which term Brits use to refer to all Americans, and not always fondly) like to get the business end of things out of the way, and we appreciate dealing with those who feel the same. We are raised on the ethic of 'I may not like what you say, but I appreciate your candor in saying it.' Not that our own language is without color of its own, mind you. But that color is usually blue.

When my husband and I first began our long-distance courtship I wanted to find a book for him that would describe the difference between American life and British. Some kind soul put me in the way of Bill Bryson, an American-born author who lived in the UK for most of his adult life before moving his British wife and children to the States. 'I'm a Stranger Here Myself' introduced me to one of the funniest writers who has ever made use of ink, and I have privately renamed another of his books, 'The Lost Continent' to 'I Lost Continence' because you do laugh quite nearly that hard when reading it. I had just started working in a new job when reading the former, and I know my co-workers thought me a bit daft when I sat in the back room at breaks, reading and laughing so hard that I was crying. It should be noted that my husband - who wisely has never tried to tell me what I could or could not do - has forbidden me to read anything by Bill Bryson while in bed, because I make the bed shake too much and he can't read or sleep while I'm laughing that hard.

If I have picked up the flavor of his language over the years, he has also picked up the flavor of ours. But one of my favorite memories of his adjustment to the American tongue is of one day not long after we were married, when he and I made a trip to the grocery store. We were at the meat counter searching in vain for something that we had seen advertised, when finally he rang the service bell in frustration. A young woman of the type of limited intelligence that is perceptable upon a single glance came out to the counter and asked if she could help us. 'We'd like the minced beef that is on offer this week for 99p', my husband declared. She stood and stared at him with mouth agape as though he had just started chanting in Tibetan while twirling about on his left heel. I looked at the two of them on opposite sides of the counter, staring at each other in frustrated consternation. Three feet away from each other and they couldn't have been further apart if he had been standing in the parking lot of another market, possibly even the car-park for Tesco's in Cardiff. 'We'd like the hamburger that's on sale this week for 99 cents a pound', I translated.

In a similar vein, it is wise not to refer to your fanny when in the UK. Don't ask.

When a woman in Britain is being an absolute witch, she is called a stupid cow. If she is a twit, daft cow. If it seems as though it costs her 20p every time she smiles, miserable old cow (to which I add for her male counter-part: miserable old coot). If however, she is charming, funny, endearing and just a bit eccentric in a good way she is called by a more affectionate term. My license plates were a gift from my husband, and they read: SLLYMOO.

And yes, I do say to-may-to while he says to-mah-to. And we haven't called the whole thing off yet.


Blogger Vivian said...

I can just pass out laughing, with your (or shall I say, your DH's) "minced beef" engrained in my head.

I'm Chinese, as in, born and raised in China, taught BBC pronOUnciation in English class. Imagine the shock wave I sent when I first arrived in California, with my mouthful of British English and heavy Chinese accent. I failed to understand why.

5:06 PM  
Blogger Vivian said...

Lynda, I keep coming back to this blog cause I can't get your (or rather, your DH's) minced beef out of my mind. I was taught English in China with BBC pronOUnciation, so imagine the looks I received upon my arrival in California. Newly off the plane Chinese person scoring British English in heavy Chinese accent. I failed to understand why.

You have a way with words. I hope you are working on another article for the blog while you are not busy translating for the husband.

9:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Lynda:

Bill Bryson is the best author in print! I'm on a mission to read everything he has ever written.


3:39 PM  

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