Linguistic Identity Crisis: A country girl divided by a common language.
May 5, 2010 11:27 AM   Subscribe

I'm moving to the UK for the next three years and have some questions about my identity and language use.

I've already started running into this problem...I'm not sure when, how and if I should switch over to UK conventions for language use in speech and writing when communicating with UK people. I am in academia and will be pursuing a PhD in sociolinguistics in England, so these subtleties are something that I am hyper aware of. I do realize that to an extent I'm overthinking this, but it's also something I can't help noticing. Alas, ignorance would be linguistic bliss.

When talking/writing with advisors/staff at my new university, or with UK people in general, should I be using the British writing conventions yet...maths, favourite, programme, etc.? How about in speech? Should I wait till I get there and do the big switchover, like a watch?

Some of the new dialect features are natural to use when I'm talking/writing to people, others feel like I'm trying too hard. Being somewhere in between just seems careless and confused to me (since I'm aware of the differences). I figure that features like the accent will come naturally. I'm pondering the stuff that I have conscious knowledge of, like when spellcheck highlights things that I should change. Or not?

How do people navigate this minefield of minutiae? What has worked, and allowed you to get along with the least amount of social awkwardness?
posted by iamkimiam to Human Relations (41 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I went from living in India (where British spellings and grammatical conventions are generally used) to in the US. Over the last three years I've generally shifted towards using American conventions for all writing. I used American conventions for formal writing from the very beginning, but was more lax about emails and other informal writing. Most people in academia are well aware of the differences between British and American English and will not be fazed by a z instead of an s in a verb. I think you're going to find that switching comes pretty naturally, as you start reading more materials written in British English. You're always going to be aware of it, in a way that a native British English speaker might not be, but it's going to be pretty natural in six months.
posted by peacheater at 11:33 AM on May 5, 2010

I moved from Canada to the UK to do my PhD. I found that in speech, I gradually shifted to saying things like "So and so is collecting me from the airport" instead of "So and so is picking me up at the airport" and saying "lift" instead of "elevator" without thinking too much about it. Hearing it for several months just seemed to change my vocabulary and speech patterns a bit. My Canadian-isms were sometimes found simply charming by the British and hilarity ensued.

In terms of your academic work, yes, you should be writing with UK rules immediately. Some of these changes weren't so bad for me as we write "favourite" etc. here in Canada-land. But when my thesis corrections came back after my PhD defense with the instruction: "Change everything to UK language rules" and it took me FOREVER, I wished I had made more of an effort to start this in my written work from the get-go.
posted by meerkatty at 11:35 AM on May 5, 2010

As an Irishman in America I decided to change my spelling in written communication to match American spelling out of respect to where I am but to keep my natural way of verbal communication and what I call things (e.g. footpath, and most recently 'gale' to describe a strong wind) out of respect to my cultural identity and background.

As I live here longer I have begun to refer to things using the American words, but I let this happen naturally rather than any specific effort.

I have never found it awkward when I use an Irish way of referring to something. I think people generally find it interesting to learn what things are called in different countries.
posted by clarkie666 at 11:39 AM on May 5, 2010

Basically, what peacheater says is what I noticed in my friend who's married a British citizen. It will come to you naturally enough. I would, however, perhaps start calling your pants, trousers instead, so that people don't think you're talking about your underwear.
posted by Medieval Maven at 11:40 AM on May 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

If I'm interpreting this correctly, it sounds like you're wondering if you were to ask someone in England where the nearest petrol station was, would you sound like a dork who was trying too hard? So I mentally transposed this - if a British person came up to me here in Houston, Texas, and ask me where the nearest gas station was, I wouldn't think he was a dork. In fact, in all honesty, it probably wouldn't even register that he had used the American term rather than the British one. Or if I did notice, I would just think he was following the rule "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."
posted by MexicanYenta at 11:44 AM on May 5, 2010

My experience was very similar to Meerkatty. (And you might just be over thinking this! Professional hazard, I suppose.)

My general rule of thumb was stick to local custom in written communication: post, lift, programme, etc.

Speech came naturally. Though I never lost my Canadian accent it did round out somewhat.

Assuming you're North American, your accent will place you more-or-less outside the whole accent/class thing. You should get a free social pass on screwing things like "I took the elevator to the first floor to get he mail."

