Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Life in the UK: English Lessons

Language:  it can be tricky

I don't think that there are many people left in the world who aren't aware that American English (AmE) and British English (BrE) have some significant differences.  (If you are one of them, just go to Urban Dictionary and type the following words into the search bar:  fanny, rubber, knickers, pants, bonnet.)  

There are plenty of expat blogs written by Americans in the UK who have had to adopt a completely new vocabulary (and vice versa.)  I regularly read this one written by an American linguist who teaches at a British University who specializes in the differences between our two versions of the language (oddly, I started reading it long before we ever moved to England...hmmmmm.)  In fact, before we left Seoul, my sister-in-law even sent me a US/UK dictionary, so, clearly, the information is out there.

In fact, in one of my very first posts written in the UK, I mentioned the word 'lurgy,' which I learned shortly after arriving.  My point is:  the fact that our languages are different should come as a surprise to no one - especially me.

And yet, it continues to surprise me, almost daily, the new words and phrases and uses I run across. Most of those that capture my interest - like, 'lurgy' are not the typical 'you use this word, we use that one' foreign exchange that we think of when we think of the two Englishes. Those are the easy ones:  boot=trunk, courgette=zucchini, post=mail.  But some of them are baffling.  Some are funny. Sometimes, they carry different connotations in each language.  It's these subtle differences that I like to mull over in my free time (let's not get into what that says about how boring my life is at the moment, shall we?)

So...I've decided to blog (occasionally) about the new words and usages I've been running across. Keep in mind, I'm living in Somerset, so I'm sure there's some regional usage involved.  I'll look forward to hearing your impressions, and, without further ado, here are the newest additions to my lexicon:

"Can I stroke your doggie?"  I hear this several times a week from children while I'm out walking Merlot.  An American child would, undoubtedly, ask me if she could 'pet' my doggie.  Mulling this over (we walk at least 3 miles a day - I have ample mulling time, trust me) I've decided that Americans really don't use the word 'stroke' much as a verb - especially not with animals - and, if we do, it would most likely be used with a cat, not a dog.  Why, I do not know.  Or maybe that's just me.

"I'll meet you at half ten."  In AmE, we'd probably just say, "I'll meet you at ten-thirty" or, possibly, "half-past ten."  For me, the waters have been significantly muddied by the fact that, in German, 'half ten' (halb zehn) means 'nine-thirty,' or 'halfway to ten.'  I'd never heard it used in English before, and initially had to ask for clarification.  On the other hand, I have an excuse if I show up places at the wrong time.

"It's so warm, you really don't even need a jumper."  In this context, a jumper (as far as I have been able to deduce) is a garment with long sleeves that you wear on top of another garment (a shirt or blouse or vest ( a vest, fyi, is a tank top or undershirt.)  Where I would probably use the terms sweater, sweatshirt, fleece, pullover (or whatever else came to mind) 'jumper' seems to cover anything with long sleeves - but isn't a jacket (this is still a bit vague, so I'm not sure if jacket is in that category or not. Input much appreciated from BrE readers.)   Whenever we take Merlot out wearing this little hoodie (or is it a jacket? or a fleece?) in England, we always get compliments on her 'smart jumper (aka 'attractive or nice-looking outer garment.)

Merlot in her smart jumper.

"Can I help?"  This is what shop assistants say to you in England when it is your turn for service, for example, if you are waiting in line (in a queue) and it's your turn to approach the register (till) or if you are wandering around the cosmetic section in confusion, looking for a cream that will make you look 10 years younger with a single application (I'm here to tell you, it doesn't exist,) or any other instance in which an American worker would say, "Can I help you?"  It's obvious that they are offering to help you (even if they don't say so) but I find it interesting that, in American English, the phrase, "Can I help?" is something I'd use, for, say, asking permission (I see you're baking cookies.  Can I help?) or offering to assist someone who is clearly in a bit over their heads (I see you're trying to lift that refrigerator alone.  Can I help?) Whereas, in American shops or restaurants, the phrase one usually hears is, "Can I help you?" Why? I don't know.

Note:  It's been a few years since I've spent much time in the US, so maybe these things are not as unusual as I think they are.  Comments, clarifications, questions, or corrections are always welcome!