Tonight Better Half asked me to lay the table. I went to get plates, then noticed that he'd already filled plates for us. Which led to a conversation about which things the 'layer of the table' was responsible for, which could almost be seen as a dialectal conversation.
My reasoning: I grew up with the job of setting the table, BH grew up laying the table. I was responsible for putting down plates, silverware (AmE), glasses, placemats and napkins. BH says that he just put down cutlery (BrE). I don't actually believe him, having been involved in table-laying exercises at his mother's house where the plates have gone down with the cutlery on the placemats, but he did say "We never had napkins. Sometimes we had kitchen towel" (AmE paper towel).
It's not unusual for napkins not to be supplied at meals served in people's homes here. In the US, it may just be paper towels, but you are generally given something to wipe your mouth with. This may be a generational thing--it's my impression that "war babies" are less likely to have something on the table for mouth-wiping.
But stranger still for an American dining in English homes is being served a meal without a drink. I eat a lot of meals in a lot of different people's homes because of the Scrabble team I'm on. While one's always offered tea after the meal, it's not uncommon to be offered nothing liquid during it. (This always happens at my team's host's house. He has in the past pronounced it strange that I drink as much as I do. I've pronounced it strange that he hasn't had kidney failure yet.) Again, this is something that I associate more with the post-war generation, so may have its roots in necessary frugality.
We all know that Americans consume more than other cultures, right down to paper napkins and milk (the staple in my house) with dinner. But as the post-war generation is replaced by people who haven't known the same privations, the rates of consumption rise in the UK as well. One can only hope that the more voluntary 'green' ethos takes hold as strongly as the effects of involuntary rationing did.
But to get back to the language...why do we set or lay a table? Despite the different words in the two dialects, they are grammatically odd in the same way, with the direct object table not corresponding to the thing that is being moved. Usually if you set or lay a thing, it involves putting it down. In the case of the table, it's already in position, and that which is being moved is left unmentioned. We often leave out mentioning semantic arguments (i.e. things involved in the action) if they're clearly recoverable from the context. For example, we don't bother to say "Did you eat food yet?", we say "Did you eat yet?"
So, do we not mention the 'what' that needs to go on the table because it is predictable in the context? On the contrary, if you're preparing to eat a meal, the table is surely more contextually stable (and thus not needing mention) than what goes on it. For instance, if you're eating soup, you need to lay/set the table differently than if you're eating sushi, and if you're eating breakfast you might put down different things than if you were having lunch. So, why don't we leave out the table and instead say "Would you set/lay the dishes?"
Perhaps it's because there is no good term to cover that which goes on the table (it's not just dishes, it's also linen and cutlery), and also because we do have a sense of doing something to the table when we prepare it for a meal. But still--why then do we use verbs that have to do with moving something (usually represented by the direct object--but not here)? Why don't we say "would you ready the table?" or "would you prepare the table?"
Wonder about things like this too long and one works up an appetite...