Things have been rather quiet on the blog lately. I’ve been catching up on my reading and, frankly, just enjoying the sunshine. One book in particular has had me snorting drinks out of my nose and guffawing in waiting rooms. Highly recommended!
The cultural differences hidden behind mere words
I’m talking about a new book by Erin Moore, called “That’s Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms, and What Our English Says About Us.” (A rare, bull’s-eye Amazon recommendation) It’s hot off the press and, apparently, the British edition will only be published in November 2015, so everyone in Europe will need to hold their horses or settle for the American version.
As Moore says in the introduction: ” This book is a guide to English and American cultural differences, through the lens of language: the words we use that say the most about us and why. It is a cultural history in miniature […].” It’s tempting for the non-English speaking world to assume that Americans and the British are the same because they all speak English. I have often encountered this assumption among people looking to have their marketing materials translated into English. New clients tend to be surprised when I start asking questions about the English speakers they plan to target with their copy. Are they American, or British, or neither, or both? I should give them this book to read and then they would understand that there is no such thing as THE English-speaking world.
More about the book
Erin Moore is an American (from Florida like me) who has lived in England for quite some time. She’s a former editor who worked with British authors and is part of an Anglo-American family. This gives her a wide variety of insights into British and American peculiarities. On top of that, she’s a very gifted and witty writer, making her book a delight to read.
The book has a clear and simple structure. Each chapter is dedicated to one word, such as “Dude,” “Sorry,” “Crimbo,” or “Tea.” Moore uses these words as starting points for journeys into the British and American minds and histories. She shares curious stories, snippets from books and songs, anecdotes from her own life and from that of other expats. Her aim is to show that Americans and the British are more alike than they think and also more different. All of this doesn’t make Anglo-American communication any easier.
The “Sorry” chapter is my favorite. Many years ago, I travelled to London in a blissfully oblivious bubble, unaware of the subtle nuances of the British “sorry.” I returned home laughing about how everyone constantly apologized even when they hadn’t done anything wrong. While reading this book I cringed on behalf of my younger, bumbling self. I wonder how many of the seemingly über-polite “sorries” were actually expressions of annoyance or frustration that would have left a true Brit red-faced with embarassment from the rebuke.
Why I liked the book so much
Erin Moore keeps a conversational tone throughout the book. Her keen eye has picked up on many a cultural quirk, both on the British and American side. Even though she doesn’t sugarcoat her assessments, her fondness for both cultures shines through. She won’t choose sides because her loyalties are “translatlantic” as she says. And she doesn’t. And that makes it a book enjoyable for American and British readers alike.
The concept of culture being transmitted through language and simultaneously being the stuff of language is central to my work as a translator. What Erin Moore hilariously desribes in her book is what I strive to help my clients understand: Single words CAN carry the weight of the world in them because they are the linguistic veneer on a wealth of supralinguistic, extralinguistic, historical, cultural and geographical knowledge that is exceedingly difficult to explain to non-native speakers. No wonder a dictionary will only get you so far!
The willingness to accept that there might be cultural differences between speakers of different languages often stops at the seemingly identical variants of English. This book provides ample proof of subtle yet significant differences between British and American English. Lump English-speakers together at your own peril.
Sometimes, my English brother-in-law looks at me like I was beamed in from outer space. Intercultural communication at its best! Thanks to “That’s Not English,” I now have a few more ideas of what I might have said to warrant that. Beyond personal circumstances, if you’re looking for an entertaining book about a subject that all translators deal with, then give this one a try. Or maybe you already have?