Language-is-landscape considered harmful

« previous post | next post »

Jonathan Raban, "Summer with Empson", London Review of Books, 11/5/2009:

For an English-born reader, America is written in a language deceptively similar to one’s own and full of pitfalls and ‘false friends’. The word nature, for instance, means something different here – so do community, class, friend, tradition, home (think of the implications beneath the surface of the peculiarly American phrase ‘He makes his home in …’). These I’ve learned to recognise, but the longer I stay here the more conscious I am of nuances to which I must still remain deaf. The altered meanings and associations of American English, as it has parted company from its parent language over 400 years, reflect as great a difference in experience of the world as that between, say, the Germans and the French, but in this case the words are identical in form and so the difference is largely lost to sight.

Andrew Gelman, justifiably puzzled ("Two countries separated etc etc", 11/11/2009):

I can't tell if Raban is being serious or if he is making some sort of joke. The paradox of the statement above is that very few readers will be qualified to assess it.

In any case, if someone can explain to me how nature, community, class, friend, tradition, and home have different meanings in English and American, I'd appreciate it. I've read a lot of things written by English people but I have no idea whatsoever what he's taking about.

My own diagnosis is that Raban got carried away with his metaphorical alignment of landscapes and languages:

[R]eading, of the kind that Empson preached and practised, doesn’t stop at books, but makes the larger world legible.

Trying to understand the habitat in which we live requires an ability to read it – and not just in a loose metaphorical sense. Every inhabited landscape is a palimpsest, its original parchment nearly blackened with the cross-hatching of successive generations of authors, claiming the place as their own, and imposing their designs on it, as if their temporary interpretations would stand for ever. Later over-writing has obscured all but a few, incompletely erased fragments of the earliest entries, but one can still pick out a phrase here, a word there, and see how the most recently dried layer of scribble is already being partially effaced by fresh ink.

The resulting overdose of cross-categorial enthusiasm leads him to imply that French and German are separated by a mere 400 years "difference in experience of the world". This is preposterous to start with, but it's a fitting foundation for the equally preposterous notion that American and British English words have become as different semantically as French words are from their German counterparts.

The landscape-is-language metaphor is familiar and by now almost banal, exploited for example by Baudelaire:

La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L'homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.

Turning this trope around into the metaphor language-is-landscape has gotten people into much worse trouble than Raban's silly U.S.-English:U.K-English::French:German analogy. Consider this famous passage from Roland Barthes, "De l'œuvre au texte", 1971:

Le Texte n'est pas coexistence de sens, mais passage, traversée ; il ne peut donc relever d'une interprétation, même libérale, mais d'une explosion, d'une dissémination. Le pluriel du Texte tient, en effet, non à l'ambiguïté de ses contenus, mais à ce que l'on pourrait appeler la pluralité stéréographique des signifiants qui le tissent (étymologiquement le texte est un tissu) : le lecteur du Texte pourrait être comparé à un sujet désœuvré (qui aurait détendu en lui tout imaginaire) : ce sujet passablement vide se promène (c'est ce qui est arrivé à l'auteur de ces lignes, et c'est là qu'il a pris une idée vive du Texte) au flanc d'une vallée au bas de laquelle coule un oued (l'oued est mis là pour attester un certain dépaysement) ; ce qu'il perçoit est multiple, irréductible, provenant de substances et de plans hétérogènes, décrochés : lumières, couleurs, végétations, chaleur, air ; explosions ténues de bruits, minces cris d'oiseaux, voix d'enfants, de l'autre côté de la vallée, passages, gestes, vêtements d'habitants tout prés ou très loin ; tous ces incidents sont à demi identifiables : ils proviennent de codes connus, mais leur combinatoire est unique, fonde la promenade en différence qui ne pourra se répéter que comme différence. C'est ce qui se passe pour le Texte : il ne peut être lui que dans sa différence (ce qui ne veut pas dire son, individualité); sa lecture semelfactive (ce qui rend illusoire toute science inductive-déductive des textes : pas de "grammaire" du texte), et cependant entièrement tissés de citations, de références, d'échos: langages culturels (quel langage ne le serait pas ?), antécédents ou contemporains, qui le traversent de part en part dans une vaste stéréophonie.

Here's an English translation from Josue V. Harari, Textual strategies: perspectives in post-structuralist criticism, 1979:

The Text is not coexistence of meanings but passage, traversal; thus it answers not to an interpretation, liberal though it may be, but to an explosion, a dissemination. The Text's plurality does not depend on the ambiguity of its contents, but rather on what could be called the stereographic plurality of the signifiers that weave it (etymologically the text is a cloth; textus, from which text derives, means "woven").

