How does British English read to Americans?
February 22, 2004 3:25 PM   Subscribe

A writer's question: how does British English read (and internally, silently sound) to Americans? [More inside.]

When you read or hear something obviously "Anglo" do you enjoy it as something exotic, "quaint", funny, precious or cute but are still aware of the distance to the point of it preventing the desirable immersion in the narrative, i.e. forgetting about the way it's written? Or doesn't it matter? I suppose MetaFilter posts by the British contingent are a good example.

In other words, is an American editor necessary to "translate"/adapt, even if slightly, what was written in British English, in order to make the text flow for American readers? Thank you beforehand for any opinions on this matter.

[Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and others are more used to British English and (I assume) find it easier to make the necessary unconscious alterations. Hence my directing the question to U.S. members.]
posted by MiguelCardoso to Society & Culture (34 answers total)
I usually notice the difference at first due to the differences in spelling & phrasing, but usually forget all about it once I've become absorbed in what I'm reading. The differences are typically so slight and sound the same in my head, so it isn't much of a distraction.
posted by catfood at 3:40 PM on February 22, 2004

Ditto what catfood said.
posted by JanetLand at 3:50 PM on February 22, 2004

Yeah, I read the first Harry Potter book in the original British with words like "jumper" instead of "sweater" and Ss where I thought there should be Zs. For a page or two it's a bit weird but then you get used to it. I was always sort of saddened that they thought that Americans wouldn't be able to hack the British English in Harry Potter and so changed all the texts to be in American English. I don't have any trouble reading or understanding British English and I feel that if that's the way it was originally written, it should stay that way unless it's completely unintelligible. What's funny is to see Scottish or Jamaican people, speaking English, on American TV and having them be subtitled because of their strong accents, as if we can't understand them.
posted by jessamyn at 3:58 PM on February 22, 2004

Once I figured out 'velly' was actually 'very', no problems.
posted by mischief at 4:04 PM on February 22, 2004

Unless I'm reading something full of "pip-pip cheerio" and all that, I don't hear it as distinctly British.

Reading the Economist is fun because they sprinkle bits of American and British slang and distinctive phrasings, often within the same article.
posted by adamrice at 4:06 PM on February 22, 2004

no matter how it's spelled, my internal sound system makes everything sound american unless i've heard them speak enough, and then it sounds british.

so if i'm reading HP, i hear everybody's voices from the movies...but if i'm reading something by ken mccloud, for instance, i hear american voices.
posted by taumeson at 4:19 PM on February 22, 2004

It's not a big deal, and I would come down firmly on the side of not "translating" British English to American English. Part of my Anglophilia came from reading British books (and yes, the Economist, adamrice) ever since childhood, starting with Michael Bond's Paddington Bear books, Roald Dahl's children's books, and more. (Broadening horizons is good.)

And to cite (I'm betting) a favorite of yours, Miguel, an Americanized P.G. Wodehouse wouldn't be fun at all.
posted by Vidiot at 4:22 PM on February 22, 2004

It's different, like listening to British accents is different from listening to American accents. But "translating" it is simply dumbing it down, and patronizing. It should be acknowledged that the foreign is encompassed by the human.
posted by rushmc at 4:27 PM on February 22, 2004

To me anything in British English automatically sounds more intelligent.
posted by konolia at 4:28 PM on February 22, 2004

it ends up sounding the same internally to me -- when i read i generally don't attribute accents or voices to the characters. so essentially i suppose i just take it in stride, though it always is a small treat to read something that includes british slang and expressions.
posted by sugarfish at 4:50 PM on February 22, 2004

Response by poster: I know Americans are used to reading all sorts of English, but my question wasn't really about vocabulary and it certainly wasn't patronizing. American prose, imho, is far more vigorous, creative, exciting, readable and, in fact, nearer the essence of the English language than what the British produce, which, not to disparage, is very good nowadays.

It's about syntax and the ability to achieve clarity; that "seamless" sort of prose which doesn't call attention to itself. I know a lot of my friends here (and I'm Portuguese) find my Anglo-European way of writing sort of charming, but still agree it has a distancing effect.

