Category Archives: language

Britain’s class obsession

Britain has a rather strange obsession with labeling things according to “class”. Before I moved here, I had never thought very much about the fact that I was “middle class” growing up, in that I had a certain set of white-collar parents and a suburban home. I most certainly would not have used the c-word in order to describe or define myself. It does not surprise me, however, given the local obsession with class, that there is a new BBC 3-part special about class and culture. I tried to watch the first part tonight, and gave up rather quickly but felt that it defined a certain part of the local ethos that I, as a foreigner, would never quite understand.

The bit of the program(me) that I watched was chock full of stereotypes. This class did this, while this other class did that. It was largely historical in its gaze, and was looking at classes in the past and how they had changed in the 20th century. But it was the broad-brush stereotyping that I found a bit disturbing. These people did this and those people, on the other hand, did that. A quote from the above-linked TV review might help here:

While his latest documentary is in many ways an objective piece of social history, Bragg does steer us towards a conclusion. Orwell was wrong when he said the middle class would eventually sink into the working class, he argues, because the working class has risen and risen.

Again, he doesn’t need to spell it out, but he is an example of this. After all, here he is with traces of the North still detectable in his voice, presenting a programme on the BBC. Yet when the BBC was founded in the Twenties its voice was that of the south, specifically the public school-educated south.

Bragg describes himself as a class mongrel. His parents were working class but he ended up in the House of Lords, thanks to his grammar school, which got him into Oxford, which in turn got him into what he calls “the media class”. Yet not only does Bragg bring his formidable learning to the subject of class, he is also willing to examine his own prejudices about it.

An American would not be surprised by the fact that someone managed to shift from a modest background into the higher echelons of politics, we would celebrate it as the model of upward mobility that defines America. (Not that I am saying anything positive about modern American politics, that is a different blog post.) But ideas like, “he made it big in spite of his northern accent” are more surprising, as well as the general attitude towards being “northern” which seems to be a significant barrier to progress here.

The funny thing that seems to me to be a problem in Britain right now is the constant class chatter. All of the love for Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs seems to me to be centered on a certain nostalgia for a time when class boundaries were more clear. I feel like the new BBC documentary on class is worsening the situation for the next generation, by being nostalgic about the ages in which class may (or may not) have followed broad-brush stereotypes that were easy for people to assign and digest. More than anything, I feel like the obsession with class in Britain would necessarily diminish if people would just STOP TALKING ABOUT IT SO MUCH. By continuing with the discussion, and by continuing to portray the differences in “period dramas” we are just keeping alive an idea which no longer makes any sense in terms of trying to divide up the modern people into mass stereotypes. Time for this to end, and for the British electorate to be considered as a bunch of people, not a bunch of classes.

My accent. It’s a-changin’

This week I became acutely aware of the fact that I’ve been losing my North American vowels. I knew previously that I had adapted to UK vocabulary and perhaps even grammar, and that because of this I was starting to sound “foreign” to my friends and family in the US. But now I’m pretty sure that I also have started to neutralize my accent in response to the local pronunciation. Think to-may-to, to-mah-to. I’m not yet at the point of saying “bawth” and not “bath” but I’m somewhere in-between. And every time I hear myself doing it, I’m surprised. I am from Minnesota, but the south, Twin Cities area, and I’ve never had the “Fargo” accent. But it’s clear that the twang-y letter A is the first thing to go after you’ve lived in the land of RP for a while.


I know I’ve gone quiet lately, and it’s because I’m really occupied with things that I can’t write about. So, so much for that. Nothing to say, move on. I suspect everyone who has had to deal with a residence visa knows how much you really don’t want to talk about the process while it’s ongoing.

