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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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( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 16th, 2008 10:55 pm (UTC)
Elizabeth George is a US novelist writing mysteries set in England. I have long believed that she commits herself to writing at least one "british-ism" on each page of each book, so that we'll know they're for real :-)
Nov. 16th, 2008 10:58 pm (UTC)
I can believe it! But the real trick must be NOT committing any Americanisms.
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 30th, 2008 10:22 pm (UTC)
My agent says that editors love characters with quirks, and these days I think a regional accent counts as a quirk.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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