The reader of the Text could be compared to an ideal subject (a subject having relaxed his "imaginary"1): this fairly empty subject strolls along the side of a valley at the bottom of which runs a wadi (I use wadi here to stress a certain feeling of unfamiliarity). What he sees is multiple and irreducible; it emerges from substances and levels that are hetereogeneous and disconnected: lights, colors, vegetation, heat, air, bursts of noise, high-pitched bird calls, children's cries from the other side of the valley, paths, gestures, clothing of close and distant inhabitants. All these occurrences are partially identifiable: they proceed from known codes, but their combination is unique, founding the stroll in difference that can be repreated only as difference. This is what happens in the case of the Text: it can be itself only in its difference (which does not mean its "individuality"); its reading is semelfactive (which renders all inductive-deductive sciences of texts illusory — there is no "grammar" of the text) and yet completely woven with quotations, references, and echoes. These are cultural languages (and what language is not?), past and present, that traverse the text from one end to the other in a vast stereophony.

fn 1 "Qui aurait détendu en lui tout imaginaire." Imaginary is not simply the opposite of real. Used in the Lacanian sense, it is the register, the dimension of all images, conscious or unconscious, perceived or imagined.

Seems like a harmless little flight of poetic fancy? But this seductive collection of Heideggerian ideas has ruined most of literary analysis and much of social science for going on half a century. Raban's absurd exaggeration of trans-Atlantic linguistic divergence is nothing in comparison.

Share:



54 Comments »

  1. MattF said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 9:02 am

    Raban never says that the differences between the French and German languages are comparable to the differences between English and American languages. I suspect that you're suffering from a case of déformation professionnelle– Raban said something about language that seemed obviously wrong, so you jumped on it. I'll just note here, for the record, that the first half of his essay is all about the virtues of reading carefully and slowly.

    [(myl) What actually happened here is that Raban wrote something that puzzled Andrew Gelman, about the differences between American and British meanings of a list of specific words (nature, community, class, friend, tradition, home). Andrew emailed me to ask whether I could shed any light on the claim. Raban's list puzzled me as well. I could have tried to evaluate the actual trans-Atlantic differences in usage or connotation of these specific words -- say by comparing their distribution across contexts in collections of British and American texts -- and to figure out on that basis what Raban might have been getting at, and whether it might be true. But given limited time, I tried instead to explain why Raban, obviously a smart person and a careful observer, might have written something that appears to be so superficially wrong. I focused on this sentence:

    The altered meanings and associations of American English, as it has parted company from its parent language over 400 years, reflect as great a difference in experience of the world as that between, say, the Germans and the French.

    And I argued that this kind of thinking comes naturally to those who think about meaning in the way that Heidegger and his followers have promoted, though the medium of French post-structuralist "theory" -- though it's true that most practitioners are careful not to phrase their observations in a way that bumps up against mere fact in the way that Raban carelessly does in that sentence, or in his list of trans-Atlantically divergent words.

    Empson was post-structuralist even before the French were structuralist, and he was no disciple of Heidegger; but he's been adopted into the pantheon of thinkers that Raban seems to me to be echoing. Of course, this is merely one thread in the stereographic plurality of signifiers, as I experienced them while wandering with a relaxed imaginary through the valley of Raban's text, and so YMMV. ]

  2. Bobbie said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 9:15 am

    Oh dear me! However will I understand what my friends in other English-speaking communities say! My friends who make their home in Australia will forever be an enigma…. The traditions of my Canadian friends will always amaze me. Maybe I need a class in "intra-English" so that I can understand their nuances….. [said with tongue in cheek]

  3. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 9:29 am

    In defence of Raban, hearken* to this: Years ago I (a Briton) arranged to meet an American someone (or body) in McCurdy's in Rochester, NY.
    She said "Meet me on the first floor." It was only after considerable time that we finally met, outside the store, each having given up on the other in disgust, and discovered that 'first' was the next floor up for me.

    ________
    * I should get my mind out of the Dune

    [(myl) If Raban's list had included "first floor", or "boot", or "lift", or "football", or "faggot", or etc., nobody would have been surprised. But "friend"? "tradition"?]

  4. mollymooly said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 9:31 am

    The resulting overdose of cross-categorial enthusiasm leads him to imply that French and German are separated by a mere 400 years "difference in experience of the world". This is preposterous to start with, but it's a fitting foundation for the equally preposterous notion that American and British English words have become as different semantically as French words are from their German counterparts.

