Tuesday, November 15, 2011

They Say Tomato; We Say Tomato

On my drive to work this morning, I found myself thinking about the movie Love Actually. I can’t quite pinpoint how my stream of consciousness led me to a movie I haven’t seen in eight years. Perhaps it was Colin Firth withdrawals or the impending holiday season, but for whatever reason, I spent my morning commute thinking about all of the movie’s storylines. I eventually made my way to the Billy Bob Thornton as the misogynistic U.S. president part, and from there, I do remember my stream of consciousness. Come along for the ride:

Love Actually really painted the U.S. president as a big bully. I can see why; America definitely has that reputation. It especially did during the Bush years. Isn’t it ironic that Britain considers America a bully when originally we considered Britain to be a bully? It’s pretty interesting to think about the differences that have emerged between U.S. culture and British culture since the U.S. won its independence. Like why do Brits prefer tea and we prefer coffee? Why are Brits celebrated for their dry wit while we are more known for slapstick comedy? Why are they more civilized than we are? You know what? Maybe these differences don’t really exist. I mean, I like tea. Fawlty Towers is full of slapstick. Civilized is the last word that comes to mind when I think of Russell Brand. When it comes down to it, we’re all just people. John Lennon was right. We should all just live as one. This asshole in front of me should learn how to drive.

But even if the cultural differences are just stereotypes, there are definitely some linguistic disparities that have developed between Britain and the U.S.

For example, we deal differently with collective nouns.

A collective noun is a word used to describe a group of objects. In fact, the word group is a collective noun because in order to have a group of something, it must be made up of more than one. Other collective nouns include committee, troop, herd, and society.

In the United States, we tend to treat the collective noun as a singular noun, so we use a singular verb.

Congress has decided to consider collective nouns singular.

In Britain, they tend to treat the collective noun as plural, so they use the plural verb.

Parliament have decided to consider collective nouns plural.

I have always been interested to find out how and why American English is different from its British origin—not interested enough to actually do the research, but interested enough to form my own unfounded theories.

My theory regarding the difference between the ways the U.S. and Britain deal with collective nouns is that the U.S. decided to consider a group as one singular entity to stress the fact that we are united, as suggested by the name of our country.

My theory about why Americans use the term french fries instead of chips is because we believe that if it’s French it can’t make us fat.

And my theory about why Americans use the word line instead of queue is because, let’s face it, we have enough issues with spelling.


Anonymous said...

As crazy as those Brits talk, its ironic when they sing they sound just like us Yanks. I've always wondered how that happens. And when I sing, why don't I sing with a British accent?

Julie Hedlund said...

I wrote a children's book using collective nouns, so I'm all too familiar with the challenges of writing sentences that are grammatically correct but doesn't sound right to the ear.

Jeffrey Beesler said...

The thing that gets me in translation is the u following the o in certain words like flavour or colour or stuff like that.

Shelly said...

I thought of a joke to make about the collective use of Congress, but the civilised tone of the British in this post has made me refrain. Cheerio!

Shannon said...

I had no clue about the collective noun difference. That's the one new thing that I learned today (besides the importance of breast pads when nursing).

But, I really just wanted to comment and say that Love Actually is my favorite movie of all time. Husband and I watch it once a year around Christmas. YAY!

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Love love LOVE this. I didn't know they treated collective nouns differently, but that's really interesting. (Am I a nerd because I think that's really interesting? Probably. Oh well.)

Jaya J said...

I like your theory on why Americans use the term French fries instead of chips :p

Crystal Pistol said...

Super clever post. I think you're right on all points. :)

I once dated a British guy simply because I liked his accent. I could have listened to him talk about queues and tea all the live long day. *sigh*

Stephen T. McCarthy said...

ONO, I don't think John Lenin was ever right about anything.

Spot of tea or cuppa coffee?

Uh... actually, I've now switched entirely to 5-Hour Energy drinks.

~ D-FensDogg
'Loyal American Underground'

Tonja said...

Funny. I love that movie too, especially how all the threads come together in the end. French fries make you fat? :/

Dylan Fitzgerald said...

This post just reminds me of that oddly self-righteous exercise we did in almost every history class in elementary school and middle school:

The United States ____ a wonderful place to live.

Insert linking verb.

The right answer was "is" even though "states" is plural. I always found that exercise a liiiiiiiittle bit sanctimonious ;)

Liz said...

I don't think this is a US vs British thing, but people who say on line vs in line? That is strange to me.

Gary Baker said...

I must disagree with you about your Parliament remark: see ..


traci's mixed bag said...

You gave us a lot to think about. When it comes to why we drink coffee, I was thinking it has to do with our heavy Hispanic influence. My husband says it's because the tea was so heavily taxed that we had to find alternatives. Hmmm. Your posts always bring on great conversation between my husband and I, he is the product of a history, drama and English teachers. So any chance to teach me something he takes. I learned the origin of slapstick and how potato chips were invented because of sarcasm. Great post and interesting compare and contrast. I would feel so weird saying "Congress have decided to consider collective nouns singular."

anthony stemke said...

They used to be called french fried potatoes,the "french" an arcane term for the cut of the fried potatoes. The French people call them pommes frites.
I like the singular treatment of the collective noun, because although composed of many, that collectiveness becomes one.

Lorena said...

Ha ha ha, love your theories, MP!

Since I'm not a native English speaker, I recently realized the British have different ways of spelling words, such as "realised" for "realized" or "agonised" for "agonized".

CAN SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME WHY THIS IS? Isn't the English language complicated enough already with its hundreds of variations in pronunciation and its irregular verbs?? I mean, I'm ok with the different pronunciations (although I have to use close-captioning when watching British films) but we have to worry about spelling, too? It doesn't make any sense. In Spanish, for example, every country (and region) has a different accent, and Spaniards speak very differently from Latin Americans, but the spelling is ALWAYS the same!

Tony Storm said...

my mexican accent makes it even harder haha

Otter said...

Interesting take on some of cultural differences between the US and Britain. My theory that I just now formed as to why there are so many differences in our languages, is that we deliberately altered it to differentiate ourselves with our original homeland. ok, nm, sounds silly now that I typed it out, lol. And please forgive my spelling and grammar errors, I'm an art teacher, lol.

Jo-Ann said...

The differences between spelliing and grammar are slight compared to some of the differences between the slang of the two countries. I mean, what the Americans call an eraser, the Brits call a rubber. Could make for some embarrassment in a stationery store...

Jo-Ann said...

PS @ Lorena.
I guess Spanish is a phonetic langauge and English is not, so spelling variations are to be expected.

But could you see either the Brits agreeing to Americanize their spelling or the Americans Britishising theirs?