I’d been waiting for inspiration. I’ve been putting off posting here, in hopes that I’d soon stumble upon that perfect British English oddity that would strike my American ears and send me straight to the WordPress dashboard. But it hasn’t happened, and so this post is about why that might be.
I’ve never lived in Britain before, but I have been here a few times before, as a tourist. What’s more, I’m not a stranger to the historical reaches of the British Empire: Singapore, Hong Kong, Ghana, South Africa… Canada, even (parts of British Columbia, at least, do try their hardest to live up to the title). Early and periodic exposure — I was 3 years old when we lived in Singapore — to spellings like colour and words like boot and lorry certainly makes those things seem less strange to me as an adult, especially when I know where I can expect to find them. So in a way, learning to order bangers and mash, here, is basically like learning to order Bratwurst mit Kartoffelpuree, in Germany. (Except the food you here get isn’t nearly as good!)
Sure, English English is a bit different than American English, but it’s different in ways that are mostly expected, right? (Like I said last time, heaps of folks have written about the topic.) So then this makes me wonder about the paths that lead to our forming expectations. How does acclimation happen before arrival? To what extent can exposure to place B, which was colonized by place A, acclimate you to place A? To what extent can having one good friend from either A or B accomplish the same thing? What about reading a lot of A’s novels, or just a bunch of academic articles about A’s language? For the godawful umpteenth time, what about the mass media?
It’ll be interesting to see what my husband thinks about this when he moves here in January. As someone who lived up until age 12 in Nigeria, and with a travel record comparable to mine, he’ll be a great test case!
And this isn’t to say that I don’t still find people in Oxford unintelligible (and that I’m still misunderstood more often than I even know). But that’s different: a matter of expanding my perceptual space, of gradually mapping their vowels onto my mental vowel inventory, and then learning a few colloquialisms to glue it all together. But that process strikes me as so expected, there’s not much more to say about it… At least, not this week!
To be fair, one could argue about the extent to which I can call being in Oxford being “in Britain.” Every day when I’m in town I hear loads of different languages and accents, American English varieties among them. Surely, I just need to get out a little more. When I do, I suspect I’ll have more to say.
In other words, my apologies (to those of you who’ve asked) for not posting until now. I guess one problem with being a linguist who studies English variation is that something that might’ve seemed like a funny British thing, before, now often just seems like another datapoint.
But, okay, okay, so there is this one thing…
I have this small obsession with variable count/mass distinctions (e.g., my elderly Chinese relative says she has “a lot of junks” in her apartment, clearly referring to things and stuff, not the ships), and the other day I was reading this official Oxford publication that was all about “researches” — you know, bits of research. I had no idea “research” could be a count noun. So that’s kind of cool, right?