Re-learning my own language


Published: 1st Jul 2015 by Debbie Griffiths
Categories: Wordsmithing

The time since we came back from the US has vanished all too quickly. As I want to hold onto the huge impression this holiday of a lifetime made on me, there’s only one thing to do: write it down!

For most of the past half century I’ve not been interested in travelling to America. I spend my professional life writing about sustainability and my personal life trying to be organic and green. The American dream of making it big has never appealed. For me it equals pure capitalism with scant regard for the planet or people less well off than you. Also, as a linguist who enjoys other languages and cultures, I often despair how the UK always looks to America rather than Europe. And then, of course, there’s the English language factor!

Tone of voice

We’ve been running lots of tone of voice (ToV) workshops recently for M&S, trying to teach people how writing can (and should) sound like you on the page. The Americans seem to do this with incredible ease. I love this poster from Alcatraz:

 

It’s hard not to hear a Bugsby Malone style accent as you read “Alcatraz was never no good for nobody.” Look at all those double negatives! Perhaps to be expected after a life of crime and punishment. Or perhaps, subconsciously, he actually meant that Alcatraz had done some prisoners some good?  Another poster on the former prison island caught my eye, stating that ‘Privatization of Prisons Incentivizes Incarceration’:

Incarceration. Such an American word, carrying far more weight that jail (or ‘gaol’). It also went on to state that America has the largest ‘correctional’ budget in the world, with spending almost 2/3 that of the educational budget. If only the money were spent on better education to start with …?

It was quickly apparent that Americans like words that seem very old-fashioned and formal to Brits. They also like to prohibit lots, including ‘horseplay’ in the pool: 

Direct language

What I loved about New York was the directness of the language. My favourite examples were on the subway (tube) – asking people to be considerate of others:

I’m not sure they were trying to be funny, just telling it like it is. No messing.

Words create worlds

Words do create worlds. The most harrowing were the recorded messages played in the 9/11 memorial museum. The most moving were the most simple: thousands of names engraved along the walls of the fountains. Each one carrying a world of emotion.

The most positive were those on the walls of MoMA (Museum of Modern Art), inviting visitors to become members. All brilliantly communicated in glorio(u)s technicolo(u)r: 

So, the truth is: the US completely exceeded all my expectations. I fell in love with it and as Mr Arnold [Schwarzenegger] would say: “I’ll be back!”  



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