Accentuate the positive

Considering the differences between American and British English is problematical. Are we talking about differences in spelling, for instance, or meaning; pronunciation, or possibly different usages? In the broadest sense we might take all four categories as embracing an overall divergence of two distinct dialects; however, as we know, there are wide variations of pronunciation and usage, if not of the different but largely now standardised systems of spelling, even within the continental USA and from one ‘village’ to another in Britain.

It should be noted that American English began to diverge from British (or ‘UK’) English as early as the sixteenth century. Amer-English tended somewhat to get left behind, owing to the pattern of colonisation; as, from this period onwards, there was rapid change, increasing literacy and growing standardisation of pronunciation and spelling in Britain, exposure to Eastern verbal cultures, and so on, that did not take place in the USA (I am deliberately using the anachronistic initials – of course there was no ‘USA’ as such before the mid-nineteenth) until sometime later. And there was, of course, Biblicism of the King James variety. However, from the early twentieth century onwards, neologisms and street-slang usages, imports from the many immigrant communities in the USA (especially the Irish and Jewish cultures) caused rapid changes that were then reimported into UK English through music and movies. How cool is that?

This short essay was prompted in fact by controversial comments posted on a thread following a summary of the use of diacriticals affecting the pronunciation of Portuguese, as differently spoken in Portugal and Brazil; variations that seem to me to have only very minor significance, but which seem to occasion impassioned debate between linguists from the two communities. The fulcrum of the debate concerns the use, or non-use, or the discontinuation of use of the ‘eireisis’, more commonly (but incorrectly, outside German) known as the umlaut – those two little dots over a vowel, indicating a flattened pronunciation. Two tiny dots, yet to many academics representing worlds apart – the Old World of colonialising Portugal, the vibrant, soccer-obsessed New World of Brazil, a former colony, where the eireisis still lurks – or does not lurk – in the written language of a country said by one party in the debate to be educationally backward and populated by slightly thick people.

And what does the eireisis actually do (or not do) in Brazilian Portuguese? (It has been outlawed by treaty in Iberia.) Why, it is used valuably to distinguish one pronunciation from another, but in just one instance: namely, whether the letters ‘qu-‘ should be spoken as ‘kw-‘, as in ‘quarrel’ – or whether the ‘u’ is unvoiced, as in… well, it is early in the day and I cannot think of an example in English: ‘donde a qui?’ in Spanish, ‘question’ in French perhaps. (I know, my Spanish question mark is the wrong way up. So is my keyboard.) And it is an extraordinaily telling debate, indicating that European Portuguese still look down on decadent non-native speakers of the language in the patronising way educated Englishmen might once have looked down upon speakers of pidgin, before they threw us out.

Other than for some loan words abstracted from other European languages, English uses no diacriticals; its pronunciation must seem quite haphazard to a Spaniard or a Frenchman. Even the officially accepted spelling of ‘café’, to which my automatic spellchecker has added an acute accent, is now just ‘cafe’ without accentuation. It has become an English word. (It was always in any case in Britain an abbreviation of the almost-now disused ‘cafeteria’, confusingly borrowed from the Italian word for a coffee-house.) While the unaccented British pronunciation of ‘cafe’ ranges from the posh ‘caf-ay’, to the common ‘caff’, via the semi-common ‘caffee’, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories we owe the word ‘coffee’ itself to the Turkish ‘kahveh’, which in turn derives more confusingly still from an Arabic word for ‘wine’…. I have to assume, therefore, that the French got their word ‘café’ originally from the English…. While the Americans pragmatically prefer to call it a ‘diner’. Let’s not go there.

But the word I began thinking of, and which I shall try to concentrate on, was ‘trunk’. I was musing, you see, on the wide variations that exist between American and UK English, especially in relation to anything to do with motorised transportation. I had been noticing that Americans have increasingly been saying ‘car’, in the English fashion, rather than the more cumbersome and pre-Model T-sounding ‘automobile’.  Yet plenty of differences remain. ‘Gasoline’ or ‘gas’ for ‘petrol’. ‘Hood’ for ‘bonnet’. ‘Windshield’ for ‘windscreen’. ‘Stickshift’ for ‘gear lever’. ‘Motor’ for ‘engine’. ‘Spare’ for ‘spare wheel’. And, of course, Americans call the enclosed compartment at the rear of a saloon car, the ‘trunk’; while the British still refer to the ‘boot’.

Why these differences came into being, I have no idea. To a Briton, a trunk is a large-ish metal or bound wooden box for travelling with. So there is some descriptive coincidence to explain why an American might attach the word to the luggage compartment of a car. But the word ‘trunk’ itself has a fascinating range of meanings, applied as it may be to the main growing stem of a tree, to the upper part of the human body, to a type of highway directly connecting two significant communities (and by extension to a type of telephone call connecting two exchanges), and to the flexible proboscis of an elephant; while in the French, ‘tronc’ is also synonymous with the body of an aeroplane or coach, with the ‘stock’ of a gun and even with the bulrush (genus Scirpus). Most curious of all, a ‘tronc’ is defined by HM Revenue and Customs as a pool of tips handed to waiters in a restaurant, that is shared-out (taxably!) in lieu of part-wages.

None of this explains why the British call the back-end of their cars the ‘boot’…. My Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories offers the faint possibility of its relating to the rear part of a horse-drawn coach, where the boots might be stowed, or the servants who looked after the boots would have travelled; an archaic word meaning ‘blunt’, ‘bot’ might have got itself applied to the blunt-end of the vehicle; but the applications are obscure. All I know is, that when I left a pair of expensive walking boots on a Corsican train, the subsequent conversation with the attendants in Lost Property took on a surreal character, one man’s ‘bottes’ being another man’s ‘souliers’ (and one man’s ‘brown’ being another’s chestnut, or ‘marron’). I did eventually get them back, since they were the only pair to have been handed in that day, but it was a titanic linguistic struggle during which I had to confess abjectly to being merely an Englishman, barely conversant with their superior terminological exactitudes! (And the previous year, I had been reliably informed by the pretty girl in Tourist Information in Valence that there was no ‘bus’ service to the place I wanted to get to, only to discover a few moments later from personal observation of the depot immediately behind the building, that there was actually a coach, or ‘car’, that went right past the door!)

Respecting the value of diacriticals to the understanding of such major differences between cultures, I am reminded, too, of a conversation I overheard while on a course, learning how not to be a very good teacher of English to foreign students. One of my colleagues was discussing a food topic with the mostly Spanish student volunteers, and listed asparagus among the vegetables. ‘Asparagus? What is this asparagus, please?’ puzzled one of the Spaniards. ‘You know, thin, pointy, green…’ ‘Ah!’ the lightbulb came on. ‘Asparagús!’

Wars have probably been started for less.