Writing British English & Writing American English

Someone asked me a while back if I would ever set a novel in the U.K.

I’ve been tempted. I even have the first few scenes of one on paper. (Yes, paper. You remember paper. It’s that stuff the kitten chases when you crumple it into a ball.) If I’m smart, or at least cautious, a few scenes is as far as that novel will go. Because it doesn’t take long before I/you/whatever writer we’re talking about here comes to one of those spots where British and American English branch off in different directions and chooses the wrong path.

A good copy editor could save our writer, but a good copy editor doesn’t always pop up at those forks in the road, so the writer marches bravely off in the wrong direction and ends up wandering through the wilderness. Days later, she stumbles into town, having missed a few meals and sporting twigs in her hair and mud on her clothes.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Fast Eddie attacks the laundry basket. I'll impose a short moratorium on cute kitten photos after this.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Fast Eddie attacks the laundry basket. I’ll impose a short moratorium on cute kitten photos after this.

Where was the copy editor? Semi-comatose at the computer. Or firmly rooted in the wrong version of our shared language. I’ve been a copy editor. We can’t be specialists in everything. We do a bit of fact checking, but nothing guarantees that we’ll check the right facts. And a word we recognize as right? Unless we’re fully bilingual in English, we won’t stop to question it.

When you’re paid by the word, you don’t have time to ponder deeply.

So I don’t assume a copy editor can save me. Whatever version of the language I write in, I’m responsible for getting it right.

I’m not a careless listener. When I started writing fiction, I trained myself to hear not what I thought people said but what they really said. Because speech isn’t even close to the English that we’re taught is correct, and nothing sounds as phony as characters speaking in perfectly formed sentences. I used to listen to snippets of conversation and then write down as much of them as I could remember, paying attention to word choice, to unpredictable phrases, to pauses, to the ways people waited each other out and cut each other off, to run-on sentences and sentence fragments, to the genuine and glorious insanity of the spoken language.

A high point in my eavesdropping career was a conversation between a Minneapolis cop and a man—white and presumably drunk, although I couldn’t swear to that second part—who was lying on my neighbors’ front lawn. The cop was trying to persuade him to move on, and the man, by the time I started listening, was sitting up and holding a hamburger in the air like Exhibit A.

They said a few words back and forth, then the man was on his feet and heading down the street and the cop yelled after him, “I’m gonna come to your house and sit on your lawn and eat hamburgers. See how you like that.”

It was a mix of things that made this memorable. The “and…and…and” rhythm of the cop’s comment. The “see how you like that,” which made him sound like a twelve-year-old. But mostly it was the sheer craziness of a cop, with his gun and his club and the full weight of the law’s machinery on his side, threatening to sit on someone’s lawn and eat hamburgers.

I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote down as much of the exchange as I could, because if I let it wait I wouldn’t believe I was remembering it accurately.

So, there’s my proof—my hamburger; my Exhibit A—that I’m not an untrained listener. Move me from Minnesota to Cornwall, though, and my carefully tuned ear goes off key. I do listen to the Britishness of British speech, and I keep a mental list of phrases I love, because even the clichés sound fresh to me. Someone says, “Oh, she’s away with the fairies,” and I laugh as if she’d invented the phrase. I’ve been hearing it for nine years now, but it still makes me picture fairies.

M. has two stock phrases that sound fresh to me, although I know she didn’t invent them: “He’s all talk and no trousers” and “she’s all frill and no knickers.”

When we bought our house, we asked a different M. to give us some advice about the garden. She showed us a broken pot with blade-like leaves growing out of it, which had been left behind.

“If you have to have these,” she said, “make sure they stay in the pot. Those,” and she pointed to some other plant, although I can’t remember what, “are invasive, but this is a thug.”

I laughed and got one of those blank looks you get when you’ve laughed at the wrong thing. She wasn’t being immensely clever. Thug is a category of plant that any gardener here recognizes—one step worse than invasive.

So yes, I listen and I appreciate and I remember. But I still hesitate to write either Cornish or more standard British dialogue. Sure, I can tuck in a phrase or two, but after that? I’d write something I think is neutral and without knowing it rely on something hopelessly American. Because it’s not the phrases you hear and remember and are delighted with that matter. It’s the ones you don’t hear. It’s the times you don’t stop to question yourself but turn out to be writing your native English instead of that other, related language.

