Monday, October 29, 2012

visiting

I've been doing 'Untranslatables October' on Twitter for the second time (made slightly easier this year by the fact that I've given up tweeting on weekends). I'll do a summary at the end of the month.

An American 'Untranslatable' was visit with, which had been suggested by Ros Clarke. I defined it as 'to pay a social call and chat with someone, esp. if you're having a good catch-up.'

Ros then asked "do you think that paying the social call is an important part of visit with?" No and yes, I would say. For instance, one could say

We visited with each other for a while after we met on the pathway.

But if there is a social call, it is the caller who is doing the visiting. At least, that's my intuition:

He came over and visited with me.      Sounds normal to me.
He came over and I visited with him.  Sounds weird to me.
I went over and he visited with me.     Sounds really weird to me. 

But one could also say:
He came over and we visited with each other.

It's always worth mentioning when things that Americans say are actually British in origin, and the 'pay a social call' sense of visit with is one of them. The OED marks it as Now U.S.  Interestingly, it's apparently not from the days before the British settled in the 'new world'. In other words, it's evidence that Americans didn't just start importing newfangled Britishisms (see my last post!) in the 21st century. The first example is from a letter in 1850, the second is from a major piece of British literature:
1871   ‘G. Eliot’ Middlemarch (1872) I. i. i. 8   The small group of gentry with whom he visited.

Besides visiting with there's also with-less intransitive visit, which is 100% American and just about chatting. In that sense, you and your friend could visit for hours, meaning that you talked with each other for a long time. If the subject of this 'chat' visit is just one of the chatting parties, then you can have a with in order to identify who you're talking with.

I searched for examples of visited with in the Corpus of Contemporary American English. There are 282 of them, though some are not this visited with, but things like the town he visited with his mother or visited with great interest. I looked at the first page of them (100). Most of the examples do involve someone coming to where someone else is and talking with them:
And the White House made a surprise stop for barbecue in Washington, but left the restaurant a surprise when lunch finished on Wednesday, an unpaid tab. President Obama visited with service members and local barbers...
There's only one example in the 282 with a reciprocal pronoun (each other; no cases of one another).

But there's one case where the visited-with person is the one who moved:
We're speaking with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of Zimbabwe. We visited with him on his visit to the United States.
 ...though in this case, it may very well be that the radio people (we) visited the place where Tsvangirai was staying, and therefore were the 'movers'. They area also the 'movers' in that they are the ones who sought the interview. The sentence certainly gives me the image that the NPR reporter went to Tsvangirai's hotel or the Zimbabwean embassy or something, though it could be the case that they talked on the phone. In other words, when visit with is used non-reciprocally, I do get the image that the subject of the sentence acted in order to get the conversation started--either by moving to where the other person is or by setting up the meeting. Perhaps I've got that connotation more strongly than other Americans do.

Finally, a note on the noun visit. Most uses of the noun visit are general English (i.e. not UK- or US- or anywhere-specific). But one can shift the 'chat' verb visit into a noun, and get things like We had a nice visit over dinner/the phone/coffee. This is not something one would hear in the UK. Instead you might (informally) have a good natter (which Collins English Dictionary defines as 'prolonged idle chatter or gossip').

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Briticisms in AmE

...or Britishisms in AmE, if you prefer.

The past few weeks have seen a lot of interest in the movement of words from the UK to the US. It all started with a BBC Magazine (web) article 'Britishisms and the Britishisation of American English'. Of course, we've been looking at that trend for a few years here, haven't we, with the annual BrE-to-AmE Word of the Year, and Ben Yagoda's been keeping track of it in his blog, Not One-Off Britishisms (which I reviewed here, with more commentary on whether BrE is invading AmE).The issue is covered today in the New York Times and Atlantic Wire, with references to this blog. There will be more press interest in it before we get back to the usual business of worrying about new words in dictionaries or whether text messaging is ruining literacy.

The press is seeking commentary on this from linguists. YAY! I am particularly celebrating that in regard(s) to the British press, which has a reputation [among linguists] for calling on television presenters and creative writers for commentary on language and not the accomplished academic linguists and lexicographers of this country. The American press doesn't seem to have this habit.

But, of course, there's a lot more to say about these things than can go in a quote in a news article--or even in a whole news article. So, here are some more rambling ramblings. My perception of British words in American English is definitely flavo(u)red these days with the experience of living for nearly 13 years in the UK and getting to know those words better in their native environs. But from this vantage point, I have a few observations:

First, not everyone in the US is using all these current Briticisms. I suspect they're entering the language by different routes. The route that's most clear in the examples that Yagoda gives in his blog is northeastern media/publishing. When writing about Yagoda's blog, I said:

