Friday, 12 October 2012

Englishes: Canadian, British, American

My English is going to be a confused mishmash for the rest of my life.  But I'm okay with that.

This morning I listened to a really interesting interview on the CBC radio program As It Happens with American English professor Ben Yagoda, who tracks the increasing use of "Britishisms" in American English.  A fascinating topic (frankly though, this just makes sense to me - British words and slang are so much more fun than American ones and I've personally been adopting many of them ever since I read Harry Potter and saw Bridget Jones's Diary).

Ben Yagoda does this tracking on an incredibly interesting blog, Not One-Off Britishisms.

In reading through a bunch of the blog, I realized that between growing up in Canada and having now spent  a year in Britain, my vocabulary is steeped in Britishisms, though I find I can switch back and forth, mostly at will still.

In Canada, growing up, there weren't really any rules as to whether you used American or British or that amorphous thing called Canadian English.  I remember very clearly in Grade 2 being told that it was fine to use "favourite" or "favorite" on a spelling test.  Once we hit high school and university, the only real rule was to be consistent in one's spelling.  (Though generally, I think Canadians have a bias toward British spellings - except we are also pretty keen on zeds - "regularize" as opposed to "regularise").  I had one English professor who came out and specified that we must use British English in our essays (but he also had a soft spot for zeds).

Then I came over here.  I started using those s's in "ise/ize" words.  I even started using single quotes rather than double quotes (which was a bit hard).

And my spoken English changed, a bit.  I stopped talking about apartments and started using "flat".  Apparently Blackwell's is generally referred to as a "bookshop" rather than a "bookstore".  I learned that "athletics" means "track and field"; I've trained myself to say "football" rather than "soccer".  I know all about the horror of "roundabouts" (vs. "traffic circles").  I haven't had much cause to talk about gas or petrol, so I'm not sure which would come out most easily.

Because of this dual Canadian/British linguistic experience, I found reading Dr. Yagoda's blog rather interesting, because some things that sounds pretentious or awkward to his American ear either have never sounded strange to me or now just sound normal.  For instance, the British "made redundant" as opposed to "laid off" (something you hear a fair bit in an age of high unemployment).  Or "piece of kit" or uniform or equipment.  That's not pretentious; that's the legit way to talk about, say, your rowing uniform, etc.

Also, hilariously, Yagoda identifies the phrase "'at university' as setting "a news standard for conspicuous and gratuitous use of Britishisms (CAGUOBs), even for the New Yorker."  Americans would of course say "at college".  Canadians usually refer to university, rather than college, which can have a rather different meaning (community college, the College of Arts & Science, etc.).  And if you say "college" at Oxford or Cambridge, then you're into a whole new field of meanings.

Ah, English, such a fun mongrel language.

1 comment:

  1. This was fun to read, Erin! After years of international marriage, my husband and I speak a hybrid form of US/UK English. We used to know which phrase came from which country, but even that has begun to blur. I discovered Yagoda's work a little while ago, and was glad to learn that I'm not the only one who finds it awfully easy to take Britishisms on board.