I catch British journalists doing this when they interview Americans: “I just reached into the drinks cabinet,” they’ll have someone say. Into the what??? We don’t have drinks cabinets in the U.S. We have— Wait a minute, what do we have? Liquor cabinets? I never actually had one, so it’s not a phrase that has much life in my mind and I can’t remember what to call the damn things.

Let’s fall back on another example. A while back, I read an interview in which some American actor talked about his mum. His what? Americans have mothers and moms and mamas, but we do not, in any regional or ethnic accent I ever heard of, have mums. But it’s what the writer heard because it’s the word the writer uses. We translate without noticing.

I love running into stuff like that. It makes me feel gloriously smug. Not because I couldn’t do exactly the same thing but because this particular time I didn’t.

For a post about paying the tax on my car, I wrote about being in the post office and trying to conduct a bit of business that we couldn’t finish and couldn’t abandon and if you ever want to bring a small post office to a halt, talk to me because I know how to do now. After what seemed like forever, I was able to step aside and the woman behind the counter called out—

What the hell did she call out? At first I wrote, “Can I help the next person?” I was pretty sure that was wrong, but I left it because it got the job done.

The next day, hesitantly, I changed it to, “Can I help?” and then to “Can I help who’s next?” which is a weird phrase, and grammatically strange enough for me to believe I didn’t invent it, but I checked it with a friend anyway, and she confirmed it: That’s what the woman would have said.

So I got away with it, but I hesitate to write more that a few lines in any of the many versions of British. Because it’s not the stuff you hear that trips you up but the stuff you don’t hear. The stuff you take for granted, that your brain translates automatically. It’s the drinks cabinet. It’s the mum.

Accents: Brits sorting Americans from Australians

A while back, I mentioned that I’m sometimes asked if I’m Canadian. When your accent stands out, people feel free to ask questions. Sometimes I’m fine with it, sometimes I’m tired of it, and sometimes when no one comments I wonder why they haven’t noticed. I mean, here I am talking in this improbable accent that I have and nobody’s saying a word about it. I might as well be giving an impassioned political speech wearing a rabbit costume.

Which I should probably try some day.

Sometimes, though, the comments get strange.

Gloucester

Irrelevant photo: A view of Gloucester, from the path to the Cheese Rolling.

Wild Thing was in a store, winding up whatever business they’d transacted, and as she got ready to leave the kid working there said, “Say it.”

“Say it?”

“Go on, say it.”

He was almost begging.

“Say what?”

“G’day.”

So she said, “G’day?” Complete with the question mark, because how could she leave it out. It stood in for, “You do know that’s Australian, right?” as well as “You do understand that this isn’t an Australian accent, don’t you?”

“Brilliant,” he said. Which the American side of my brain still misunderstands as gee, you’re smart, even though the side that tracks British usage knows it’s just an indication that the speaker’s happy.

He was happy. Ill informed, but happy. Why interfere?

*

And in case you wondered why I posted two pieces at almost the same second on Tuesday, it’s because I screwed up. I’d scheduled one in case I didn’t finish the Cheese Rolling post on time. When I did finish it, I rescheduled my backup post, or I thought I did, but clearly I was wrong. Apologies. I do know most of you have other things to do in the course of a day other than read me. Although I can’t think why.

Strange stuff non-Brits want to know about Britain

Two stray questions about Britain that people have asked me to address, which I’ll group together because they’re 600% unrelated: kinky sex and the letter U.

 

Are the English particularly kinky?

Katie Powell wrote, “I want to know why English folks are so kinky.” I asked her to be more specific and she answered, “The Brits exude this very staid exterior, but then there is the underbelly of kinky sex — maybe the kinkiest in the world? Not violent or dangerous, just kinky . . . .”