    Huh? I can't interpret his words that way at all. Not from the paragraph you quote in isolation; still less so from reading it in the context of the essay.

    His point is: there are differences in nuance and shade of meaning between modern UK and US English; these are slight but insidious and cumulative and in some contexts very significant. The problems are similar when reading Shakespearean English: you may think you understand when in fact you're missing out on lots of little things.

  5. Dierk said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 9:38 am

    He clearly writes '… means something different …', no qualification for connotations. the words he mentioned do mean the same in various English languages [yes, I mean that] even though they might rise different imagery and connotations.

    In defence of his, he may just have forgotten about denotation and connotation. Or main lexical entry and lesser lexical entry.

  6. mollymooly said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 9:54 am

    @Dierk: I think "mean" denotes something different in your English and Raban's.

  7. jfruh said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 9:56 am

    @Richard Howland-Bolton: But Raban seems to be asserting something significantly more profound than this sort of thing, right? I mean, he doesn't seem to me to be talking about the "Americans call biscuits 'cookies' and lifts 'elevators' and you don't even want to know what they call their rear ends" kind of obvious vocabulary tweaks. Rather, he's citing a group of words that don't have obvious well-known trans-Atlantic differences, as part of a larger point that Americans and Brits think of class and community and friendship and home in culturally different ways.

    Although I usually think the LL authors get way worked up over what they call "linguification", I think this is a pretty good example of it used perniciously: Raban is basically saying "American and British culture treat a number of concepts differently," but is conceiving of this differening treatment as somehow being an issue of dialect. This is problematic. It's probably true that, say, British people and Americans have differing views of social class, but that doesn't mean that the word "class" means different things in the two dialects. I mean, some critics might not consider graffitti or performance art to be "art", but that doesn't mean that they think the word "art" means something different than those who do, you know?

    [(myl) Exactly. If "meaning" is just the aspects of an individual's life experience that are evoked by a particular contextualized encounter with a particular word (or other sign), then no (use of any) word ever means the same thing to two different people, or even to one person on two occasions. See Quine on radical translation for some advice about how to get into this trap, and also how to get out of it. Or see Barthes and Co. for a model of how to get into the trap and never make an empirically testable statement again.

    I'm being unfair to Raban, I know -- he's just indulging in some careless ruminations about the diversity of human experience and the broadening effects of travel and how there are layers on layers of subtle Empsonian interpretation in landscapes as in local linguistic usage, and here I go accusing him of subverting a half-century of intellectual endeavor in the human sciences.

    So let's remove all the evaluation, and say that Raban's puzzling list of words with allegedly divergent meanings is simply his way of saying that American and British histories and cultures are different.]

  8. Franz Bebop said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 10:14 am

    I agree with MattF and mollymooly. Raban wasn't referring to differences between the French and German languages, but to differences in the experience of the world of the French and the Germans. These experiences are perhaps not radically different, but different in nuance.

    Raban talked about differences in "meanings and associations." (Italics mine.)

    The one point on which I would take issue with Raban is his use of the term "part company":

    The altered meanings and associations of American English, as it has parted company from its parent language over 400 years, …

    Americans and Brits have been in close contact the entire time, and most immigrants to the US arrived here a lot more recently than 400 years ago. There may be some subtle differences between US and UK English, but it's not altogether realistic to imagine a mythical 400-year-old separation. A more significant source of subtle differences may be the huge percentage of US residents who are descendants of recent non-English-speaking ancestors.

  9. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 10:24 am

    @jfruh: Well that mistake (which was the opposite of the cookies/biscuit thing) was pretty profound for us, and could have been even worse. We had no other means of getting in contact, so the simple assumption that the word 'first' when applied to floors had the same social and architectural connotations for both Briton and American could easily have led to us not meeting again, and indeed not eventually being married for a considerable time!
    But, anyway, I wasn't really defending Raban, but was (in beastly truth) mainly driven to comment by his name, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossu_Rabban

  10. JimG said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 10:46 am

    I was thinking how unmoved this discussion had left me, but then it occurred to me that THIS is exactly why the world should be interested in preservation of linguistic diversity. If relatively slight differences between BrE and AmE can result in differing conceptualization and understanding of the world, then there is a strong argument in favor of resuscitating "dying" languages.

    Or is it that Raban believes in the effects of linguistic diversity, and thus is predisposed to see differences between two strains of English?

  11. Nik Berry said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 10:49 am

    If you want to see the difference between British and American English, you can't beat "Paper or plastic?" at a supermarket checkout.

    (Note to Brits: it means "do you want paper or plastic bags?". Note to Americans: it means "Are you paying by card or with cash?".)

