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 'Alien' English: The Anglo-American Linguistic Divide


By Peter Winkler

More years ago than I care to count, I was an exchange student at the University of Sussex in England. One fine English afternoon (yes, they have them sometimes), my friend Dene and I fell to arguing about the pronunciation of “leisure.” I advocated LEE-zher, he insisted on LEH-zher. To lend force to my case, I dusted off a maxim from first-grade phonics: “When two vowels go walking, the first does the talking.” Surely that would settle things. (Looking back, though, I realize the handy rhyme doesn’t really apply. Oh well.)

Dene responded placidly, “Peter, it’s our language.”

* * *

That little exchange perfectly summed up the oddities of being an American in England. Everything was similar but not the same. And just when you’d started to feel at home, some cultural quirk—generally linguistic, culinary, or both at once—swiftly reminded you that this was definitely a foreign country.

Even a routine grocery run involved cross-cultural borders. To head into town, I walked through the subway that ran beneath the A27 motorway. At the railway (never “train”!) station, I queued to buy a return ticket for Brighton. Then I ambled down Queen’s Road, taking care to look right as I negotiated the roundabout. The raw winds made me glad I’d remembered to wear a jumper.

At Tesco’s supermarket, I filled my trolley with mince for shepherd’s pie, rashers and eggs for an indulgent breakfast, a few courgettes to make me feel virtuous, and aluminium foil for wrapping leftovers. Sweets and crisps looked perfect for long nights of writing essays on medieval art, but I’d lost nearly three stone the previous summer and wanted to keep slimming.

Once that lot was safely stowed in carry bags—which cost five pence each, an outrage I never quite accepted—I trudged back toward the train (never “railway”!) depot. Along the way, I popped into the off-licence for a bottle of sherry. (England having sensibly exported its Puritans some centuries earlier, I could drink legally.) Then into the chemist’s for something to alleviate the recurring colds that came with living in a country where central heating was an exotic novelty. Finally, back to the block of student flats.

* * *

True confession: As a wordsmith wannabe, I loved every one of those new words, and the Queen’s English crept into my own speech. When an American friend phoned to arrange a visit, I instructed him cheerfully, “Ring me when you get to Brighton, and I’ll come collect you.” He mocked me for days.

Eventually, I returned home, learned to look to the left again before crossing streets, toted free (!) shopping bags full of Diet Coke and candy, and reaffirmed that I am indeed an American (and damn glad). But once in a rare while, cider or squash in hand, it’s brilliant to close my eyes and think of England.

* * *

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