As long as your aware of potential confusion (as with pants vs trousers) and make a consicous effort to work on those, all the other linguistic stuff should come naturally.
posted by generichuman at 11:47 AM on May 5, 2010

Uh, free social pass on screwing things up
posted by generichuman at 11:50 AM on May 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

I don't think that the differences (aside from your professional life, which has been commented on more accurately than I could) will be as big as you think. I am English, have dealt with lots of americans and other primarily English speaking foreigners and the differences are much less obscure in the UK than in the US, in my experience.

Don't forget that through Hollywood and TV, England is flooded with american cultural references and the language is certainly familiar to most. Very rarely have I seen people struggling to know what an american was trying to say through odd word usage (sidewalk/pavement etc) possibly as there is so much slang already in the UK that it is just one more variant on the list.

Conversely, when I came to the US (and speak pretty clearly with an English accent and relatively strict UK-orientated verbiage) I had many people flat-out fail to understand me. To the point of being incapable of understanding something that I considered very well known English (ie not even slang). Americans seem to find English accents far more difficult to penetrate than English people do with an American accent - we're far more used to hearing it than you perhaps assume. Only the strongest accents would be difficult, for the most part, especially if you talk fast. You would sound more daft assuming a fake English accent than you would be helping yourself.

Socially, I think you will be completely fine and you are totally over-thinking any need to modify your behaviour, to my mind. Especially as you already aware of the likely areas of confusion and can react accordingly. Professionally, you are best getting advice from your specific field (as above).
posted by Brockles at 11:51 AM on May 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

People in the UK are much more used to US English than vice versa, but in writing I'd try to use the British forms. In speech you'll probably migrate naturally but as Medieval Maven says there are some words where you definitely want the British term: pants in the UK are underwear, for example, and you'll need "petrol" instead of "gas".

(I moved to the USA from Britain nearly thirty years ago, and still find some Britishisms in my speech.)
posted by anadem at 11:52 AM on May 5, 2010

I'm Australian and have worked in both England and Ireland. Conventions are a bit different but never found it a problem. Seconding generichuman about the accent--as long as you sound different you're basically OK.
posted by Logophiliac at 11:59 AM on May 5, 2010

When talking/writing with advisors/staff at my new university, or with UK people in general, should I be using the British writing conventions yet...maths, favourite, programme, etc.? How about in speech? Should I wait till I get there and do the big switchover, like a watch?
I've just moved to the UK to take a job in academia, so this question hits home for me. My impression is that, yes, you should make an effort to use British spelling and usage conventions. Just do it silently. There are so many things you'll be doing differently anyway—sleeping in a new time zone; adjusting to the arcane ways of English workplace bureaucracy; getting used to new public transport routines; eating English food—that the spelling thing will almost seem incidental: part of a larger continuum.

The biggest problems I've found so far are (1) idiom and (2) accent. It took me weeks to realize that, when people greeted me with "you alriiiight?", they were just saying "hi." It wasn't that I looked shocked or sick, or something. Secondly, I've got quite strong New Zealand vowels, and I do have trouble making myself understood sometimes. You may find the same thing, although the English will probably be more familiar with a US accent than an NZ one.

On the other hand, your departmental colleagues and fellow students will likely understand. Universities tend to be good that way: they're outwardly focussed and filled with people with roots offshore. You'll be fine. Memail me if you have any questions about relocating to the UK: it is a big readjustment, despite the common language that should, in theory, bind us all together.
posted by Sonny Jim at 11:59 AM on May 5, 2010

From my experience as an American student studying at a Scottish university, I think you're very much okay to use Americanisms in causal speech as long as you're aware of and adjust for the ones that might confuse your audience - first floor/ground floor, pants/trousers as mentioned above.
posted by heyforfour at 12:04 PM on May 5, 2010

I accomodated to British English as an American grad student.

the book Watching the English and Howard Giles' work on accomodation.
posted by k8t at 12:11 PM on May 5, 2010

It will definitely come naturally as you read more in British English, so don't worry about it. I married a British citizen and we've both cross-pollinated our vocabularies. When visiting the in-laws in England, we both unintentionally revert to more Britishness, and likewise for Americanisms while visiting my parents here in the US.

And sometimes translation is necessary! "Divided by a common language," and all of that. But those instances always end up as something people on both sides enjoy learning about.
posted by lhall at 12:31 PM on May 5, 2010

As everyone else has said, use the UK conventions for writing and don't worry so much about the spoken word. Don't force yourself to say anything you find awkward, you will pick it up naturally soon enough.

One thing I was never able to pick up, was the differences in how they speak about education. I just don't understand A levels, O levels and what age people go to what type of schools. I mention this because I had a friend who bristled every time I talked about my time in University as being in 'school'. He said that it sounded as if I was talking about my childhood rather than my time at Uni.

