Saturday, July 10, 2010

migraine, Miss Marpleisms, and linguistic imperialism

Last week I had two emails from fans of the recent British-made television versions of Miss Marple mysteries, which are apparently playing in North America at the moment.  As is often the case with British costume dramas and mysteries (those things that a certain class of American anglophiles like[s]), it is co-produced by British (ITV) and American (WGBH Boston) television companies.  (In a reversal of the stereotype of the original-series-producing television channels in the two countries, the British ITV is a commercial channel, while WGBH is part of the US's Public Broadcasting System.)  WGBH has a long history of Anglophilia; it is the home of Masterpiece Theatre (now just 'Masterpiece') and Mystery! (rebranded as 'Masterpiece Mystery!').  The former was originally introduced by 'Letter from America' broadcaster Alistair Cooke, and the latter by Vincent Price, and they are iconic program(me)s in the States to the extent that Sesame Street created a long-running parody, Monsterpiece Theatre (hosted by Alistair Cookie) and a parody mystery program(me) hosted by Vincent Twice Vincent Twice.  Of course, the only reason I mention this is to have the excuse to post one:



But that has nothing to do with Miss Marple, does it?  Both of my Miss Marple correspondents (American Judy and @mikcooke) have lived in the UK, but watched Miss Marple in North America and were surprised by apparent Americanisms and anachronisms in the script.  Apparently these recent re-tellings of the Miss Marple stories are known for playing fast and loose with the original Agatha Christie texts.  From Wikipedia:
The show has sparked controversy with some viewers for its adaptations of the novels. The first episode, The Body in the Library, changed the identity of one of the killers and introduced lesbianism into the plot; the second episode explored Miss Marple's earlier life; the third episode contained a motive change and the fourth episode cut several characters and added affairs into the story and emphasized a lesbian subplot that was quite discreet in the original novel. The second series also saw some changes. By the Pricking of My Thumbs was originally a Tommy and Tuppence story, while The Sittaford Mystery was also not originally a Miss Marple book and the identity of the killer was changed. The third series has two adaptations that were not originally Miss Marple books: Towards Zero and Ordeal by Innocence. The fourth series continues the trend with Murder is Easy and Why Didn't They Ask Evans?. The fifth series does the same, with The Secret of Chimneys and The Pale Horse.

@mikcooke points out the following:
  • Jane Marple phoned the local police station and asked for "Detective X" (AmE) and would have asked for "Inspector X" [This inspired a 'Difference of the Day' tweet last week--ed.]
  • She spoke about a man who took the bus from the "train station" (AmE) instead of "station" (BrE)
  • The village vicar was in traditional black attire but wore a grey trilby (inappropriate)
  • Various characters used current casual parlance (if not outright Americanisms, sorry, AmE) "not to worry", "waste of space"
  • A man lent another "half a million pounds (c. 1950)" which would be about a billion pounds c. 2010 (a foolish updating, which is never done in the Poirot series)
And Judy queried the pronunciation of migraine, which was pronounced "in the American way" by one of the English characters.  This is how the OED represents--and comments upon--it:
Brit. /'mi:greIn/, /'m^IgreIn/, U.S. /'maIgreIn/   
In other symbols, the BrE pronunciations are 'me grain' or 'my grain', whereas the AmE pronunciation is always 'my grain'.  The symbols are a bit different for the 'my grain' pronuniciations because the OED represents the diphthong represented by the 'y' in 'my' differently for the two dialects--claiming a slight difference in where in the mouth the diphthong starts.

But not everyone agrees that there's a distinction between the two pronunciations of my. For instance,  this dialect coach represents the 'price' vowel (for that's what phoneticians tend to call it) as being the same in the two dialects.  It's represented the same in this chart in Wikipedia, too.  The OED uses a scheme developed by Clive Upton that makes this and a few other distinctions that aren't universally made.  John Wells, writing about the advantages and disadvantages of Upton's system, says:
Price. The standard notation might seem to imply that the starting point of the price diphthong is the same as that of the mouth diphthong. In practice, speakers vary widely in how the two qualities compare. In mouth people in the southeast of England typically have a rather bat-like starting point, while in price their starting point is more like cart. In traditional RP the starting points are much the same. Upton's notation implicitly identifies the first element of price with the vowel quality of cut -- an identification that accords with the habits neither of RP nor of southeastern speech (Estuary English), and strikes me as bizarre.
I'm going to go with Wells on this one.  This means that American 'my grain' pronunciation is a known variant in BrE.  And in fact I've heard 'my grain' so much in England that I was beginning to wonder whether 'mee-grain' was just a South Africanism (since that was where I was first introduced to the pronunciation).

