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How "Correct" Is British English?

A first-hand look by an Anglo-American
at the real differences between British & American
English. Originally a part of the "Sixties Book,"
it became a wildly popular on-line download on
Compuserve's Foreign Language Education Forum.
Published by Translation News, 1992. It has
now been reunited with the Sixties Book.

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Since  this book has now been published, many of its chapters have been abridged, though the summary and four chapters can still be found in their entirety. You can keep up with publication plans by checking back here periodically.

The alleged differences between British and American English have long provided a topic for learned observations, newspaper articles and even folklore. It is not my intention to rehash any of this material from the past but rather to provide a fresh look at these two language formations from the viewpoint of modern linguistics. The conventional view of these differences, both in Britain and to some extent in American scholarly circles, holds that British English is the parent, the model, the arbiter whose usage is to be preferred in almost all cases, while American English is, like the country itself, merely some kind of colonial colossus run amuck.

There is also a built-in linguistic confusion of a different sort—the United States terms itself America, while England is in fact called England and its inhabitants English. It therefore seems overwhelmingly logical to assume that English is their language: after all, they're English, so it's theirs, isn't it? Or is it? At a time when more and more Europeans, Asians and Africans are learning English as a second language, we really need to clarify this otherwise confusing question. Let us therefore see what kind of light linguistic principles can shed upon this matter, discarding our partisan prejudices as best we can.

From the beginning, one is confronted by the assumption that British usages are "normal" or "correct," their American counterparts aberrant, exotic, and/or "incorrect." Granted, this view is increasingly seen as obsolete in the U.K., for as the Prince of Wales, Malcolm Bradbury and others have lamented, the standards of British English have been alarmingly undermined by transatlantic and internationalist tendencies. But these very protests show that British English is still regarded as a "norm," which many believe they must aspire to and a few actually attain.

Let us start with accent, where we will find no shortage of British informants maintaining that American English is extremely "nasal,"—that is, spoken through the nose. It is therefore further characterized as "twangy," unpleasant, or (worst of all) unclear. Something called British pronunciation is supposed to be the norm for the purpose of this comparison, and it is also naturally assumed here that only one British accent need be considered, what is commonly referred to in Britain (but never referred to in America at all) as RP or `Received Pronunciation.' Such a rash assumption is easy enough to assail, but we will leave it to one side for now and turn our attention to what not only linguistics but also medical science have to tell us about British speech, for this matter of accent is most definitely open to scientific discussion.

The truth of the matter, in both linguistic and medical terms, is that it would be just as accurate to refer to British English as excessively throaty and hold up American as the "norm." There is not the slightest doubt from a physiological point of view that speaking correct British English does involve blocking off one's throat, bronchi, and lungs to an abnormal extent as compared not only to American English but also the usual accents of many foreign languages.

The medical reasons for this are not at all hard to discover—it has in fact been known for decades that the national British disease par excellence is bronchitis, with asthma running a close second. No one who has ever heard some of the BBC's roving travelogue narrators wheezing away on the sides of volcanos or breathlessly describing the mating rituals of Bornean lizards can doubt the extent to which these two respiratory ailments have found their way into Received Pronunciation.

Such deformations are also found in some northern French accents and in the miasmal quality of colloquial Italian common in the Arno valley around Florence, also allegedly a model of its national language. I myself developed fairly good cases of both ailments while living in England and Florence, which greatly helped my accent in both languages. Thus, it may well be that British English, long supposed to spring from a high level of breeding, owes its origins instead to a low level of breathing.

This whole question becomes more than academic when we consider what impact it may have on foreigners trying to learn English. Is there really any reason why people from sunny Italy, tropical Africa, or the earth's higher and drier regions should be forced to contort their throats and windpipes in an effort to reproduce what may be only an accident of climate? Can the British continue to maintain that their variety of English is "normal" or preferable in the light of this information?

Most probably they can and will, but the lesson here for all those with a real interest in linguistic truth is that all forms of speech owe something to climatological factors, and there are specific physiological reasons—close to engineering reasons in their way—why various accents sound the way they do. In any case, American nasal sounds can make a better claim to being a world norm than throaty British, since they can be heard in many other of the world's languages, including not only French and Danish but also many Chinese and Malayan regionalects.