What I would be careful of is when you come back. Some people may find it pretentious if you adopt UK-isms or an accent when at home.
posted by Gor-ella at 12:34 PM on May 5, 2010

Anybody who is going to care about this probably already has an axe to grind.

You'll be fine. Start by setting your spell-checkers to UK English, and slowly work idioms in as you feel comfortable with them (and, in particular, work the obvious ones in right away). If you use them incorrectly, you'll look a bit foolish, although I wouldn't worry too hard about this.

You'll catch on relatively quickly. In my own experience, I weirdly had a tougher time going back to US English, and a few minor idioms seem to have stuck with me permanently.

Also, never attempt rhyming slang.
posted by schmod at 12:36 PM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

What Brockles said.

I use British spelling when writing and generally use British words when I remember (about 85% of the time) e.g. elevator/lift, pants/trousers, toilet/bathroom, boot/trunk etc. However, I have never been misunderstood when I've forgotten to do this.

WRT pronunciations, when it feels comfortable and not-unnatural to do so, I will change them. An example would be fil-ay/fil-et, which I have gotten used to. Tomato/vitamin/basil and maybe a few others I can't get used to saying differently and feel so uncomfortable saying them differently so I don't. People have never misunderstood me or objected - at worst they might think I sound ridiculous for pronouncing something "wrong", the same way an American might think it sounds "wrong" when they hear a British person say "filet", but that doesn't bother me.

As Brockles said, the rest of the world is so saturated with American pop culture, it is very rare that you will not be understood in the same way that you might not understand certain things people might say to you.

To this day, after many years here, the only word I've said which confounded my British co-workers was "kiddy-corner". My boss asked what it meant and I said, "Well, you know, it means it's diagonal from something. What do you call that here?" And deadpan, he said, "Diagonal". Ha!
posted by triggerfinger at 12:46 PM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm British living and working in the US for over a decade - I've never bothered to change spelling in any of my business communications. I have certainly made changes in the way I speak, but only as part of an organic process, not as a conscious decision. People get that I'm foreign and know what I'm talking about even if I use a wrong word. I'm still finding new Americanisms all the time, it's part and parcel of living abroad. The only exception is the one mentioned upthread - pants vs trousers - because that might be trouble.
posted by poissonrouge at 1:04 PM on May 5, 2010

If I were you I'd do a small head start - set your spellcheck to UK English when corresponding with your advisors in the UK, but wait and let the spoken language creep up on you naturally once you're there. Also, best of luck and enjoy it! It'll be so much fun to hear people say "I'm going for a kip" and asking where the loo is. ;)
posted by dabitch at 1:09 PM on May 5, 2010

WRT pronunciations, when it feels comfortable and not-unnatural to do so, I will change them. An example would be fil-ay/fil-et, which I have gotten used to. Tomato/vitamin/basil and maybe a few others I can't get used to saying differently and feel so uncomfortable saying them differently so I don't.

Yeah, I've been misunderstood when "mocha" (moh-kuh) and had to correct it to "mock-uh" before they got it. In the US, people seem to struggle to understand the British way of saying "water" ("woh-tuh"?) and our friend ended up saying it like "wah-der".

Also don't say "fanny", as in "fanny pack". That's a naughty word.
posted by lhall at 1:10 PM on May 5, 2010

I was an American working in the (English) dictionary department of a British publisher for 18 months. Long before that, I was a kid from the sticks who moved to the big city.

I got all of my dialectal insecurity out of my system when I was a kid. Years after assimilating, with insight into regional linguistic diversity, I started to feel silly and sad about the insecurity that drove me to say "soda" instead of "pop" and stuff like that.

So when I got to the UK, I made a pretty conscious decision to assimilate as little as possible -- I chose the "seems careless and confused" route. They're not going to notice when you *don't* use Americanisms, and they'll never misunderstand when you do (except "pants").

I did start pronouncing "water" britishly at pubs and restaurants, because there are so few phonemes in common between the two pronunciations.
posted by xueexueg at 1:15 PM on May 5, 2010

I'm in exactly the same situation as you -- PhD student in linguistics, recently relocated permanently to the UK. I was surprised at how many differences there actually are (this coming from someone in linguistics who also watched a decent amount of British tv and movies growing up). I just think of it as more interesting data to examine, and as many have said, people in the UK know my dialect much better than I know any of theirs (permeation of US culture everywhere, I suppose). They invert and contract lexical have! We can only do this in Baa Baa Black Sheep. Prepositions are especially tricky. We buy concert tickets either in advance or at the door, they buy them in advance or on the door (this always reminds me of Martin Luther). We gather our documents and have them at hand; they have their documents to hand. Lynne Murphy's blog is great for this: My approach has just been to make no attempt to alter my spoken language, and to switch my operating system to UK for writing/spellchecking etc.