I’ve run across a range of British words and phrases this week that have made me think “hmmm…?” so I thought I would post these in a light-hearted post that has nothing to do with the things that are making me crazy right now…

More-ish. The first time I heard this, I assumed it meant “Moorish” and was referring to some aspect of North African culture with which I was not familiar. But it turns out that it is a British word to identify things that are really tasty such that you want “more”. I like it, I’m just not clear on the distinction between “more-ish” and “tasty” or any other word for delicious. There is some subtlety here that I am not comprehending. I liked it better when I thought I just didn’t know enough about North African food to get what sorts of flavors were being discussed.

Cookery. I signed up this week for a course to learn more about baking bread, the science behind it, and how to get better at it. I might then take another course on how to bone a fish and then cook it. (This is part of my new philosophy for the world, in which I am going to take inspiration from my sister and start doing some more interesting things, like taking classes outside of work.) I was amused to realize that where I would use the term “cooking” the Brits would say “cookery”. So I am off to a class in cookery school. Full report to follow.

Plimsolls. I have to admit, I had never heard this word in regular usage, but it showed up in a post by Lynneguist last week, and once I had seen the word, I managed to run across it again–with great confusion of the “I have heard this and don’t know what it means” variety–later in the week. As far as I can tell, the meaning is “cheap tennis shoes” in American, of the sort that would never be used for much outside of fashion in the US but which are apparently the required shoes for gym class in the UK. Interesting. I think if I had been asked to run a mile in these I would have organized some sort of protest, but perhaps British gym classes do not do the same sorts of things as we did in the US in the 80s.

In work. This is an interesting one, as it seems to treat work as a noun that one can exist inside of. I suspect the American equivalent for “having a job” would simply be “working” and, as I am not a linguist, I am interested in how the two forms arose to be so very different. One often hears this in the UK (and Europe more generally) in the context of the phrase “youth unemployment,” a phrase that I have been assured is not on the radar in the US at all right now. Of course, in America we have “in school”, and just to keep things interesting in the UK we have “at Uni” so as to make sure it’s never quite consistent or obvious which words go together.

And a final one, a sign spotted on my walk home tonight: “Garage is in constant use“. I am interested in the use of the word “constant” here. While I can acknowledge that a garage should be in constant use, because it is a place to store things and one is probably always storing things in a garage, the intended meaning was of course that no one should park in front of the garage door because it might need to be used at some point (likely not constantly). I am amused.

I will end this by stating that I am not at all criticizing these Britishisms, as I–now resident in the UK for nearly five years and hoping for more years to come–am merely interested in the language. I get in mild trouble now when I’m back in the US, as I was last month, for the amazing range of British words and pronunciations that I have picked up in the last five years. This has led to an increasing fascination with language, linguists, and other things about which I am not an expert. But for the moment, it provides a very nice distraction from the things I’m worrying about, so I’ll go with it.

Here we go again: Americanisms

I’m almost out of things to say on the topic of the British obsessions with what they claim to be horrid “Americanisms” and how they are ruining the English language, but there were a few pieces of fantastic commentary out there yesterday debunking this latest, most pathetic effort by the BBC to stir up anti-American sentiment. So here are the links, in a sensible order, for anyone not bored by this and wishing to catch up:

I agreed, and nominated “willy”. I keep meaning to write an entire post on the British male’s obsession with their own genitalia, or at least with talking about their genitalia, but every time I think about sitting down and actually writing such a post I just sigh and move on to do something else. But for the record, “willy” immediately brings to my mind “limp dick”. So British males, when you keep using that word (all over Twitter, for some reason), that’s what you’re making me think about you. You’ve been warned.

In other news, my immigration situation hit a slight snag this week and I’ve spent some time on the phone with two different (British male) immigration lawyers and generally alternating between feeling hopeless about my future and feeling rather Devil-may-care about it. So basically I’m in shock and suffering from crazy visions of the future in rather starkly different scenarios. The bottom line point is a good one, in that the “try to imagine the worst case scenario” involves going back to America (as opposed to some place like Somalia) and perhaps writing that very snarky book about living 5 years in England while living off my savings and trying to find a job. And the best case scenario is that everything goes on just like it is now. So I’m not going to worry. This is not a life-or-death thing, it is a stupid-paperwork-and-bureaucrat thing. And I’m going to just keep telling myself that while I try to get through the next few months with my sanity intact.

