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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 28-Sep-12


Friday 28-September-12

Divided by a common language?

I just came back a couple of weeks in America where we stayed with some very good friends who took us to the four corners of Colorado and also well into Utah and down into New Mexico. We had many memorable days among the beautiful aspen trees and red rocks, and had close encounters with rutting elk (once rather too close when we found ourselves between two rival bulls!). Perhaps the most amazing day started with sunrise in Arches National Park and ended at sunset in Monument Valley, after a private jeep tour with an amusingly wry Navajo guide. I'm a keen photographer and took many photos along the way.

During our stay, we noticed many cultural differences, from eating patterns to driving (which seemed somewhat more relaxed than on Britain's narrower, busier roads). Perhaps the most notable yet subtle difference was in the language (19th/20th century playwright George Bernard Shaw said that "England and America are two countries divided by a common language."). We noticed this first when our friends seemed flattered when we talking about the brilliant time they were giving us. 'Brilliant', it seems, means 'very intelligent'. This is true here in the UK, but it also is used as a generic superlative.

It's a bit worrying as I know that the largest group of readers of this site is in the USA and I deliberately try to use American spelling and terminology to align with my main customer segment. Our friends quickly pointed out some phrases I've used which they found confusing, so if you're also confused by my unconscious Britishisms, I do apologize.

In the UK we've fretted for years about how the language has been 'polluted' by American terms that get adopted from TV shows and movies, even to the point where we don't realize the words are of American origin. Yet now, apparently, the flow is going the other way. A recent BBC article highlighted some of the issues. And for a deeper view, you could do much worse than keep an eye on Professor Ben Yagoda's brilliant (!) blog on Britishisms.

Perhaps the bottom line is that, in the world of hyper-communication, languages are slowly merging. This has been happening for a while as English 'pollutes' many other languages, even French, where 'le weekend' has been standard for a long time. Give it a century or two and, if we're not all speaking Mandarin, I'd suspect that everyone, everywhere will be speaking a blended version of English.

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