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British & American Dialogue

Discussion in 'Café Life' started by Paul Whybrow, Oct 30, 2017.

  1. Paul Whybrow

    Paul Whybrow Venerated Member

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    This article from The New Yorker offers food for thought about how American writers tackle British dialogue and vice versa.

    When British Authors Write American Dialogue, or Try To

    I've just subscribed to the linguistic blog mentioned in the article, run by Lynne Murphy, as I love words. I've set several of my stories in America, and though I have a reasonable idea of American speech patterns and word usage from having lived in Georgia for three years, I still make mistakes.

    I'm halfway through writing a second novella set in the post-American Civil War known as the Reconstruction Era. Language use is problematic for me as an author on several fronts, including historical, regional terms (do I use phonetic pronunciation?) and what has become known as political correctness. The term African American wasn't current then, but the inflammatory 'N-word' abounded.

    I made a simple error when my protagonist visited a general store for supplies, yielding to the temptation of buying some 'boiled sweets'. Reading through the manuscript while editing, I wondered if that should be 'boiled candy' and checked online to find that indeed it should. Of course, I already knew that 'sweets' were 'candy' in America, but I'd never heard the term applied to the boiled variety when I lived in Atlanta.

    It's irritating when authors make elementary mistakes, such as I've found in several crime novels written by British writers and set in America. I gave up on a thriller set at Cambridge University, written by a keen Anglophile American whose enthusiasm didn't compensate for many linguistic errors. It's said, that with the internet offering access to so much information, including video tours of streets and buildings, that an author doesn't need to visit them to write convincingly.

    All the same, in recent years, several bestselling novels were criticised for shoddy research with the author having no personal experience of the region, including John Irving's A Son of the Circus and Stef Penney's The Tenderness of Wolves. John Irving was terrified of terrorists, while Stef Penney suffers from agoraphobia, so researched the Canadian wilderness in cosy London libraries.

    One of the many strengths of the Colony is that we can help one another out with different cultural habits and linguistic usage.

    Have you noticed any howling errors in your reading or your own writing?
     
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  2. Richard Turner

    Richard Turner Well-Known Member

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    The bee in my bonnet (is that a Brit expression?) is trying to prevent cultures from merging. We are under so much pressure from the ubiquity of American usage that we seem to be constantly losing expressions we never think about until they are gone. Two examples are "Hi" replacing "Hiya", and" bored of" replacing" bored with". This latter, although trivial, is an extraordinary example of how these changes happen. It turns out that in America they have Boards of Education, so some teenager there coined the phrase "bored of education" and now its use is the norm. It's possible of course that the process might work the other way round, and I would be interested to hear from any US Litopians if they have any examples of Brit speak replacing US speak. I hope you would also wish our cultures to retain their distinctive expressions.
     
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  3. Carol Rose

    Carol Rose Venerated Member Founding Member

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    I'm so used to conversing on here and with other UK citizens on Facebook, that I find myself using British English expressions or words at times. :) One positive aspect is that I have no trouble understanding the differences in word usage. Lorry for truck, for example.

    I honestly don't know if Brit speak is replacing any US speak. There are times I can barely understand what anyone under 20 is saying, right here in my own city. I have more trouble understanding US generational speak than Brit speak. :)
     
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  4. Robinne Weiss

    Robinne Weiss Venerated Member

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    Yep. I'm constantly asking my students and my own kids what word they use for something, because I know that what they use and what I use are likely to be different. What they think New Zealand English is is different from what I think it is sometimes.
     
  5. Robinne Weiss

    Robinne Weiss Venerated Member

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    Which is, of course, one of the beauties of language--it is alive. The history of the people who speak it is literally written in the words they use, how they use them, and how they've adapted them over time.
     
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  6. Island Writer

    Island Writer Well-Known Member

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    I suspect UK English will fade from use and American English will take over, mainly because of television, Facebook and the internet in general. As Robinne says, it's a living thing, language.

    Being married to an American and being surrounded by US television etc, I find I am becoming Americanised (or is that with a 'z') - eek! Apparently when I was a precocious 4-year-old living in North Carolina I refused to pick up the American accent, once scolding my mother: 'No, Mummy, it's gars (long 'a') not gas. We're English!' Today I would say 'petrol' but what did I know back then?
     
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  7. Robinne Weiss

    Robinne Weiss Venerated Member

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    Well, and what is American English, anyway? I grew up knowing how to ret the table, eating schnitz and knepp, and calling eggs gockies--ask any American outside of my home county, and I bet they will have never heard of those things. And don't get a group of Americans going on whether it's called soda or pop--it could end in bloodshed. British English is similar, I suspect, in having significant regionalism.
     
