Cover image for The prodigal tongue : the love-hate relationship between American and British English / Lynne Murphy.
The prodigal tongue : the love-hate relationship between American and British English / Lynne Murphy.
Title Variants:
Love-hate relationship between American and British English
Publication Information:
New York : Penguin Books, 2018.

Physical Description:
360 pages ; 22 cm
The Queen's English, corrupted -- The wrong end of the bumbershoot: stereotypes and getting things wrong -- Separated by a common language? -- America: saving the English language since 1607 -- More American, more Ænglisc? -- Logical nonsense -- Lost in translation -- The standard bearers -- The prognosis -- Beyond Britain and America.
"An American linguist teaching in England explores the sibling rivalry between British and American English. "If Shakespeare were alive today, he'd sound like an American." "English accents are the sexiest." "Americans have ruined the English language." "Technology means everyone will have to speak the same English." Such claims about the English language are often repeated but rarely examined. Professor Lynne Murphy is on the linguistic front line. In The Prodigal Tongue she explores the fiction and reality of the special relationship between British and American English. By examining the causes and symptoms of American Verbal Inferiority Complex and its flipside, British Verbal Superiority Complex, Murphy unravels the prejudices, stereotypes and insecurities that shape our attitudes to our own language. With great humo(u)r and new insights, Lynne Murphy looks at the social, political and linguistic forces that have driven American and British English in different directions: how Americans got from centre to center, why British accents are growing away from American ones, and what different things we mean when we say estate, frown, or middle class. Is anyone winning this war of the words? Will Yanks and Brits ever really understand each other?"-- Provided by publisher.

"An American linguist teaching in England explores the sibling rivalry between British and American English"-- Provided by publisher.


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427.9 MUR Book Adult General Collection

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An American linguist teaching in England explores the sibling rivalry between British and American English

"English accents are the sexiest."
"Americans have ruined the English language."

Such claims about the English language are often repeated but rarely examined. Professor Lynne Murphy is on the linguistic front line. In The Prodigal Tongue she explores the fiction and reality of the special relationship between British and American English. By examining the causes and symptoms of American Verbal Inferiority Complex and its flipside, British Verbal Superiority Complex, Murphy unravels the prejudices, stereotypes and insecurities that shape our attitudes to our own language.

With great humo(u)r and new insights, Lynne Murphy looks at the social, political and linguistic forces that have driven American and British English in different directions: how Americans got from centre to center , why British accents are growing away from American ones, and what different things we mean when we say estate, frown, or middle class. Is anyone winning this war of the words? Will Yanks and Brits ever really understand each other?

Author Notes

Lynne Murphy is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sussex. Born and raised in New York State, she studied Linguistics at the Universities of Massachusetts and Illinois, before starting her academic career in South Africa and Texas. Since 2000, she has lived in Brighton, England, where she has acquired an English husband, an English daughter, and an alter ego: Lynneguist, author of the award-winning blog Separated by a Common Language .

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Murphy, an American linguistics professor, longtime U.K. resident, and creator of the Separated by a Common Language blog, continues her investigation of the unique relationship between British and American English in this thoughtful, funny, and approachable book. Murphy frames the divide in terms of illness: the British are pathologically afflicted by "Amerilexicosis" (obsessive vitriol toward Americanisms in British English), while Americans neurotically suffer from "AVIC" (American verbal inferiority complex). Murphy uses the drama of these opposing anxieties to draw attention to grammatical minutiae and spelling differences and to explain esoteric linguistic concepts such as prototypes in terms of how bacon doesn't refer to the same thing in the U.S. and the U.K. because "the set of properties that makes something supremely bacon-y" is different in each place. She also shares surprising factual tidbits-Oxford University Press's British and American dictionary databases only overlap in 78% of their definitions-and revealing cultural divergences-saying ate as et is considered standard pronunciation in the U.K. but is often thought of as a trait of backwoods accents in the U.S. The book's momentum comes from Murphy's witty presentation, but its real power comes from its commitment to inquiry and its profound belief that "communication involves a million little acts of faith." Agent: Daniel Conway, DHH Literary Agency. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