Cautionary tale: when I first arrived, I had only what I could take with me on the plane as most of our stuff was on a container ship, making its way across the Atlantic. For a few weeks I was telling people that I only had two pairs of pants. I found out later that 'pants' are what you wear under your trousers. Heh. Also beware of the word fanny, which has a different denotation in the UK as compared to the US.
posted by tractorfeed at 1:19 PM on May 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

You should try to be local wherever possible, both for clarity and to avoid the "American cultural imperialist" stereotype. Besides that, it's a lot of fun to adapt to the nuances of another culture.
posted by 7-7 at 1:20 PM on May 5, 2010

I am from Kentucky and have lived in the North of England for four years. I use UK spellings in all work-related email, mainly because I email lots of people to whom I have never spoken and they might not know I'm American and instead believe I just can't spell. When it comes to personal emails, facebook messages, and the like, I have found it easy to adjust between colour and color etc. depending on whether my audience is English or American. I never even really think about it any more. The only time I find it to be a bit awkward is when I am posting to a site like Metafilter or to my blog, where readers might be of any nationality. I have found myself leaning towards the British spellings more and more as time goes by, though.

As for speaking, for the most part, I never consciously tried to use English-isms over American-isms. Some of them I just kind of picked up naturally because I think they sound better - "I suppose" sounds more polite to me than "I guess", for example, so I go with that. Some things I changed just to avoid confusion. For example, here, a purse is specifically a small change purse or lady's wallet. It goes in your handbag. If you ask someone to hand you your purse, they may look slightly confused as they try to decide whether to go digging for it in your handbag or to just give you the entire handbag.

As for pants, well, my first job here was as site secretary for a large building project. After a day or two on the job, the site manager asked me to wear or bring some more building-site friendly clothes so I could show visitors and clients around without getting my pretty things all mucky. "But I always wear dresses!" I said. "I don't even own a pair of pants!" Oh, how those Yorkshire builders laughed.

Basically, my advice would be not to sweat it. You will find it natural to use British spellings when it's appropriate. As for spoken language, if there's something you find particularly elegant or useful in British English, feel free to use it, and if there's something you find awkward, just leave it. Your native accent and use of language is part of who you are and most people will find it charming and interesting. Some people will jokingly try to imitate it, which almost always consists of saying "Hey You Guys" with really long vowels spoken entirely through the nose. Don't let it bother you, they're just "taking the piss" and you don't really sound like that, any more than Dick Van Dyke ever sounded like a Londoner in Mary Poppins.
posted by Wroksie at 1:53 PM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

triggerfinger: The term "kiddy-corner" comes from catre-corner, pronounced "katter-corner", in reference to the 4 spots on one face of a six-sided die. I don't think it's even common in the US -- it seems to be used more in the East than the West.
posted by Araucaria at 2:01 PM on May 5, 2010

> I don't think it's even common in the US

Yes, it's extremely common, but in a bewildering variety of forms. In my family it was "catty-corner."

My advice to the poster is pretty much identical to meerkatty's.
posted by languagehat at 2:31 PM on May 5, 2010

You may also want to read the blog "Separated By A Common Language", by an American linguist who moved to England for an academic post.
posted by Electric Dragon at 2:39 PM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

It will very much help fitting in if your name is not 'Randy'. This has a rather spcific meaningn the UK :-)
posted by alicegoldie at 2:39 PM on May 5, 2010

I see that tractorfeed beat me to it. Oh well.
posted by Electric Dragon at 2:40 PM on May 5, 2010

Stoodent, Toona fish and Toosday you may want to lose.
posted by A189Nut at 3:31 PM on May 5, 2010

As a Canadian in Britain, almost noone noticed when I used British vocabulary and phrases.

Except when they over-compensated and tried to translate back words I had already translated into British, and thought that I was talking about my husband's orthodontics when really I was discussing his stylish trousers-holding-up-devices (braces).

