18 comments on “Johnny Foreigner really doesn’t understand us English

  1. I once project managed the instalation of an Italian designed communications system on behalf of a German company in the USA.

    Alles klar. Tutto è chiaro

  2. Might be more of a class thing.

    I watched a very good video on Youtube a while ago with a working class teacher giving a talk to his middle class colleagues explaining to them how to talk to the working class, including the importance of not using rhetorical questions. A MC teacher saying, “what do you think you’re doing?” expects an apology. The WC child treats it as a question and tries to answer it, which the MC teacher interprets as insubordination.

    Middle class speech is heavily euphemistic and indirect, whereas vulgar speech is direct and literal. This is why the middle class are so often terrified of interacting with the working class, whose direct mode of speech is by their interpretation aggressive and threatening. And why working class persons who intend to circulate in elite circles have to learn this strange, garbled mode of speaking that the higher orders use, rather than the efficient vulgar speech in which a spade is referred to as a spade.

    See “I’m not entirely happy with…” vs “I’m fucking furious, you twat”.

  3. “whereas vulgar speech is direct and literal”: in my experience of living in Yorkshire, it is rather evasive. But it is loud, I’ll give you that.

    In Scotland, everyone seems (or seemed; it’s been a while) more direct, but also often more playful.

  4. It’s slightly strange that this sort of thing is held up as a source of national pride, whereas similar graphics with women as the subject intend them to be the butt of the joke.

  5. It’s the difference between high- and low-context environments. In general, Britain is low-context, i.e. you don’t need to read between the lines too much to grasp the intent and meaning. The Netherlands is ultra low-context, their being very direct. Almost everywhere else is high-context, the more so as you go south in Europe and east globally.

    I haven’t found much difficulty in this area when working abroad in terms of making myself understood, but I have run into trouble when using humour to make a point – as is common in the UK – and finding it goes right over the heads of the French, or they don’t think I’m taking the matter seriously.

  6. Come to think of it, “I’m fucking furious, you twat” may be direct, but it’s not remotely literal. I don’t much care for childish exaggeration couched in foul language, but each to his own.

    @TimN: I’ve seen that context stuff used the other way round, with the claim that the British are “high context” i.e. tend to assume that the speaker and listener have a large base of shared knowledge, so that allusions will be understood. The contrast was made with Americans, as “low context” speakers. I think the latter is intended to explain American constructions like “As acclaimed playwright William Shakespeare has troubled Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, say in his tragedy of the same name ….”.

  7. Q: “Had a good day?”
    British A: “Not bad, thanks. Yourself?” unless the day was shit.
    Colonial A: “I’m good. Yourself?” unless the day was shit.
    Non-native English speaker A: Replies to the direct question.

    I can never answer a colonial with “I’m good”. To my inner ear it sounds like, “I’m beyond perfection.”

    Writing a CV is a problem for those disinclined to blowing their own trumpet; this comment is a reminder to myself. Thus, advice is that one should demonstrate achievement rather than proclaiming one’s own brilliance. Employers are expected to read between the lines to determine suitability. That might have worked 20 years ago, but times have changed. Job applicants who have “borrowed” a CV template and form letter from a USA web site may have a better chance with employers accustomed to more direct writing.

  8. Long ago I was invited to apply for a job in Cambridge. “We’ll need a CV from you” I was told “and none of that ruddy Presbyterian understatement”.

    Ooh, they lay it on with a trowel in Oxbridge. They may be wittier, more articulate and more stylish than their American equivalents, but they yield the same, sad evidence of an disreputable upbringing, or of a good upbringing ignored.

  9. This doesn’t even discuss the British propensity to move Rs around the page, pronouncing them where there aren’t any in the word while taking perfectly good Rs and not pronouncing them at all. :-p

  10. I can never answer a colonial with “I’m good”. To my inner ear it sounds like, “I’m beyond perfection.”

    It’s OK, Charlieman; we colonials know you’re rubbish. 😉

  11. I think the latter is intended to explain American constructions like “As acclaimed playwright William Shakespeare has troubled Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, say in his tragedy of the same name ….”.

    I’m sorry to disappoint you, but this American hears such constructions exceedingly infrequently.

  12. Ted S: “This doesn’t even discuss the British propensity to move Rs around the page, pronouncing them where there aren’t any in the word while taking perfectly good Rs and not pronouncing them at all.”

    It is all about ability to distinguish Rs from elbow.

    If your proctologist is unable to help with Rs, head north into sensible England where flat vowels are more common.

  13. @dearieme,

    Yup, the UK is definitely high-context compared to the US, but the UK is still lower context than most places. What is considered keeping people informed in the US is considered patronizing in France.

  14. In my experience Americans also use high context, but spin it positively rather than British-style negatively.
    Example:
    Brit to American friend, ‘Hi Joe, how’s it going?’
    Joe: ‘Great! Fantastic! never been better!’
    Brit: ‘Oh shit, did she get the alimony doubled?’
    Joe (glumly): ‘Fuck yeah.’

  15. And there’s the story of the brigadier (note: Not brigadier general; he was thus British) during the Korean war, asked by an American superior how a battle was going, said something like, “things are a bit sticky, ackcheloi, sir”, meant, “my bodyguard has just been bayonetted and the remnants of the brigade are either starving or dead”, and was understood to mean, “it’s difficult, but we’ll survive”.

  16. You can tell a Brit as soon as he opens his mouth. But you can’t tell him much.

    -Canadian saying

  17. Listening to current UK inmates talk is listening to people talk ‘common as muck’ as would be said back in 40s and 50s.
    Nobody pronounces their ‘T’s etc. Excepting the power weilding – they often enunciate rather well.

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