November 16th, 2008

Tower Bridge London

Language as a living organism

I visited England for the first time in 2007, for a project at work, and since then have spent a lot of time e-mailing the folks I met while I was there. I had no problems communicating while in London; I didn't feel like I was in a "foreign" country nearly as much as I did when I went to Mexico. It helped that I was familiar with many of the common differences in word usage (petrol/gasoline, lift/elevator, ground floor/first floor, mobile phone/cell phone, and so on). In the written word, the spelling differences are noticeable, and the way Europeans write numeric dates (16/11/08 for today) can be confusing to me, but it's not at all difficult to read e-mails from London.

Lately, however, I have been checking out Authonomy, the HarperCollins online workshop/slushpile/social network for writers, and I have to say it amazes me how differently two countries can use the same language. I suppose it's not so surprising considering how long we've been separate politically, but still, for any story that is contemporary (as opposed to futuristic) I can usually tell right away if the writer is British or American. Usually it's just a matter of unfamiliar idioms ("John kept Mary on for closing," "a manky uniform," "children from the bogs," etc.). The Australians are harder to spot.

I wonder if the day will come when we can no longer communicate? I guess the Internet and television make that less likely.

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