August 06, 2007

Into Britain (and Br E)

Barbara and I have accomplished the major task on our agenda for the summer: moving to the UK from California. We are staying awhile in the North Downs area of Surrey, recuperating from the last month of frantic physical labor. Or labour, I should say, because now comes the language learning task. It's re-learning, actually: we are both moderately well acquainted with British English (BrE) in a passive way. Now we have to re-activate our command. We have to name the last letter of the alphabet in a way that rhymes with shed, not with she; we have to pronounced schedule and its derivatives in a way that begins with sh-, not sk-. We have to call the trunk of a car the boot, and the hood the bonnet, and park in a car park, not a parking lot. Behind us, the area colloquially known as the ass or butt in American English (AmE) is known here as the arse or bum. Mutual funds are (I think) known as unit trusts here, and soccer is called football. Cookies are called biscuits and what Americans call biscuits would probably be described as scones. Nouns denoting collectivities of human beings generally control plural agreement (Ford have announced a profit, West Ham are winning, The government are determined to stamp out foot and mouth). Yet to be decided is whether I will post on Language Log in BrE or in AmE. The matter is before the Language Log House Style Committee right now. They're a bunch of semicolon-flaunting pedantic wankers, of course, but everything depends on which variety they decide to favor. Or favour, as the case may be.

[Update: Paul Battley has written to tell me that nearly all the above is out of date or slightly inaccurate because of recent Americanization in BrE. Or Americanisation, as the case may be. If this is so (Andrew Clegg says he thinks it isn't, and my Americanisms above are still clearly Americanisms), it may or may not make it easier to fit in. Time will tell. I just don't know yet. But I do know enough to be aware that reference to rubbers and fags is less taboo in BrE than in AmE because of semantic differences (they are merely erasers and cigarettes, respectively) but with fanny the situation is very much the other way round. No fanny packs here. In BrE the fanny is NOT the arse. And only females have them. Don't ask me to explain any further, we're deep in taboo land here.] Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at August 6, 2007 05:26 AM