  12. mollymooly said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 10:51 am

    As to Raban's particular list of words, I can offer one datapoint: it is often the case that I hear US people say "home" where I would use "house" or some other word.

    [(myl) Can you cite some examples? There's a particular real-estate-sales register where "home" is over-used, and some Americans may have taken this up in ordinary speech and writing. But judging by a comparison of COCA and the BNC, it's not clear to me that the usage is very different.

    For example, home occurs overall at a rate of 505 per million words in the BNC, vs. 586 in COCA. The phrase "his home" occurs 14.9 times per million words in the BNC, vs. 16.9 times per million in COCA. And the distribution of uses seems roughly similar, though there are some very different collocations (e.g. "funeral home" seems to be mostly American, whereas "home secretary" is basically British).

    As for the idea that there might be some shift from house to home among Americans, it's not visible in the raw frequencies of house, which are 493 per million in the BNC, vs. 547 in COCA -- that is, Americans use house slightly more often than Brits, not less often. (There might be issues of genre distribution lurking in those numbers, but let's say at least that a quick peek at balanced corpora of American vs. British English doesn't lend much support to the view that "US people often say home where Brits would say house". I'm inclined to think that certain Americans occasionally say home where Brits would say house, and that these occasions are memorable for some reason (perhaps by virtue of grating on a certain sort of class sensibility?), which makes them seem more common than they in fact are.]

  13. Tom said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 10:59 am

    There certainly are differences in AmE and BrE usage of "home" and "class". In AmE, "home" is often used where BrE speakers would say "house" instead (e.g. "You have a beautiful home.", which sounds very American to this BrE speaker). "class" (although I'm not sure that this is the sense of "class" Raban intended) is often used in AmE where we'd say "lesson" instead (e.g. "English class" = "an English lesson"), although BrE does use constructions like "in class".

    As to some of Raban's other examples (friend? tradition???) I'm baffled. Perhaps lynneguist at separated by a common language knows?

  14. hanmeng said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 11:32 am

    I'm not sure I can understand the nuances of what Raban's saying, since I'm an American. (I might think I understand him, but how can I be sure?) Then again, I'm not always sure I understand what the hell other Americans are talking about.

  15. Tim Silverman said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

    @JimG: but it's not the case that differing dialects have given rise to different understandings of the world; it's that different understandings of the world have given rise to different dialects.

    Well, actually even that isn't right: it's that using the same word to refer to slightly different things results in that word having slightly different meanings. Which is a tautological consequence of the meaning of the word "meaning".

    For instance, people in the two countries didn't first create two different meanings of the word "class", applying to hypothetical societies not existing in the real world, and then change their social systems to realise the new and different meanings of the word "class". Rather, their social systems developed in different ways, and the word "class" continued to refer in each case to the (evolving) systems, and ideas about them. And so forth.

  16. The effin' bear said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

    If you're referring to differences between the English language and the English-lexified creole commonly referred to as Standard American English (SAE), then I would probably agree, except that English and SAE have diverged a great deal more over 400 years than French and German have over the same period (in addition to the brief interval between the divergence of Germanic and Italic branches of Proto-Indo-European and the beginning of that 400-year period). It wasn't until I realized that my English friends were using community to refer to a twitching of individual segments of a muscle; class to refer to (in bullfighting) a short dagger used for cutting the spinal cord of a bull; friend to refer to a shrub or small tree, Dovyalis hebecarpa, of India and Sri Lanka, having velvety, maroon-purple fruit; tradition to refer to a family of very small dipteran flies that have hairy wings resembling those of moths and larvae developing in moss and damp plant matter; or home to refer to a house (unlike my American friends, in whose speech home only appears in the context whaddup __z), that I was able to make sense of anything they were saying.

  17. empty said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

    US people say "home" where I would use "house"

    I believe this was started by the people who sell real estate: They seem to think that you will have warmer feelings about a place if it's called a "home".

  18. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

    @empty.
    You can blame Mr R. A. Zimmerman for that:

    what kind of house is this," he said,
    "where I have come to roam? "
    "its not a house," said judas priest,
    "its not a house . . . its a home."

  19. Boris said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 2:14 pm

    Regarding paper vs plastic, I saw it on a gas station advertisement once (If you can't tell by this point, I'm in the US), something like "paper or plastic, same price" and thought it was a clever pun on the usual use of "Paper" vs "Plastic". I never knew that this is standard usage in British English.