...some of the BrEisms that Yagoda picks out as "widely adopted" strike me as not so. For one thing, some of them are things that Americans have sent me puzzled emails about. For another, the sources Yagoda cites are very often New Yorkers, if not The New Yorker, and most come from the NY-DC corridor. [...]  I'm having a hard time finding out how many of the 685,000 British expats in the US are in New York, but many commentators seem to agree with  A.A. Gill that "The British have colonized Manhattan". And an awful lot of them seem to be in publishing. So, it could be a trend in a certain milieu. [...]  I'm not saying that all the BrEisms are coming from UK expats; I have no trouble believing that Americans in their milieu are easily influenced by chic-sounding British words. And if that continues, those words may make their way into general American English. But my impression from non-NYCers is that these words are far from "widely adopted."
Another route seems to be British-origin fiction. Particularly Harry Potter, but also Doctor Who, Downton Abbey. (And other entertainments, like Top Gear on BBC America--which, it must be said, is not available everywhere and is only available to those paying for a cable/satellite package that includes it.)  While the Harry Potter books (especially the first one) are highly Americani{z/s}ed for the audience, their Britishness makes them very attractive--it's another world of boarding schools, 'houses' and headmasters that seems very romantic, and some Briticisms, where they will not interfere with understanding, are let through.  The US rise of ginger, as a hair colo(u)r term, seems very associated with Potter.

When these words are adopted by Americans, it might be for one of several reasons:
  1. They fill a gap.
  2. They sound 'cool' to someone for some reason (e.g. they sound intelligent, exotic)
  3. Most people aren't really aware of the origins of the new word, and so don't care that they've adopted a Briticism. It's just a new word to them.
One can swap (or BrE alternative spelling: swop) the words 'American' and 'British' there and have reasons for Americanisms coming into BrE.

Fewer people negatively judge the borrowing of words in situations (1) and (3). Some of the past BrE-to-AmE WotYs are in situation (3), for example go missing and to vet. While Americans are often bad at knowing which words are Britishisms (many Americans seem to believe that bumbershoot is an English way of saying 'umbrella'), the British are probably worse at knowing which are Americanisms.*

But in case (2) the judg(e)ments come swift and hard. The US press is referring to it as Anglocreep. The UK press mostly just calls it [insert pejorative adjective here] Americanisation.

People find situation (2) threatening for a number of reasons--all to do with our sense of language as a marker of identity. If you're using words from a different place that you don't have 'birth rights' to, you're seen as 'inauthentic' in the use of those words. You can also be seen as rejecting the language, and therefore the identity, of the people and place that you come from. Taking on those new words also marks you as aspiring to be associated with a group of people who may not always be positively stereotyped in the culture you're in--and those stereotypes rub off on your word usage in convoluted ways. So, taking on American words is seen as 'sloppy' and 'lazy' in the UK. Taking on British words is seen as 'snobby' and 'pretentious' in the US.

Another reason why people complain when their words are borrowed by others is that they're rarely used in the new place just as they were in the old place. The pronunciations, of course, are adapted to the local accent, but the meanings of the words often change also. This is true of all borrowings. We don't use the word spaghetti like Italians do (for them, it's plural) nor douche in the way the French do. But the differences are more glaring when it's borrowing within the same language and we're all trying to use the language to communicate with one another, which involves assuming that we're using the words in the same way.  The social significance of words (particularly how offensive they might be considered to be) changes a lot--and sometimes nuances of meaning are missed. Some examples:

Americans are notorious for using and not understanding the connotations of wanker (see the comments in that post for some stories). Americans imported wanker without necessarily knowing wank (to masturbate), and so it sounds like a fun, silly thing to call people. But calling someone a wanker is less like calling them a jerk, and more like calling them a jerk-off. In the other direction, we've noticed British students coming back from a year abroad in the US and using the youthy use of douche as an insult, but in social contexts in which my brothers/nephew would avoid it in the US (the family dinner table, with grandma. OK, ok, I'm talking about my brother-in-law).

Newcastle Brown Ale's No Bollocks ad campaign is specific to America and it's not clear that such a campaign would be allowed in mass media in the UK. The Advertising Standards Authority's 'Deleting Expletives' [link is pdf] report of 2000 put bollocks as the 8th most offensive word according to the British public. (Wanker was 4th, before nigger or bastard.) Words lower in the 'severity of offence' list than bollocks include arsehole, twat and shit. Having typed these words, I have now guaranteed that my blog will not be readable from any school computer anywhere. But anyhow, the facts that (a) you can use this word on a billboard in the US and (b) someone has done so pretty much guarantees that the word is being used in the US in ways that it wouldn't be used in its native country.

I've noted before examples of Americans using BrE expressions with distinctly non-BrE meanings, for instance snog and chat up. One I came across yesterday was an AmE speaker using BrE starkers (which means AmE barenaked) to mean 'crazy', having been misled by another BrE phrase, stark raving mad. There's more potential for that in the BrE-to-AmE direction, I think, because the pathways the words are travel(l)ing are narrower than the ones that go AmE-to-BrE. But there are still BrE uses of AmE words that are unlike the original meaning. I've talked about this before with reference to shotgun and I've known a few BrE speakers who've assumed that a raincheck is a refund.

I'm looking forward to whatever else is to come in the media discussion of BrE words in AmE places--and I'll try to remember to link to them here. Till then, (BrE-to-AmE, not without controversy) cheers!


* I have lots of examples of this in a talk I've been giving a lot lately: 'How Americans Saved the English Language'. If you'd like to hear it, all you have to do is have your local speaking club invite me at a convenient time and pay my expenses to get there. At this point, the next one is Lewes, East Sussex in December. I'll give details closer to the date.