Writing, as I am now, about British East Africa in the early 20th Century, I have a new challenge—making my characters sound British and still have the dialog comprehensible to modern readers on the both sides of the pond. The task is complicated by the fact that the scenes take place a hundred years ago.
The disparity between the two languages became apparent to me shortly after I left school, when an English friend pointed out the verbosity of English (as opposed to American) speech. “In New York,” he said, “a stranger needing to break a large bill will walk up to you and say, ‘Hey, have you got change of a ten?’ But a Londoner will approach and say, ‘I beg your pardon and please forgive me for interrupting you, but I wonder if you would mind helping me. I find that I am in need of smaller money than I am in possession of. Would you mind at all, if you can, giving me change for this ten pound note.” That friend was the first person I ever heard utter the chestnut: the United States and Great Britain, two countries separated by a common language.
He gave me a Xerox of a chapter of Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad, which I still have. It begins like this:
“There was as Englishman in our compartment, and he complimented me on --on what? But you would never guess. He complimented me on my English. He said Americans in general did not speak the English language as correctly as I did. I said I was obliged to him for his compliment, since I knew he meant it for one, but that I was not fairly entitled to it, for I did not speak English at all--I only spoke American.”
Twain goes on to make great fun of how the English pronounce the language through their noses (cow vs. käow, etc.) But then he takes up usage and finishes the chapter, of course, with a punch line:“When you are exhausted, you say you are 'knocked up.' We don't. When you say you will do a thing 'directly,' you mean 'immediately'; in the American language--generally speaking--the word signifies 'after a little.' When you say 'clever,' you mean 'capable'; with us the word used to mean 'accommodating,' but I don't know what it means now. Your word 'stout' means 'fleshy'; our word 'stout' usually means 'strong.' Your words 'gentleman' and 'lady' have a very restricted meaning; with us they include the barmaid, butcher, burglar, harlot, and horse-thief. You say, 'I haven't got any stockings on,' 'I haven't got any memory,' 'I haven't got any money in my purse; we usually say, 'I haven't any stockings on,' 'I haven't any memory!' 'I haven't any money in my purse.' You say 'out of window'; we always put in a the. If one asks 'How old is that man?' the Briton answers, 'He will be about forty'; in the American language we should say, 'He is about forty.' However, I won't tire you, sir; but if I wanted to, I could pile up differences here until I not only convinced you that English and American are separate languages, but that when I speak my native tongue in its utmost purity an Englishman can't understand me at all."
"I don't wish to flatter you, but it is about all I can do to understand you now."
That was a very pretty compliment, and it put us on the pleasantest terms directly--I use the word in the English sense.”
If you want, you can read the whole chapter here:
To serve my prissy desire to get history right in my novels, I found the most wonderful website. It gives the meanings of idiomatic expressions in Britglish and even tells when they came into use. A boon for an American writer who wants to make sure her British-isms are not anachronistic. If you have a mind to browse it, here it is:
For myself, my editor asked about some of the phrases I used in Strange Gods. Here is what I answered in an email last week:
“Regards Britglish vs. Amerglish:
In this latest version, I have three instances where the characters, in dialog, use the word “whilst” as is still commonly used by the educated Brits.
You questioned three expressions that are British-isms. We can Amercanize them if they are too distracting. I tried to make these people sound British to American ears and would like to maintain that, but not if it is disturbing.
Page 100: Cranford says “Rum business.” Modern Americans would say “Crazy business,” but that would not sound right to me coming out of that snob’s mouth.
Page 155: Cranford again: he says “that will be an end on it,” which is how Brits say “that will be the end of it.”
Page 206: Nurse Freemantle says, “Vera is from home.” An American would say “Vera is not home.”
My editor said we should leave them the way I had them. I am really glad of that. If, once the book is out, I get any flack about this from readers, I have my response ready. I will just shout, “Popycock!”