I wrote this blog as a guest post, but it was never published. But as tomorrow is a special day for me – Scotland is voting whether or not to split from the Union and it’s my ten year anniversary of living in the UK – I thought it was an appropriate topic for my blog. The following piece is on coming to terms with British English as an American writer.
Expatriates often speak of the day they starting thinking and dreaming in the tongue of their adopted home. For many, this is not just the moment of language integration but also social and emotional inclusion in a foreign land.
When I moved to Britain from Denver, Colorado in 2004, I was prepared for culture shock in the form of different food, weather, and stilted British emotional commitment. I had already spent time the United Kingdom before moving here, so I thought I was ready for anything, even the general unknown.
I was wrong.
It was Oscar Wilde who stated, ‘We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language’ (1887). Never truer words have been uttered.
When I arrived, I was not prepared for having to learn another language. I thought, ‘As an American, at least I don’t have to worry about knowing English.’
Getting to grips with sporadically different vocabulary may not seem like a big deal, but for the professional writer understanding the nuance of a new dialect is everything. Plus, there’s more to understanding the divergences of British English than vocabulary and spelling. There’s syntax, morphology, cadence, semantics and punctuation to take into consideration. This doesn’t even account for the subtlety of colloquialisms. For example, if a British person greets you with the common ‘You alright?’, they aren’t enquiring to your well-being. So, do not respond with, ‘What? Yeah, I’m fine. Why, do I look like something’s wrong?’ or ‘Well, it’s been a rough day, my cat just died.’ A simple ‘Yeah, fine, and you?’ is the accepted response.
While these differences are, indeed, part of the learning experience for any expatriate, they can kill a writer’s career. To write effectively, one must speak to an audience as a member of that audience. Therefore, if you aren’t fluent in the language, you can’t communicate properly.
An example of variants in the English language can be found in the Harry Potter books. While the titles were changed from The Philosopher’s Stone in the UK to The Sorcerer’s Stone in the US, this isn’t the most notable difference between the UK and US printings. If you flip through the books, comparing each page, you’ll notice adjustments to phraseology and vocabulary depending on the country in which the book was printed. For example, Dumbledore’s favourite sweetie (‘candy’ in American) is ‘sherbet lemon’. In the US, a sherbet is a gelato type ice-cream, but in the UK it’s a hard candy, so the US editions are rewritten to ‘lemon drop’. Additionally, there are other less confusing changes, such as the use of the word ‘adjacent’ in the UK version versus ‘catty-corner’ in the US printing. Most likely, these smaller changes have not been made because the American audience wouldn’t understand the word ‘adjacent’. Instead, I am assuming, the editors didn’t want the reader to be pulled from the story. By editing the book so that it held a vernacular that was familiar, the American readers would sail through the prose undisturbed, sinking further into the plot. Isn’t this the ultimate goal for any writer: fiction, non-fiction, or copywriter?
When I moved here, I was unprepared for the complexities of British English. Luckily, however, my main reason for moving to the UK was to study writing and literature as part of a Master’s programme, so I was forced to think about my writing in a very cognitive manner. Yet, I must admit, it was still years before I began to think and dream in my adopted language.
This meant that writing for a British audience was put on hold until I knew I was fluent. While this was a very difficult phase through which to navigate, in the long-run, it has worked out for the best. I now promote myself as someone who can write copy and edit for both US and UK audiences, providing me with clients on both sides of the Atlantic. In fact, I am currently editing a novel for a woman who is American but her characters are British. Her book is being marketed primarily to American audiences so her spelling and punctuation is in US English, but her characters use British vocabulary and phraseology. The reason I was hired is because I am fluent in both dialects of English.
If you are a writer and thinking of moving abroad to a country with the same language but a different dialect, I would recommend that you go with an open mind but be prepared to be lost for a while. I would recommend:
…brushing up on the differences before you move by trying to emerge yourself in that country/culture’s writing. Read work online from bloggers and news outlets in that country.
…with everyone now online, try to keep as many clients from your home country as possible when first living abroad. This will not only help with finances in the early days, it will provide you with a bridge until you become fully comfortable in your new dialect.
…you don’t rush into thinking you’re ready to write in the other dialect. Because you are foreign, clients will be looking for mistakes. They’ll be harder on your work than they will be on indigenous speakers, so be acutely aware of your writing.
…start using native words and phrases as soon as you arrive. An American friend of mine has been living in the UK for several years and still uses American words. She told me she feels like a ‘fraud’ using local dialect. It may seem silly at first, but throw yourself into the language. Don’t be afraid to go linguistically native.
…be aware when the dialect isn’t English. I don’t just live in Britain, I live in Scotland. The Scots have their own variant of English, which is often considered its own language. Even after ten years, I don’t try to write in Scots. I can understand it, but I don’t write in it.
In general, my advice is to be open-minded but prepared to spend time learning the language as if were completely new. You’ll eventually be speaking like a native. In fact, I’m happy to report that I now think and dream in British.