Globalization, Anglophilia and Anti-American Sentiments

I hit a wall today, when someone introduced a blatant anti-American comment on Twitter and I was not amused. This is one of those things that I was not at all prepared for when I moved to England nearly five years ago (gasp!). After living for many (30) years in an America full of Anglophilia, I sort of assumed that the former monarchist leaders of our state shared the same sort of historical affection for us that we had for them. The last few weeks have demonstrated the fact, more clearly than ever, that I was wrong.

We all have witnessed the great Anglophilia that took place in the form of the Americans' obsession with the royal wedding a few weeks ago. Although a few arguments tried to logically argue against an American being obsessed with the wedding of Prince William and future princess Kate, this seems to have fallen largely on deaf ears. I am, through the expat community, very much aware of a number of blatantly Anglophile blogs (here, and here, for example).

So in this general framework of Anglophilia, it still comes as a surprise to me that, while Americans can be classed as generally England-loving, here in England it is politically sound to be America-hating. Or, at very least, America-resenting.

Here is the example of the tweet that sent me over the edge today, in terms of Anti-American sentiment and frustration. I note now that it was only the latest in a series of such things. I do not harbor any long-standing or particular bad feelings to this particular tweeter. But it did put me into the place where my blood was boiling and I was flat-out angry, after nearly five years of living abroad.

My response is as follows: we live in a world where globalization reigns. Changes to language will take place, and they will be influenced by many sources. Americans, desperately in love with England, will pick up on English words. English folk, in return, should not be so violently against supposed Americanisms (although with “staycation” I’d challenge the locals to prove, that even if the word was American in origin, it was not picked up in the British press far more than in the American one!) We are a group of people who happen to share a language, and in many cases, who happen to share the same values. Emphasizing the differences, as opposed to the many similarities, is just an annoying bit of xenophobia. (The brilliant show “Gavin and Stacey” had a great bit on the difference between “racism” and xenophobia, and I want to quote this over and over because it was accurate and much-misunderstood in modern British usage!)

We, as English-speakers, have to adapt to the fact that this is a language based in other languages and one that evolves quickly. I think this is really cool. I love that my language has no problems with invention of words to address new technology, because I am a scientist and sometimes I really need those new words. I’m unclear as to what is to be gained by “blaming” any English-speaking country for new words or compounds that happen to make it into general usage. Words only become popular because people are seeking a short-hand term to describe a concept that is in need of expression.

More importantly, I think, it is detrimental to the language as a whole to demonize words as being “American” in origin, when that distinction is being seen as “ultimately bad” without context. If a word gains traction in the larger English language, that language being spoken across many institutions including science, why can’t we live with it, no matter the origin, if it expresses the concept that we wish to express? And in that vein, why should we care if there are differences in the words used in British and American English for the same concept, when we are most likely next to deal with the important translation effects that result in trying to convert between English and Chinese? Neither “English” nor “Chinese” is a single dialogue, so we have years of mis-communication to ensue. Can’t we at least stop arguing within our own ranks, of supposedly “English” speakers, and try for a degree of communication instead of petty disagreements?

Signs, yet again

British sign grammar is becoming a bit of an obsession. (See previous posts here and here.) This week’s entries:

Outside the local tire shop (except they spell it tyre):

20% off Servicing

My reaction: Phwoar! Oh wait, you mean the car.

On a vacant shop along my walk to work:

To let. Capable of subdividing.

My reaction: It’s ALIVE!!!!!!!! Try “can be subdivided” instead.

But the sign thing was nearly a disaster for me earlier this week as I desperately cling to the diminishing fragments of my American identity. I was behind in doing something and had not managed to post a sign-up sheet on my office door that had been promised. I was going to get to it the next day but wanted to indicate that, so I started composing a sign:

The sign-up sheet will be posted tomorrow afternoon. Apologies for any inconvenience caused.