The OED also has a historical note on the pronunciation that first discusses whether the second vowel is pronounced as it would be in French (from which the word came to us--about 500 years ago) or whether it's "naturalized" to the English pronunciation of the spelling 'ai', as in grain.  It also says that two American dictionaries from around the turn of the 20th century listed the pronunciation as if the first syllable had the vowel in mitt and the stress on the second syllable--but that it later turned to the 'my' pronunciation that we know today.  It's unclear here whether the 'my' pronunciation started in the US and spread to the UK, or whether it might have been invented in both places.  To me, it doesn't look like the most natural way to pronounce that spelling--if I saw the word for the first time, I'd probably go for the abandoned /mI'greIn/ (mih-GRAIN)--so, how it turned to 'my grain' I don't know...


At any rate, the English character in Miss Marple could have naturally come upon that pronunciation, but I'm betting that it's anachronistic, like many of the things that @mikcooke noted.  So, has Miss Marple been updated or Americanized?  Probably a little of both.


Now, I've been feeling a bit down about all of the anti-Americanism-ism that's been going on in the UK press these days--everything from The Economist to our local property-listings magazine seems to have a feature or a series that urges its readers to defend the Mother Tongue against (in the words of the latter example) "ghastly, overblown, crass, managerial Americanisms".  It's not infrequent that the alleged Americanisms are (a) long-standing non-standard (or formerly standard) Briticisms, (b) management jargon that didn't necessarily start in the US and that is reviled in the US as much as in the UK, or (c) Australianisms.  

Why does all this make me uncomfortable?  It's not that I think Americanisms should or shouldn't be imported, it's just the vehemence and bile with which the (often unresearched) claims are made--the apparent assumption that if it's American, then it's crass and unnecessary.  (The Economist doesn't like gubernatorial because it "is an ugly word."  Is that the best you can do, Economist?)  One could point out many Americanisms that have found very comfy homes in BrE, and which no one complains about.  


But the implicit anti-Americanism in the anti-Americanismism becomes more understandable when one thinks about the American resistance --at an institutional level-- to importing British voices and words.  In addition to producing globali{z/s}ed versions of Miss Marple, British (pop-)cultural products tend to be remade (many would say [orig. AmE] "dumbed down") in some way or another for the American market--whereas the British take their American media mostly (AmE) straight-up.  So, a generation of British youth spout the slang of Friends, while Americans watched re-planted American versions of Coupling and The Office (and lots more).  In the case of The Office, the re-potting has been so successful that the American version is shown in the UK.  In the case of Coupling, oh I feel embarrassed for my homeland.  (See this wonderful compare-and-contrast video to see just how broad and--how can I say this? oh yeah!--terrible American comic acting can be.)  But it's not just changing the situations of situation comedies.  When I heard my American family talking about "Oprah Winfrey's Life on the Discovery Channel", I told them they should watch the David Attenborough series by the same name.  Then I realized it was the David Attenborough series, re-voiced by Oprah.  (You can read this discussion on which is better.  Apparently Sigourney Weaver has re-voiced previous Attenborough series.)  The American television programming that keeps British voices is on the channels that 'intellectuals' are supposed to watch: PBS, BBC America and some co-productions on premium cable channels (HBO, Showtime).  And while there have recently been lots of British actors speaking in American accents on American television (American-columnist-for-UK-newspaper Tim Dowling rates them here), for British characters it's not uncommon to have a North American speaking with a non-authentic accent--see most of the "English" characters (save Giles) on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example.


Of course, ask Americans, and they'll usually say that they love the English (the rest of the UK doesn't really get a look-in) and would love to see more of them.  But that's not what they're getting--and for the most part, they don't seem to mind.  And this is why there usually are ten times as many candidates for AmE-to-BrE Word of the Year as BrE-to-AmE candidates. And why many of its speakers feel that British English is 'under attack' from an imperialistic America.  (But a country that prides itself on its sense of irony should eat that up, eh?)

    34 comments:

    RWMG said...

    "Not to worry" was American in origin? Well I never.

    Jan said...

    Oh, I'm so sorry you led me to the American "Coupling." But I'll blot it out eventually with a few more rounds of the British version. As for Marple, the new ones are so inferior to the Joan Hickson series (1980s?) that anyone watching them should instantly order the old ones instead. (I can't remember any AmE/BrE issues, but it's a good bet they were less "translated back then.") However, you do get some terrible American (and other foreign) accents in these productions; I'm always surprised by that, given the high quality of the acting.

