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.

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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.

Englishisms

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?