Differences in accent are one thing, but what about far more crucial differences in actual words? Surely no one can fault British good taste in this regard, and American coinages can only be regarded as a necessary nuisance to be learned for utilitarian reasons and used as little as possible. But here too the situation may turn out to be quite different than imagined. I will not bore the reader with such already familiar instances as elevator vs. lift, diaper vs. nappy, etc., nor will I attempt to draw any conclusions as to which is better. That way lies merely partisan madness. There are in fact much more striking examples of usage, ones which deeply illumine the differences between British and American society, and it is these which adherents of either persuasion, and especially those embarking on the study of our language, should carefully consider.

There are in many languages certain pairs of contrasting words, often linked in their phonetic structure, which embody and reflect the concerns of those who speak the language. Good and bad are often cited for English, brutto and bello for Italian, yin and yang in Chinese. But in addition to good and bad, British English also possesses another basic pair of key words. These words do not figure in at all the same way in American English. They are almost constantly on people's lips in Britain, yet they are used so differently in the UK as to actually require a translation into American English. And although these two words do get used frequently enough in America, they are simply not linked in the same way, and their usage in the US requires a translation the other way into British terms. I will discuss in some detail how these two words reflect their respective societies and am illustrating their two-way cross-translation in the form of a table. The two words are rude and kind.


Translation into English
of the American Meaning

Translation into American
of the English Meaning


overtly insulting

direct, brusque


actively compassionate,


civil, normally responsive

Since it is scarcely at issue that these two words are used quite differently in Britain and the U.S., my question from the outset will be, in line with the title of this article, which is in fact the "correct" usage? And can the question of which is "correct" be separated from larger issues of politics, customs, and social systems?

Most Americans who spend time in England soon become aware of these words being used in a strange off-center way, which they may not be able to pin down and may dismiss as "quaint" or "eccentric" or excessively "polite." They will constantly find themselves being told how kind they are to have done something, when they know perfectly well that they have not been kind at all, merely civil or normally responsive. As an example, if you pass the sugar to a stranger in a cafeteria, he may reply, "How kind of you," or "Frightfully kind."

But this does not qualify as "kind" at all in America, just barely civil, at best "polite." This is why our table shows "civil" or "normally responsive" as the translation into American of the British usage. The difference is so great that there might be a case for dropping a footnote on the pages of all English articles and books where the word "kind" is used, explaining what it means in American. Similarly, the English word "rude," which marks the opposite of "kind," is used in an equally off-center way. Words, deeds, or attitudes which would scarcely merit this description in America are constantly being described as "rude" in England. Very specific ritual phrases and mutterings, which we will soon describe, must accompany any act, question or statement in England, lest they be called "rude."

Since Americans make their way through life without observing any of these protocols—indeed, without being aware of the existence of such ritual phrases and mutterings, almost anything they do or say is likely to be labelled rude, and so it is no surprise that the two words "rude American" are frequently heard together in England. This is simply because what an American may consider the normal, direct way of doing things, as galling as this may be to many would-be anglophile Americans, is considered "rude" in England. In fact, the English word "rude" should probably be translated as we have it in our table: "direct" or a bit "brusque." It probably describes the way not only Americans but many other of the world's peoples go about their lives.

Here too a relatively impartial linguistic analysis may be useful. The anthropologist Edward Hall has done much of our work for us in setting up different levels of social distance defined by different cultures and embedded in their language (1). His two most famous examples are the different social distances observed by Japanese and Americans and by speakers of Arabic and Americans. There can be no doubt that we are witnessing a comparable cultural phenomenon between Britons and Americans as well, and these differences are equally well reflected in language.

The proof of this is that these usages of "rude" and "kind" cut both ways. Many British friends visiting the U.S. have expressed to me their impressions that Americans are going out of their way to be explicitly rude to them, especially during their first weeks in the country—and often their only ones—so that they do not discover that a difference in social space might be involved. Edward Hall describes much the same thing happening to him in his relations with the Japanese. Most Britons unfortunately do not remain in America long enough to break through this barrier, and so it is supposed that Americans go on forever being impossibly "rude" to one another but are simply too insensitive to notice. For this reason, I have also provided translations of the American meanings into English: for "rude," overtly, and often personally, insulting; and for "kind," actively compassionate.

