By Tom Anderson
In Harry Turtledove and Richard Dreyfuss’ “The Two Georges” (recently reviewed here on Sea Lion Press by Ryan Fleming), a world is portrayed in which the American colonies never became independent from Britain, but remain as part of a whole to the present day. One way in which the authors signify this is the use of British terminology in an American context, such as using ‘lorry’ rather than ‘truck’ to mean a large motorised goods vehicle.
This example is arguably not very realistic—colonies such as Australia remained part of the British Empire, yet have still developed their own terminology such as ‘ute’ for pickup truck in that case—but it does illustrate the potential power of using one form of English in a context where we would expect another. It is a good way of shocking a reader into remembering that they are looking at another timeline. And unlike self-generated alternate terminology as I have discussed here in previous articles, it does not run the potential risk of simply being incomprehensible to the reader. The reader understands the alternative term as they have encountered it before in real life; it is just not the one they expected here.
This article is written predominantly from an anglophone (and British) perspective and therefore will focus on American vs British usages in their different forms of English, sometimes jokingly dubbed ‘Leftpondian’ and ‘Rightpondian’ respectively given the Atlantic Ocean being called ‘the Pond’. However, much the same arguments apply to other examples from our timeline (OTL) of different forms of a language being used in a former colony and its original progenitor. It would be possible to draw much the same conclusions from looking at Quebecois French, Brazilian Portuguese, or Mexican or Argentine Spanish in comparison to the way those languages are used in their original homelands.
It should also be pointed out that this article is only considering differences which are discernible consistently both in the written word and in dialogue. Different pronunciations of the same word won’t be covered here as they can only be picked out in character dialogue by the use of phonetic transcription. This itself opens a big can of worms because it implicitly expects a reader to have one pronunciation as their own default, which may not be the case.
To take one example from my own experience, the science fiction show Stargate Atlantis features a piece of alien technology called a Zero Point Module or ZPM. To remind us that the character Dr Rodney McKay is from Canada, he always pronounces it as Zed-Pee-Emm rather than Zee-Pee-Emm like the rest of the cast. An American fan transcribed the episodes and chose to highlight this by transcribing the acronym as ‘ZedPM’ whenever it appears in McKay’s dialogue. However, every other instance was transcribed simply as ‘ZPM’, and a British fellow fan had to point out that any British or Canadian reader would be reading ‘ZPM’ in their head as ‘ZedPM’ and would thus only be confused by this distinction—something which had not occurred to the American. Given this minefield of assuming readership, highlighting different pronunciations is probably best kept to a minimum when writing AH (and should be explicitly tied to one character’s narrative experience of a second, not an omnipresent narrator being given a linguistic opinion).
For the same reason, while one of the big differences between British and American English is in spelling, this also isn’t something that can be represented in an AH narrative. One could in theory use US spelling in an American character’s dialogue, but this breaks the reader’s immersion because the Briton he’s speaking to couldn’t hear him saying ‘honor’ rather than ‘honour’ or whatever. And, as before, a writer must (unavoidably) choose one usage over the other in their own omnipresent narration, so again one ends up selecting one set of spellings as ‘correct’ and highlighting the ‘otherness’ of the second, which will divide the audience.
So let’s only look at things which could be discerned both in dialogue and in the written word. This isn’t strictly only an AH-only concern, of course; ‘normal’ fiction writers must also make an effort to represent different usages believably if they are featuring a mix of British and American characters (the same argument applies for the forms of English used in Australia, New Zealand, Canada etc.) The same errors frequently made by those writers must also be a concern to AH writers: excessive overuse of distinctive terms to beat the reader over the head with the difference as soon as the character appears; unrealistically outdated usages stemming from the writer’s knowledge of a country being stereotyped or out of date; characters over-reacting to or misunderstanding the different usages (which one presumes the reader must know and would not react to so strongly); and missing examples which would be different but which the writer is not aware of, which is arguably the most difficult piece of audience immersion breaking to avoid. It is, as Donald Rumsfeld would say, an unknown unknown—but an American writer who has a British character refer to a faucet (or a British writer who has an American character refer to a tap) will have fractured the image of reality they have worked to construct.
Probably the most obvious set of transatlantic differences involves nouns, as in the example of tap versus faucet quoted above. Americans wear sneakers, Britons wear trainers. British babies wear nappies and suck dummies, whilst their American counterparts wear diapers and suck pacifiers. Sometimes (as Bill Bryson observed) it feels as though the linguistic divide is deliberately set up to confuse non-Anglophones; in Britain the Royal Mail delivers the post, while in America the Postal Service delivers the mail. Again it’s usually a mistake to have characters overreact to the difference; for example we might quote the example of car versus automobile, but Americans still use the term car to a lesser extent and Britons know the term automobile from American media, so it isn’t as if characters would react with confusion at the other term being used. That is, of course, if one is writing in OTL or a similar timeline; conversely, a writer can highlight that they are writing about a more enclosed and less globalised world by adding greater confusion between characters—or that they are writing about a world where the US is less of a cultural superpower, if non-American characters react with confusion to American words.
