Shared language?

I was reading an interesting post yesterday by Kiwi writer Sarah Knipping on the problems of writing in her own brand of this shared language we all call English.

It reminded me of when I went to work on a newspaper in a small town called Penrith many years ago. My new colleagues used a variety of dialect words that completely baffled me – and were shocked when I told them words like ratch and sneck were not standard English!

But then it got me wondering if many authors have problems with their words getting ‘lost in translation’?

English is used by huge numbers of people in many different places: here in the UK where it was invented, over in North America where they use (what’s to me) a strange mixture of archaic grammar and funny expressions. There’s also the Kiwis, the guys on that other island down there, the South Africans, the West Indians… etc etc – all with their own version of English.

And even more people don’t speak English as their first language but learn it because it’s the international language.

Over the last few years, I’ve been teaching English in Portugal. Some of my more advanced students had a pretty good vocabulary but mixed up British and US English (influenced by the global spread of American TV and music.)

It was a battle to try and remind my students that both variations were correct but they had to be consistent. You shouldn’t have colour and civilise in the same sentence.

I also had fun drawing their attention to some of the more dangerous words. Words like fanny, bum, suspenders and fag have very different meanings – and could cause great offence – depending on which brand of English you’re using.

Currently, I’m working on a rewrite of a novel set partly in North Africa. Some dialogue is written as if spoken by someone whose first language isn’t English but unless I’m very careful it can read as though I’m just a careless writer with really bad grammar.

Anyone else having fun with our shared language?

NB. In case you’re wondering, ratch means to have a rummage or search for something, while sneck can mean either to have a sneaky peek at something or is another word for a latch. Hence the popular local ale called ‘Sneck Lifter’!


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2 responses to “Shared language?”

  1. JDCencak says :

    I have some friends over in the UK that I chat with and there were quite a few times where I’d use one word and they’d give me funny looks. Like the word “biscuit”.

    They had asked me what sort of food was served during Thanksgiving, a major US holiday in November. So I went down the list of the usual. Turkey, mashed potatoes with gravy, cranberry sauce, green beans, etc. Then I added biscuits at the end stating it went really great with the gravy. I got a collective “eww” from my British friends.

    Biscuits in the UK are usually sweet confectionary pastries often served with tea. In the States biscuits are more like a very buttery bread roll to go with your dinner. What the UK calls biscuits, in the States we call cookies. Cookies or tea biscuits would certainly not go well with gravy.

    It took us all a couple of minutes to hash out the word and figure out what I really meant by “biscuit”, but at the same time it was fun. We enjoy the language differences and joke with one another about it all the time.

    Yes, we did have the pants/suspenders/garter belt/underwear/panties discussion. THAT was a fun one! 😀

    • Huw Thomas says :

      Yeah, biscuits really confused me too. I did a big cycle trip across the States just over a year ago. The idea of biscuits (cookies to you) and gravy for breakfast sounded disgusting… turned out to be pretty good though!

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