Wednesday, June 1, 2011

International Views of Americanisms

Today we're going to start looking into reactions to the differences between International and American fiction in the English-speaking world. At the basic level, there are differences in spelling, moving right on through to divergent word use and wildly varying cultural understandings.

I'm a publisher, as most of you know, and today is release day for the supernatural thriller Winter by Keven Newsome. While we were editing it, I wondered about her university classes - why was Winter doing classes in algebra, French, English, and Biblical History all at once? I had never heard of such a thing - where I studied, you really had to focus on your major without room for anything random or unrelated. But Keven explained to me that all these things fit into a perfectly normal American college course. So I learned another fact that is very basic to Americans, but unknown to me until recently.

I put out the call for International authors to tell us their responses to American fiction, and here is what they said:

As a Canadian immersed in (almost only) American books I've become totally accustomed to American spellings to the point where 'colour' now looks foreign to me. I write with American spell-checker on.
Valerie Comer,

I've spent my life reading British, American, and international works of fiction (I remember all those British boarding school series when I was a kid; what a surprise to come to the US for the first time at age 9 and discover America was very different than the books). To be honest, if it is a great story, I couldn't care less about alternative spellings, while the differences in culture are what add richness to the story (am I American or international? As a US citizen living abroad since age three, I would consider myself a good mix of both).
Jeanette Windle,

I’m used to reading American spelling and I tend to use it when corresponding with my American friends. One thing I do find interesting is that a perfectly innocent word used every day in one English-speaking country can be considered rude, offensive, or even have sexual connotations in another English-speaking country. For example, in Australia we refer to ‘flip flops’ footwear as ‘thongs’. As many of you would know, ‘thongs’ are a type of underwear in the US. No one would blink an eye if, in Australia, someone said ‘I can’t find my thongs’ in a public place. But that same sentence spoken in a public place in the US would definitely raise eyebrows. I value my US critique partners who point out the Aussie expressions in my stories that they don’t understand.
Narelle Atkins,

Mostly I don't notice Americanisms, except for "or" instead of "our" and "er" instead of "re" like centre. American culture is so pervasive, probably because American movies, tv shows, etc. are so widely distributed, that the culture seems "normal". Then when I read a Canadian book, or see a Canadian movie, etc. I realize how much I am missing in terms of the subtext of these stories. I wonder if an American watching an American movie is getting a lot more out of it than I am?

Alice Valdal,

I once used a word in a DEVOTIONAL message for Upper Room which - praise the Lord - I asked some Americans to check for me, NOT because of that word but because of some wording I wasn't happy with. They were stunned that I would use such language. LOL! And yes, I praise the Lord for my international crit group.
Shirley Corder, (Further reading on International English!)

Living in Bermuda, everything for me was slanted toward the British side. I grew up spelling harbor as harbour, favor favour etc... I also spent two years in England. I think my dry slightly sarcastic sense of humor can attest to that. Having gone to university in Canada, no difference there as they tend to use British spelling and sayings as well, although I was stumped on the 'eh' and 'is it ever' for a while. I must admit I was quite
surprised to learn about the different spellings that Americans use once I started getting serious about publication. I re-taught myself to spell words using American English, since that's the market I was targeting. Spelling can be re-learned, other things that are so deeply ingrained in me cannot. I have tripped up many a critique partner over the years using expressions they don't understand. And eventually I deleted them for the sake of argument. Fortunately my hero in Yesterday's Tomorrow is half English, so I was able to use a bit of leeway with him. I also grew up reading British fiction, and love it. I have no trouble understanding it. In the same tone, most of the American authors I read are wonderful writers as well, even if they do call trousers pants and don't know what a chin-wag is.
Catherine West,

As long as I can understand it, I don't care too much about different dialect. The real trick is to use it in such a way that the meaning is clear in the first reference or so, otherwise you end up like my wife yesterday wondering why this person was going to the head (to her it could only mean going to see the head teacher of a school).
I do object when I find "fonetik" spelling to show how someone pronounces words. In small doses I can cope, but too many and reading becomes a burden.
And as I found out recently some words have utterly different meanings, so "homely" might mean homelike, friendly (UK) or ugly (USA), so I'd say, add a few words to make the meaning clear.
Cultural references are similar, and I'd say you should explain them anyway, because they are likely to sound just as alien to a reader 20 years into the future as they would to any foreigner. To anyone born in the UK before 1950 a reference to Dick Barton, Dan Dare, Jet Morgan, or Prof Quatermass would be clear and obvious. My grandchildren need to have it
Malcolm Cowen,

If you're an International author or reader, what is your view on the matter?
If you're American, don't worry - your turn is coming tomorrow when we look at things the other way around!


  1. Love the comments, especially Narelle's thongs! LOL. Isn't it great to know we're all so different? How boring would the world be if we all thought, wrote and said exactly the same things the same way? I like us the way we are!

  2. This is so interesting to me (of course you know that, Grace ;).

    Gotta comment on the "thongs." When I was a kid we Americans *did* use the words thong for flip-flop. But the definition shifted when thong undies came out. I assume the undies were called thongs in mimic of thong shoes (if you think about it...). People stopped calling their flip-flops thongs then because they'd get strange looks if they did! Now, it's just become normal to say flip-flop.

  3. Truly "One people divided by a common language." but at the end of the day it's the story and the characters that really count.

  4. I agree Cathy. Language makes for an interesting world. Today, we have to read with intelligence and grace.

  5. Gotta add this! We lived in the Mid West for a couple of years, and one day I looked down and said,"Oh no, I've got a ladder in my stocking!" My puzzled hostess finally caught on. "Hah! You mean you popped a runner in your hose!"

  6. Rita, I love your runner that popped in your hose! Goodness, I wouldn't have had a clue what they meant. The first time I was flying from S.Africa to the USA for a writers' conference, I was concerned I might have a battle understanding folk. Someone said to me, "Of course you won't. The Americans are in your home every day." And of course he was right. Most of our TV programmes are from America. There is on thing I do think the American English has got right and that's spelling of words like program and mammogram. Much simpler than ours!