    Regarding floor numbers, I have rarely seen a building that does not clearly display floor numbers on each floor, the staircases, elevators, etc. If there is no explicitly designated first floor, it is true that I would make a reasonable guess that the floor labeled G, PL, or whatever, is the first floor, but I would be baffled if someone from the UK in such a situation would go to the floor clearly labeled "2". If anything, I would understand it better if an American would make such a mistake in Britain. However I've seen enough variation here in the US to *never* assume that the first floor is the one you enter into from outside.

    In the building I'm sitting in right now, the main level, variously labeled "M" for Mall or "PL" for Plaza, is in fact the "first" floor, as the floor directly above it is the second floor. However, there are five parking floors below it, using "negative" numbering of P1 through P5. If you are a pedestrian, you will probably enter onto PL, but might enter onto P1, P4, or P5. Here one might mistake P1 for the "first floor", but considering the reverse numbering, PL would be the more logical choice.

    When I went to college, I was in various buildings where floor numbering bordered on ridiculous, such as the main level being between the first and second floors (labeled M, which is how I know you might confuse P1 fr the first floor in my current building), or even between second and third floors, and having a zeroth floor where I would expect the basement.

  20. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

    @Boris
    The floors were not labeled, and I have seen many stores that aren't (or at least aren't obviously). Maybe you are one of those people who only uses the lift/elevator, even for one floor, and you are foolishly assuming that everyone is lazy like you.
    I do not like the implications in your post.

  21. Mark Anderson said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

    Quick BrE summary, with many exceptions, qualifications, ifs and buts, regional variations etc

    BrE – upper class = aristocratic (Earls etc)
    middle class = university educated, professional, others who have middle class values. Could be very poor.
    working class = manual labour, less well educated. Includes eg many plumbers who earn more than middle class teachers.

    Working class disappearing as manufacturing jobs and working class solidarity are disappearing and more people go to university and have office jobs. Upper class has become politically and socially irrelevant.

    AmE – upper class = super-rich. Does have political influence.
    middle class = everyone else except underclass, defined by money, includes factory workers. As term is used by US Presidential candidates in speeches. Eg Joe the Plumber.
    underclass = very poor

  22. Rick S said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

    @Mark Anderson: In my experience, the term "working class" is very much current in AmE, and means something very similar to the BrE denotation, although there is perhaps some overlap with "middle class" here. Furthermore, "underclass" is not a term I recognize as vernacular. But then I'm not one to use political(ly correct) terms very much.

  23. Ken Brown said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

    Richard Howland-Bolton said: "You can blame Mr R. A. Zimmerman for that:
    what kind of house is this," he said,
    "where I have come to roam? "
    "its not a house," said judas priest,
    "its not a house . . . its a home."

    That exemplifies what we think of as the *BrE* meaning of "home". A house is a building, a home is where you or your family live.

    So you can't buy or sell a "home".

  24. Boris said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

    @Richard, I did not mean to personally attack you on the floor issue. I was genuinely puzzled. I certainly do not use the elevator exclusively. In fact, those in between floors I mentioned in my post typically lack stops on the elevator. Dilemma: when you are on floor 1.5 (whatever it is actually called) and you need to take the elevator to the top of the building, do you go down to the elevator on first floor, which is easier, or up to the second, so you don't travel in the reverse direction to where you're going?

    My experience is that staircases have labelled floors just as the elevators do. In fact, elevators in non-buildings are much worse than stairs sometimes. Newark's Penn Station has an elevator to tracks 3 and 4 (or so it's marked) with three buttons marked "M", "PL", and "PH". Where do you go to catch your train? Actually, both tracks 3 and 4 are on the level marked "PL" (for Platform?). "PH" (for PATH?) leads to another platform above where PATH trains arrive (unnumbered as far as I know).

    Maybe I don't have much experience in multifloor stores.

  25. Bill Findlay said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

    On a visit to Boston some years ago, I missed most of an interesting presentation on computer-assisted language teaching that was given at MIT.

    Told by the organiser that the presentation would be "at 10 to 12", I arrived for an 11:50 start and heard the last few minutes of a 2-hour talk that had been in progress since 10:00.

  26. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 4:26 pm

    No less a linguist than Bloomfield himself mentions the home/house thing (Language, pp441-442) but he attributes it to the usage of "speculative builders" appealing to buyers by playing up the sentimental associations of "home".

    Maybe he's right, and the current US/UK distinction is a consequence of the greater role of speculative builders in the US than in the UK since 1933.

    Actually I'm half convinced now that this could be right …

  27. Sili said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

    I seem to recall a discussion somewhere to the effect that "friend" is indeed a much more loosely used word in American English.

