Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Me no speak Americano...

Dear Americans,

Youse are a weird mob, ay. *

Most of the time we speak the same language, then suddenly we don’t. We have cultural differences as wide as the Pacific Ocean that divides us. Or the Atlantic, if you’re coming that way. I first realised this when I had a discussion with MC about wheelie bins here

And now that I’m working with an editor and publisher in the US, it’s gotten interesting. I can handle American spelling. No worries, mate. I’ll cull the “u” from “colour” and switch the “re” around in “theatre” and swap the “s” for a “z” in civilisation, and she’ll be right. Or, if you will, bonzer.

(NB: I have never used the word “bonzer” in real life.)

Translation: Come on, Australia!! 

I’ve seen enough TV to know that you Americans go to the bathroom instead of the toilet, eat cookies instead of biscuits, and you walk on pavements or sidewalks instead of footpaths. But there were a few little things that my ripper line editor caught for me.

Did you know that you go forward, backward and toward? You don’t go forwards, backwards and towards. Struth.

(NB: I have also never used the word “struth” in real life.)

A bit of background first. The book I have just finished line-editing has an Australian protagonist, which was bloody grouse.

(NB: I have never used the word “grouse” and neither has my character. He’s not a bogan.)

To start off with, the entire thing was told from the POV of the Aussie. Then my editor suggested alternating POVs with the love interest. Who is American.


I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Google Maps, Wikipedia, and the internet generally. Seriously, mention that a character’s dad likes to go fishing, and suddenly you realise you should probably be able to name the fish. Thanks, Fishing Minnesota!

My line editor also saved me from making a real clanger, when I had my American character mention a car park. “An American would use the term parking lot,” she told me. Of course you would! I knew that one, and I'm kicking myself for it! 

And the best thing about my editor? She let my Aussie protagonist keep the word "arse". (As in, pig's arse, mate, you're having me on! Or not.) Because, I'm sorry, you can take my "u"s out of my "our" endings, and you can make me write "er" instead of "re", and  you can take my "s"s and make them "z"s (which is pronounced zed by the way), but I have to draw the line somewhere. I drew it around my arse. 

(Image not available.)  


Ever found out that English is not the universal language it's cracked up to be?
Or, can you make any sense out of this pearler?

This arvo, Robbo the garbo -- he’s a bit of a yobbo -- come a gutsa on the lino and now he’s off on compo. The drongo.

* Yeah, not just the Canadians that do that!


  1. I lived in America a few years ago and got a lot of strange looks. Mostly because of my accent (One student kept looking back and staring at me like I was some kind of alien... which *technically* I was), but also because of the words I used.

    There are turns of phrase that don't exist outside the UK. The best example is "you're taking the mick!", which led to lots of blank looks, and then me explaining "you're making fun of it". Oh, and sarcasm not translating, but that's a whooooole other story :P

    Funny thing though - most people thought I was an Aussie... Huh.

  2. I've introduced my Canadian colleagues to a few Britishisms in my years here. They love "gobsmacked".

    BTW, so Aussies say "Ay" a lot at the end of their sentences? I critiqued someone recently who was writing an Aussie character, and he spelled it "Aa". Can you advise whether that's an acceptable alternative? I think Canadians say "Eh".

  3. I have a blast watching any British imports I can get my hands on. Best new way to pick up fresh slang and ruin the American writing my professors prefer. There are some ways about phrasing that are more acceptable in British novels vs American I've noticed (because I get dinged when they appear in my essays even though Orwell did it!)

  4. I'm English, but I'll have a bash at translating your words :-)

    This afternoon, Robbie the dustbin man - he's a bit of a (Here, it would be thug, but I'm guessing not) - fell over and now he is off sick from work. The idiot.

    How close was I? :-)

  5. @ Miss Cole, we use "taking the mick" as well, and "taking the piss". I think UK slang and Aussie slang, if not exactly the same, is at least understandable.

    Very true about the sarcasm! There is definitely a language barrier happening there.

    @ Botanist: gobsmacked is one of the best words ever! In regards to the "ay" it's actually a regional thing. Queenslanders are supposedly renowned for it. I've only ever seen it spelled "ay".

  6. @ Steph, I sometimes forget it runs both ways! Although I think "Orwell did it" should be justification enough.