Even in the U.S. itself there are tremendous differences between different states' expressions. Some, of course, are openly regional and live off their particularity. But, in an international context, would it be distracting to an American audience to read a book which was clearly written in the "Anglo", "British", "European", openly non-American mode?

In other words, does a pro-American author like, say, Martin Amis, still "sound" British? Or, worse even, English?

[Thanks for the very enlightening and intelligent answers till now. Though they still read as suspiciously reassuring.] ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 5:12 PM on February 22, 2004

But, in an international context, would it be distracting to an American audience to read a book which was clearly written in the "Anglo", "British", "European", openly non-American mode?

No. Or rather, only to the closed-minded. For me, it depends on whether the writer is a good one -- can they express themselves clearly? Can they get their point across with a bit of style? Is the style engaging?

Once they can do that, whether it's written in the British or American "mode" matters little to me, and I don't really experience any kind of "distancing effect." There is a (for me) unclassifiable British feel or sound to certain authors, just as there is an unmistakably American feel to others, and I can't put my finger on why that's so. But it's more of a curiosity than a distraction.

As far as someone writing in another language and, say, choosing whether to have it translated into English by a Brit or a Yank, then I think it's just a matter of taste and who would best render the feel and flavor (should that be "flavour"?) of what the original author is trying to say.
posted by Vidiot at 5:19 PM on February 22, 2004

Miguel -- The Economist is probably the best example of the kind of writing you want to pursue.

Many americans that read the economist, including yours truly, start to pick up british habits, like spelling things with "extra" u's and 's' instead of 'z'.

Generally, americans pronounce british spellings with our pronunciations, and ever since Harry Potter, don't look askance at the words 'lift' or 'lorry'. I wouldn't worry too much about using British spelling or slang and American slang side by side.
posted by SpecialK at 5:34 PM on February 22, 2004

I love reading threads such as these because the most innocuous things (to me) are flagged up. I expect such words as "lorry" to be a stumbling block, but "maths"? You don't call it that? And "writing an exam"? What do you do then?

Conversely, I always find usage like "not that big of a deal" weird, and continually using "bring" for all tenses and locations, never "take".

If it helps answer Miguel at all, I read US english the same as I read British, but with a flag set in my head to not check for accuracy (I'm a pedant, and it would kill me otherwise). This can make me a little more likely to believe things written by Americans, actually, which I have to look out for.
posted by bonaldi at 5:51 PM on February 22, 2004

"math", "taking an exam", bonaldi. And I'm an American, and the wholesale use of "bring" rather than "take" (especially prevalent in the deep South) makes my teeth hurt. (As do a multitude of other pet peeves.)
posted by Vidiot at 6:01 PM on February 22, 2004

Bonaldi - Heck, I say sitting an exam ... which is even more archaic.
posted by SpecialK at 6:03 PM on February 22, 2004

Math, no "s" and instead of "writing an exam" - taking a test.

I think there was a recent post (not sure if it was Mefi or AskMefi) about "of" usage. I thought "of" (as in the example bonaldi used) was correct. I'm trying to adjust my grammar.
posted by deborah at 6:05 PM on February 22, 2004

To me anything in British English automatically sounds more intelligent.

and it's funny how, say, for many Brits (and, I suppose, Yankees) Southern accents automatically sound, to paraphrase konolia, "less intelligent". certainly less educated. and that's a shame.

as a non-native (and self-taught) English speaker, if I could choose to really have any kind of US accent -- instead of the funny hodgepodge I currently display, with a certain embarrassment -- I'd certainly go for a Southern* one, haven't decided which region yet. not that I find them particularly charming, it's just that I'm a big Tennessee Williams fan

I have to say Sen Edwards' way of rolling "hope" in his mouth doesn 't sound very inviting to me, but I digress. he's probably just trying to sound very Southern Conservative Democrat, ie Clinton-style electable, to most tv viewers anyway

posted by matteo at 6:18 PM on February 22, 2004

Oy loyk it meself. Just sayin.... Fortunately, we are not exposed as much to the grimy underbelly of Britishisms, as practiced by this crowd perhaps?
posted by Lynsey at 6:37 PM on February 22, 2004