    An American can call someone they met in a bar five minutes ago a friend when they introduce him. To us more phlegmatic Europeans a friend is someone you've known at the very least since you underwent your final education. And even then you'll have had to keep in contact with them somehow.

    [(myl) This is a nice story, as is John Cowan's echo of it below. But in the BNC, the sequence "made many friends" occurs 16 times, in contexts like

    "I was sad to leave the boat, we had made many friends despite the trip being only a few hours long."

    16 times in 100 million words is 0.16 per million words. In the COCA (American) corpus, the same phrase occurs 12 times in 405 million words, for a frequency of 0.03 per million words. The contexts seem roughly similar to the BNC contexts. So I think that stereotypes aside, things are not so cut and dried.]

  28. Peter Howard said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

    I used to subscribe to London Review of Books, but formed the opinion that the main point of most of the articles was to show how erudite and clever the contributors were, rather than e.g. imparting useful information or (god forbid) reviewing any books. This was probably sour grapes on my part, prompted by the fact that, most of the time, I didn't understand what the fuck they were on about.

  29. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 6:32 pm

    @ Boris
    re-reading my response, I'm afraid that it is far too grumpy.
    Sorry about that.
    You obviously weren't in attack mode.

    Perhaps it's my bad eyesight to blame :-)

  30. Mark F said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 6:40 pm

    The trouble with Raban's list of words that "mean something different" in America than in Britain is that all of those words mean a lot of different things in both places, and the the variability of the connotations that they have is pretty large within both countries too, I think.

    The problem with his comment about "400 years of divergent experience" is that, despite whatever divergence of experience there has been over that time, it has always made sense to think of the US and UK as being part of a shared linguistic community. Americans have been reading British authors and vice versa the whole time (more the former than the vice versa, at least at first). Words have picked up connotations in one country and exported them to another. With Germany and France, on the other hand, there has always been a barrier of translation or foreign-language-learning.

  31. Nathan Myers said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 7:30 pm

    As Mark F notes in his way, the trouble with Raban's list is that each of us starts with no associations for any of those words, and each of us develops such associations through chance encounters. My meaning for "tradition" differs notably not only from most Brits', but also from a large fraction of Americans'. Politicians routinely exploit these differences among Americans, using words that have different implications for different groups to suggest to each that their conflicting desires will all be satisified.

  32. John Cowan said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

    As an American, I agree with Sili: no European (including Britons) could say something as American-commonplace as "I made many friends during my trip to Vegas." This is a consequence of America being a solidarity-based and positive-politeness culture.

    However, I tripped up on the original at "America is written in …". On first reading, I thought it was a typo for "American" meaning "American English". Looking back for review, I tend to agree with myl that the author has taken a Derridose of "nothing exists outside the text", or should I say outside le nyania? America is not written, though it may be written about or even on (with a stick, in the dirt).

  33. Philip TAYLOR said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 7:53 pm

    For me, Jonathan Raban's opening words ("For an English-born reader, America is written in a language deceptively similar to one’s own and full of pitfalls and ‘false friends’. ") not only ring true but also ring bells, since I recently made a very similar statement in the discussion under "Lego(s)" ("He possessed names for all of them in his head"). Two words which seem to me to fall into the category of "false friends" are "accommodation" and "visit" : according to Janice Huth Byer (a native speaker of <Am.E>), if she were to seek accommodation (sng.) in a hotel, she would expect to receive only "an empty place to lay [her] tired head", whereas I would expect room, bed, bed linen, washing and toilet facilities and so on. Janice went on to say that, for this reason, she would always ask for "accommodations" (pl). Similarly I now know that Americans visit /with/ their friends, whilst I visit mine, suggesting that to a speaker of <Am.E> "visit" is far more about what one does when one has arrived than with the travel and arrival, whereas to me (a native speaker of <Br.E>), the visit is all about the journey and the arrival. One final example is "fancy", which in my idiolect can be applied to anything which one would enjoy; however, when I innocently said to a Canadian girl on a blisteringly hot day "I really fancy a Coke", she responded with amazement "You have sexual desire for a can of Coca Cola ?!". I am reasonably sure she wasn't joking, 'though I may be wrong on this point.

  34. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 9:37 pm

    @Philip TAYLOR: That's interesting, I'm American, and I actually don't share either of the readings that you ascribe to Ms. Byer. I agree with her that a hotel normally gives "accommodations" rather than "accommodation", but if I heard the former, and for whatever reason failed to understand it, I think it would take it to mean something like "concession" or "special accommodation" (as, for a guest that had some sort of disability or dietary restriction or whatnot that required accommodation). And I completely disagree with her statement about "visit with"; I've only ever heard that phrasing used by elementary- and middle-school teachers, with the general sense of "talk to (a fellow student)." Now that I'm grown up, I visit my friends, not visit "with" them. (Though I will grant that visiting is what I do when I'm with them, not when I'm on my way to be with them.)

