Serenity and I were talking at lunch today (we go out for coffee together EVERY day!) and she told me there are certain words and phrases that she feels she has to Americanise (not Americanize!) in her books… and it got me thinking about language…
When I grew up in London we used Cockney shorthand, a version of rhyming slang. We never used the full sayings however - we would never say "Put on your tit-for-tat," we'd say "put on your titfer." (This means hat, by the way.)
Another more complicated example is ‘Arris’, which is taken from ‘Aristotle', which rhymes with bottle, and ‘Bottle and Glass’ rhymes with arse… So if you fell on your arris, you were guaranteed to have a sore behind. We would also say “he has lost his bottle” meaning he has had a major failure of courage…
Ok. I know that was way too long winded! But the idea behind the London slang was simple… if you spoke in a way that was only understood by others of your class, you could say stuff that might otherwise get you into trouble, or that would give vital secrets away (not that I had any of those). It makes me smile when actors such as Don Cheadle in ‘Oceans 11’, crucify my native tongue… and I’m not going to mention Dick Van Dyke… too late, I did ?
And as for the conversation between the English and American soldier in Band of Brothers... It went something like this:
Hoobler: Holy shitt!
Brit: Nah it's alright mate, we're tommies not boche.
Hoobler: Is all this real?
Brit: Yeah, yeah. Well some of it's from the Germans something these toes knocked up. For you lads actually, so you can get your mince pies on some of this Jerry clobber, if you know what I mean?
Hoobler: Not really. Hey mate, you got a Luger? I'm dying to get my hands on a real Luger.
Brit: Yeah go on then, quick butchers yeah?
Hoobler: Boy she sure is a doozy.
Brit: Yeah it's pukka innit?
Hoobler (walking away): Hey Petty!
Brit: Here, mate! You're having a barf if you think you're half-inching that.
Hoobler: Oh yeah, sorry. Well good luck.
Brit: You too mate.
We don't really talk like this!
Talking of language, I find the way Serenity has changed her writing to be fascinating, for example, for anybody not American we would use ‘Mum’ to denote mother, but Serenity was picked up by readers who thought her spelling was a typo! Of course, in the U.S it is ‘Mom’…not a dramatic difference, but it made her reconsider how she wrote. Now she will say ‘gotten’, and ‘elevator’. It's made more complicated because in NZ we often use interchangeable English/American terms like crisps/chips, pants/trousers etc. It's very confusing.
I looked at some of the origins of the words we use in NZ and the U.S, and found that "Autumn," a Latin word, first appears in English in the late 14th century referring to the season of the year, with ‘Fall’ coming into common use in the 17th century. BUT it was British settlers who took the word ‘Fall’ over the Atlantic, where it became the word used to describe the season before winter. So, in fact ‘Fall’ is more of a British word…
So is it true that “England and America are two countries divided by a common language”? (fun fact: George Bernard Shaw is credited with this quote, but no mention of it can be found in his writings?)
Many years ago, when I was working at a school in Devon, a 200+ mile journey from London, I remember falling into the ‘local dialect’ trap when I commented that a friend of mine had recently been ‘tugged’ by the police… after much laughter it was pointed out that although in London ‘Tugged’ meant pulled over by the police, in Devon it was a word used to describe masturbation!
When we first came to live in New Zealand we were met by the Maori language which a great sounding language, but it can be difficult to get your tongue round. I worked for 10 years at the local High School teaching History, and over that time I have become much better at using Maori words… in fact they have become part of our everyday speech. Words such as ’Whanau' (pronounced far-no) meaning family, ‘Kia Ora’ meaning hello, or ‘Kai’ (rhymes with eye) meaning food are used every day.
There are a few ‘Pakeha’ (or Kiwis of European ancestry) English phrases that might be puzzling… 'Sweet as’ is used when anything is considered good, eg ‘that kai was sweet as’, or the very strange Kiwi habit of saying ‘Yeah, nah’ before speaking… "Yeah, nah I’ll be around to your house later."
I suppose the point I’m making is that local words and phrases, accents etc are wonderful to hear. The spread of a more neutral, mid Atlantic accent is a shame, and changing words in books so a protagonist uses words they would not normally use is disappointing. I fully understand why this is necessary, but I LIKE words and phrases in the books I read to be genuine to the region they are set… but I guess I’m a lone voice... or as I would say if I was back in London, “I'm on my Jack” meaning "Jack Jones" = alone…
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