I don't know that you'll find any general rule, Miguel. Readers who are sensitive to language will inevitably notice stylistic differences, of course -- but who knows what proportion of readers are how sensitive, exactly. (I imagine MeFites tend to skew toward the more sensitive side.) I'd guess that almost all readers get used to moderate stylistic differences after a chapter or two, though, and that they don't really interfere with reading or comprehension -- though they do inevitably color the interpretation somewhat. (For most in a positive way, I believe, though for sure some Americans see English mannerisms as inherently snooty. Whether or not members of the latter group also tend to read much literature (English or otherwise) in the first place, I do not know.)

But as for whether you need an American editor -- Yes, yes, desperately. How could you even venture a thought otherwise? ;)
posted by mattpfeff at 6:40 PM on February 22, 2004

I have to say Sen Edwards' way of rolling "hope" in his mouth doesn 't sound very inviting to me, but I digress. he's probably just trying to sound very Southern Conservative Democrat, ie Clinton-style electable, to most tv viewers anyway

Incidentally, that's a pure Carolina-accent vowel sound to my ears. Different than Clinton's Arkansas accent and certainly different from, say, a Georgia accent.

posted by Vidiot at 7:04 PM on February 22, 2004

British spellings like "colour" are pronounced in my mind's ear differently from their American equivalent. "Colour" comes out rhyming with "velour." Similarly, words like "recognise" are pronounced e.g. "recog-nice" in my mind's ear. "Draught" is pronounced "drawt."

This makes all English writing sound vaguely silly to me.

However, you have to remember that I am in the habit of pronouncing "slough" a different way each time I say it: one time like "cough," the next time like "bough," then like "rough," and so on. It is my sworn goal to prevent anyone from deducing the correct way to pronounce "slough." So don't go by me.
posted by kindall at 8:17 PM on February 22, 2004

A greater mental exercise than assimilating color/colour differences is adjusting to the (to me) bizarre yet fascinating non-use of quotation marks in dialogue in typical British literature. This structure always reads very different than the typical (but not universal) American one...and inevitably lends a somewhat surreal tone to the work, whether one is intended or warranted or not.
posted by rushmc at 11:28 PM on February 22, 2004

In Canada we get it both ways, and you'll often see or hear us switching back and forth between British english and American english. With the odd Canadianism thrown in. So I don't really even notice when I'm reading British as opposed to American english, I hop back and forth all the time.

As far as British english sounding more intelligent - well, a couple of hours of Coronation street will deal with that affectation pretty quickly.

draught = draft ;)
posted by Salmonberry at 11:28 PM on February 22, 2004

I'm a Brit, and when I'm reading stuff written by an American - or fiction in which American characters say "Howdy y'all" or "Doggone it, yer hornswagglin' varmint" (because I know you all regularly do say things like that) it's always in my own voice,anyway.

Hell, Russian characters, female characters, robots and aliens sound like me in my head when I'm reading silently.

Pip pip, cheerio.
posted by Pericles at 3:10 AM on February 23, 2004

Impressions of a goofy American, who happens to have lived in the UK for the past year: British slang can get really obscure.

Color = 16 bit. Colour = True Colour (at least, that was how it felt to me as a teenager, reading Tolkien). Same notion applies to flavour.

Bloke: never liked the word. Sounds like a dead body found floating in a canal. All it really means is "dude".

Quid: Hated the word, 'till I forced myself to admit it was no different than "buck", except a different currency.

As regards Harry Potter, which I've only read in the British editions, the word that bugs me the most is "revising". Where do you come up with that? What is being brought up-to-date?

Then of course, one might get tired of the solution to all things being to "get sorted". Get your car repaired, its "sorted". Punch a jerk in the nose, he's "sorted". Sometimes its overwhelmingly quaint.
posted by Goofyy at 7:39 AM on February 23, 2004

I was never under the impression that the two languages were all that different, really. A word here and there is one thing, but syntactically, Brits can dig Yank lit and vice versa.

