Wednesday, July 14, 2010

This is really quite good

(Photo borrowed from Miss Chicago.)

When I was training as a language teacher we were told that, very often, students have more difficulty not with a feature of a language that is very different from their own but with one that is only a little different. The words that don't sound anything like English ones are easier to get right than the ones that sound somewhat like English but actually have a different meaning. English and American English are just different enough to cause problems in that way.

NFAH commented recently on the phrase "Every little helps" and how she feels it really should have the word "bit" added to the phrase - "Every little bit helps." After reading on another blog how the German phrase "jedes bisschen hilft" translates as "Every little helps", I wonder if this is a phrase that has lingered on in our language since the days of the Vikings. These kinds of phrases can stop you in your tracks a moment, but when push comes to shove they are still comprehensible.

Miss Chicago, on the other hand, just commented on British understatement, specifically in regard to Marks & Spencers Rich Tea Cream Fingers (whatever they are!) which are advertised as "Really rather good." No missing words here. However, the statement "really rather good" sounds far less enthusiastic to an American than to a Brit.

When I was applying to graduate school in the United States, I went back to my alma mater and asked my tutor if she would mind writing me a reference, (knowing full well that she would NEVER have written me a recommendation for a place on a Master's degree course in the UK.) I explained where I wanted to go and why, and she assured me that she would write me a good reference. In fact, she explained, she had learned through bitter experience exactly how to write references for American universities.

She had once been asked to write a reference for someone for a position at an Ivy League college. The candidate was over qualified for the position, but wanted the opportunity to work at an American university for a while, and particularly an Ivy League one. She not only did not get the post but discovered that the man who was hired had vastly inferior qualifications and experience. So she did the American thing and sued. She won her case and was awarded compensation, but not the job. It turned out that the American hiring committee had interpreted what would have been considered a glowing reference in the UK as somewhat cool and not very enthusiastic. So my tutor assured me that she knew exactly what to write to get me accepted, hinting that by her standards it would be not exactly a work of fiction but certainly one-sided.

There are people like Lynneguist who base their profession on the fact that English and American are not really the same language. Most of the time the differences are insignificant, or easily understood. Occasionally however, phrases like "Every little helps", remind me that even though I've been here 25 years and feel very American I did not grow up here


LHA said...

This is really interesting, actually. I have often wondered what would happen if I took my professional life back to Britain (I've only worked as an adult in the US) and how things like recommendation letters and degree qualifications would be perceived. Think I'll just stay in the US for now...!

Tanya (Bump2Basics) said...

Ten years ago I would not have know what you were on about but after almost 8 years in the UK I completely get you!

Expat mum said...

I think the phrase (Every little helps) works when you take "little" as a noun rather than an adjective. We do use the word all the time exactly like that - "I've only got a little" which doesn't make you say "A little what?".
Very interesting the things we take for granted though.

nappy valley girl said...

Very interesting.
My husband says he has noticed that academics here will say that some finding is absolutely fascinating. whereas in the UK they might describe something as 'quite interesting'. He now understands that the Brits totally under-sell their work.

Canoez said...

@Limey : When I was a young engineer - only a few years out of college here in the US, I was sent by my company to one of our customers in the UK. They were blaming a problem on a product that we made.

When I arrived in the UK with our sales director, we met with the plant manager - a Brit who was openly dismissive of my qualifications and abilities to solve their problem. I went out on the production floor with one of their facilities engineer to see what the problem was while the plant manager railed at the sales director. I quickly diagnosed the problem as the production machinery that was made by their engineers and corrected the problem.


Only about 12 minutes after leaving the plant manager's office the facilities engineer and I returned to find that I was still being discussed in a derogatory manner.

The plant manager could still not accept that a) I'd solved the problem and b) that the problem was his own equipment and c) that his UK educated engineers couldn't solve the problem.

If I Could Escape . . . said...

So true! Job interviews are the worst. It's so hard to go OTT on yourself but that's what you have to do over here. My hubby was lands interviews left right and center but when it comes down to it, he was never getting the job offer ... until a friend ex-pat told him a few years back that he needed to go American and just get overly excited and enthusiastic during interviews. Hey presto, it's been working ever since ... well, till the economy took a downward spiral.

Iota said...

Do you think Mr Kipling might be someone who would be understood correctly in both British and American English?

"...makes exceedingly good cakes" seems less open to misinterpretation than "really rather good".

MarmiteFluff said...

Coincidentally, I was reading this article only last week:

which was written ten years ago, so one assumes the situation and vocabulary is even more puffed up by now.

Almost American said...

Thanks MarmiteFluff for that link! Very interesting reading!

Almost American said...

Iota - Yes, I think Mr Kipling's slogan translates better - and I think the Tesco's one is playing off it.

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