Friday, January 9, 2009

Separated by a Common Language

'England and America are two countries separated by a common language.'
- George Bernard Shaw

As a Canadian writer in the UK, I'm confronted every day with different spellings to words I thought I'd known how to spell. Sometimes, though, the longer you stare at a word the more unsure you become. Words like 'judgment' -- or 'judgement' as it's spelled in the UK -- plague me for hours, days sometimes (I can be a bit obsessive).

Another one that threw me for a loop was 'artefact'. Or as we North Americans know it, 'artifact'. When I first saw it on a sign, I guffawed, thinking some nitwit had spelled it wrong. But my British companion gave me a look and said archly: 'That's how we spell it here, you silly North American.' (She didn't add the last bit in but I could practically hear it in her tone.)

And of course, it's not just the spelling. One word can have two completely different meanings, depending on where you are. Take, for example, the word 'rubber'. In Canada, it's an old-school word for 'condom'. But in the UK, it just means 'eraser'.

I started out my UK life as a teacher. Straight off the plane, I was supply teaching the next day in London's classrooms. The opportunities for misunderstandings were endless.

One day, a nine-year-old brought over a piece of art-work to show me. He was so proud of what he'd done. I cooed over it for awhile and then said: 'Put it in the bin.'

For me, a 'bin' meant the plastic tray sitting beside me. For him, though, it meant the rubbish. I watched as his big eyes filled with tears, he crumpled his drawing, and put it in -- the bin. That was a lesson I learned quickly.

It's not just the meaning of the words, it's also how we say them. Words like inevitable (in-ev-it-a-ble, in the UK); and the ever-so-strange aluminum (a-lu-min-i-um). As an English teacher at a state secondary school, I was actually prevented from giving my students spelling tests for fear my accent would throw them off. I had to sit at my desk while a British teacher read off the words for them!

I thought by moving to England, I wouldn't encounter any language issues. How wrong I was.


Dube said...

Great post. The poor kid when he thought you were telling him to throw away his work! Glad you figured out why he was looking so sad. :)

I have been talking with an Australian editor about doing some writing for publication, and am studying up on the differences between American writing and Australian writing (which is weird since it's the same language.) It's interesting how many differences there are, even though the language is the same.

&mpersand said...

Hi Marsha,

Thanks for commenting on my blog! Had to chuckle at the "bin" business as it reminded me of a story my mum (also a primary teacher) told me. One day she'd left a colleague in charge of her class while she was in a meeting and was greeted by a girl from her class, who asked, "Where ya bin?" My mum explained (in very eloquent English of course) that she had "bin" in a meeting. At which the girl held up a crumpled piece of paper, repeating, "No! Where ya BIN?!"

I think all these language thingies are fab and prescriptivists are so boring...

&... xxx

Katie @ Très Lola said...

I'm an Aussie living in the UK so I get it too, though to a lesser degree. The one thing I'll be happy never to hear again though is the bloody English uttering "We invented the language" every time a word is spelled or pronounced differently.

Meg said...

I enjoyed this post as I'm going through supply teaching at the moment myself. There is always SOMETHING that the kids don't seem to understand either with my accent (which is just as close to Canadian as they're often confused here) or something I've said, like a phrase. I told some Year 2s once to quit talking back and they just looked at me puzzled and repeated 'talking back?' Meanwhile, I'm wondering if they're just pulling my chain.

The language differences DO seem awfully silly though.

Marsha said...

Thanks, all, for the great comments and stories! It is amazing how so much confusion can result from speaking the same language.

I'll never forget the time a cheeky secondary student told me I was 'fit'. I had no idea what it meant at the time - I thought he was complimenting my athleticism! Ha!

A great book on English in all its regional variations is 'The Story of English' by McCrum and Cran and MacNeil.

Kim Werker said...

I'm an American living in Vancouver, BC, and I get tripped up by how many Ls go in a word. Given that most of the people I write for are American, I also go back and forth about what people will think I misspell. Travelling or traveling? I've been living here long enough, actually, that the Canadian spellings seem more natural to me, but I end up defaulting to the American spellings because they're the larger audience.