I would say the British word/phrase when you know it, for greater understanding. I did that as much as I could. Though it did take me a long time after getting back to feel comfortable saying "pants" again.
posted by jb at 5:25 PM on May 5, 2010

Oh -- just thought of another thing: do switch completely to the European ground floor, then first floor thing. Because otherwise you and everyone else will just get confused with directions. Our way clearly makes more sense, but you'll be outnumbered and they will all be very unreasonable about how having the first floor NOT the ground floor is just crazy.
posted by jb at 5:34 PM on May 5, 2010

I moved from the US to Canada 10 years ago. I immediately started using Canadian conventions/spellings when writing. Speaking Canadian English isn't that different from American English, but a lot of what is different has crept into my verbalizing. Enough so that most Canadians don't realize I'm from the US and my family in the US thinks I sound Canadian; this was not done on purpose.

In other words, start writing like they do in England and let the rest follow when you're comfortable with it. English-isms will creep in before you know it.
posted by deborah at 6:18 PM on May 5, 2010

What everyone else said: you'll be fine, don't try too hard (at all?) to change your spoken communication, more for the written.

BUT: you didn't say which bit of the UK you're moving to. I think I'm right in saying that regional and local diversity of accent, dialect and idiom in British English used to be of widespread academic interest because it varied so much and over such a small distance. I think we're homogenising rapidly, but if you're more than 100 miles from London be prepared for some local variation you may never have seen or heard before.

If you buy a sandwich in Derby, someone may well say "Here's your change, duck"; 130 miles to the south west in Bristol, that would be "Here's your change, my lover."

You'll have a great time here :)
posted by cromagnon at 6:48 PM on May 5, 2010

Having been a Canadian living in Ireland for two years, I agree with what others have said--it's easier than you think. Two resources I'd recommend:

* Study this Venn diagram, so that you refer to parts of your adopted, uh, land mass correctly.

* Consider reading Septic’s Companion, “a mercifully brief guide to British culture and language”. Very handy, and amusing.
posted by dbarefoot at 10:35 PM on May 5, 2010

Be aware that you probably won't be able to switch fully to UK English - it's not your native dialect, and as an adult you will probably never pick it up fully. There will always be aspects of your speech, though perhaps not your writing, that will identify you. On the bright side, though, it's easy enough to set your spellcheck to UK, and in the UK most people will understand what you mean because of the heavy exposure to US English that we all have here.

For example, I know tractorfeed pretty well and I know she was embarrassed when she realised what "pants" means here, but I can guarantee that no-one will have thought her in any way strange for saying it. :)

Where will you be living/studying?
posted by altolinguistic at 2:39 AM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

As someone from the UK I'd say that we're, like, totally used to US English and you're really not going to run into any problems here. The differences are relatively minor and even in an academic setting I don't see how allowances wouldn't be made for you.

I'd say you really don't have to worry and let any changes that you choose to adopt come naturally.

Have a nice stay ... (and bring an umbrella).
posted by BinarySolo at 2:48 AM on May 6, 2010

I moved from the US to the UK for grad school in October with some of the same questions. I settled on actively trying to avoid any change in my accent and speech patterns. I know quite a few people who have studied in the UK, and those who come back after A year (one!) with a quasi-British accent just sound fake and obnoxious. It's been over six months, and I'm only now starting to lose the fries/chips/crisps fight. I still say "pants."

Don't try to overhaul something as fundamental as the way you speak. There are plenty of other things you'll have to change, and it takes more energy than you might expect to remember which way to look when crossing the street.
posted by Eumachia L F at 4:23 AM on May 6, 2010

... and this is only anecdotal, but FWIW I was speaking to my girlfriend who's Italian and has studied in the UK. As foreign students may have learnt either British English or American English they were told that either was fine as long as it was one or the other and not a mix of the two.

This was for a masters degree in a UK university and so should be universally applicable and not just limited to non-native speakers.
posted by BinarySolo at 5:49 AM on May 6, 2010

You're overthinking it, we are used to American films and TV programmesand we will understand you.

Plain speech is generally fine. Slang and colloquialisms generally don't fare well, e.g.. "I'm pissed" means very different things on each side of the pond. As anywhere you will embarrass yourself if you try and use slang or street words you don't understand (think grandparents trying to sound "hip").
posted by epo at 9:26 AM on May 6, 2010

clarkie666: "think people generally find it interesting to learn what things are called in different countries."

I agree, though there is a bit of race prejudice mixed in here. While Irish, Australian or Scottish dialect and regional terms are often taken as quaint or fascinating, Indian or Philipino English is more likely in my observation to simply be mocked or taken for a sign of ignorance.
posted by idiopath at 11:56 AM on May 11, 2010

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