Friday, 20 March 2015

Divided by a Common Language

As G.B. Shaw said of America and England.

‘Shirley Temple was nauseous’ changes meaning when it crosses the Atlantic. In America it is impossible to be both pissed and happy; in England it’s quite usual. But then, the English can’t be pissed and sober at the same time, but Americans can. In England it’s also impossible to be simultaneously mean and generous; in America it’s just unusual. An American visitor setting out alone for a stroll might be disconcerted, perhaps imperilled, by his English host’s well-meaning instruction ‘Be careful to walk only on the pavement’, while English passengers are regularly terrified by American pilots telling them ‘We shall be airborne momentarily’.

Once, while driving through the Rockies with an American friend — well, she was doing all the driving, as I don’t really know how to drive a car, even on the wrong side of the road — I said at a petrol (gas) station ‘At least let me pay for the petrol I mean gas’ and went in to do so, not realizing the stuff was so cheap over there that my largesse was insignificant. The lady at the cash register said ‘Where are you from?’ ‘England.’ ‘Oh, I just love that accent!’ ‘I haven’t got an accent; you have,’ I replied icily. Some English friends of mine visiting America were told that ‘For foreigners you sure speak English good.’ On which subject, an American, when I ask how he is, will often reply ‘I’m good,’ and will then look puzzled when I suggest that that is not really for him to say, and not what I asked.

But if I start to talk about the distinction between adjectives and adverbs I shall probably go on to remark that Americans also seem not to understand the grammatical distinction between active and passive voices of verbs, and shall end by saying that Americans just don’t speak English very well. (Good).

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