    And thanks for the "Monsterpiece Theatre" clip. The one I remember most fondly -- no doubt because the series it parodied was so family-unfriendly! -- is "Me, Claudius."

    Eloise said...

    Mih-grain/My-grain might be an age thing, or possibly a regional one. I tend to the latter, but my mother always uses the former. She'd rather I didn't publish her age I'm sure, but I'm in my mid-40's so you can guess.

    The reason I mention regional is that a friend who currently lives locally, but grew up about 20 miles from where my mother did (Hampshire) normally uses the Mih-grain form despite being only a year or two younger than me.

    And, I think it's fair to say most people I know have heard both often enough that they're comfortable with either - a bit like scones (without the calorific goodness though).

    Elizabeth said...

    The worst thing about the American Coupling was that it was so utterly unnecessary. Coupling was already a British version of Friends, there was zero reason to re-reinterpret it.

    There are real reasons that even in the recent past British television was harder to export to the US than the other way around. Namely the difference in season/series lengths and the scheduling calendar. British television programming was set to deal with shows of different lengths, American television programming, not so much. When I was in high school the concept of a "summer series" were an exciting new experiment. Starting the first season of The OC at the beginning of August was the cutting edge of programming in 2003. Now though cable channels have actual good original shows instead of just reruns of Wings and Law and Order, and number of episodes per season is much more variable. So now it isn't as hard to fit in British TV into the schedule and there's been a general improvement in production values on scripted shows in the UK I fully expect more to cross over on non PBS/BBC America channels. NBC already busted its cherry last summer with Merlin (of all shows). There's still Fox's inexplicable desire to remake Little Mosque on the Prairie, which may or may not prove my point the resistance to foreign show on network TV has more to do with their business model than anything else. Or maybe they just think no American can understand those crazy Canadian accents.

    Anyway, the battle against American cultural imperialism can take some weird forms. Like this bout of save the fairy cake, which seems to be based on a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of what cupcake is.

    Jordan said...

    As an Englishman, those Miss Marple examples didn't strike me as particularly egregious. I'd definitely say things like 'train station' and 'not to worry'. I wouldn't even say they're Americanisms.

    On the broader television debate, I'd like us to be exporting more drama too, but the fact is we aren't actually making very much. Reality programming and gardening/house buying shows are easier and cheaper to make. There's no excuse for fiddling with BBC documentaries though; they're top notch.

    superdinosaurboy said...

    Is 'not to worry' originally an Americanism? I think you are quoting @mikcooke in saying so (who hedges anyway - it might be "current casual parlance" rather than "outright Americanism"). It strikes me as terribly British "not to worry, I'll put the kettle on". I don't know how to find out where the phrase started, but it's not uncommon in the BNC (which of course only tells us it was British by the early 90s).

    Ditto for 'train station' which strikes me as perfectly natural.

    In general, I think that your correspondents, as you very gently imply, are suffering what we might call the 'Americanism illusion' - that any use of language which strikes them as unpleasant, modern, or outlandish must be American.

    It is certainly the case that many TV programmes which purport to be 'period' include apparently anachronistic speech - in some cases intentionally, as in Merlin and Robin Hood. But I doubt that this is a particularly American trait.

    mollymooly said...

    If "station" was unclear to a US audience, I think "railway station" could have cleared the matter up without being anachronistic as "train station" is. And using "railway" rather than "railroad" would add to the Britishosity.

    Solo said...

    If the character was getting a bus, then taking it from a train station is slightly erroneous, but not for Transatkantic reasons.

    Andy JS said...

    Last Christmas I was pleased to see that one of my favourite Hercule Poirot books was being shown on British TV, Appointment With Death.

    Unfortunately the story was very significantly changed, with an entirely modern obsession with child abuse being inserted into the narrative, something which was absent in the original novel.

    Cameron MacDonald Black said...

    Ooh, Mollymooly, I LOVE "britishosity"!

    Picky said...

    It's not that train station is non-BrE; it's common enough nowadays; but it WAS an Americanism in Agatha's day.

    Concerns about Americanisms shouldn't worry us too much. It's a natural reaction against a more powerful culture.

    And shouldn't that be "Briticosity"?

    Karen said...

    Any post that provides an excuse to post Monsterpiece Theatre is an excellent post in my book! :)

    lynneguist said...

    As others have noted, @mikcooke hadn't actually claimed these were Americanisms--but he had felt that they were out of place in the setting of the story, and so wondered whether they might be. Perhaps I shouldn't have copied his whole list--but it was in the spirit of illustrating that people are finding the current Marple series a bit less than Marplesque.

