Book Review//The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British & American English by Lynne Murphy

I have always been fascinated by language. I like words, I like the rhythm of language, I like different meanings and different accents. When I moved to the Midwest United States for a while in the early 90s I kept a list of the regional differences in words. I have always felt the same way about the differences between American English and British English. I like knowing that if I am in the U.K. an elevator is a lift and a truck is a lorry. I don't think of one as being better than the other, just different. However, one thing the internet has taught me is that not all people feel the same way. Specifically, there seems to be a number of vocal British people online who despise American English. Just today I stumbled across another rant about the evils of "candy" "mom" and "soccer." I have been a longtime reader of Lynne Murphy's blog, Separated by a Common Language, so when I realized she had written a book about the language differences I had to read it.

I loved it. If you take nothing else away from this review then know that I absolutely think if you are British, American, or have any interest in words then you need to read this book. My copy is littered with post-it notes highlighting sections I loved. There is no way I can use all of the references. I spent fifteen minutes paging through trying to pick which ones to feature and managed to get sidetracked by lots of other things I never even marked. Murphy talks about how "The American headlines encourage linguistic togetherness; the British ones hold American English at arm's length."
In contrast, British lists of Americanisms often have titles like "41 Things Americans Say Wrong" and include vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation differences. The greater British interest in (or horror of ) pronunciation stems from the fact that most British people hear a fair amount of American English and therefore get the chance to notice the more obscure pronunciation differences. But not only is there greater oppportunity to notice the differences, there's a greater disposition to notice. The British are conditoned to notice when others don't talk like they do because accent is an inescapable marker of social postition in Britain. This fact inspired George Bernard Shaw's observation:  "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him." Americans, on the other hand, are often a bit accent-deaf.

Murphy discusses in detail the differences in words themselves but she also discusses the way the language is used. I particularly enjoyed this section on the use of please. 

Americans add please to requests about half as much as Britons do - not because they're less polite, but often because they're trying to be polite. Adding please to something that's already a request doubly marks it as a request:  could you move? is already a request with the softening "could you" formulation (rather than an unsoftening Move!). Since it's already softened and clearly a request, the please seems redundant. Americans thus often interpret could you move, please? as a marker of urgency ('this request is really a request!') and that sense of urgency makes the request sound either bossy or desperate, rather than considerate. 

Isn't that interesting? It is not just the words used but the way in which they are used that changes the language.  All too often, we understand the obvious differences and miss the more subtle ones. Murphy also discusses how sometimes American English has more connections to the English of the past than many realize.

For people (and there are so many of them) who argue that change corrupts English, any evidence that Americans preserve the language should surely be a redeeming fact. By pronouncing the r's in farmer in and the a in secretary, by keeping the words closet and faucet in active use, America has saved the English language! It has preserved those bits of English that the British have been careless with. Alas, linguistic complainers are rarely so consistent. Many of them assume that if there are differences in the two countries, then the way things are said in the new country must be the new way. Then when it's shown that the American way is the older way, the British complainers often lack "the magnanimity to acknowledge their mistake", as New Yorker Romeyn Beck complained about this very issue in 1829. Old-fashioned American ways of talking are sometimes admired by traditionalists, but at least as often they are taken as a sign that Americans are a backward people who don't recognize that their ways of speaking are inelegant or illogical and in need of replacement. 

Here is another quote I liked. I am trying to restrain myself from making this post solely a mass of quotes from the book but it is hard to resist the temptation.

Today's Britons invented the language to an even lesser extent than the sports fans won the match last Sunday. The fans were at least alive when the match was won. If we can even talk of English being "invented" (which I'd advise against), who is this we (or you) who invented it? Sure, the history of the language is longest on a particular island, but that doesn't mean that the poeple on that island today have any greater connection to the language than people speaking the language on another landmass. The adjectives aren't sprouting from ancient stone circles. The verbs aren't in the water supply And the language isn't in anybody's genes. Growing up learning English involves exposure to the English of the immediate past - how your parents and grandparents talk - and making it into the language of our present. That makes anyone's English no more than four generations deep. The British of today are not more connected to the language of Chaucer than the people who grow  up speaking English in the US or South Africa or Hong Kong. Our Englishes aren't parent and child - they're grown-up siblings. 

Speaking of Chaucer, did you know he used I gesse the way Americans use I guess? (As a side point, this book was a revelation as to all the language quirks I use that many British people heartily disapprove of.)  Also, did you know that it was only in the mid-19th-century that the British started pronouncing the h in herb? The Prodigal Tongue is full of fascinating bits of information like this; all about how words change, migrate (in both directions), and are used. Any language is not static and the world we live in makes it even less so. As Murphy says:

While some people equate globalization with Americanization, there's a clue in the name:  it's global. It's not just that people around the world are eating American hamburgers and watching American films. We're eating Thai food and reading Scandinavian murder mysteries, collecting Japanes Pok√©mon, and drinking Italian coffees. People, things, and ideas are moving all over the world, not just to and from the US. And words are going in all directions. Some are more likely to spread out: some are more likely to stay home. It's an exciting time to be a word lover. 

