Tuesday, April 14, 2009

We're All Speaking English, Aren't We?

G’day everyone.

Although we’re geographically isolated here in Australia ( everyone on the other side of the Equator thinks we’re down under but we don’t) we’re exposed to many variations of the English language in books, movies and on TV. I find all these differences fascinating because I love words and language. Australian written English is basically British due to our colonial heritage and for the same reason we have more connection with England in our language and usage. Accent is another thing altogether.

When Australian authors write for the American market we’re required to use US spelling and change words or phrases so our readers understand what we mean. This may sound like a gripe but don’t be offended, it isn’t. This is just how it is in the US. The market is large enough to demand such things. It’s easy enough for us to use the US spell check to make sure all the ‘ise’ endings turn into ‘ize’ and the ‘u’ s disappear from colour and favourite. They all look horribly wrong of course!

Fortunately for me Avalon is open to maintaining the Australian flavour of my writing which I very much appreciate. I’m familiar with many of the differences:
Eg sidewalk = footpath, fall = autumn, flashlight = torch, elevators = lifts.

Every now and again the editors will query something I thought was standard usage but turns out to be Australian.

I was surprised to learn that ‘capsicum’ was an unfamiliar term --it’s a ‘bell pepper’ apparently -- and that most Americans wouldn’t know what ‘spag Bol’ referred to.( Spaghetti Bolognese, of course.) In my December release Outback Hero, my hero, like every Aussie farmer or all round Aussie bloke, drives a ute. You’ll find there is a little snippet of dialogue explaining naturally (I hope) what that is. I’ve discovered dialogue is the easiest way to introduce something my US readers may not understand.

In my April release ‘Stuck’ my editor asked me to explain the Australian school system because I’d referred to the hero’s twelve year old daughter as just starting high school and for Americans this doesn’t make sense. We start Kindergarten at five, then do six years of Primary School and six years of High School. That was a tricky one to bring in naturally but I think I managed it.

Then there is the thong. Here in Australia thongs are the most popular summer footwear. Just about everyone has a pair of rubber thongs for slopping about in the holidays. Flip flops I suppose they’re called elsewhere. The ones with a divider between the big and second toe, vee shaped straps and a floppy rubber sole. Some of my characters wear thongs to the beach so think feet when you read that! People do wear the other type of thong under their clothes of course but if you say ‘thongs’ here, people assume footwear.

Years ago a friend played in a band every weekend in a pub that had ‘Thong Clapping’. Everyone took off their thongs, put them on their hands and clapped along to the music. Mmmmm. Some thongs and some feet…no thanks.

Despite our language quirks and the things that seem downright weird or hilarious to everyone else what we all understand is a good story, likeable characters and a satisfying ending.

Share with us some of the language things that have got you into trouble or made you laugh, abroad or even at home.

Happy reading

Visit me at www.elisabethrose.com.au


I.J. Parnham said...

That was fun! Thanks. I'm surprised Aussies don't think of themselves as being down under as the planet is that way up... anyhow, as a British writer who writes for Avalon I probably ought to have come across a few more language issues but I'll volunteer one that I've seen happen and which amuses me.

I live in Scotland and a common Scottish term is 'bonny' meaning pretty. In England the term 'bonny' is often used to describe a large healthy baby and so when not applied to a baby is taken to mean plump. So when a Scotsman meets an English woman and pays her the highest compliment he possibly can by telling her she's 'a bonny lassie', it can only end in tears when she wonders why she's just been told she's fat.

Elisabeth Rose said...

Hi Ian. Depends where you're standing what's downunder, I suppose LOL I doubt whether the term originated here but we only use it about ourselves when we're talking to foreigners-- because they seem to like it.

Love the 'bonny' thing.

One thing I find oddly coy is the way Americans refer to the toilet as the bathroom. Our toilet and bathroom are in separate rooms so when US friends visit and ask for the bathroom I have to tactfully discover if they actually want to wash their hands or use the loo.

Debby Mayne said...

What a great post, Elisabeth! I didn't want it to end because I love variations of word use and accents. I'll definitely look for one of your books soon!

Sandy Cody said...

Love it, Lis - your post was a real day brightener. Love the bit about thongs. One of my best friends is from New Zealand. On family camping trips, we all had to learn that when Kay said "chilly bin" she meant the cooler. Words are wonderful!

Carol Hutchens said...

What fun, Lis!
I've read romance novels enough to recognize most of the terms, but I didn't know about your toilets.

Just think of all the things a person learns from reading romance!

Thanks, Lis.

Kate said...