    [(myl) I'd add that the use of "home" to mean "house" always strikes me as wrong -- I associate with a certain kind of advertising or sales language. I recognize that some ordinary Americans have taken it up, but as far as I can tell, few of them are among the people that I've ever spent much time talking with.]

  35. G.D. Ritter said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 10:59 pm

    I take issue with the idea that 'class' is a word with an entirely different meaning in American English. It's much more appropriate to say that 'class' means something different in American culture. 'Class', to an American such as myself, means 'a group of people united by a common social standing usually determined by profession or money.' Yes, it's true that we American distinguish different classes than the British, but we also drive on different sides of the road, and yet nobody suggests that 'left' and 'right' mean something else in American English. It's a slippery road to go down, because taken to its ridiculous conclusion, it means you'd have to tell someone, "The word 'south' means something else entirely in American English, because there it refers to the direction of Mexico, but here it refers to the direction of France!"

    Also, and more relevantly, all of these distinctions are hearsay and anecdotal. (This has been subtext in a several of the comments, but it's worth stating outright.) It's all well and good to tell stories where a friend used such-and-such word differently, and they're from such-and-such a country, therefore they speak a completely and shockingly different dialect; but I've had similar situations with people who were born a few only a few dozen miles from myself, and I personally don't believe in staggering cultural differences between Fresno and Bakersfield just because a friend once said 'market' where I might have said 'store.'

  36. empty said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 11:47 pm

    "Visit with" in the sense of "have a (nice cozy) chat with" is a dialect expression, I think. I never heard it much except from my grandmother (b. 1896, grew up in Vermont).

  37. Haamu said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 11:50 pm

    @Philip TAYLOR: Seconding Ran Ari-Gur, I'd say you've gotten bad info on "visit with." It's an AmE expression, to be sure, but with limited usage. It has not supplanted simple "visit."

    "I visited my cousin" = I traveled to my cousin's known location (residence, hospital where he's being treated, etc.) and spent some appreciable time with him — possibly hours or days.

    "I visited with my cousin" = I found myself in the same location as my cousin, perhaps without specific intent (passing in a hallway, at a wedding reception, etc.) and enjoyed a brief conversation with him. If no other context is supplied, travel is not implied and a duration of more than half an hour would be pushing it.

    Even within those constraints, "visit with" is rarely the preferred expression, at least among the native speakers I tend to visit with.

  38. James Donnelly said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 11:55 pm

    I wonder whether Jonathan Raban has as much of a tin ear — cultural if not specifically linguistic — in English surroundings as he displays here in the States, "where he makes his home." Might explain a lot.

  39. Morten Jonsson said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 1:29 am

    What empty said about "visit with." I'm quite familiar with that expression as meaning to sit and talk a while with, but it is old-fashioned. Staying with someone is visiting; stopping by to chat is visiting with.

  40. jo said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 5:32 am

    For house vs. home, see It's not a crack house, it's a crack home.

  41. Philip TAYLOR said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 6:04 am

    Just to set the record straight, Janice Huth Byer was not my informant concerning "visit with"; the impressions I have gained concerning this phrase come from exposure to a number of native speakers of <Am.E> but of course in a statistical sense these represent a totally insignificant fraction so I was almost certainly wrong to generalise. I have now learned my lesson :-)

  42. Mark Anderson said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 9:54 am

    Okay, if you don't accept that there is a difference in meaning of class, only a different cultural context, how about "smart"?

    I vividly recall this incident, 29 years ago. I was complimenting an American girl (we were both on a French course in Dijon, and should probably have been speaking in French, but that's another story) by saying "you're looking very smart today", only to receive the gobsmacking reply "huh, so usually I look dumb?"

  43. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 11:19 am

    No one is disputing that there are words with different meanings in UK and US English, of which 'smart' is one. But cases like that are straightforward; the meanings are disjoint. The whole context of use for the words is different – which means the different uses of them don't reveal different attitudes. What Raban is talking about is something else; clearly the British and American uses of 'class' and 'friend' are not so different that there is no overlap between them; and just for that reason the differences of detail in their use do reveal different attitudes. Whether it's right to call these differences of meaning is hard to say; I'm not sure we have a completely clear concept of meaning which would determine the matter.