For reasons known mostly to themselves, my parents brought me up to pronounce "tomato" with a soft "a," "to-MAHto," as if I were Katharine Hepburn, which of course I was not. Eventually, I realized how that sounded in most of the 50 states and called the whole thing off - until I moved to London and walked straight into a conundrum. It was this: If I used the British "tomahto," the very word from which I had boldly declared independence, was I cravenly pandering to foreign usage in contravention of my own beliefs? But would "toMAY-to" sound willfully, brazenly perverse, an aggressive effort to make some sort of tiresome American point to people in restaurants and grocery stores? Such linguistic identity crises are common, Lynne Murphy writes in her delightful new book, "The Prodigal Tongue: The LoveHate Relationship Between American and British English." It is to all of our benefit that Murphy, an American who is married to a Briton and who teaches linguistics at the University of Sussex, understands the subject as both an academic and an expatriate. For English speakers in an alien English-speaking country, she writes: "Acomplex calculation has to be made weighing up the relative advantages of being understood, fitting in, and avoiding mockery versus the definite costs of losing one's linguistic identity and saying things that sound plainly ridiculous to you." "The Prodigal Tongue" addresses not just etymology and usage - who says what and why - but also how history, geography, sociology and psychology have conspired to create, essentially, two different approaches to pronunciation, grammar, diction and spelling. Suspicion lurks in both corners. Americans, it turns out, are afflicted by a "verbal inferiority complex," meaning that we sometimes think Britons sound smarter than they are, while Britons suffer from "Amerilexophobia," a snooty dislike of creeping Americanisms. (Britain, she says, is "the worldwide hub of anti-Americanism-ism.") Many of us already know and admire Murphy from her sprightly Twitter feed and her excellent blog, "Separated by a Common Language," both of which reflect her exquisite ear, catholic interests and sly sense of humor. "The Prodigal Tongue" reminds us of the academic underpinnings of her work, the extensive reading she has done and her own highly entertaining preoccupations. Fascinated by the different way Britons and Americans use "please," for instance, she has co-authored a paper on the subject for the Journal of Politeness Research, a publication to which we should all immediately subscribe. Murphy's great love for language radiates from these pages. Adjectives have a "mad beauty," she writes, and "happen to be my favorite part of speech." The ways we discuss punctuation, she explains, "offer a neat little laboratory for viewing the possible fates of migrating words." Her examples are often funny and always apt. At one point, she discusses American and British approaches to the pesky issue of pronouncing words derived from French. Britons, it emerges, love to abuse Americans for using "entree" to mean main course. Googling "American entree stupid," to make this point, she gets seven million hits. (It "makes my skin crawl," one respondent says.) Are we doomed to be divided by our common language, to insist that our way is right and theirs is wrong, to bristle with indignation because "quite" means something quite different in America than it does in England? No, says Murphy, whose book serves as an open-minded argument for tolerance and understanding. The linguist Marianne Hundt once described British and American English as partners in a dance. To Murphy, it's even more than that. "British and American English aren't dancers," she explains, "they're troupes of dancers. Not all of them are wearing their assigned costumes, their choreographer has called in sick and they don't all share the same sense of rhythm. One of the dancers has a crush on a dancer in the other troupe, and dancers from both troupes have started mimicking each other. Oh my God, some of them have started twerking!" ? SARAH LYALL, a writer at large for The Times, was formerly a correspondent in the London bureau.

Library Journal Review

In this delightful and highly readable and informative book, American-born, UK-based linguist Murphy (linguistics, Univ. of Sussex) outlines the tug and pull, jealousies, and rivalries of the English language on both sides of the pond. Is American English corrupting the "King's English" or is America "saving" the language and enhancing it? Murphy's analysis of how "fall" came into American usage as an alternative to the French "autumn" is one of many detailed examples of the symbiotic relationship between American and British English. Filled with wit and amusing asides, this well-researched, well-documented text often shows that American English is actually preserving its British cousins' linguistic origins. The difference between the "Queen's English," "Proper" English, and "Received" English is contrasted to "Standard American English." Murphy's analyses are well argued and often very amusing; her investigation of British vs. American pronunciations are particularly insightful. VERDICT Highly recommended both to students of linguistics and general readers interested in language and culture.-Herbert E. Shapiro, Lifelong -Learning Soc., Florida Atlantic Univ., Boca Raton © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