The reason for this different social space, at least as far as I have ever been able to discover, is that the British do indeed feel themselves more distant from one another than do Americans (2). Any violation of their personal or psychic space by another counts as "rude." Minimal observance or non-violation of this space gets graded as "kind." To my knowledge no other European language makes such a distinction.

One might credit all of this to overcrowding or to class differences or once again to the weather—or even to a combination of the three—but for whatever reason the British choose to remain, as has been noted for ages, fairly aloof from one another. They are of course famous for insisting on prolonged conversations about the weather with strangers before they will discuss any further matters with them. This would all qualify as no more than anecdotal, except that it once again has definite consequences for all who wish to learn British English

The point once again is this: out of all Europeans, perhaps only some Scandinavians might agree with the British on their concept of social distance and their distinctions between "rude" and "kind." Most other Europeans, while they might occasionally pay lip service to such distinctions, live lives a good deal closer to the American view. As do most peoples of Asia, Africa, and South America for that matter. Should all these peoples, when and if they choose to learn English, also be required to accept the British definitions in this field as the "correct" ones? And if so required, are they likely to obey?

As we shall see, this concept of "social distance" has further consequences in every stage of learning British English. Let us first take a simple conversational question, one quite likely to be asked by or of newcomers but one which also illustrates the different rules for American and English. If, for example, you are in New York and you wish to find Fifth Avenue, you may turn to most passers-by and simply say, "Which way is Fifth Avenue?"

This is a perfectly correct way of phrasing this question in American English, one both used and understood by natives. You might also say, "Excuse me, which way is Fifth Avenue?" but you could also get away with just saying "Fifth Avenue?" and producing the question mark with your voice—it's not as nice, but it will get you there. If you felt the need to be extremely polite, say with an older man or perhaps with a woman, you might go so far as to say, "Excuse me, which way is Fifth Avenue please?"

In England even this last phrasing might mark you as extremely "rude," if not actively hostile—depending on your accent, you would be classed as a Northerner, a foreigner with poor English, someone from the lower classes, or a "rude American." This is because you are obliged to say things quite differently in England—we shall now see what was meant by ritual phrases and murmurings. Let us now suppose you are in London and wish to find your way to Leicester Square. As astounding as it may seem, the full correct form of your question, including all its linguistic and stylistic subtleties, is as follows:

"I beg your pardon. I'm terribly sorry to bother you, but I wonder if I could possibly trouble you to inform me as to how I might find Leicester Square."

This is not intended as a joke, though it may sound like one to some. It was the full and correct form of asking a question during my time in England and, from everything I hear from friends and see on TV, still remains very much the standard. Its multiple phrases permits your British interlocutor 1) to realize he is being addressed; 2) to decide whether he wishes to bother answering; and 3) to devise some sort of reply. Your chances of obtaining one will be greatly increased if you pronounce the name Leicester correctly, another hidden land-mine in the question.

So much for simple, relatively neutral questions. Now let's suppose you really want to get down to brass tacks with someone and have a serious discussion, even an argument if need be. There are in all societies rules and conventions surrounding such conversations, and neither America nor Britain is an exception. Nonetheless, it would still be possible in America to turn to someone you knew moderately well and say:

"Damn it, Jim, you're all wet about the Chinese. You don't know what you're talking about."

This would not do at all in England. While such a statement might lead to further and more intense argument in America, it would not necessarily offend Jim or anyone else, and it certainly would not lead to the end of the conversation or a breach of friendship. In England it almost certainly would. The approved British form for saying essentially the same thing runs more or less as follows:

"There is great merit in what you say. I could not help but applaud as I heard you state your views, and I have on countless occasions in the past found myself coming to much the same conclusions, though of course I have never been able to phrase them as skilfully as you just have. There is no doubt in my mind that you are essentially correct in every particular, and I would not presume to amend your statement in the slightest detail. But I must admit that I find myself compelled to point out that it might conceivably be to your advantage to consider the following circumstances regarding the Chinese, however irrelevant they might seem at first hearing....."

As many Americans may find this uproariously funny, I must insist once again that this is not my intention. It truly shows how the English may address you, and it also reflects how you must address them in your reply if you are to have any hope of communicating with them. You are still a long way from expressing what it was you really wanted to say, but at least you are on your way, and provided you have omitted none of the obligatory politesses and murmurings and provided your tone of voice conveys complete sincerity—and your accent is correct and you commit no major gaffes in your choice of words—you may have a chance of getting an idea across.

