Life in the UK: Learning a new language

I was warned. Before I married my Englishman, my boss – who was, conveniently, an Englishman living in America – told me that the little differences between the two countries would jar me at first. He was right, and I found that no where more true than with language.

Photo credit:  UK & USA Flags - Dot Matrix by gavjof on flickr

Photo credit: UK & USA Flags – Dot Matrix by gavjof on flickr

I knew that the Brits and Yanks employed different terms, especially for things like cars: bonnets were quaint headpieces adorning Jane Austen’s characters; a boot was just that, something to wear on your foot, especially when living out West; and that thing hanging off the back of the car? I had no clue. In my first year in the UK when I tried to explain that a woman’s muffler was falling off her Range Rover, I stuttered and stammered (but actually no, I didn’t stammer, because I didn’t know that word either), knowing I wasn’t saying the correct word (and being slightly uncomfortable anyway, thinking I was probably breaking social convention to speak to a stranger). Finally I took her back to her car and pointed, and she exclaimed, “Ah, the exhaust!”

And I knew that pronunciation would be different, as I outlined last week. Although imagine my surprise when one of Nicholas’s theological college (US: seminary) students invited us to lunch, and they asked me to say the name of a certain spice. One that starts with an o and ends with an o. Got it? Yes, I naively said, “Oregano,” (oh REG ah no) to which the party erupted in laughter. My host explained that Brits tend to pronounce each syllable of a word, which is why they would say, “oh rey gahn no.”

So I knew I’d struggle with dustbin carts and, back then, the name for a pay phone (call box? pay box?), trousers and pants, chips and crisps and biscuits and crackers, but what I didn’t know was the hidden meaning of language. Yes, what Brits really mean behind their polite words or ironic remarks. You may have seen the graph that has been widely circulated on social media sites, reportedly developed by a Dutch company trying to do business in the UK. The one that has a column for what the British say, “That’s not bad”; a column for what the British mean, “That’s good”; and a column for what foreigners understand the British to mean, “That’s poor.” No wonder we foreigners get our knickers in a twist (US: can you figure it out?).

I didn’t have the luxury of such a graph when I first moved here, so learned by making mistakes. My husband and I soon differentiated between a British “nice” and an American one – how nice was that person or meal or gift really? (We don’t often use that term anymore, which is just as well when there are far superior descriptors.) But it took a bolshey (US: in-your-face) literary agent to inform me, when I was a commissioning (US: acquisitions) editor at HarperCollins, that Brits and Americans mean different things when I said that I thought her client’s proposal was “quite good.” (She dropped any social niceties when she educated me, and no, I didn’t progress that proposal.) At least my boss didn’t expect me to pronounce schedule in the British way, and he did helpfully point out that the handwritten PS at the bottom of the letter, which I would most likely disregard, was actually the most important thing to the author.

So tell me, British friends and family, what is behind this lack of saying it like it is? Does it all come down to class – not offending those above or below? A natural reticence? Social custom based on…? I’d love to hear what you think, and any experiences you’ve had of saying something and being completely misunderstood. And what you think of those colonists who prefer to speak unvarnished (Just to mix things up, I now work for an Australian company!).

9 Responses

  1. Now I work for both an American company AND a British one, so I have to switch. I’ve learned that Americans ‘gush’ and use superlatives at the drop of a hat which grates on my British ears. But I’ve learned to ‘ramp it up’ so as not to sound cold and uncaring in the US while in England I can delight in the laconic and slightly cynical – do you ever listen to the News Quiz?

    1. Marion, no, the News Quiz isn’t something that holds my attention, because even after all these years I just don’t ‘get’ irony. But you’re right – it’s fun and challenging to have these experiences. When I was engaged to be married, a delightfully refined Englishwoman living in America (tried to) teach me to make scones (which she also taught me how to pronounce). She said I’d now have one toe on either side of the Atlantic, which is true. And when I was rueing all the different words when I first moved here, another friend reminded me that yes, I do like language… How we look at things matters, doesn’t it!

  2. Amy, we had (here in the U.S.) an exchange student from Thailand last year. She said she loved best about the States that everybody says what they really mean. I hear that often from people of other cultures, and it’s certainly the way Americans are portrayed in British movies. But even we have ways of saying the opposite of what we really mean. For us, it seems to more about mannerism and context than about the language itself. “Great to see you, let’s get together for coffee” can mean either “Great to see you, let’s get together for coffee” or “I can never remember that guy’s name; hope I never see him again.”

    1. Larry, you’re so right. And it’s hard to know when to actually follow up those, “Let’s get together” comments, whatever side of the ponds we’re on. Makes me think of our ‘yes’ being ‘yes’ and our ‘no’ being ‘no’. I have some friends from South East Asia who say how free they feel in British company! It’s so interesting… I wonder how we’ll be in heaven.

  3. I can relate as a Yank who’s married to a Brit. And like yourself,Amy, after being married to a Brit for 30 yrs. and listening to others from England and the many programs out of UK, I still don’t get irony.

  4. it was nearly as bad the other way around, Amy – when we arrived in the States I was so fearful of being misunderstood/saying the wrong thing unintentionally: especially when preaching!!

    But now it sure is great to be bi-lingual – feels kinda homey!

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