Sadly, I’m not willing to do any original research on the topic. Nope, not even for my blog. A few other things I won’t do, in case you need to know about them: I will not eat haggis in order to tell you what it tastes like. Not particularly because it’s haggis but because it involves meat. You can get vegetarian haggis, but that’s like vegetarian bacon—it is vegetarian but it’s not bacon, so it’s not much use if you’re trying to report on bacon. I also won’t get stinking drunk so I can find out if the tendency of drunks in this country to sing is cultural or due to some mysterious influence of the geography. So, sex in the British Isles? It does go on. I’m sure of that. But Wild Thing and I have been together for—wait, let me wrestle with a few numbers—38 years now. That’s long enough, really, for a person to make a commitment to a relationship. To get comfortable in it, and not want to wreck it. And then there are my own tastes to consider (which, forget it, you don’t need to know about, and very probably don’t want to).

cut kitten picture

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Fast Eddie and the laundry

I can report that back in the Stone Ages, when phone booths were the kind of thing you found on any city street, lots of London phone booths were plastered with stickers advertising sexual services designed for specific tastes–mostly S&M, at least as I remember it. I’d never seen the sex trade advertised that way. Does that mean the tastes of actual people here are kinkier than they are anywhere else? I haven’t a clue. Maybe they’re just out in the open more—although I’ve known some Americans whose interests were far from white bread and who had a lot more to say about them than I, for one, wanted to hear. They didn’t plaster them on phone booths, but then they weren’t in business, so they had no reason to.

So this separates into two question: Is there a difference in kink level? Do different cultures channel their kinks in different directions? It’s also possible that the definition of kinky is worth some thought. It assumes there’s a standard practice out there, and I wonder how standard anyone really is. I haven’t a clue, but I’ll leave you with that thought and move on to a question where I can be more useful.

 

History of the letter U in British and American English

Once upon a time I knew who asked me about this, but I didn’t paste either the name or the link into my notes, and although I swam back through the comments trying to find where it came from it, it was too far and I sank. That’s me you’ll notice on the bottom of all your insightful, hysterical, wonderful comment threads, blowing the last electronic bubbles out of my lungs.

Bad blogger.

So I’m going to be rude and not acknowledge the source of the question.

However. Someone asked me to write about the history of the letter U in British and American usage, and if you’ll let me know who you are I’ll provide a link to your blog. In the meantime, the tale takes us back to two of the most influential compilers of early dictionaries.

When the British first settled in North America, English spelling was still fluid. You went to school, you were issued a toolkit with 26 letters, and as long as another person in possession of that same basic toolkit could figure out what you meant, you were free to spell a word any old which way you wanted. I may exaggerate a bit, but not much.

It was Samuel Johnson, in the eighteenth century, who’s usually credited with (or blamed for) standardizing English spelling, although—as is usual with this kind of thing—there was a general movement in that direction and rather than creating the momentum himself he rode in on its tide. But still, if you don’t like the U in British spellings of words like favour and honour, Old Sam Johnson’s your bad guy. Up until then, English had used  -our interchangeably with -or.  According to an article in Bartleby Johnson “established the position of the u in the –our words. . . . Other lexicographers before him were divided and uncertain; Johnson declared for the u, and though his reasons were very shaky and he often neglected his own precept, his authority was sufficient to set up a usage which still defies attack in England.”

He was so knocked out by the U (which I’m capitalizing and the Bartleby entry doesn’t) that he tried to introduce translatour, emperour, oratour and horrour. Oddly enough, although he kept exterior U-less, its opposite was interiour.

Johnson’s reasoning was that the -our form acknowledged modern English’s French roots. If you know any French, you’ll have noticed that the argument’s shaky. French uses -eur, not -our: honeur; faveur. But never mind, an argument doesn’t have to make sense to be effective. British English is firmly committed to sticking a U into any word it possibly can. And, hell, they’re free, so why not?

If Johnson’s usually credited with standardizing English spelling, Noah Webster’s usually credited with divorcing American spelling from its British ex, although here too other people were already agitating for that and he too rode a tide he didn’t create. The United States was a new nation. It wanted a new culture. You know what it’s like: You have a revolution, you rename the streets, tear down the political statues, replace the schoolbooks.

Webster came down heavily on the side of simplified spellings, and his early books deleted a lot of the language’s silent letters: the B in thumb, the O in leopard, the A in thread. You could cut a 300-page book down to 150 pages if you kept that up. Also the K that was then in frolick, the spare L in traveller and jeweller. He transposed the -RE in words like centre.

“Those people spell best who do not know how to spell,” he said. Or quite possibly wrote. But let’s not split hairs. The point is that they were spelling phonetically and logically, and he set out to follow their lead with spellings like wimmin, tung, porpess, and fantom.

They didn’t all catch on, and as a result generations of schoolchildren toddle home with spelling lists to memorize for no better reason than that they’ll look ignorant if they don’t spell the words in the approved way. Think what they might have time to learn instead if our language made sense.

