A Life Of Fiction XXVII

For those of you new to this WordPress site, this site is about me and my writing – and a little about my role-playing, as well. It gives readers a chance to sample my work before purchasing it on the Kindle store; and gives me the chance to say a little about the genesis of each novel, or about the process of writing in general.

Two countries, divided by a common language: I am not sure how many of my readers are British, and how many of you are American. You may have noticed, from certain spellings, that I am British (or perhaps you thought that I simply could not spell? No, you are all far too intelligent to make such a mistake). I write, for the most part, using Standard English spellings: plough not plow; labour not labor; and so on. Even as I write these words my spellchecker is telling me that it doesn’t like the American spellings.

It is not only spellings which differ between the UK and USA, however. We use different words to refer to the same things. Whereas in Britain we say pavement the Americans say sidewalk. There are several such differences. I can think of garage and carport; estate agent and realtor, and so on.

Some words are used in different ways in the different countries; this can be a cause of confusion when an American comes to Britain, and vice versa. And the English have a few quaint pronunciations of some of their place names. When I worked on the railway an American lady asked me, once, when the next train to Worcester was. The only thing was that she was not familiar with the correct pronunciation (wuster) and I was particularly thick, that day, thinking that she wanted to go to Ulster, for some reason. My apologies to the lady concerned.

There is also the use of an S in -ise or -ize words. By that I mean words such as theorise/ theorize or standardise/standardize, etcetera. In American English it is nearly always only the -ize spelling which is correct. But in Standard English either is allowed. I prefer using -ise in nearly all circumstances. It is one of my foibles. I like to be different – it is not that I am ignorant in my ability to spell words.

When I have Americans speak in my novels I try to have them using the correct words, and saying sidewalk, not pavement (to use one of the examples from above). This is even if, everywhere else in the novel, I use the word pavement. It would simply be wrong for an American, unused to British terms, to say pavement (obviously, if the said American has lived in Britain for a while, that would be a different story).

I am not going to discuss accents here, beyond saying that trying to get accents correct, and not sounding like a comic stereotype, is a very hard thing to do.

I have once tried to write using an ‘American’ voice, in the novel Makepeace, the life of an American gunslinger in his own words. That was an experiment, as much as anything, though, and I avoid trying to write as though I am American, out of fear that the words will not ring true. It is very easy to make some simple error which I will not spot, but which any true American will pick up on.

There are exceptions to that, though. I am currently working on a novel called The Black Museum, told from the first person perspective of an American novelist. The inner voice of such a character is not going to talk about garages and pavements – it will always be carports and sidewalks. You might ask why I do not simply set the novel in Britain, but I have something very specific in mind for that novel, requiring it to be set in New England.

Besides, it would be a very dull literary world if novelists stuck to the areas and the language which they knew. We would not have any of the great works of science fiction, if they had. We would not have novels set in the distant past. No I, Robot; no Lord of the Rings; no I Claudius.

I write of ‘Standard English’; but I do not want to imply that Standard English is superior to American English. It is simply a name, as saying English English does not sound correct (and the spellchecker does not like two identical words next to each other). Of the two strains of our common tongues it is, without doubt, American English which is the most widely used of the two, certainly as a first language. It has come to dominate the internet. It could be argued that the spelling of American English may be closer to what English once was like.

Of course there are other variants of the language other than Standard and American English. But I don’t really know enough about such patois to comment on them here. I am not going to tell you how to write Australian.

As to inventing languages, or dialects, or slang… I think that may be the subject of a different post.

The quote with which I have started this blog (two countries, etc) is normally attributed to George Bernard Shaw, although it cannot be found in his published work.


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