    I posted the 'Waiting for Elmo' Monsterpiece Theatre because I like Beckett and the joke, but I wish I'd posted one with the earlier, fuller intro, which is absolutely precious if you remember the series from a couple of decades ago. So, here's one that's not very good as a sketch, but with the excellent intro.

    ButMadNNW said...

    I watch BBC America a lot, but I'd watch it more if MORE shows were imported (where's QI, for one?). Less Top Gear (which I do admittedly love) and Star Trek(!), more of the great quality being produced on the east shore of the pond!!

    And even when we DO get Brit TV on BBCA, they bleep swears and cut things out (that might actually be vital to the plot!) to include more adverts. I watch BBCA because I want to see BRITISH TELEVISION, not Brit TV chopped to US censor/commercialism standards. (Sorry, this is a long-standing rant with me. This last series of Doctor Who, I haven't watched a single episode on BBCA - just went straight to downloading to get the "pure" version, and on the same schedule as all my Brit friends - two week lag, indeed! :-P )

    As for non-English UK countries not getting a look in here, it really is a shame - I love them all, I really do! I had SUCH FUN at Disney World a couple weeks ago, talking to all the UK uni students Disney recruited for the summer. In the space of 3 days in Florida, I got to talk to a bloke from Liverpool, another from Scotland, a gal from Hertfordshire who was astounded to meet an American who knows to pronounce it as "Hart-ferd-shurr", a Edinburgh lass... and probably others I'm forgetting (kicking myself that I missed the young Welshman my sister met). Kid in an accent candy store, I was. ;-)

    John Cowan said...

    Migraine, though immediately from French, is ultimately from Greek hemicrania 'half-head-ish', since the characteristic headache only attacks one side of the migraineur's head. So I suspect the PRICE vowel reflects the old pronunciation of Greek, whereas the FLEECE vowel reflects French directly.

    biggerbox said...

    Darn, just when I'd almost managed to forget the execrable Coupling remake! Even for an American show it was awful, which was twice as painful to those of us who'd seen the original on BBC America.

    It ranks near the top of the list of bizarre translations of British TV for Americans, right next to when BBC America put English subtitles on episodes of Skins.

    Sili said...

    "emphasized a lesbian subplot that was quite discreet in the original novel"

    I'd certainly missed it. But I don't recall if I knew of lesbians when I read A Murder is Announced. In retrospect I think I know what's that supposed to be about, but the details are too fuzzy.

    I'ven't seen much of the new Marple, but I dun' like it.

    Rachel Cotterill said...

    But... but... there are perfectly good adaptations of Miss Marple that I watched in my childhood! Why remake it at all?!

    Thanks for the interesting read, as always :)

    Bill Scott said...

    Re. "The Economist doesn't like gubernatorial because it 'is an ugly word.'"

    The Merriam-Webster Dictionary says "gubernatorial" is of Latin origins and date in English to 1734. So the Economist should complain to Cicero and his cohorts, or to the good people of England if it doesn't like the word. The US is not responsible for problems in English that pre-date the founding of the country!

    Robbie said...

    "Why remake [Marple] at all?"

    The Joan Hickson versions were made by the BBC. The new version is made by ITV.

    ITV does the (generally good) Poirot series, and I guess they wanted to try their hand at Marple too. If they stuck closely to the books, they'd be accused of copying the BBC's treatment, so they went all out in the other direction.

    Andy Holyer said...

    Could I just say that the swedish subtitles were at least as good as the english in the American Coupling scenes?

    And while I'm off-topic could I just mention quite how ... disturbing -- it is to see Richard Coyle in the Prince Of Persia film? You keep expecting him to pause and say "gusset" or such like. And I couldn't explain this to my son since he's still at least five years too young to get the point of Coupling.

    Jeff said...

    Cleft.

    Anonymous said...

    Whilst I agree that the recent Marple is patchy - sometimes excellent, sometimes ridiculously overblown - and I'm as quick as anyone to say "But she wouldn't be wearing those knickers in 1932, they look like they were bought in M&S yesterday", I also think that there can be a tendency to assume that "modern" language in period dramas is anachronistic, when in fact it isn't, becuase the 1930s were not actually that long ago. If Lord Peter Wimsey were to say “sez you” in a modern TV adaptation, the Radio Times would be full of letters about this appalling anachronism. But in fact he says it in one of the novels.

    nineveh_uk

    Anonymous said...

    I suspect the British posters who find "train station" normal are young people. It's commonly seen on UK signs and bus destination boards these days, but to me (50+) it sounds like something a small child would say; the traditional expression is "railway station".