1 The Queen's English, Corrupted If there is a more hideous language on the face of the earth than the American form of English, I should like to know what it is! Baron Somers, in the House of Lords (1979) Americans are ruining the English language. I know this because people go out of their way to tell me so. I am a magnet for such comments-an American who dares to teach English Language and Linguistics at a British university and who has the chutzpah to write about American and British language differences on the internet. But you don't need me to tell you about the wrecking ball that is American English-the talking heads of Britain have been pointing it out for years. English is under attack from American words that are "mindless" (the Mail on Sunday), "ugly and pointless" (BBC Magazine), "infectious, destructive and virulent" (the Daily Mail). American words "infect, invade, and pollute" (The Times). Even Prince Charles has assessed the situation, warning that American English is "very corrupting." Perhaps you had thought someone or something else was causing English's demise. Maybe it's inarticulate young people, bent on creating a future English that consists of little more than strings of so like kinda this and stuff. Or is technology responsible? BBC journalist John Humphrys likens text-messagers to Genghis Khan; they are vandals who are "pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary." Business jargon is another likely suspect. Don Watson, in his book Gobbledygook, argues that management-speak expressions "sterilise the language and kill imagination and clarity." In fact, the plain-language promoters at Clarity International blame business jargon for the financial crisis of 2008-the language of banking had become so meaningless that customers could not understand the risks they were signing up for. But look closer and you may decide that all these dangers to English are just symptoms of a linguistic malady whose ground zero is the United States. For instance, if young people are ruining the Queen's English, should we blame them, or blame America? The United States invented 20th-century childhood, which continues to shape culture worldwide in the 21st century. The seen-but-not-heard Victorian girls and boys of Britain have been replaced by the American inventions of the teenager and the tween. Children born in Essex or Edinburgh or Aberystwyth live part of their lives in a virtual America, home of hip-hop, Disney princesses, caped superheroes, and fast food. The situation is bad enough that in 2007 the British media regulator Ofcom (the equivalent of the US Federal Communications Commission) called for a national debate on the proliferation of American children's television on British screens. "We don't want our children growing up with American accents," proclaimed former BBC Play School presenter Baroness Floella Benjamin. It may be too late. British young people, like their American counterparts are, like, ending their statements as if they were, like, questions? And the youthful English speakers are not all that young anymore. As Oscar Wilde observed: "The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for three hundred years." More than a hundred years after Wilde's quip, the lines between childhood and adulthood have become blurred by adults' refusal to put away childish things, with the US leading the way. The American invention of the word kidult underscores the point. In kidulthood, grown-up speech becomes more casual: no one wants to be called Mister or ma'am. We feel free to mumble our gonnas and lemmes. And everything is awesome. Technology and business are similar stealth American invasions into global English. American technology spills foreignisms throughout the anglophonic world. We talk of uploads, of microwaving food, of personal computers. The technologies crossed oceans and so did the words. Microsoft Word asks British users to set the font "color." Facebook teaches us to unfriend people and unlike things, then puts a grumpy red line under perfectly good English spellings like practise with an s and travelled with double l. This increasingly technologized, globalized world brings us business jargon, the language of optimism and obfuscation. Surely going forward, reaching out, and leveraging our real-time client synergy is the fault of go-getting, pop-psychologizing American suits. We can actually quantify the horror that American English arouses. After using a thesaurus in order to find adjectives meaning 'good,' 'useful,' 'bad,' and 'useless,' I searched the internet for the phrase a(n) _____ Americanism, inserting the synonyms into the blank. I'm happy to report that on that particular day the worldwide web knew of 227 lovely Americanisms, 73 apt ones, and even 5 elegant ones. But the top six not-so-flattering adjectives are slightly more numerous. (I've lived in England long enough to have mastered the ironic understatement.) The internet's top six adjectives modifying Americanism Flattering Not-so-flattering 227 Lovely Ugly 7,780 231 Nice Horrible 4,780 100 Useful Vile 3,610 73 Apt Awful 1,700 25 Delightful Dreadful 963 5 Elegant Nasty 373 That's nearly thirty times as many not-so-flattering adjectives as flattering ones, just looking at the top six. After the top six, the flattering list stops, but the not-so-flattering one goes on. And on. American English-the