    @ Sarah: Straight to the head of the class! Yobbo isn't thuggish here. I think this definition fro Urban Dictionary paints the picture:

    Beer in one hand, meat pie in the other. Generally drive crappy old Holdens and have a dozen mullet clad kids following them. By-products of alcoholic fathers.
    "i'm a bloke, I'm a yobbo, me best mates name is robbo, Winfield is me cigarette, I dress in flanalette"

  7. We need to create a reference someday. You know, listing the geographic regions of everyone in our little writing community. I could be the Midwestern/Appalachian girl! *grins*

  8. I'm Irish, and we use a lot of words that don't automatically translate. Eejit, gombeen, culchie, jackeen, and that's before you get into Irish Gaeilge words that have been Anglicised and are used in everyday English conversation.

    NB: I have never used the phrase 'top o' the mornin' to you' in conversation.

  9. @ Carrie - that would be interesting! I've got dibs on this corner of Australia!

    @ Christine, hi! I just love all the national and cultural varieties of English. It's why I've got no patience for those sticklers who go on about how this or that or the other is ruining the Queen's English. Oh, please we've all been ruining English forever, and it's given us a language with so much character!

    And it does make me wonder where all those language stereotypes come from. Nobody I know or have ever met has said "crikey" but for some reason we're stuck with it!

  10. All this has given me a cramp in my cheek. I love it.

    It isn't just English. Being from Texas, we speak a 'northern Mexican' Spanish. Moving to Florida, the Caribbean and Central American Spanish is so different you can insult in five words or less.

  11. Oh! I think I have a somewhat accurate concept of what a bogan is thanks to S Peter Davis, though I will refrain from attempting to articulate that concept for fear of embarrassment.

  12. I laughed the whole time, and scratched my head a few times as well. I love it! I plan on having a few English characters in a future book. I know it will be fun diving into all the fun differences.

  13. Imagine my warm fuzzy moment as a Minnesotan when you referenced our fishing guide. :)

    Ever since the Cohen Bros movie, Fargo, came out, we've been saddled with "Ya, you betcha," which I haven't heard anyone say.

    However, us Minnesotans do have a certain panache for the "Oh, yah..." (use your best nasal tone for full effect).

  14. If you managed to get most of the idioms down, you did a good job. There are so many little differences--even inside the US. My state uses tons of words that are unique to it (grinder for a sub sandwich, for example). Most of my characters are American and I still have to watch what they say.

  15. Hi Mac! I love how language has such regional varieties and differences. And insulting in five words or less? That just makes like interesting!

    @ Sarah, you're probably on the money. S Peter Davis is a Queenslander, like me, and we know bogans! most of the time we're stuck next to them on public transport...
    the mullet is a good indicator, as is the more exotic and terrifying "female mullet".

  16. @ Jenny, hi! Cool name! Cultural differences are hugely fun, and I did have my American character taking the piss out of the Australian's accent when he mentioned his mum. Which was difficult to write, because we all know that "mum" is correct and "mom" sounds silly, right? :)

    @ Hi, TL. Yay, Minnesota! To be honest, I just randomly picked a US state that was somewhere in the middle, that got snow. But research was fun, and interesting. I got sidetracked heaps of times. Now I actually want to visit there one day. I can just imagine the look on my travel agent's face: "Yes, I wish to travel to LA, New York, and Minnesota!"

    Also, I really hate fishing, but the Minnesota Fishing website makes it seem like fun, so kudos to them.

    @ JEFritz, I hope I didn't make any glaring errors, but I've trusted my editor and my line editor to save me from myself. I think my American character is solid -- fingers crossed!

  17. I have a British-Aussie protagonist so I had to get a handle on his English even though he'd been in the States for 10 years. But even I say forwards, towards & backwards. I learned the old fashioned way - in American Catholic school!

  18. Very glad you got to keep your arse. It'd be a shame to lose something so useful.

    And not sure at all what that bit of Aussie means, but if you put it to reggae, I'm sure you'd have a hit. :-)

  19. My friend married a British guy and when his family came out to America for the wedding, his little brother had a hard time ordering food asking for chips which we call fries (chips are a different potato-y snack here) and when asked what kind of drink he wanted he said lemonade thinking it was lemon-lime flavored soda (or pop as some people call it) like Sprite or 7-Up and was surprised to find that his soda was juice.

    And when my friend moved to England it took her the longest time to get the person she was ordering her sandwich from to understand what a pickle (gerkin) is.

    Food has got to be an easy detail overlook when writing a character from another country, or even region. There are so many things I wouldn't even think about being different.

