Everyone knows the scene between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction about the little differences between nations—even the way the world sees a burger from Mickey D’s. As a foreigner in this fair land, I’ve had to assimilate to a certain extent. Where I’ve had to change most is in language. My accent catches an ear (and always will. I ain’t changing it for you guys) but the words that I say snag at times. If I talked as I would with friends back in England, most Americans would be lost. So I listen. It’s quite amazing how different English-English is from American-English. It’s surprising how much word usages change even within California. There are NorCal turns of phrase and SoCal turns of phrase.
My travels have been bouncing me between southern and northern California recently and I’ve noticed the little differences. Take freeway speak. In SoCal someone is likely to say, “I took the Ten to the Four-Oh-Five.” All very Robert Crais sounding, but Bobby C. would stick out San Francisco way, as if he’d just called the place, “Frisco.” Bay Area folks will say, “I took I-80 to I-5.” Northerners tend to use their I for their interstates. Southerners tend not to.
This is a very conscious thought when it comes to writing and getting character dialog right. Know thy people. No wonder so many writers stick to their geographical locales. It may be subtle but it sure does stick out when you’re wrong.
I noticed a little British/Irishism in Ken’s post from the other day. Ken said “…when I had to go to hospital…” Ding, ding, ding. Ken omitted the word ‘the’ before hospital. Brits and Irish drop the ‘the’. I didn’t even notice I did this until Julie brought it up, because it drives her mental. Americans tend to use English very formally. The British twist and turn the language at every turn. A friend of mine hates that I turn nouns into verbs. Her all-time unfavorite is “are you gyming it tonight?” Julie particularly hates it when I use ‘me’ instead of ‘my’, as in, “You got me keys?”
When I’m with American friends, I’ll slip into my Englishisms, but I’ll play it straight when I’m with strangers. At least, that’s what I thought. When I went home to England the other month, one of my chums mentioned, “You haven’t changed. You sound just the same.”
Nice, I thought. Mission accomplished.
“It’s just the words you use. It’s straight American.”
It’s true though. I have developed an American turn of phrase. It’s an occupational habit. I’ve forced myself to sound American. Like a left-handed person trying to write right-handed, it’s going to stick after a while.
A few people have spotted Englishisms in Accidents Waiting to Happen and they are there. It was originally written three months after I’d arrived in the US. Some nine years later, readers won’t find similar errors. I know me’s American lexicon, now. Have no fear, guv’nor. I sound dead yanky now, don’t I, like?
So I’m always listening to the way people speak. Writing is theft most of the time and I’m stealing all the bloody time. I could steer away from writing American settings, but where’s the fun in that? That’s the cool thing about language. It’s so changeable and malleable. It’s the little differences, y’know. Like a Royale with Cheese.