I fortunately stopped myself before I wrote the last bit, but I thought it and it sounded perfectly reasonable in my head.

I keep saying I’m becoming British-influenced. FACEPALM.

Signs, Signs Everywhere a Sign

In what is becoming an obsession with differences between British and American English, I have a few more entries into my previous thread on strange grammar on British signs.

“Access plot holders only”

This is the sign on the gate to the garden plots that I walk past on my way to work. I’d say “Access FOR plot holders only” or maybe “Access TO plot holders only” but the way it’s written makes me think I can reach the plot holders if I go through the gate.

In a surprising deviation from the theme of “missing words on signs” was this one:

“Polite notice: this gate in use 24 hours”

I loved this. British politeness leads to extra words on sign in order to be sure that the expression of territoriality was still “polite”.

Of course, I am (after more than 4 years in England as of last weekend!) required to participate in equal opportunity “taking the piss” and offer this little gem from my last trip to America:

Sort of “unnecessarily obvious” innit?

Minnesota update

I still owe you the MN State Fair photos, and I’m sure they’ll be coming at some point soon. But for now, I have a few observations to make about my time in Minneapolis thus far. In contrast to the last two times I’ve visited, in August of 2008 and 2009, I’m not feeling bittersweet at all. I’m just feeling sweet, and strangely at peace. I’m staying on my own this year, in a rented and serviced studio flat in my old neighborhood–not far from where I lived when I was a PhD student here. There is a very good reason for this: in the last few years, I’ve always stayed with my best friend in order to stay close to the center of town (i.e. downtown Minneapolis). But she’s otherwise occupied this week: I spent nearly three hours today at the hospital visiting her and her newborn son, who arrived late last night. This was, of course, the reason for this year’s timing (September instead of August) in that I was hoping to catch the opportunity to meet the baby, and that worked out well. I’ll get to see him again tomorrow when I visit her again, and perhaps even Friday morning before I have to go.

What else have I been up to? (Aside from the obvious–Minnesota State Fair–that is?) Two dinners with my parents. Two pairs of new glasses at the place that I continue to frequent for such things, even though I have lived overseas for nearly four years. This purchase includes the first time I’ve had to buy two pairs with different corrections, one for general use and one optimized for computing and reading, since I am starting to have just the smallest need for reading glasses. No bifocals yet, thank goodness, but two pairs of specs with slightly different prescriptions for slightly different purposes. I’m surprisingly at ease with this little aging-related development. I’m not sure why.

In addition to spending time with my friend and the new baby, I got to have dinner with another good friend and her sweet four and a half year old daughter. I spent all afternoon yesterday with my nonagenarian grandmother, who at 93 was content to spend the afternoon hanging out but also debating US immigration policy, border fences, legal versus illegal immigration, motherhood when working or staying at home, and the relative interestingness of the things made by a variety of Food Network chefs. (We watched Giada De Laurentiis mostly, and my grandmother does not think that her husband is good enough for her.)

I shopped at Target (it’s so fall-like here I needed long-sleeved tees and socks), Eddie Bauer and bought some new Clinique stuff at Macy’s. At which point the Macy’s sales clerk — in the shopping mall in which I bought my back-to-school clothes in junior high and high school — asked me where I was from, because she could not decipher my accent. I was aghast. I thought my friends had been teasing me about the whole “starting to sound British” thing. But the salesgirl thought it was quite sensible when I said I was from MN but had been living in England. My mother later confirmed that she’s been catching little things that sounded a bit different, both when she visited me in the UK in July and now on this trip. I’ve been desperately hoping that I was not sounding (or acting) like the hilarious character played by Jennifer Coolidge in Friends, who supposedly moved back from London with a fake accent and lots of implanted British vocabulary. I know, that having remembered this clip on this trip, that I’ve been overcompensating and defensive.