I think of it like Rock and Roll. The foreign stuff might sound just exotic enough in your own head (compared to what you know & hear & otherwise read every day) that on the whole it becomes easier to lose yourself in the work.

If someone is going to pick up a work of literature (especially untranslated) from somewhere else, be that the States, England, India, Canada or the Caribbean, I would expect some local color (or colour, whichever) in it. All word-at-a-time issues aside, these are all things that can be picked up, and as long as it's consistent, people'll, um, sort it out.

But then again, I too am from Canada, the land of half-everything, linguistically speaking.
posted by chicobangs at 8:01 AM on February 23, 2004

I thought all Canadians spoke French, anyway?

posted by Pericles at 9:08 AM on February 23, 2004

Speaking of dialects, you all might enjoy this here Yankee or Dixie Quiz.
posted by lilboo at 11:26 AM on February 23, 2004

Reversing the question, I find American spelling fairly jarring, slang slips by, and words like 'sidewalk' for 'pavement' or 'elevator' for 'lift' seem a little cute, just as Americans find our patter quaint.

You don't say what sort of writing, Miguel - for a magazine feauture, say, you definitely need an editor to spike jarring English English, fiction should remain as written.

the word that bugs me the most is "revising". Where do you come up with that? What is being brought up-to-date?

Revising, as in revision? In the UK it means to look again (as well as to bring up to date); the original meaning, following the Latin root. Interesting that American English assumes that if you're looking again, you're bound to make a change. Or possibly not.

posted by jack_mo at 11:59 AM on February 23, 2004

I cut my teeth on reading lots of Brit lit as a kid (particularly since we spent a few years in England) -- everything from Roald Dahl (kids and "adult" stuff alike) to Enid Blyton to the Borrowers series to Lady Chatterly's Lover (oo-er, missus!); as a result, I rarely notice the narrative/syntactical/stylistic differences when I read it (though I inevitably hear the characters' accents in my head when I read dialogue -- whether the accents are accurate is another question!), and when I do notice, it doesn't give me any trouble. Good writing flows well, whether by a Brit or a Yank or translated from the German by a Canadian, or whatever. Some British writers sound more formal to me, true, but I tend to think that that's related more to era (and possibly class) than to any inherent differences in British vs. American writing.

(As a sidenote, not only does British spelling not throw me, either, all the years I spent in England led me to internalize a few selected British spellings -- "draghtsman," for example, "grey" instead of "gray," and some of the -ize/-ise words. Given that I'm an editor, this has actually been a mild pain-in-the-neck on occasion.)
posted by scody at 2:21 PM on February 23, 2004

I think generally we pare things down in writing more than brits (using fewer words), altho there are many exceptions on both sides (Amis reads as American I think...or maybe it's generational, with younger-ish writers?) When I read British newspapers online, I definitely see a style difference bet. the Guardian (which reads as American to me) and the Independent or even BBC (which read more "proper" and british). Also, in translations, I think I can always tell if the translator was British or American.
posted by amberglow at 3:38 PM on February 23, 2004

I don't know if this is British English, or if Australian English is different, but different rules about pluralization drove me nuts when I voyaged down under.

American English: "The team" is singular, even if there are 500 people on "the team." So, "The team is on the field."

Australian English: Many people are in "the team," so it must be plural. So, "The team are on the field."

I saw this a lot in newspaper articles about sports and about rock bands. "Nirvana were one of the biggest bands of the early '90s" in Australia instead of "Nirvana was one of the biggest bands of the early '90s" in America.

Spelling and cute word differences never bother me. But the pluralization thing is too much.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:35 PM on February 23, 2004

For more fun, here's Canadian english translations. Warning: First link leads to someone with a beligerent Canadian pride! However, that being said, any Canadian who still believes we're a mix of US and British spellings should give it a read. We're not.

Enjoy the confusion! And someone tell me, should I have put another L in beligerent to satisfy the dictionary, or am I right? :-)

[ And for those wondering, the official spelling for "Pop" or "Soda" is neither. It's "Soft Drink" -- it's the only Canadian influenced name. Straight from Quebec and Anglicized, like a lot of Canadian words. ]
posted by shepd at 3:21 AM on February 24, 2004

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