“Sorry, what was that you said?”: Our Shared English

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I’ve learned it’s challenging writing for a potentially global readership. After all, nowadays, courtesy of Amazon and others, potentially anyone on the planet can tomorrow get hold of most any book. As an author, how to cope with that reality?

Screen capture of Dictionary.com.
Screen capture of Dictionary.com.

Language can be an issue. I’m not talking about a “foreign” language either. Rather, there can be “trouble” even with local variations on our shared language.

That can make for unintended laughs. Most of my readers so far are Europeans, with the largest number, unsurprisingly, being British. That’s due probably to a combination of my having long lived in Britain (word of mouth) and also because I kept the novels’ existences “secret” among most friends and relatives in the U.S. (although the books are naturally on Amazon.com).

Lulworth Cove cliffs, Dorset coast, England. [Photo by me, 2006.]
Lulworth Cove cliffs, Dorset coast, England. [Photo by me, 2006.]
Approaching a Dorset roundabout. [[Photo by me - I was NOT driving - 2008.]
Approaching a Dorset roundabout. [Photo by me – I was NOT driving – 2008.]
View from the London Eye. [Photo by me, 2004.]
View from the London Eye. [Photo by me, 2004.]

It’s staggering – all of the non-U.S., non-U.K. variations on English. As we know, the language is widely spoken as a first-language throughout a large part of the world – Canada, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, India, South Africa, the West Indies, and many elsewheres. I can’t find the link just now, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget a prominent Indian writer recently strongly arguing how English is now another native Indian language.

I also remember reading years ago how it was thought (feared?) in Britain that the arrival of television in the 1950s, dominated as it was by U.S. output, would in a generation or two greatly undermine British accents and local dialects. The U.S. media reach would also make U.S. English the English language globally. Worst of all, English-speakers around the world – even in Britain! – would all sound blandly mostly like – Dear God! – Americans!

We know now that never happened, but due to hugely increased exposure to so much U.S. television and film over the decades (and pop music, too: the Beatles, for instance, sang subconsciously in “American” because of the U.S. rock “n” roll and rhythm and blues they were greatly influenced by), non-American native English-speakers are now indeed much more “familiar” with “American” English than Americans probably are with theirs. Yet as a writer you can’t always take that “knowledge” for granted. I had decided at the outset that I would write the novels in “American,” and upon reading part of the Passports manuscript – the first book – an English friend had joked with me: “I need an American dictionary!”

However, early on I was also inadvertently “mixing” American and U.K. English terms – particularly in the narrative – without realizing (realising) it. When that was pointed out to me as well, I went back and cleaned that up. Yet I also have had to keep English characters sounding appropriately “English” given they speak U.K. English, of course, not the U.S. version.

Excerpt from "Distances," on the iPad app for Kindle. Click to expand.
Excerpt from “Distances,” on the iPad app for Kindle. Click to expand.

Even non-native English speakers can be impacted: above, a Frenchwoman who’d visited the U.S. only once for a long weekend, and a Russian who’d lived there much longer, speaking English and, briefly, nodding to “American.” Words I use like “faucet” and “pocketbook” are far more common in American than in U.K. English. So in Distances, I dropped in some humo(u)r about that reality.

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