I also had my nails done today, when I was waiting for my glasses to be done and after I had already spent plenty of money at Bauer and Macy’s. It was an okay manicure for a walk-in mall job on a random Wednesday afternoon, but to my mortification I managed to forget where I was and tipped $2 for a $16 manicure, which would be generous in the UK but not probably sufficient in the US (especially in these “tough economic times”).

All of this is fine, it just shows the typical expat confusion after more than a couple of years abroad. But it gets worse. I’ve got a rental car here, as you would expect. I’ve been driving around my own neighborhood, and having trouble recalling exactly where I’m going. I’ve had to stick to main routes instead of the insider back-roads routes that I took when I lived here and really knew where I was going. But it gets worse. I have, on more than one occasion — and startling because I do NOT drive in the UK — gotten confused over which side of the road I was supposed to be driving on.

pause for effect

I blame the Americans. They seem to be adding (AmE) traffic circles/(BrE) roundabouts at an alarming rate. And I arrive at these things and can’t remember which way I’m supposed to go around. And when on a quiet side-street in a residential neighborhood with no other cars, I can’t seem to always remember where I’m supposed to be driving, and I end up crawling along the center. This is the re-wiring of my brain, from American to British, that I find most disturbing. Just observing people driving on the “wrong” side of the road has changed me, even though I spend a great deal of time in the US and only ever drive in the US and similar right-side-of-the-road places such as Germany. (I did once drive in Australia, but I doubt that one experience can be blamed for this current lapse.)

Overall, my summary is as follows. I’m happier in Minneapolis than I have been on my last few visits. I also seem to be a bit more converted to my life in England than I had realized. I’m defensive and awkward about this when it comes to dealing with my MN peeps. I also have been railing against it by doing things like buying a pair of proper cowboy boots and some new boot cut jeans. And listening to American country radio ad nauseum in my poor, confused car.

On language (again)

I found this article in Newsweek, about the emergence of a language called “Globish” (a simplified English) to be very interesting. It came in a strange couple of weeks where there were some calls (in an admittedly politically-one-way-and-not-the-other newspaper–see how far I’ve come, I know now the way to read the British press) against the “Americanization” (Americanisation?) of “The Queen’s English” here in Britain, stories here and here.

I found myself (as I often do, thank goodness) at a dinner party tonight with an American couple here temporarily, along with myself here nearly 4 years (already?) and a colleague from Northern Ireland. (NB This was after having spent the hours of the US-England Soccer/Football match Saturday night with a group of mixed couples plus me, all of whom had lived in both places but where the men happened to be British and the women happened to be Americans living in the UK. It was great fun as no one could divide their loyalties perfectly and we were all just interested in the match, and probably we were all happy with the 1-1 draw.) But I digress. The American couple new to, and temporarily in, the UK had plenty of questions for me, the long-term transplant, and my colleague, the native (UK but not English) son. It was a fascinating evening.

My American colleagues were not yet used to the diversity of accents that exist in the UK and beyond, and for this I recommend listening to the audio clips of English spoken (with the same paragraph) at the Speech Language Archive. Having lived abroad for a number of years, I can now pick out countries–roughly–but am still not able to discern the regional accents within the UK (aside from Glaswegian, which I still find difficult but distinctive). When I listen to the audio clips on the archive, I’m comforted by the Minneapolis sound, expectant at what I’d hear in Brooklyn or Boston and I know the South a bit when it comes to the US. I still find the Irish accent easier to understand than anything traditionally ‘British’ and I’m sure there are historical reasons for this in the US.

But my point, and I do have one, is that the English language is fluid. English may be named for England, but it is a language that has emerged in the global marketplace as something that we can all speak with each other. Trying to protect the ‘Queen’s English‘ is a mistake, as is trying to guard against ‘Americanisms’ in the language since the point of ALL language is communication. If this means that we all settle on the lowest common denominator and speak some form of ‘Glob-ish’ I’m all for that. Although I work hard to instill in my younger charges a sense of grammar and punctuation that fits with the old rules, I am happy to concede to a language that allows for the most broad and encompassing of communication skills and I hope that we can all do the same.