  20. Hi Nancy. It's the little differences that catch you out, I find. The toward/towards things still amuse me, because I never would have picked it.

    @ MC. I know. I need it to keep my pants up.
    (And reggae would totally work!)

    @ Cacy, I feel the brother's pain! Weirdly, here in Australia, both crisps and fries are called "chips". We just live with the crazy ambiguity, I guess. Lemonade should definitely be fizzy, like Sprite, and pickles are mustard pickles, and they're yellow and all mushed up and come in a jar!

    I had a friend who went to the US and kept trying to order beetroot on her sandwiches. Apparently you guys don't really do sliced beetroot over there...

  21. Very funny. I am a Brit living in America and half the time I try and Americanise (oops, Americanize) my spelling and the other half I dig my heels in and keep it English. Definitely kick arse though! Surely though, if your protagonist is Australian, he should speak Australian and they park in car parks!!

  22. This post is hilarious. I'm from Texas and we have our own southern slang and accent so I feel ya.

    But we do not all have big hair or date our cousins. Unless they are really hot.

    When I hear the phrase 'car park' I think of a place people would go to walk their cars. But I am going to start using the word arse right now. A lot.

  23. Ha! I've never thought about having to translate from english to...english. Sometimes I think your versions make a lot more sense than ours. :)

  24. @ Hi, Clare! The problem with the car park was it was the American character's POV at the time, so I changed it to parking lot. Later on my Aussie character got to be in a car park, so it evened out. Although, for a romance, there's a lot of action happening in car parks.

    Hi, Marsha! Well obviously you don't date your cousins unless they're hot. You're not stupid!

    Also, cars need exercise too, you know. If you don't take the time to walk them they start to misbehave and dig holes all over the garden.

    @ Ruth, sometimes our versions make more sense, but I think Marsha is right about "car park". It does seem like the place you would go to walk your car. Or maybe let it have a go on the swings.

  25. I can see having to edit out slang that would be confusing, but I guess I'm surprised you have to edit "ou," "re," "z," etc. I always enjoy hearing/reading different dialects of the English language. Even within each country I think you find a lot of different variations on slang and specific word usage. United States Southerners, for instance, may as well be talking Greek to someone from, say, Minnesota. And vice versa.

    Fun post, thanks!

  26. As a Kiwi, we have our version of English as well that's very similar to yours, but as different from American. I've had US critique partners point out scores of language differences in my manuscript. I'm a little stubborn about changing things (British English was around first, right?). If I was ever published in the US though, you can be sure I'd do whatever my editor told me to do!

    I've been reading historical novels recently by American authors, set in England. It's been really bothering me when they use American phrases or vocabulary that an English person wouldn't even use now, let alone hundreds of years ago. The need for corrections doesn't seem to go the other way?

    We have wheelie bins too, by the way, and we write both "ay" and "eh".

  27. Hi Shannon! It's a US publisher, and I guess primarily a US readership, so I've got no problem with American spelling. The good thing about having an Aussie character is that I can still use a bit of slang, and have some fun with the language barrier!

    @ Charlotte, hello! At least I know the Kiwis will understand me when I write about wheelie bins :) It's when you go on about chilly bins and jandals that I get confused!

    In regards to the historical novels by American writers, it probably depends where the publisher is. I can't see an English publisher letting that happen!

  28. About British/American translations, I remember hearing the first Hitchhiker’s radio show, where Arthur Dent said that to find the plans to demolish his house, he had search the basement of the planning office "With a torch." I loved that image.

    So imagine my surprise when I got the book and found they'd changed it to "With a flashlight."

    Kind of takes the piss out of it, don't it?

  29. @ MC, now I have to rummage through my bookshelves and check whether or not my edition has "torch" or "flashlight". I prefer torch. It may be a flashlight, but it may also be the sort of flaming stick that angry villagers brandish.

  30. I'm American, but one of my very favorite authors is Australian (Melina Marchetta.) I love reading her books but I do have to stop sometimes and figure out what she's saying to me. It is interesting that most of the time we're fine with communication and then all the sudden - nope, don't know that word.

    I'm also a huge fan of the Tomorrow When the War Began series. I stumble around some words in that series too.

  31. Hi Sommer! I love Looking for Alibrandi and the Tomorrow When the War Began series. Great Australian books. It is fascinating that it's the tiniest differences that will trip us up when it comes to language.



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