Friday, May 06, 2005

Gor blimey, guv

Be afraid. Be very afraid. The Americans are coming! And despite the fact that their variety of English is creeping its way around the globe on the back of commercial hype and cultural imperialism, they still want to talk like us, here in the Old Country. Yep, this week, British Airways has launched an online dictionary for American travellers to the UK, to help them understand the strange regional variety known as British English.

The linkyloved Indy article presents a good analysis of the quirks of this dictionary: its odd lack of any distinction between terms that local speakers would find distinctly class marked; its exclusions of some double meanings of words that could create confusion; and the way that visitors are encouraged to use phrases and expressions - like "Get your mitts off my pint" - that would get them a smack in the face in most parts of the country.

It's fairly obvious that British Airways only intend this as a humorous little marketing device. However, given my experience of almost dying of laughter in New York when a terribly earnest American woman declared, awe-struck, "Gee, you sound just like Princess Diana" when I am instead (usually) a marked user of vernacular Estuary, I'm mildly alarmed that it won't actually be received in this context. I see American tourists with phrase books in Oxford Street...

This is interesting for a number of reasons. Interesting in considering the nature and function of dictionaries, and of the contexts in which they are read or used. Interesting in what it has to tell us about the relationship between different global varieties of English. Interesting in considering the fundamental slipperiness of any attempt to define vernacular speech. And that's just for starters.

Check it out. Then email British Airways with a better edition!

Get your mitts off our lingo (as they say in New York)


Post a Comment

<< Home