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  8. Quillwitch

    Quillwitch Venerated Member

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    boiled candy? What?:confused:
     
  9. MaryA

    MaryA Well-Known Member

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    I can do passable New Yorker street smarts after years of spending time there and having close friends who live there. But when I say that, I mean born-and-bred Brooklyn with the dental 'd' and 't' that hints at older Italian and Yiddish speech patterns. Where you talk about bodegas and not convenience stores. I wouldn't try to do accents from the projects of the 1980s-1990s, where 'punk' means puny for both Latino and black communities, that lively shorthand and barbed wit. Or clipped Manhattan or New Jersey. And I can't usually tell a Philadelphian accent from a New Yorker. They both sound Greenwich Village to me.

    I can recognise the drawn-out vowels of Brahmin Boston if I meet someone from there (where they say 'diddledees' for pine needles) and that famous rhotic dropped 'r'.

    Then too, I could pick up on southern California's 'wicked'. I have no idea where to start with the South beyond the obvious: fireflies or lightning bugs? In Florida I note my favourite blogger says 'tennis shoe' and not 'sneaker'.

    Voice matters so much when you want to establish character: speech patterns, slang, throw-away asides and jokes. It does need to be subtle (not heavy-handed dialect) and much transAtlantic fiction these days is homogenised. I can't tell where anyone comes from in many thrillers written for a more global audience. But pick up Elmore Leonard or Don DeLillo and I know those characters are walking around certain neighborhoods and saying what locals would say.
     
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  10. Rich.

    Rich. Active Member

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    I'm not so sure. For a long time now non-native English speakers have far outnumbered native speakers. I have a feeling the future of English is in the hands of the international non-native community. In the world of EFL teaching (English as a foreign language), people increasingly talk about international English. When it comes to standard English, I think most national Englishes will fade from use.

    @Richard Turner, mentioned the bee in his bonnet about merging cultures, but I'm not sure it's possible to stop it. Historically it never has been. And perhaps the flip side of lost words and expressions is the unceasing invention of new ones. Many languages – French, Spanish and Icelandic, for example – have official bodies that prescribe correct usage. English has no such body – English isn't even the official language of England (England has no official language). Standard English is simply something we all agree on. And it always changes.

    As for the the original problem, it's a thorny one. But as we all agree that fictional dialogue isn't like real dialogue, but rather a simulation that fools the reader (we take out all the umms and ahhs,, for example), perhaps it's good enough, when writing in a foreign idiom, to simulate with panache.
     
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  11. Paul Whybrow

    Paul Whybrow Venerated Member

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  12. Amber

    Amber Member

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    I think a subscription to Netflix can help with this.

    My favorite thing is when a British actor depicts an American -- and they aren't very good. It's really interesting how we're viewed. Although, not necessarily wrong -- also not always right.
     
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  13. Richard Turner

    Richard Turner Well-Known Member

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    Yes, it' just as likely that Indian English will become the dominant form. There's also and interesting comparison to be made between ways of speaking in which the stresses are spread equally amongst the syllables - African English for example, and those where one syllable alone takes all the stress - that's more or less how we speak.
     
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  14. MaryA

    MaryA Well-Known Member

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    Richard, I agree that a multicultural English is fast becoming the dominant practice in Britain in the 21st century, but when we talk about continents and many different languages found on each continent, there's more diversity in store. I have a friend from Kerala who struggles to understand her cousin from Uttar Pradesh when they are speaking English to one another.

    And my neighbours here in the Cape in South Africa speak English accented with Afrikaans, isiXhosa, Zulu, Mozambican Portuguese, French West African, Somali Arabic (very lilting) and what we call multilingual Cape Flats taal which is a hybrid mix of English soapies, Afrikaans, Cape Malay slang and American gangster movie and rap lines! Slam poetry is big in the township club scene and that is a really inventive emerging English tumbled up with all kinds of dialects and jokes.

    I'm not sure what African English might have stress spread equally between syllables, possibly the English spoken by Swahili speakers on the coast of East Africa where each syllable comes across clear as a bell, undifferentiated? Less disconcerting than the very stilted but impressive Queen's English spoken by older Zambians, Malawians and Zimbabweans who were taught English via the BBC in the 1960s before English on the radio and TV became more demotic.
     
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  15. Rich.

    Rich. Active Member

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    This is true, and makes it even more difficult to suggest that the future of English is in the hands of any particular nation. One great driver of international English is business. Some far-sighted multi-nationals have already recognized that English-speaking monolinguals in multinational teams often make poor communicators (particularly Brits – sorry, fellow countryfolk). These companies offer training courses for their native English speakers in how to speak English effectively to non-native speakers. Now, if we're looking for drivers of language evolution, I'd say that's one of them.
     
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  16. Paul Whybrow

    Paul Whybrow Venerated Member

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  17. Patricia D

    Patricia D Venerated Member

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    There's American English and it's close cousin Canadian English, English English, Australian English and English as a second (or third) language. I worked overseas on international teams where the shared language was English. For an English speaker, listening to a discussion in English amongst people for whom it is their second or third language is an exercise in biting your tongue. That or constantly interrupting, saying "that's not how you say that," or "that's not what that means." There were times I just had to walk away. American English idioms are especially vulnerable to mangling.
     
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