Anything less may well be dismissed as rude or "embarrassing," another key word with different meanings in England and the States. Many remarks, questions, and challenges considered unexceptional in the U.S. would be regarded as deeply "embarrassing" in Britain. This attitude is in fact embedded within British libel laws, under which statements are open to prosecution not because they are false but because someone may find them "embarrassing." Needless to say, as has been frequently observed by British and American journalists alike, these laws present a considerable obstacle to free discussion.

Once again, which of our two versions is the "correct" one? Is it inevitably the British one, or is another choice possible? This choice is ultimately a very practical matter and belongs to the learner. Those who speak Japanese with all its honorifics or Chinese with its multiple self-abnegations may find the British version a challenge, may in fact be disappointed if a language offers any fewer subtleties than British English. Or they may not. What is important is that this level of knowledge should be available to all learning either variety of English before they begin their studies.

The differences between the two versions of English extend to the structural level. There are some specific differences between British and American in verb forms used for declarative sentences and in how questions are asked. They are not at all subtle differences, though they require careful study, and they are not to be found in the grammar books. To begin with, the Assertive-Interrogative form—or what I will call the "Isn't It?" structure has a totally different function in British than in American. In the United States, this structure is normally used to express doubt, even of one's own judgment, for example:

"Today is the right day, isn't it?"

"My god, I did bring that book, didn't I?"

In England, however, this simple structure, which we all use every day and which can color our attitudes towards our own thought processes, is often used quite differently. It expresses not doubt at all, but rather confirmation of one's previously held views or prejudices. Two typical examples:

"It's quite the best, isn't it?"

"We English have always done that sort of thing far better, haven't we?"

In fact, despite the question mark, no question is being asked at all, rather an assertion is being made. The answer "Of course!" is assumed, even expected. This structure can on occasion be used in a similar fashion by Americans, but far less frequently than in England (3).

Another British-only structure which reaffirms existing prejudices in the mind of the speaker is what I call the Reinforcing Conditional form, often utilizing the "I should have thought" sequence. It is constantly heard whenever one expresses any idea the slightest bit novel and usually means, if you are the one who has provoked it, that someone has decided you are quite mistaken and will go on believing what they always did, regardless of what you may have said or will ever say. If, for example, one is discussing the permissibility of tea with lemon as a beverage, the response may well be:

"Really? I should have thought it would be frightfully bitter."

And that is that, your conversation has effectively ended. Although you may go on arguing, you will achieve nothing except to demonstrate that you are an insensitive foreigner. Here too the would-be learner of English must make his or her own decision. Mastery of the "Isn't It" and "I should have thought" structures is absolutely central to speaking "correct" English, though these phrases are never taught in class and will, like much of the other material discussed here, tend to bypass, confuse or irritate Americans.

I could go on at great length here about the best and worst ways of communicating with the British, but I am concerned here only with a serious examination of the differences between British and American as they affect language learning. I have already discussed accent to some extent, and I will now return to it only in so far as it affects the pronunciation of individual words. Many people throughout the world are convinced that a British accent is far more distinguished, cultivated and definitive than what passes for American speech. This of course also makes it more "correct," and it goes without saying that the British pronunciation of any given word must be preferable to Yankee mumbling. As we will soon see, this is far from being the case.

Many of these same people also assume that they can achieve a proper British accent simply by substituting broad English A's for all those frightful American "a-as-in-fast" sounds. Since this assumption is widespread among many students of English, the following example may be useful as a test of how well it works. Try reading this passage aloud with what you believe to be a correct English accent, and then check your way of saying it against the "correct," "received" pronunciation given at the end of this article. Unless I am mistaken, even quite a few Britons will ignominiously fail at least part of this test, which may also provide a measure of the difficulties involved. Here's the passage:

"The fancy falcon cast a dastardly pass after an unfastened ass with asthma. By Bacchus, what a disastrous aftermath! Mere mastery of this scanty example cannot mask your transatlantic, antipodean, or lower class antecedents."

It is for readers to decide, after perusing the "correct" version of this little quiz, how "correct" they want their own English to be. In fact, as few as twenty percent of Britons are likely to pronounce this passage close to "correctly" (and perhaps only ten percent will get it totally "right"). These all too probable results raise considerable questions as to whether the British should go on teaching this as correct pronunciation and whether the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary (our source here) should continue marking vowels as they now do.