George Bernard Shaw, in demonstrating the need for rationalized English spelling, is said to have argued that, given the rules of the English language, you should be able to spell fish ghoti: GH as in tough, O as in women, TI and in nation.

Don’t use that on your standardized exams, kids. The people who mark them won’t be impressed.

British and American English: The Easter update

The Methodist Church in our village has its annual egg roll at this time of year, and you need to understand that this is an event, not something to eat. If it was something to eat and if we were speaking British, it would be an egg on a roll. If we were speaking American, it would be a deep-fried appetizer from a Chinese restaurant—what the British call a spring roll. But no, this is more along the lines of the Gloucester Cheese Roll, only without insanely steep hill and the ambulances. And the cheese. It’s a bunch of kids rolling eggs down a hill. The one who reaches the bottom first (or at all, since chickens never designed their eggs for racing) wins. I’m not sure what the prize is. A deep-fried appetizer from a Chinese restaurant? An egg sandwich? A chocolate bunny?

I’ve never gone to the event, but I was specifically invited the year A. was a judge. Unfortunately, I got sick and stayed home, and that left me free to imagine it any way I want. What I imagine is that Easter in Britain is about rolling an egg down a hill.

Irrelevant photo: A tiny waterfall. Looking at this, you can almost believe the legends of fairies and little people.

Irrelevant photo: A tiny waterfall. Looking at this, you can almost believe the legends of fairies and little people.

In its more commercial form, Easter’s also about chocolate eggs, and these are massive things—not American football size, but moving in that direction. All your childhood dreams of greed, shaped like an egg. The Guardian (that’s a newspaper, in case you need to know) likes to compare the prices and qualities of different brands of food, and this year’s chocolate Easter egg comparison shows that some of them get into silly money territory. Hotel Chocolat? £27, and it’s filled with smaller chocolates.Harrods? £29.95. The paper recommends that one for Russian oligarchs, who aren’t known for their sense of humor so let’s assume the paper’s not making fun of them, and for safety’s sake neither am I. Marks & Spencer has one for £40 and that kind of money buys it its very own link. (FYI: Links here are not for sale unless I’m making fun of something at the other end, in which case no one’s likely to offer me money. I am so pure I’m almost invisible.) M & S’s egg is a “giant golden lattice egg with a delicate show-stopping small egg perched inside. . . . Because they’re so special, we’ve only made 7,500 eggs, each one numbered on the presentation box for an extra touch of luxury.” And then you eat the sucker and it’s gone, leaving you with nothing but that numbered presentation box and a bunch of adjectives. Spend enough money and you get a lot of adjectives. The original copy had even more, but I’m still an editor at heart and just had to cut some. And in case you’re worried, the gold is edible. Which is another adjective but an important one The Guardian doesn’t specifically recommend this particular egg for Russian oligarchs. I’m not sure why.

Back in the land of the sane, you can find chocolate eggs in supermarkets for £5, or for £2.99.

And we still haven’t gotten to chocolate bunnies. I’ve seen these in two sizes: nestle in your palm size and coffee mug size. I brought a small one home from a grocery shopping trip and Wild Thing reports that they’re good.

In the U.S., you can’t make your way through a store in the weeks before Easter without tripping over egg-dying kits. Or—well, I assume that’s still true. It’s been a long time since I’ve been around, never mind at Easter. In Britain, though, making Easter eggs from actual eggs don’t seem to be a big thing.

And this seems to be a leap, but it’s not: When I first started to write fiction, I wrote a transparently autobiographical story about my Jewish atheist family that included the sentence, “We celebrated Easter.”

My father read it.

“We never celebrated Easter,” he said.

I think that, in his quiet way he was scandalized. He was also, in my opinion, wrong.

It’s true that we didn’t celebrate it in a religious way. But we dyed eggs every year, and found people to give them to (who may have wondered about them but were kind enough not to ask). My brother and I woke up to Easter baskets—jellybeans, a chocolate rabbit (in my memory, they were huge), a panorama egg with a sugar shell and little cut-out figures inside, small chocolate eggs in foil wrappers, all of them nestled in fake grass.

Give a kid candy like that and she’ll think it’s a celebration. Add dyed eggs and, yes, you have a holiday. Sorry, Dad.

