Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Separated by a common language? Over-united more like. With some odd quirks

On both sides of the Atlantic, we love to quote the Shaw view that England and America are two countries separated by a common language.

A completely different view was expressed by the first US Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. He’d been a leading aide to George Washington during the Revolutionary War, but emerged in the 1790s as an outspoken Anglophile. Which made him the nemesis of Thomas Jefferson, Anglophobe and friend of the French.

Hamilton told a leading British agent “I have always preferred a connection with you, to that of any other country. We think in English and have a similarity of prejudices and predilections.”

Indeed. There is something out there which the French call the “Anglo-Saxon” mentality, and not as a compliment (they move quickly on to talk about globalisation and neo-liberalism). It tends to come out in a joint obsession between the two countries to put profit before pretty much anything – if Britain, as Napoleon claimed, is a nation of shopkeepers, the US is a country of mall operators – and to use military force against anyone who is even suspected of possibly jeopardising such a sacred way of life.

As a result, even an ostensibly Centre-Left government could end up trotting obediently into Iraq at the beck of possibly the most inept of US presidents, Dubya Bush. We’re still paying the price twelve years on. And it’s likely to get worse. Just because ISIS are a lot grimmer even than Al Qaida doesn’t mean we won’t face something still more dire down the line.

Yep. That’s the one we chose to follow into Iraq
Might have been useful to have spoken a different language:
he made no sense in ours
The community of thought which makes possible this kind of consensus, with all its beneficial consequences, surely owes much to the fact that on both sides, “we think in English.”

So – it’s more a matter of two nations (along with New Zealand, Australia and Canada – predominant whiteness plays a role) bound together, for better or for worse, by a common language.

What differences exist, are pretty insignificant. Does it really matter that Americans wear their pants outside, covering their underpants, while we keep our pants inside, with trousers over them? I think not.

Even so, from time to time I find some of the differences a little quaint. Quaint to the point of bizarre. Here’s a curious contrast between the two sides of the pond in the use of prepositions (little words that really matter in this common language of ours).

If I were to call in on my friend Tom, I would reckon I was visiting him. In the language the French persist in calling “Américain” I would, however, be visiting with him. That always strikes me as slightly odd. I feel that if I’m visiting with Tom, then we’re popping in on someone else, George perhaps. Together.

On the other hand, an American desiring to enter into correspondence with him, would write Tom. Without a preposition. Again, that puzzles me. Surely if you write Tom, you have to be penning a piece of fiction? Shakespeare wrote Touchstone, and pretty clever it was too. If he’d wanted to send him a letter, he’d have written to Touchstone. Which, if hed expected a reply at least, would have been pretty silly. 

Branagh playing Touchstone in As You Like It.
He did well to write him, but never wrote to him.
And wouldn't have had a reply anyway
Occasionally I listen to books instead of reading them. Recently, I was listening to a book being read by someone called Edward Herrmann. What struck me about him was that, despite being American, he pronounced the word “era” in a way that distinguishes it from “error”. As I do. Generally, on the other side of the pond, the words are indistinguishable when spoken.

This is awkward if we wanted to describe, say, the time of Dubya, if I can return to that sad period. In British English, even in the spoken language, we can distinguish the two words in “error era.” In Américain, they’re the same. You’ve got to admit that would sound a bit silly.

On the other hand, you might argue that to sound silly when talking about the Dubya presidency is entirely appropriate.

And you may well be right.


Faith A. Colburn said...

I think in American error and era are completely different words--except maybe in the south where some words get broadened.

David Beeson said...

I keep hearing people pronouncing them both as 'error'. But perhaps you're saying that's an error. Perhaps then we can end an era of mispronunciation.