The point of this example is to point out, in case any further evidence were needed, that the British form of English is in its way an armed camp, bristling with devices to repel the foreigner, the invader, yes, the learner. These devices may even be aimed at the people of Britain. During my time in the UK, I was sufficiently skilled with languages to make it past a number of these barriers, only to find others yet in waiting. I believe it possible that such barriers may ultimately be directed not so much against Americans or foreigners—who are perhaps only an after-thought—as against the British themselves. It may be that their existence has something to do with class differences in Britain.

And yet the impression persists that where pronunciation is concerned, the British can do no wrong, that any British pronunciation of a word must by its very nature be far superior to anything any mere colonial might ever say. The influence of this belief has been evident in recent years in the use by some American TV-casters of "weekEND" instead of the older "WEEKend" or the occasional "checkMATE'" for CHECKmate. Suffice it to say that there is not the slightest linguistic, phonetic, or stylistic reason for preferring the former to the latter (or for that matter vice versa). But this is only the tip of the iceberg: leaving to one side these questions of faddish taste, the English have long been demonstrably guilty of committing such wholesale errors of pronunciation all on their own that there is really no way any objective person can possibly defend them.

Here, surprisingly or not, those who disagree may not be British but American. So vast is the certainty in some American circles that where pronunciation is concerned, the British can do no wrong that I can already hear the chorus of American objectors trying to shout me down with cries of "If it's British, it must be cultivated" or even "Look, it's British—let's pretend it's cultivated, even if it isn't." Something comparable once occurred to my wife and me in London when we attended an educational production of Fielding's hilarious satire Tom Thumb, the play that triggered the infamous Licensing Act.

This play is obviously a comedy, replete with characters named Huncamunca and Floradora. It litters the stage with even more corpses than Hamlet and contains numerous quite funny parodies of bad pentameter lines from Fielding's time, such as "Oh, Huncamunca, Huncamunca, Oh." We came quite prepared, having reread the play beforehand. The cast and production were quite proficient, and naturally we began to laugh. No one else was laughing. Soon people around us began to shush and hiss us and tell us to shut up. We did so, more or less, in somewhat servile fashion. At the break we were castigated: "How dare you laugh? How dare you interrupt the beautiful poetry?" These good Englishmen were unable to tell one pentameter line from another. Because it was pentameter, it had to be poetry. I insert this before my instances of what in the U.S. might be called "BBC Bloopers," because it shows that many British still have a tin ear for poetry. Or for pronunciation. There is simply no other way of phrasing it.

We've seen what the British do to their own language—now let's look at how they handle foreign words and names. It isn't as though one can't hear such names and places mispronounced in the U.S. But the British do it with absolute abandon, as though that's what the blighters deserve anyway, and "our" way of saying their words is better than "theirs" anyway. Not a touch of false humility here. Before I get upset by Scarlatti pronounced with not one but two short "a"s, a truly difficult feat (try it yourself), I should perhaps explain that in the pronunciation of Latin the British never went through the great century-long debate we had in the US between advocates of Church Latin and neoclassical Latin. It never occurred to Britons (nor does it today) to pronounce Latin in any but a totally English way, complete with modern English accent and diphthongs.

This fairly typifies their approach to pronouncing foreign words. But the actual examples one hears continually on the BBC suggest that there is no approach or method at all. Each announcer seems to invent his own mispronunciation as he goes along. We will quite overlook the announcer totally unable to say Brest-Litovsk in any form and also not dally to fight over PortuGUESE for PORTuguese. Or the 1991 cultural extravaganza about the history of map-making, where one heard both "Magellan" and "longitude" pronounced with "g" as in "go." Nor will we really bother with MY-thology where Americans would say "mith-ology," or quite the opposite logic of ID-olatry for US eye-dolatry. There is simply no logic for these British choices, and we suspect they are just making things up as they go along.

Matters do become a mite more serious when we come to the name of a part of the world that has been in the news for at least three decades, and in the Bible before that. Apparently the entire British population is suffering from a collective eye disease, and not a soul in Albion is capable of seeing that the name Sinai (as in Sinai peninsula, Moses, and all that) has two—and only two—syllables. I do not believe I have ever met a single Briton—or heard a single BBC announcer—who did not add an extra "ee" and pronounce it SIGH-nee-eye. I really would like to know the reason for this.