It didn’t turn me religious, but it did leave me with a fondness for chocolate bunnies, even though I don’t eat them anymore. I worked in a candy factory when I was in my twenties, and it left me immune to candy’s lures. The one exception is good, and very plain, dark chocolate. But I do like to see chocolate bunnies in their gorgeous foil wrappers.

I can even get sentimental about jellybeans. They never did taste good, but I ate them anyway. Like Everest, they were there. How could I not?

So if you celebrate Easter, happy Easter. And if you don’t, I can still recommend the chocolate bunnies. They don’t care what you believe.

Comparative swearing: U.S. vs. U.K.

In a comment on “More about manners in the U.S. and U.K.,” Karen at Fill Your Own Glass [sorry, everybody; that’s almost the end of the links] wrote, “My impressions have been created solely by movies, but I have believed that people in the U.K. are less inhibited when it comes to cursing and talking about sex.” (She went on to say that it was an insightful post, but I wouldn’t want you to think I’m the kind of person who’d mention that.)

I haven’t a clue whether her impressions are true. What fascinates me about the comment is how you’d measure either.

late winter 002

Near Minions

Let’s say we want to compare how inhibited or uninhibited people are in talking about sex. I mean, I want to be scientific here. How do we compare passing references to serious what-I-did, what-I-didn’t-do, and how-I-feel-about-it conversations? Do we measure in frequency, in length, or in depth?

No puns, please. We’re being scientific here, so settle down in the back row.

If we’re talking about a serious cross-cultural comparison of swearing, how do we balance frequency against intensity? How do we measure the weight do various swear words carry?

People I know here (and it’s entirely possible that my friends swear more than the average Brit) say “bloody” fairly often. How often? Oh, you know, often enough. (You can see why I never became a scientist, right?) But how intense a swear word is bloody? I’d always heard that it’s religious—actually, sacrilegious—in origin and assumed that it packed quite a punch. But a Wikipedia entry raises several milder and way less interesting possibilities. My Dictionary of British Slang and Colloquial Expressions calls it simply “an intensifier,” which makes it sound mild to the point of insipidity. Of course, I once heard a linguist talk dispassionately about the way Americans use the word fucking as an insertion. In fact, he called it “the fucking insertion,” which both illustrated how it was used and cracked me up for weeks afterwards. From this I gather that linguists, like all scientists, whatever their passions, prefer to present a dispassionate surface.

I’ve heard bloody said often enough that it’s made itself a home in my head, and it’s trying to push its way into my speech. It wants to be said, and I want not to say it. Not because I don’t swear—I do, and without being immodest here, I do it well—but because I don’t have a sense of its proportion, its weight, its impact. I don’t like to throw things until I can gauge their impact.

Besides, with my accent it’ll sound very odd.

So there you are, folks. Comparative swearing. I look forward to hearing what you have to say on the subject.

Measuring time in the US and UK

When I was fielding comments about the insanities involved in figuring out what I weigh in the U.K., I caught myself just before I wrote that at least we all measure time the same way.

Are you sure? I asked my more-than-usually bewildered self. I imagined someone jumping out the magic surge of the internet to tell me that yes, the hour has sixty minutes everywhere but the minutes are longer in the U.S. Why there? Because everything’s bigger in the U.S. Or that’s what people in Britain tell me. Houses, rooms, scones, the spaces in our parking lots. People. So wouldn’t it be just like us to want a longer minute?

It might, but as far as I know the minute really is the same everywhere. And no, Americans don’t all live in mansions any more than the British all live in castles, although the scones and the parking spaces really are bigger. And some of the rooms and houses. I’m not sure about the people.

Irrelevant photo: freezing fog on Davidstow Moor.

Irrelevant photo: freezing fog on Davidstow Moor.

What were we talking about?

My point about time is that we may measure it the same way, but someone always finds a way to complicate things. Usually me. A few years ago, I was working out a time to pick up M. for—I think—a movie.

“A quarter of,” I suggested.

“What does that even mean?” he said.

“A quarter of six.”

Then I realized he wasn’t asking about the hour, he was asking about the quarter of part. I tried translations.

“Five forty-five? A quarter to? Fifteen minutes to six?”

He shook his head.

“But what, grammatically, does it even mean?”

Well, it means a quarter of, obviously, and I had to say the phrase one more time to realize that it doesn’t, but any sort of logic, mean a thing. A quarter of what? Of nothing. It’s just what we say. We know what it means, so what’s your problem?