    Kate (Derby, UK)

    Jake said...

    I'd have to go along with the majority of Brits here and point out that "Train Station" and "Not to worry" are in very common use, the latter being especially common in the north.

    Meanwhile, I've been wondering how long it took for Buffy to get a look in this blog.

    Apparantly, James Marsters' accent was considered so good by Buffy production staff that he conviced many of them he was in fact English, which if anything makes me slightly depressed. Still it takes nothing away from his thoroughly entertaining performance.

    One interesting fact is that co-star Alexis Denisof (Wesley) 's accent was genuinely good enough to short list him for James Bond. So some of them can do it.

    American remakes seem to have an amazing knack for being terrible (McSpaced, anyone) but this is only really when the original programme drew on British culture for its humour, and so "Americanizing" it literally took most of the jokes out.

    Re-recording an Attenborough programme just seems bizarre to me. How can you not love the man's voice?

    Brian said...

    As an AmE speaker, I found the Spike accent on Buffy a bit dodgy, but much better than the Drusilla/English or Flashback-Angel/Irish accents. That said, Marsters does a beautiful imitation of an Englishman poorly imitating an American accent ("No surrr, I'm a friend of Xanderrr's").

    There have been a few American TV series remade in the UK. I've seen a few clips of ITV's "Days Like These," and I was astonished at how accomplished it made "That '70s Show" look.

    lynneguist said...

    @Jake: Alexis Denishof spent a few years working in London, which may account for his better ear (and tongue) for the accent.

    Blythe said...

    This is especially fascinating in the context of digital global communication. A small person in my family learnt to talk will he was living in the Netherlands. His parents speak rural Montanan English (as I), but he rapidly assumed the Scots vocabulary, cadence, and pronunciation of his nursery school teacher. Now he's accumulating a new layer of language from his peers in Perth. Throw in an occasional borrowing from Dutch, Japanese, and French... go figure where that child sounds to be a native.

    biochemist said...

    I really loved the Joan Hickson version of Marple (1984 - 1992) as they were very authentic. The series with the Geraldine McEwan character (ITV, 2004 onwards) were monstrous - perverse tweaks to perfectly good plots, and unnecessary lesbian sub-plots! I ask you! I have higher hopes for the new (2009 ff) series starring Julia McKenzie. It appears to have different writers, who are more faithful to Christie's intentions.

    We expect the costumes, cars and props to be authentic, so it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect the same of the dialogue!

    John Cowan said...

    I don't recall Lord Peter saying "Sez you", but in Murder Must Advertise he does say "Okay, captain" in response to Parker's "Oh yeah?" This both seem to be clear cases of intentional Americanisms -- indeed, American-gangsterisms.

    I'm not sure what, if anything, in Wimsey's previous line provoked this, but for the record it was: "This other pebble, which I here produce, was found by me on the roof to the lavatory. I had to shin down a pipe to get it, and ruined a pair of flannel bags."

    enitharmon said...

    If 'train station' is the American term for a railway station, why did Momma B, my late ex mom-in-law, always call the place in Rome, NY, where we boarded the Amtrak train for NYC or Rochester "the depot" (pronounced DEE-poh)? (One of the delights for me of the first time I visited was seeing the huge locomotive clanging as it came to a stop, and the conductor getting his steps out so we could get on from ground level. Just like in the movies!)

    I first encountered 'train station' in the mid-1970s as the invariable term for where trains came and went from, and I assumed it was local usage. I've heard it in Ireland too, before it became general throughout Britain. It may even have come from Australia, but I don't think I ever heard it in the US.

    lynneguist said...

    She calls it a 'depot' because things can have more than one name! :)

    enitharmon said...

    Ok, so 'depot' and 'train station' are both AmE terms for where a train stops. How widespread is 'depot' compared to 'train station'? Is 'depot' an older person's term? (Momma B would be 102 in November were she still alive). Is 'depot' reserved for a particular kind of station, perhaps one used mostly for long-distance traffic?

    You see, this reticent Brit who is not an academic but who is naturally curious and fascinated by this blog and gets the sense sometimes that she is butting in with professional language specialists, is brimming with questions now and wonders how many she can ask without outstaying her welcome.

    lynneguist said...

    This isn't a blog for language professionals--you can ask as much as you like, though sometimes I leave others to answer as I already spend way too much time here. (This is not part of my job--though some seem to think it is, when they tell me 'I wish I had your job!')

    'Depot' to me is old-fashioned and is what you might use for something out of Thomas the Tank Engine or such. I wouldn't call a commuter train station a 'depot' for example. Maybe others have other experiences...