Perhaps because I am partial to aspects of Japanese culture, I find the pronunciation Sam-Your-Eye for Samurai (closer to correct, Sah-moo-rye) even more wrenching. But the worst of all is yet to come: not only every British announcer in the world pronounces it this way, but even the late Graham Greene, an author whom I had long respected, recently let the U.S. have it for its deeds in Nicker-RAG-You-Ah. Like many Americans I have mixed feelings over certain events in Nicaragua (which nonetheless recently decided at the polls against Mr. Greene), but his pronunciation alone has convinced me that he could know virtually nothing about this land.

In its own way I found it every bit as anti-Hispanic as American policy. Perhaps as punishment he should have been made to spend the last of his days in Man-NAG-You-Ah, Nicker-RAG-You-Ah and pronounce both of these names correctly several hundred times each day. If he did, it would sound more like a lilting Mah-nah-wah, Nee-ka-rah-wah, with almost no "G" sound at all. Once again, one may ask, is there any reason why foreigners learning British English, many of whom will be able to pronounce these words more correctly, should be forced to duplicate such grotesque examples?

None of the examples I have presented would be of more than anecdotal interest, were it not for a slightly more disturbing factor that has recently become evident. It may turn out to be of no lasting significance, but the widely respected editor of a major British publication on language has recently declared something of a war on American English. This gentleman has actually proclaimed his variety of British English as a major means of preventing a "shallow Dallas or Coca-Cola uniform world culture with bad English as the international language." English eccentricism being what it is, it is probable that we will hear no more of this.

And yet there are some strains in the current British make-up suggesting that such linguistic fascism may be more than a flash in the pan. When Dean Acheson pointed out a few decades ago that the British had lost an empire but not yet found a role for themselves, it provoked a degree of anger among the British difficult to imagine for those who did not witness it. And yet this observation had—and has—a ring of truth to it.

If the British have not been successful in finding a new role in the world, it has certainly not been from want of trying. When Stalin died in 1953, millions of Britons mourned almost inconsolably, for they had come to believe that communism/socialism would provide them with a surrogate emotional empire. And all through the Sixties and 'Seventies a belief in socialism as the "wave of the future," with Britain as its vanguard, was frequently invoked to justify looking down on Americans and their language as a low and reactionary life-form. Now communism is dead, and socialism has been—whether rightly or wrongly—challenged in many countries, so it is not surprising that the British would be out role-hunting again. Nor is it surprising that some might be hoping to find that role in a neo-imperialist, neo-colonialist campaign for British English. In a world full of so many potentially dangerous atavisms, one can only hope that their quest will not prove successful.

All of the instances I have suggested simply overwhelm reason, but I will now do my best to recall some semblance of objectivity and sum up my theme in a cogent manner. I apologize to my many British friends and colleagues within Albion and around the world if I have inflicted any real pain upon them. My apology is real and heart-felt, for I have lived in Britain long enough to have gained profound respect for its history and culture. But I do think it is a legitimate part of my exercise to ensure that a people who has heaped so much condescension on others over so many years, particularly where language is concerned, should have at least some passing notion of what it feels like to be condescended towards in this regard.

As I have said earlier, it is extremely important that those many people now learning English should have some idea what they may be getting into when they choose to learn one variety or another. There is really no way to learn a foreign language without also absorbing a great deal of its social, political and philosophical outlook. This is equally true whether one chooses to learn British or American English. It is for learners themselves to choose, but they must have all necessary knowledge available to them in order to make an informed choice. Whether they ultimately choose British or American or another language altogether, let us hope that they make a wise choice leading all of our nations to an era of sustained world peace.


And here is the "correct" pronunciation for our passage. Source is the OED or any upper-class Oxonian type available, who will breeze through the test without blinking and wonder what all the fuss is about. The only real catch is the word "falcon" itself, which has neither a broad nor a short "A" but a choice between "faw-kun" and "fawl-kun." For the rest, the broad A's (A as in fAther) are capitalized. The others are short, with just one strange exception: "what" given as "wot," rhyming with "not" and not an "h" sound in sight.

"The fancy fawlcon (or fawcon) cAst a dastardly pAss After an unfAstened ass with asthma. By Bacchus, what (wot?) a disAstrous Aftermath! Mere mAstery of this scanty exAmple cannot mAsk your transatlantic, antipodean, or lower clAss antecedents."