language of my childhood, my dear mom and dad, the teachers who introduced me to Shakespeare; the language of Sesame Street, Barack Obama, Maya Angelou, and Mark Twain-is Linguistic Public Enemy Number 1 in much of the English-speaking world. So far we've seen it described as a pollution, a disease, a destructive force, an aesthetic horror. The repetition of these refrains in my adopted country makes it difficult for me to maintain a stereotype that Americans hold dear: that the British are a polite and intelligent people. Is American English really a disease that infects other languages, particularly the mother tongue of England? Or are we seeing the influence of linguistic hypochondriacs, diagnosing idiocy and destruction where there is none? Are Americanisms evil pollutants that disintegrate minds? Or do they inoculate English against a wasting atrophy? The answers to these questions are more complicated than the linguistic Chicken Littles ("The sky is falling! The language is imploding!") are willing to admit. This book provides an arsenal of facts and an armful of interpretations that, I hope, might heighten our enjoyment of our common language and our pride in it. What if, instead of worrying about the "ruination" of English by young people, jargonistas, or Americans, we celebrated English for being robust enough to allow such growth and variety? What if instead of judging people (including ourselves) on the basis of pronunciation or grammar, we listened to what they had to say and enjoyed how they said it? What if instead of tutting, we marveled? Humor me with that for the length of this book. Then, if you must, you can go back to complaining. Statements like "British is best" or "American is simpler" are just too glib to do our language justice. The ideas to be pilloried in the following chapters include: One kind of English is more pure than another. One kind of English is more precise than the other. American and British English differences amount to just a few spellings and some funny words. British English is older than American English. American and British English will soon be indistinguishable. English can be hurt by speaking it wrong. Maybe you hold some of those beliefs. You certainly know people who do. They're harder beliefs to hold once you've looked closely at the full range of linguistic differences and similarities. These differences are superficial and deep, simple and complex, blatant and sneaky: the spelling of colo(u)r, the pronunciation of garage, the meaning of frown, whether you eat mashed potato or mashed potatoes. They touch on the language's relationships with time, with the landscape, with other languages, and especially with social class and self-image. They raise questions about what we value in our language. Is tradition more important than efficiency? Do we judge good English by what authorities say about it or by how people actually talk? Is it better to have many different ways to "English," or would we be better off with a more uniform language? I'm not going to try to answer those questions for you. In fact, if I get my way, you may be more unsettled about these issues than when you picked up this book. Whether you value tradition or innovation, efficiency or poeticism, localness or universality, you may find that those things are harder to pin down once you dig deep into the mire that is English. Anti-Americanism(-ism) There is no such thing as American English. There is English. And there are mistakes. @QueenUK (not Her Majesty) When it became clear that American independence (on American terms) was inevitable, King George III vowed to "keep the rebels harassed, anxious, and poor, until the day when, by a natural and inevitable process, discontent and disappointment [are] converted into penitence and remorse." But with other colonies to manage and Napoleon coming on the scene, the harassment did not last long. Today, with our bloody tax-and-governance dispute well behind us, the Anglo-American "special relationship" is one of the strongest allegiances in the world. David Cameron and Barack Obama took time in 2012 to write in the Washington Post: The alliance between the United States and Great Britain is a partnership of the heart, bound by the history, traditions and values we share. But what makes our relationship special-a unique and essential asset-is that we join hands across so many endeavors. Put simply, we count on each other and the world counts on our alliance. Notably absent from their list of what binds us is language. We can only guess how much Cameron cringed when he saw a u-less endeavor in a piece he had coauthored. No one is really sure who first quipped that the two countries are "separated by a common language," but our linguistic differences have long been noted and stewed over. In 1756, just after the publication of his great dictionary (but before there was a United States), Samuel Johnson referred to "the trace of corruption" in the language of an American book he reviewed. That he enjoyed the book at all is a testament to its author's skill and elegance, for as a loyal subject of the monarchy Johnson was no fan of the uppity colonists: "Had we treated the Americans as we ought, and as they deserved, we should have at once razed all their towns and let them enjoy their forests." All its life, the United States has had European