  44. wally said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 11:47 am

    (its ridiculous conclusion, it means you'd have to tell someone, "The word 'south' means something else entirely in American English, because there it refers to the direction of Mexico, but here it refers to the direction of France!")

    It is true tho that I once found myself at a Goethe Institute in Rothenberg explainng that Norteno music is the music of SOUTH Texas.

  45. mollymooly said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 1:31 pm

    it is often the case that I hear US people say "home" where I would use "house" or some other word.
    [(myl) Can you cite some examples?]

    Corpus matches for "bought a [home : house] in" :
    COCA: 44 : 97
    BNC: 1 : 16

  46. Sili said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

    Well, "the South" does mean something completely different in the Northern US and Northern England. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised that if US stories/jokes are localised to England, Northerners will be swapped with Southerners and vice versa. In short, in the US the North is 'civilised' and the South is 'the boondocks', while in England it's the other way round.

    Whether that has any bearing on the discussion, I don't know by now. Sitting now corrected, I really should stop shooting my mouth off in the linguablogosphere.

    These questions of division by a common language, by the way, do have a blog dedicated to them by an excellent linguist. I thought I'd seen the 'friend' question there, but obviously I was just rehashing my own prejudices. I was thinking of the "I love this guy" post, but that hinges on a completely different problem to what I recalled.

  47. Sili said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 7:34 pm

    Hmmm – that's funny. I don't normally use the "different to" construction.

    (Sorry for the messy html and double post.)

  48. Nigel said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 9:23 am

    There's a line in Robert Altman's The Player, something like "several hundred of my best friends will be there". I gathered he was making fun of Amerian's highly inclusive (relative to Brits and, in translation, most Europeans) use of the word.

    For sure Americans use Friend differently from UK Brits, which is to say, if I remember my Montague Grammar from back when, the terms "friends (Am.) " and "friends (Brit.)" respectively map into sets consisting of a considerably different range of individuals, having different sets of relationships (rights, privileges, and obligations, for example) to the speaker.

    I once met (interviewed) a major American superstar who surprised me by referring to me (to a phone caller) as a "friend". I had just casually met him and never had any contact after. I wonder, if I had met (interviewed) his Brit counterpart, Sir Paul McCartney, he would have done the same?

  49. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

    @Nigel: As far as I know, that "closest friends" line is always ironic. Here are the earliest hits at Google Books:

    "There'll be the rich Chicago couple who'll brag about giving dinner parties for seven hundred of their closest friends at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin."

    Frederick Wakeman, Deluxe Tour, 1956.

    "… and if his thin, despairing wife often wept alone in the night, nobody knew — except perhaps her two or three hundred closest friends."

    Wolcott Gibbs, More in Sorrow, 1958.

    I wonder whether the difference in community is supposed to be that we Americans use it as a generic term for cities, towns, villages, etc. (among other meanings). Is this sense common in Britain?

  50. mollymooly said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

    Wikipedia scrupulously defines US municipalities as 'city', 'town', 'village', 'hamlet', 'borough', or 'census-designated-place' as the legal case may be. In UK and Ireland, these labels –at least the first four– tend to be used loosely to reflect relative population.

    This difference is simply a reflection of the differing municipal government laws.

    One caveat: people from a smaller urban centre which happens to have a city charter may get miffed if you call it a 'town'. Hint: usually the local soccer team will be called "Foo City FC".

  51. Dan T. said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 8:50 pm

    Sites like Facebook are kind of devaluing the concept of "friend" (as well as turning "friend" into a verb: "Friend me!")

  52. Bernhard said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 9:06 am

    @myl: Are you sure that ‘make many friends’ isn't related to ‘make friends with s.o.’, i.e. rather inchoative? Would you really refer to the ‘friends’ you made on a boat as a ‘friend’ afterwards?

    A German, puzzled, not only by the French ;-)

  53. John Cowan said,

    November 16, 2009 @ 2:38 am

    If we are going to talk about crack houses, I will point out (not quite in the words of the old poem) that it takes a heap o' humpin' to make a "house" a home.

  54. Boris said,

    November 16, 2009 @ 12:48 pm

    @mollymooly, while it may be true that city, town, village, etc have specific legal meanings, they don't necessarily correlate with popular usage. While having a city charter (or just having the word as part of a name) may be a source of pride for the community, other things being equal, everything is a "town" at least here in New Jersey. The dominant official designations here are town, township, borough, and city, but most people don't say things like "My parents will spend the weekend in the borough". "The City" means New York (or Philadelphia, for a smaller part of the state). Even if you are in the "City of Rahway" for example, "I work in the city" does not mean "I work in Rahway". Maybe this is a local peculiarity.

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment