George Bernard Shaw made the observation that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. I would venture to add my own two cents worth when advising my fellow countrymen preparing to live in this grand nation of small nations; forget everything you know about the English language.
My very first brush with the complexities of language use in the US came with my first order for coffee. Ordering phrases typically start with the pragmatic “can I get” which sounded so rude to my untrained ear. But a “thank you” is often countered with the cheerful “you’re welcome” for which the Brit equivalent “my pleasure” sounds so much more staid.
In the early days, I was often caught up not by the big stuff but by the small stuff. It took me a while to realize that ‘quite’ used before something was generally a positive pronoun whereas in England it can, and often does, mean the reverse.
Another hurdle arose in the assigning of cultural identity. Growing up, if someone said “I’m Irish/Scottish German/French” etc, it generally meant one of two things; they were either born in the country they claimed as theirs, or their parents were. After my initial ignorant aggravation, I slowly began to realize that it’s a cultural shorthand, a marker, a way of saying which tribe you belong to without having to go through a whole series of cultural identifiers.
So, for example, here in Chicago, if you were Irish that might indicate a whole host of things which might include Catholicism, family in the police or firefighting profession, a certain kind of political outlook. Or, of course, it might not. But it certainly made me think and it made me wonder how else you might declare yourself in a vast country filled with so many different nationalities, faiths and cultural constraints.
Language is, of course, a two way street. A few of my ‘Englishisms’ have made it into local usage here. My work colleagues now ‘nip out’ as opposed to ‘run out’, I’m required by one of my friends to verbally use the word ‘schedule’ even for a quick cup of coffee and a natter because she loves the way it sounds.
On arrival I was enchanted by the use of the word ‘fall’ for autumn. I had assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that this was an evolution in the language and that the word autumn had fallen into disuse. As it turns out it’s a preservation; fall was the word used by the original pilgrim settlers. People often remark that I speak ‘proper’ English as if that’s some sort of preserved standard to aspire to. What I think they hear is not the language preservation but the accent, which, by all accounts, can fool anyone.
After all, as I tell everyone who asks me, I’m from Alabama.