naysayers. In the past century, distaste for America and its exports has been couched in terms of resistance to American cultural imperialism. Before that, it was America's radical rejection of the old inheritance-based roots of power that struck fear and disgust in the hearts of many. European anti-Americanism was born out of "astonishment over the new society [. . .] in which for the first time social stratification had no value," according to Dutch historian Jan Schulte Nordholt. Titles and family connections were much less important in the new country; what mattered was what an individual could achieve and accrue in their lifetime. "Soon one of the fixed stereotypes about America was that everything there was determined by money and everything could be had for a price." It may be hard for us in individualistic, democratic, western societies of the 21st century to appreciate how unsettling American independence was. These days, we roll our eyes at the Declaration of Independence's contention that "all men are created equal" and point out that its authors kept slaves. But for many 18th-century Europeans, the complete rejection of monarchy, aristocracy, and state religion looked like something very dangerous indeed. How could authority come from the people, when the people might very well have parochial interests, uneven education, and different ideas about God? Many, like Samuel Johnson, thought it ungrateful and unseemly that American colonists protested British laws and taxes, considering that they had benefited from the British crown's protection in disputes with other colonial powers and Native Americans in the New World. Feelings against America were (and are) in no way limited to British monarchists. Even those who admired the United States' democratic project came to doubt the value of its people and their products. Charles Dickens had hoped to find in America less social stratification than he knew in London. Instead, he found nitwits. "I do not believe there are, on the whole earth besides, so many intensified bores as in these United States." Many have suspected that the immigrants who populated the new country were not the best and the brightest that Europe had to offer, but were instead, as American journalist H. L. Mencken described them, "incompetents who could not get on at home." The immigrant mZlange of America could not be trusted to bring refined manners, learned culture, or the best English (among other languages) to the New World. But those who worry about the dZclassZ Americans tend to be those who have the most invested in (and the most to gain from) the traditions and language that are associated with the British upper classes. The anti-British-establishment United States, its products, and its ideas were more popular with the commoners-cum-working classes of Europe than with those further up the social ladder. That hasn't really changed. At the close of the 20th century, journalist Alexander Chancellor observed that the British upper class has been "generally more anti-American than the working class because it felt more directly affronted by America's assumption of Britain's former role as a world power." European distaste for all things American often has an air of befuddled paternalism to it: How can a culture exist without a history? Those from more ancient cultures might look upon the United States as a parent might judge a toddler. The tot might be adorable and precocious in saying his ABCs, but he's still just a child. We're not going to hang his finger paintings alongside the Mona Lisa. His ideas and language are limited by the extent of his tiny experience, and so we don't have to take them too seriously. But then reality kicks in: that New World upstart is actually an influential player. And those words he spouts: Are they some kind of stealth weapon against all that is good and true in English? From anti-Americanism-ism to amerilexicophobia For shame, Mr Jefferson! [. . .] we will forgive all your attacks, impotent as they are illiberal, upon our national character; but for the future, spare-O spare, we beseech you, our mother-tongue! European Magazine and London Review (1797) What crime against English had Thomas Jefferson committed that raised such ire in London literary circles? How did he "perpetually trample upon the very grammar of our language"? He had (it seems) invented the word belittle. Jefferson had been incensed by the Count de Buffon's theory that the wildlife and people of the New World (including the transplanted Europeans) could only ever be inferior in size to those of Eurasia, and so he wrote: So far the Count de Buffon has carried this new theory of the tendency of nature to belittle her productions on this side of the Atlantic. Excerpted from The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English by Lynne Murphy All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

1 The Queen's English, Corruptedp. 1
2 The Wrong End of the Bumbershoot: Stereotypes and Getting Things Wrongp. 28
3 Separated by a Common Language?p. 63
4 America: Saving the English Language Since 1607p. 96
5 More American, More Ænglisc?p. 127
6 Logical Nonsensep. 159
7 Lost in Translationp. 191
8 The Standard Bearersp. 227
9 The Prognosisp. 261
10 Beyond Britain and Americap. 289
Notesp. 299
Referencesp. 331
The Quizzesp. 345
Quiz Answersp. 347
Acknowledgmentsp. 351
Indexp. 353