On the other hand, the British say “half six.” That’s three, right? No, that’s six-thirty. What, grammatically, does that even mean? About as much as a quarter of. But if you’ve grown up with it, it makes all kinds of sense.

Mercifully, no one’s come along to divide the traditional clock into a more rational system—ten hours, 100 minutes. You know, something easier to calculate with. Because some of us would convert to the new system and some of us wouldn’t and we’d all fight about it, and we’re having enough trouble as it is.

British and American English: Talking about tea

Tea isn’t just a drink here, it’s a meal and a marker of class. (You’ll find lots of those if you know how to look.) If you’re working class, tea is the evening meal and dinner is lunch. If you’re upper class, the evening meal is supper. Are you still with me? You won’t be for long, because A. adds, “But we all say supper now.”

Who’s “we”?

Sorry, you’re on your own there.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. He doesn’t care what the meal’s called.

And in case this isn’t confusing enough, I’ve read that all this turns into its opposite in other parts of the country, so you have to know where someone’s from to know what they’re eating. Or drinking. Or talking about.

Wild thing was on the phone with H. and invited her to stop by for tea after something they were doing together. H. told us later that she hung up the phone and thought, I wonder what I just got invited for? Because Wild Thing and I don’t play by the same rules as anyone else does, so who knows what we mean when we say “tea”?

We sure as hell don’t.

Everyone seems to agree that afternoon tea (as opposed to just plain old tea) is afternoon tea—you know: a cup of tea and a little something—but if you want that little something in the morning it’s either morning coffee or elevensies. Morning tea? Sorry, there is no such thing. It’s morning coffee. And if you don’t drink coffee? No problem. You can get tea. But it’s still not called tea.

British and American accents: Talking trash to an I-Pad

M. and Wild Thing and I were trying to figure out what time it was in Singapore. You know how sometimes you just need to know that kind of thing? So Wild Thing grabbed the I-Pad she bought last week and said, “Hey, Siri.”

“What?” M. asked.

“She has an imaginary friend,” I said.

“I’m talking to Siri,” Wild Thing said.

My point exactly.

In extended and increasingly colorful ways, M. and I said, “Sure you are.”

Irrelevant photo: Our dog, who's real, even if she looks like a windup toy

Irrelevant photo: Our dog, who’s real, even if she looks like a windup toy

“Siri?” Wild Thing repeated to her I-Pad.

She might as well have been talking to the teapot. So while M. and I discussed the nature and uses of imaginary friends (in increasingly colorful and bizarre ways), Wild Thing—in the bits of air time she managed to snatch from us—explained that she’d set Siri up to have a woman’s voice and an American accent but that she’d reverted to being a British male—and a posh one at that.

Trust Wild Thing to have an imaginary friend with a sex change and an ambiguous national identity.

Because of the new accent, Wild Thing said, Siri couldn’t understand her, and that was why she wasn’t answering.

Unless he wasn’t answering. I don’t want to be insensitive, but this sex change business gets confusing when you’re dealing with invisible friends and virtual beings.

But forget about gender—it’s simple compared to accent. To what extent is an invisible British friend able to understand an American accent? I mean, just how parochial is she or he? And if the American accent’s a problem, is he or she (or, well, whatever) able to understand a working class British accent? Or a Welsh one? Or—well, you get the point: How narrow a range of tolerance are we talking about here? What happens if you have, let’s say, an Iranian accent in your English? Do you have to, and for that matter can you, set up your invisible friend to have her (or his, or whatever’s) very own Iranian accent in English?

I haven’t been impressed with the breadth of understanding demonstrated by virtual voices. We were in New Zealand once, and Wild Thing was on the phone with a computerized system.

“Yes,” she said in response to it doesn’t matter what question.

“I’m sorry,” the computer said, “but I didn’t understand that. Did you say ‘address’?”

“No, I said ‘yes.’”

“Did you say ‘guess’?”

And so forth until Wild Thing pinched her nose and, in her best imitation of a kiwi accent, said, “Yiss.”

“Thank you,” the computer said. (And sent a dress to the wrong address. Not that the address mattered. The last time Wild Thing wore a dress, splinters hadn’t been invented yet. And no, we’re not going to discuss how long it’s been since I wore one. It’s enough to say that I may still remember which end faces the feed.)

