The differences between British and American English are an endless source of—well, pretty much anything you can name: confusion, fascination, amusement, bad temper, accusations (subtle and otherwise) of either ignorance or stuffiness, depending on which side of the Atlantic taught you your rash assumptions.
I’ve written about the differences between British and American English before, which means I’m supposed to slip in a link or ten to tempt newcomers deeper into the blog. That sounds ominous—step deeper into the dark and trackless blog, my dears. But I have to do it anyway. Who am I to defy the rules of the blogosphere? (Note: I already do with my irrelevant photos, and I’m not likely to stop, but once in a while I should behave like a serious blogger.) So here’s the link: This will connect you to a whole category of posts. You can pick through and see what interests you. Or not. I’ll never know.
Where was I? I’m returning to the topic because Karen wrote to say my writing sounded British to her. I asked what specifically struck her that way and she said what “sounds to my American ears not-so-American” were the phrases “‘he wasn’t being immensely clever” and “trying to conduct a bit of business.”
I’m probably the last person who’d know if those are not-so-American. When I talk, I still sound American enough to get asked if I’m enjoying my stay (well yes, although it seems like I’ve been here for years), but Britishisms have crept into my brain and my speech. I’d like to think I notice them and build walls around them—you know: the kind with turnstiles, so I have to sacrifice a coin before I can get at them—but I’m not sure the system’s working.
In the first phrase, I wonder if what struck Karen isn’t the word immensely, which is formal—a tone I fall into a lot when I’m kidding around, although I’m never sure if it works. On the other hand, clever may be more common in Britain than in the U.S. Emphasis on may. I’m not sure. But I can call up the sound of an English accent saying “you clever girl” or “clever clogs” (one is a compliment; the other probably isn’t), but I can’t come up with anything like it in an American accent.
What about the second phrase, trying to conduct a bit of business? Bit shows up a lot in British English. Bits and bobs. Or Zadie Smith’s wonderful phrase about nudity in a movie, the dangly bits. Do we use bits much in American? Ask someone if they’re tired and “a bit” wouldn’t be a strange answer, although “a little” might be a bit more common.
Did the bit in that last phrase jump out and sound British?
Conduct again has a formal tone, and although I’d guess it’s used equally in both versions of the language, we (the we here being Americans) do tend to think British English wears a corset (or at least a top hat) while American English slouches on the couch with its feet on the coffee table. That’s because we think everyone in Britain is belongs to the aristocracy. Even when we know better. We know the laws of physics decree that you can’t have an aristocracy without a whole lot of peasants to keep them fed and et cetera’d, but somewhere underneath whatever our good sense we have we still believe the British are all aristocrats.
We (again meaning Americans) are both right and wrong about the formality of British English. It can be more formal. It also can be gloriously rough and informal—like, I’d guess, any language or national version of a language.
Karen went on to write, “Isn’t this a problem writers encounter all the time when they create characters who are ‘other’? How does a woman writer ‘sound’ male? How does a thirty-something author ‘sound’ like a teenager? How does an American ‘sound’ British?”
The answer is that at their best, writers listen, deeply and actively, and learn their limits. I don’t hesitate to write dialog in a man’s voice, or to write from a man’s point of view. We’re not as different as the world tells us we are, and even if we were I’ve lived around men I don’t live with one, but I know what they sound like.
I wrote from man’s perspective in parts of Open Line (and here we go with the links again) and felt that I knew the character well and did him justice. He wasn’t an admirable person, but I ended up liking him. I’d lived inside his head.
Writing the male characters in The Divorce Diet was different. I only got to see them through my central character’s eyes, and if she was fed up with them, so was I. They’re not as fully realized because of the point of view I chose. You can’t tell every story from every perspective. But their dialog? It didn’t feel like a stretch.
But I know my limits and I stay well away from the edges. I’ve watched writers write dialog that goes past theirs. At its best it embarrasses me as a reader and makes them look ignorant. At its worst it comes off as racist. For myself, the rule is this: If you haven’t lived with it, don’t write it. If you don’t know the accent and vocabulary and attitude and life first hand, don’t write it. That doesn’t mean limit yourself to characters who are replicas of yourself. It means know your limits, and if they form too tight a circle, learn more. Live more widely.
Sorry: I’ve expanded the issue beyond vocabulary, but dialog isn’t just about word choice, it’s about the character. And writing about someone from a different demographic group isn’t just about finding the right words. If you don’t know the reality of another person’s life, you won’t write it with any depth or power. Or respect, no matter how good your intentions are.
Maybe that’s why so many male writers have written paper-thin women: They couldn’t see beyond what they wanted from women, or how women affected them, so they couldn’t create any depth in the women they wrote. You can plug other categories of writer and character into that sentence in whatever combination you like, but I have an English degree and ended up reading a dismal lot of paper-thin women. My patience wore thin and it doesn’t seem to be one of those things that repair themselves with time.
But let’s come back to the original question about words. It worries me when Britishisms creep into my brain. Picture me as an auto mechanic and someone’s slipped metric wrenches my toolbox, which would be fine except I work on American cars and nothing but American cars. They’re fine wrenches, but they don’t fit anything in the shop.
I’d love to work on both kinds of car, but I’m just the kind of maniac who couldn’t keep my wrenches apart.
I’ve tried keeping British words out of my head and it’s not possible. My brain loves words, and it vacuums them up wherever it finds them. And as I typed that, a voice in my head supplied the phrase hoovered them up. Because vacuuming’s a brand-name verb here, based on the Hoover vacuum. Like the American word band-aid, which in British is the generic (if, to me, bizarre sounding) sticking plaster.
Some words get planted more deeply because I use them, however hesitantly. There’s no point in asking where the band-aids are if no one knows what I’m talking about. Others plant themselves deeply because they sound good. People here have such a way of leaning into the word bloody that it makes me want to say it myself. If I find myself in the right time and place, cells in my brain jump up and down like popcorn in the microwave, begging, Can we say that? Please can we say that?
The wall-and-turnstile approach to keeping my vocabularies separate hasn’t been a screaming success. I might have more luck if I think of myself as having two toolboxes (or if I run those pesky foreign cars out of my garage), but I doubt it. It’s a problem I haven’t solved.
Any comments on what I sound like to you are welcome. Or on anything else that comes to mind. This should be interesting.