Americans generally like acronyms more than Britons do for everyday things. Television got abbreviated to TV in the US but telly in Britain. Americans get money from ATMs (Automated Teller Machines) whilst Britons get it from cash machines, or more archaically ‘hole-in-the-wall machines’. These are examples which are clear-cut, but sometimes there are also examples of ‘false friends’ where the same word is used for different things in different countries. What Britons call a waistcoat, Americans call a vest—but what Britons call a vest, Americans call a tank top or wifebeater. If that term seems unfortunate, spare a thought for the storage item which Americans call a ‘fanny pack’, reflecting the fact that ‘fanny’ means ‘backside’ in American English. In British English, on the other hand, it is a slang term for female genitalia, leading to some unfortunate misunderstandings. Britain uses the term ‘bumbag’ for American ‘fanny packs’, leading to another example from Bill Bryson of potential misunderstandings: ‘a tramp in Britain is a bum in America, while a bum in Britain is a fanny in America, while...’
But this is only nouns. Less often highlighted is how the US and UK use verbs, adjectives and tenses differently. In America politicians run for office, while in Britain they stand; in America to table a motion at a meeting means to suspend or dismiss it, whilst in Britain it means to begin considering it; Americans and Britons apply collective terms differently, as in ‘the team is’ vs ‘the team are’. Americans often form adjectives without the suffixes that they have in British English, perhaps the most obvious being the American ‘he’s real sorry’ (for example) versus the British ‘he’s really sorry’.
The past tense is one of the rarer differences to be considered so I want to take the opportunity to draw attention to them here. There are two basic ways in English to form the past tense (properly, the preterite tense) of a verb. The first is the ‘weak’ form or, in which the suffix ‘-ed’ (sometimes worn down to ‘-t’) is added to the present tense, as in turn>turned or sigh>sighed or learn>learned or learnt (depending on context). This is by far the most common usage in all forms of English, so such verbs are dubbed regular verbs. However, there remain a good number of ‘irregular’ verbs in which the past tense is formed by the ‘strong’ form, which instead involves changing the vowel sound of the present tense without adding a suffix. Examples include sing>sung, drive>drove and take>took. This definition is slightly simplified because there are examples of ‘strong’ verbs which are not irregular—they add the suffix but also change the vowel sound, as in keep>kept.
I have chosen examples above which are the same in both British and American English, but there are some examples which are different. Perhaps the most frequently encountered one is that ‘dive’ is a weak verb in British English (becoming ‘dived’) but in the US ‘dived’ has increasingly been displaced by the strong form ‘dove’ (pronounced to rhyme with ‘wove’, not like the bird). Unlike most strong forms which are often ancestral hand-me-downs (speculated to go all the way back to Proto-Indo-European), US ‘dove’ is speculated to be a neologism created by people becoming used to the drive>drove construction and applying the same rule. Another example is the past tense of ‘to light’ (as in to light a lamp), which was ‘lighted’ in the UK 80 years ago but has become displaced in both countries by ‘lit’. Finding examples of these are an excellent way to make one’s dialogue more authentic when writing a character who speaks a different form of English.
The language has also diverged based on different patterns of immigration and colonialism. British English incorporates words from India such as char (tea), pukka (good) and purdah (originally a word for sex segregation, now used to mean the period before an election in which government business is paused). American English was enhanced by waves of immigration bringing Yiddish, German, Italian and other terms, as well as Native American words, African-derived words from the slave trade, and a few from America’s own overseas colonialism (for example, ‘the boondocks’ is derived from a Tagalog word for mountain in the Philippines). The most recent influx of words into American English comes from the large Hispanic population, with words such as mesa (island of land) and temblor (earthquake). If writing in OTL or a similarly globalised timeline, though, don’t expect many of these to confuse speakers of different forms of English. Americans know what bungalows, pyjamas/pajamas and pundits are (which began as words in Indian languages introduced into British English), and similarly Britons generally know what chutzpah, pretzels and zucchini are (the latter being named courgettes in British English).
This article has hopefully highlighted some examples, specifically between British and American English, which can be used to add authenticity when writing characters speaking a different form of English. As always, less is more and be careful not to overdo it. One further caveat is that this article has also ignored differences within these two forms of English. There are plenty of regional variations within both the UK and the US, which may make an article in themselves...