It is an exciting time to be a word lover. This is especially true if you can read a fascinating book like The Prodigal Tongue. While, in some ways, it is a defense of American English it is also simply a celebration of the language itself in all its idiosyncratic glory. As Murphy says in the final sentences;

But our Englishes being different doesn't mean we have to be chauvinistic about them. We don't have to devalue one to value the other. We shouldn't guard them jealously from contamination. English deserves our love. But it doesn't deserve our worry. We should let it go and see where it takes us. It may be a small world, but English is a big language. 


  1. This sounds delightful, Jenny! I'll have to see if I can pick up a copy economically. Sometimes I REALLY miss my library [sigh].

    BTW, what do the Brits say for 'candy', 'closet' and 'faucet'?

    1. Sweets, wardrobe and tap.

    2. It was so interesting. I hope you can find a copy.

  2. This does sound like a fascinating read. I realised that the use of faucet and closet in the US is a hangover from old English, I add in 'nightstand' too which in the UK we call bedside table/cabinet nowadays. It's interesting that the people who have moved to another country often hang on to the old ways of doing things, long after the people in their old homeland have evolved. That's particularly noticeable in families from India and Pakistan originally. I have heard that children in England are beginning to use 'mom' instead of mum and I must admit that that would annoy me. Otherwise I'm annoyed by the way English people 'swallow' the end of all words, or so it seems to me - such as 'footbl' instead of football. Vive la difference.

    1. That is interesting. I would say bedside table. Language is fascinating. I think it is interesting to see how language evolves even within a country. We definitely do not speak the same way our great-great-grandparents did!

  3. Hi Jennifer,
    Katrina's Jack here.
    Are Americans really accent deaf? That seems a stretch. I saw an episode of Rikki Lake once where she said she had trouble deciphering the speech of someone in the audience. (Mind you, the speaker was a Brit.)
    As to "soccer," there's a context to dislike of it. It's not a solely American usage. Proper (Association) football fans in Britain hate the word because it was/is an upper class Public - for which read fee-paying - School affectation (in the same way that those same people sometimes say "rugger" for rugby.) It's not only Americans whose use of "soccer" is a source of annoyance. (Chalk another one up for Bernard Shaw.)
    To me, "Could you move?" isn't a request to move. It's more like, "Are you able to move?" not at all the same thing as, "Could you move, please?" meaning, "I would like you to move if you would be so kind."
    In Scotland we still pronounce our "r"s including the one in farmer and the "a" in secretary - not to mention the two "r"s in February.
    The linguistic thing that really gets me, though, is the English habit of saying, "Aren't I?" After all they don't say, "Are I?" do they? To me, "Amn't I?" is much more grammatical and natural.

    1. Hi Jack,
      It is so nice to hear from you. And what an interesting comment.
      Of course, Americans are not accent deaf in that we don't hear the accents. It is more that we do not put as much emphasis on accents. It seems that the British tie accent to class/education/social position. While, of course, this can happen to some extent in the U.S. (African-Americans who, unfairly, have to change their way of speech in order to be taken seriously are an example.) it is not as typical. Broadly speaking, accents are interesting differences not indicators of your position in life. It is interesting that your explanation of the objection to "soccer" is related to class. As a side point, my husband greatly enjoys British football and was very happy to see it was back on TV this past weekend.
      To me, the request to move is implicit in the question "Could you move?" Otherwise, why would you be asking?
      When my kids were very little and first learning to speak both of them said "amn't I?" It just made more sense to them as, of course, it should.
      I would be very interested to hear what you and Katrina think of this book. Any book discussing the languages in two different countries is going to have points where we say "But I don't say it that way." However, I found it absolutely fascinating.

  4. I love books on language. Especially when they focus on history and the link between language and culture.

    I know language evolves and changes, though I am one who doesn't like Australian English being replaced by American English. On some phrases I know I am on a losing wicket. BTW, we say mum, lift, tap and wardrobe. But we also say soccer (though the associations here are pushing for football). Candy means hard lollies, which are general sweets. And what the British call ice-lollies, we call ice blocks. As to herbs, over 'ere we don't say 'erbs, unless one has a problem with the letter h.

    We do tend to have more slang and shorten words, adding an e or o ti the ending in general speech. Eg, hardly anyone says mosquitos, they are always mozzies. Or mozzie for the singular.


    1. I think I need to find a book on Australian English now. All the differences are so interesting. What you call ice blocks I would call pops or popsicles.