But back to that New Zealand virtual voice: What happens if you have a lisp and your yiss sounds like yith? You can’t order 80 kilos of chocolate covered Turkish delight by phone, that’s what, because you can’t confirm your order. You can’t call for a cab. You can’t let the bank know that your credit card just wandered off without you. Because the voice is set to the local accent—one local accent, and if it doesn’t happen to be the one you have, you’re skunked.

Or that’s my, admittedly limited, experience.

Apply this to invisible friends and you have to wonder, How much do they have to be mirror images of ourselves in order to understand us, or in order for us to accept them? If the posh, imaginary British man can’t understand (or be accepted by) the un-posh but entirely real American woman who’s talking into her teapot, what chance do the flesh and blood inhabitants of this planet to have to work out our differences?

M. and Wild Thing and I didn’t have time to explore that question, although no doubt the world would be a better place by now if we had. M. was heading home and we were out of time, not to mention cookies.

Wild Thing had addressed her I-Pad multiple times by then and swore Siri had answered her. Me, though? I didn’t hear a thing. And I’m prepared to speak for M. as well: She didn’t either.

Minims and crotchets: surviving British musical notation

“It’s simple,” G. tells me. “There are two quavers in a crotchet, two crotchets in a minim, and two minims in a semibreve.”

She’s not explaining the Harry Potter universe but musical notation in British as opposed to American. I give her a panicky nod, but I don’t fool her, because she stops before she gets to the full breve—which has a long E so that it sounds like breathe, in case you need to know that. And crotchet is pronounced like crotchety, with a T you can actually hear, not like that thing you do with a length of yarn and a crochet hook.

I explain to G. that I learned to call them whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and so on, and she seems to believe that if I learn to translate those into the terms she knows we’ll be able to discuss time—that’s time as in music, not as in clocks. But because the eyelids of my mind fluttered when she said “It’s simple” and shut completely when she got to the quavers, my end of the conversation is mostly hand signals. I’m trying to show her the written notes, for some reason, with my fingers indicating whether the notes have stems and whether they’re filled in or hollow in the center.

Surprisingly relevant photo of a courgette. Or a zucchini is you prefer. Photo by Mmm Daffodils, on Wikimedia.

A courgette. Or a zucchini is you prefer. Photo by Mmm Daffodils, on Wikimedia.

G. and I know each other from the singers night at a local pub. Her head harbors a fine range of folk songs, from the sweet to the raunchy, with several stops in between, and she understands both time and notation, although she can’t necessarily communicate either of them to me. In spite of that, we’ve worked out a couple of songs that we sing together, and she tolerates my musical ignorance—a gift I admire even more than her ability to harmonize spontaneously. We’ve been working on a new song, Les Barker’s “Non, No Courgettes,” which is a mash-up of French and English set to the tune of Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.”

A courgette, in case you need to know this, is a British zucchini.

Somewhere in the midst of our run-through, I’ve fallen foul of a hemidemisemiquaver. Or something very much like one. There is such a thing. Really there is, although probably not in “No Courgettes.” I can’t say for sure because I wouldn’t recognize one if it snapped my finger off and added salt. All I know is that they’re very short, but then so are piranhas.

So am I, if that’s at all relevant.

I’m not completely uneducated about music. I took piano lessons as a kid, and I’m sure you could have found a more resolutely untalented student somewhere but you’d have had to look hard. The lessons were about either classical music or some damned silly song about my pretty dolly, and I wasn’t interested in either of them. I don’t remember how long I took lessons for. It seemed like forever, and my teacher must have felt the same way, but given how little I know it could have been no more than two months. I came out of it almost able to read music. I can follow the treble clef if the notes don’t go too far above the stave and the time signature doesn’t get complicated and there aren’t more than one or two flats or sharps. Forget about the bass clef—I can’t read that at all. To translate that, if we were talking about words, I could read the vowels but not the consonants. It’s ever so handy.

No one, in all the time I took piano lessons, ever mentioned a minim, a crotchet, or a quaver.

G. lets the abstract discussion slide—this is both wise and merciful—and we tackle the song again, both of us tapping time on the coffee table. In my head, the words run, “Non (two three), no courgettes (two three four)….”

She manages not to pack up her guitar and leave. It helps that one of the cats has crawled into the case and gone to sleep.