It has been said that the Americans and British are separated by a common language. One could argue that all English-speaking countries and peoples are separated by that not so common language. One area of differences centers around accent, dialect, and country idioms, and those differences are both large and small. (I’ll talk about other differences in my next post.)
I was born in Scotland and still have in my possession something called The New Testament in Scots. This book is written in a dialect called “braid” Scots or “broad” Scots. When I’ve had occasion to read to non-Scots a line or two in the accent of my youth, some assume it’s Gaelic; none understands it. To quote the line from the front cover:
“Gin I speak wi the tungs o men an angels, but hae nae luve i my hairt, I am no nane better nor dunnerin press or a rínging cymbal.” (Hint: I Corinthians, 13:1).
And that’s one of the more intelligible lines that I suspect you can figure out. Try this one:
“Efterhend I will gae back an bigg up again
the dwallin o Dauvit, at hes faan;
what is nou but a ruckle I will bigg up again
an raise up the haill aince mair…
That’s from The Book of Acks (Acts), 15:16. “After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up…” (I used the King James version of this verse because that’s the origin of the broad Scots bible).
Clearly not clear. I spent time correcting autocorrect to make sure that I reproduced it correctly and it’s still autocorrecting even after I think it’s set, so forgive me if it’s not completely accurate. I can’t take my eyes off autocorrect for one second (pet peeve for another post down the line).
Dialect is one of many differences. You can look at Ebonics, for example, and experience the same thing. According to the dictionary, Ebonics is American black English regarded as a language in its own right rather than as a dialect of standard English. Fair enough. You could probably say the same thing about braid Scots. But we know that these languages have emerged from some form of English, even if they are combined with other elements and have evolved into their own unique entities.
These are more extreme variations, but if you listen to two people talking the same or similar English, those two people may not understand each other because of their different accents or because they “swallow the words,” meaning that people in some dialects speak quickly and don’t verbalize the ends of their words, as if they “swallow” those sounds.
A classic story from my own family was told to me by my father. My father wasn’t born in the UK, but in Poland. His mother was English; his father a mix of French, Austrian, and Polish. During WWII, he ended up in the UK, but had a Polish “flash” on the upper arm of his army jacket at that time. On one occasion, arriving at a train station in London, he overheard a man from Somerset asking a London bobby (policeman) for directions. Their accents were so different that the bobby couldn’t understand the Somersetian, and the Somersetian couldn’t understand the bobby. My father ended up translating between these two Englishmen.
While British accents have “regularized” to some degree since the advent of television, there are still marked differences and native Brits are well able to identify where a person comes from. The same is true to some extent in the US. You might not be able to pinpoint an accent as accurately as is the case in the UK, but you know a Southerner from a New Yorker from a Californian.
So much for a common language.