If you don't agree with my version, don't argue with me: take it up with the OED or the British at large. A number of them may well agree with you.


1. Hall's most famous work expounding this theme is The Hidden Dimension, Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1966. He discusses allied themes in Beyond Culture (1977) and The Silent Language (1959).

2. The British computer translation consultant John Newton provides me with a dramatic instance of this social distance. He was travelling on a Spanish airplane when the captain's voice came over announcing: "Senoras y Senores, ahora estamos volando sobre la ciudad de Madrid, por abajo se puede ver el Paseo de....." ("Ladies and gentlemen, we are now passing over the city of Madrid, down below you can see....."). He found himself wondering how one could possibly translate this event, familiar to those flying the airlines of most nations, into British English for a British audience. British pilots certainly would not do this sort of thing, nor have British passengers been inclined to request it.

3. I first described the "Assertive-Interrogative" form in the mid 'Seventies, and when I came to write this article, I wondered if I wasn't being a bit hard on the British about it. I was close to softening my approach when I discovered John Algeo's "It's a Myth, Innit? Politeness and the English Tag Question," published in The State of the Language, Univ. of Cal. Press, 1990 and in a longer form in English World-Wide 9 (1988): 171-91. Algeo is far harder on the British than I have presumed to be—he openly states that they are not a "polite race" and identifies five different categories of these "tag questions," which he ranges from informational and confirmatory to peremptory and aggressive.

Alex Gross resided in London between 1963 and 1971, where he and his wife were active in the theatre, literary and artistic worlds. He served as a literary adviser to the RSC from 1965 to 1970, and his translations of German plays were produced by them and other British theatre companies. Several members of his family have been and remain British subjects. His father, who published the "A to Z Guide to London," knew Lloyd George, and Lloyd George knew his father.

[Postscript, 2009: When this piece was first noticed by a linguistics discussion group on the Web, one American would-be critic actually suggested that the previous sentence about Lloyd George proved that the author was nothing but a petty snob boasting about his family. Just in case others might form the same impression, it needs to be explained that the reference is to a famous English drinking and roistering song favored by students. Its words—in fact, all of its words—are: Lloyd George Knows My Father, Father Knows Lloyd George, and it is sung to the tune of Onward Christian Soldiers.]

Much of the contents of this article is abridged and adapted from the English chapters of the author's Inside the Sixties, What Really Happened on a World-Wide Scale, an unpublished manuscript.

This article is Copyright © 1991
by Alexander Gross. It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the author.
All Rights Reserved.


The preceding article (How "Correct" Is British English?) has had an interesting history. It was first discussed with the Editor of Translation International in October, 1989 and submitted to that publication in May of 1990. Its immediate reception was quite cordial, and the author awaited its imminent publication in a 1990 issue. Unfortunately he went on waiting throughout 1991 as well, and polite inquiries about the piece were met with at first with assurances that it would soon be published but then with increasingly evasive and inconsistent replies that one or another of the publication's two chief offices (Nottingham and Amsterdam) might be responsible for the delay.

It soon became only too obvious that the sole grounds for this delay was the reluctance of at least one editor to concede that an American author might criticize British English, although generations of British authors had routinely assumed that they had the right to criticize American English. The entire disagreement soon also ran afoul of the growing "European Hysteria Over 1992", alluded to in two articles accessible from the "Other Topics" menu, and no meaningful response came from either Nottingham or Amsterdam.

This entire disagreement soon culminated in a series of published assertions by the editor of Language International that all of Europe was seriously menaced by "an international, intrinsically shallow Coca-Cola-and Dallas culture run by a rootless, jet-travelling, Hilton-hopping English-speaking elite...with bad English as the international language."

These pronunciamentos further led to a detailed reply by twelve European and American translators, authors, and editors, who pointed out that a publication such as Language International should be the last place where such blatantly chauvinistic and one-sided views ought to be expressed. )

By this time the author reluctantly decided to permit the piece to be printed in two installments by Translation News with the proviso that it remain under his Copyright. It has since also been electronically published on many bulletin boards world-wide. The author still hopes it can be published in printed form in Britain, since the English were always intended as a major part of the audience, and he regrets the contretemps that have so far delayed such publication.



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