I don’t wish to see languages die, and I know that that is a problem in the global language marketplace. But having lived abroad, and having learned new words and new expressions even within my own language (two countries separated by a common language and all of that), I wonder if the best only comes about when we all can communicate with each other and perhaps that involves some simplification. I’d be happy to know that my straight-forward American-ish comments were received in the spirit in which they were offered, free of the nuance that comes with language in it’s mature form. I make mistakes all of the time in this context–I offend the English unintentionally due to my manner of speaking. For this reason, I welcome a back-to-basics “Globish” form of communication, should it actually exist, if it meant that we just used a small vocabulary to express simple concepts across country lines. There may be reasons to salvage more nuanced versions of a language for communication within groups, but how nice would it be to see the less nuanced language flourish for the benefit of the global economy?

Scenes from China, part 5

One of the more interesting aspects of being in China for nearly two weeks was in being completely shut out from most conversation. Very few people spoke any English at all. And why should they? I was visiting their country. It was my problem to not speak their language. Thank goodness for my sister’s Chinese fluency, I don’t know how anyone could travel in China without having a fluent guide. For this reason, there were tour groups (both international and domestic tourists) in matching hats everywhere, often affiliated with cruise ships. If you ask me for my own unique definition of hell, it would involve matching hats, organized tour groups on tight schedules, being ferried on and off coach buses, and cruise ships. Not my style at all. So kudos to my ever-patient sister for being an awesome guide and translator and allowing me to see China without having to take part in my own greatest nightmare. Don’t get me wrong, if your only choices are “see China in a tour group” or “don’t see China” I’d go for the former, I just felt fortunate to be able to see China with the flexibility and planning oversight unique to being in a duo with a fluent Chinese speaker involved. Even if I felt like an idiot most of the time just sitting smiling while she had long conversations with the locals.

The younger generations are mostly learning English in school, and it was they who were most bold: especially in the more off-the-beaten-path parts of China, it was not unusual to be the only Caucasians around for miles and for young Chinese people to walk up to us and say “Hello.” If we said anything back, or even smiled in their direction, it caused fits of giggling. The young ones who did speak some English were, in these circumstances, incredibly likely to ask if they could have their photograph taken with us, as though we were some strange foreigners (which we were) but I admit it made me feel sort of like an exotic zoo animal. Our rule of thumb became to say yes to the photo requests from young (University-aged) girls practicing their English, but as two young females we decided that some of the requests for photos from older guys were just a little bit creepy.

Being immersed in this enormous vat of humanity with whom I could not communicate, I became slightly obsessed with learning some rudimentary Chinese. It’s a remarkably difficult language to learn, since the spoken and written languages are essentially independent, and the spoken language is tonal. I got as far as “hello” and “thank you” with the spoken word, and no farther. But I did start to recognize a few of the characters that appeared on many signs, like the names of the cities we visited, the cardinal directions, just simple things. My first character was this one:

China is, of course, the People’s Republic of China, the currency is called the People’s money, and our first hotel in Shanghai was in People’s square. So this one was everywhere, and it was useful for me to remember. After seeing some Bronze-age inscriptions at the Shanghai Museum I became obsessed with understanding how modern Chinese characters evolved from early Pictographs, and I found a few great books to bring home with me. So I can casually indulge in this fascination over the course of the next few months, as I reflect on my trip.

Since I’ve been back in my own bed, my dreams have mostly been set back in China. Clearly there was a lot to see and process, and my brain is still working hard on it. But with the language difference, comes the inevitable funny translations, so I’ll leave you today with one of my favorite giggle-inducers. Hey, I’m sure if I tried to translate something into Chinese the results would be equally hilarious.