G’day, Elizabeth (oh sorry, Elisabeth),

Back in 1989, my family and several other families traveled to Australia to visit our mutual Australian friend, Peter and his family. We are a close group of friends and have spent a lot of comfortable and pleasurable time together. One evening, Peter invited his brother John and family for dinner. John brought family pictures along and relaxing after dinner we all passed Peter’s childhood pictures around truly enjoying the banter. I found myself looking at a picture of John and Peter, ages 12 and 10, standing outside in the rain wearing long, yellow raincoats with bare calves, ankles and feet… and, of course, thongs… err, flip-flops. Now, I’m from the northeast U.S., and I can’t imagine a rainy day being warm enough to be outside in bare feet and flip-flops… I mean, thongs. So, instead of simply asking about the temperature that day, I flashed the picture at Peter and John and asked, “Under the raincoats, were you wearing knickers?”

Well, the room went quiet and no one was smiling! I had no idea what went wrong. Peter and John merely stared at me. I had obviously said something wrong and I had no idea what. I’m guessing that you Aussie readers are having a bit of a giggle and wondering what would possess me to ask such a rude question of someone I’ve only just met. And, you U.S. readers are thinking, “Well, I don’t get it, what was wrong with that?”

I’ll explain first to the Australians… in our country, knickers are trousers ending just below the knee. And to the U.S. readers… in Australia, knickers are ladies underwear and that explains my faux pas (ummm, that’s French for “open mouth, insert foot”).


Tessa McDermid said...

Thanks, Lis! That was fun. When my son traveled to Australia/New Zealand a couple summers ago with a group, they had a list of words to learn so they wouldn't be confused. Several of them we knew from our reading - others were new.

My grandparents visited relatives of ours in England when I was in elementary school and I remember one of their mixups due to language. My grandmother 'coyly' asked for a restroom and was taken to a room with a bed! We thought that was very funny.

To add to the story, this past month, I was in NYC and took a tour of the Grand Central Terminal. The guide told us that the term 'restroom' started there and the first class waiting room had couches, chairs, and other 'resting places' in a room separate from the sinks and toilets.

Tessa McDermid

Anonymous said...

I was born in England, grew up in Australia and, after 40 years in the USA, have just written my first novel. You'd think that, having spent two-thirds of my life here, I'd be thoroughly Americanized by now. But as my long-suffering critique partners can attest, you can bring the girl up from Down Under, but you can't take the British/Aussie education out of the girl!

And, Lis, there is a passage in my book in which a character explains to an Indian family, newly-arrived in Australia, exactly what a "ute" is.

Zelda Benjamin said...

That was lots of fun. Just got back from NZ . Didn't make it to Au this year, but if anyone is offering a ticket I'm on my way. Speaking of toilets - I'm always amazed at how they flush counter clockwise in the southern hemisphere (which is backwards here in the US)

Elisabeth Rose said...

Kate, I would've fallen on the floor laughing if you asked that. I think 'knickers' is the best word and it's not a rude term at all. It's the equivalent of panties. Maybe they did have frilly girly knickers on underneath and you hit on an embarassing secret !!! LOL

Zelda--yes, yes the toilets go backwards or fowards or whatever. But I thought the first US toilet I flushed was going to overflow because the water came up so high first.
Come to think of it one actually did in China. A brand new block with one western style loo, at the Great Wall in 2004. The water came up and kept on coming and coming and coming until I had to escape out the door with the flood following.

Finding a clean, working loo with paper (in China you bring your own paper, remember that)--hardly romantic but the eternal problem of the traveller.

I.J. Parnham said...

I enjoyed this thread! I suppose the standard old British joke of 'I used to be a tap-dancer until I fell off the tap.' doesn't work as well when translated to 'I used to be a tap-dancer until I fell off the faucet.'

Sierra Donovan said...

Lis, I've fallen behind, but what a fun post! I've enjoyed all the responses.

I think it's nice when publishers allow the authors their own "accent," regional flavor, or what have you.

When I was a kid, my family used to call our flip-flops "beachwalkers." Later, it seemed like most people were calling them "thongs" ... but then the skimpy underwear took over. I shudder to think what "thong clapping" would look like at a bar here in Southern California!!

Elisabeth Rose said...

LOL Ian. As my husband would say "They're old but they're bad." He's a professional jazz drummer and has done gigs for over forty years in all sorts of venues with all sorts of acts. He reckons the low point of his career was backing a comic act who said to him "Hit the cymbal when my pants fall down."

Beate Boeker said...

Loved that post! Though being German, I was taught British English at school and had to re-learn all the other words too when I started to write for the US market.
I still stumble over some, though. The last one was the fairly normal British expression "I'm a mother-cum-writer" (correct me if I'm wrong Ian), which signifies that you do both jobs, being a mother and a writer (or whatever other combination). Then I got a review which said some words made the reader stumble. I asked her which ones, and she told me "cum" means sperm in the US. Super. Now I wonder if it's even used in Britain, but I know for sure I've read it in some novels (can't remember which ones, though).

Elisabeth Rose said...

I'm not sure how I'd write that phrase Beate, but it's very familiar in spoken language. Hmmm.
It's such a pain when perfectly good words have been hi-jacked and the meanings changed.
When I was at primary school we all used rubbers to rub out our mistakes. Now kids use erasers which to me sounds very American. But I still use a rubber.