Tag Archives: American English

The play Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated was both British and American

Photo courtesy of Finborough Theatre

Photo courtesy of Finborough Theatre

Get ready to hear this tired joke a few times: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”

April marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. The president who won the American Civil War and abolished slavery has rarely left public discourse since then, but the play he was watching when he was killed has largely vanished. You could say it died, along with the famous guy who was watching it.

But this year, “Our American Cousin” is back.

There are several current revivals of the play, including one in Britain — the first production there in more than a century. And that’s significant because it’s a British play. Sort of.

“It was originally written to have the English laughing at Americanisms,” says Lydia Parker, director of the new production of “Our American Cousin” at the Finborough Theatre in London. “Then it became very popular in America.”

Solomon Mousley,  Kelly Burke and Timothy Allsop in the Finborough Theatre's production of  "Our American Cousin," by Tom Taylor.

Solomon Mousley, Kelly Burke and Timothy Allsop in the Finborough Theatre’s production of “Our American Cousin,” by Tom Taylor.

Parker told the BBC that the play started life as a melodrama with a few laughs, mainly at the expense of a naïve but earnest American character. But later, as Broadway beckoned, the play was rewritten as a comedy in which Brits became the objects of mockery.

The play’s 1858 run in New York lasted five months, which was almost unprecedented at the time. It was still going strong in other cities, including Washington, DC. That’s where Lincoln saw it in 1865, just days after the end of the Civil War.

The plot, such as it is, deals with an English family living in the countryside. They receive a visit from a long-lost American relative by the name of Asa Trenchard, who doesn’t shower and uses words like “skedaddle” and “sockdologizing.” British audiences viewed him as coarse; American audiences warmed to his honesty.

“It’s a silly play, entirely predictable,” says Adam Smith, a Lincoln historian at University College, London. Nonetheless, he found the London revival “really fun.”

For one thing, audiences get the chance to witness what made people laugh 150 years ago. One especially pompous English character tickled the American funny bone: Lord Dundreary. Smith says Dundreary is a “ridiculously stupid” caricature of a man, “with a lisp … and great big sideburns.”

All the additional laughs contained in the American version became helpful props for John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin. As an actor, he was familiar with the play and knew when the audience would be laughing the most — and that’s when he pulled the trigger. The laughter covered up the cries of Mrs Lincoln.

“It’s that wrench from hilarity to astonished agony that’s incredible,” Smith says. “Has there ever been a leader assassinated while 1,500 of his fans were in fits of hysterical laughter?”

That’s also the biggest problem confronting today’s producers of the play. Most audiences know the scene, and anticipate its arrival with a mix of curiosity and dread. It’s difficult to focus on the comedy.

Smith applauds the Finborough Theatre’s approach to the scene: A female character lets out a farcical scream, just at the moment when Mrs Lincoln was said to have screamed after her husband was shot.

But however you play it, it’s awkward.

The London production of “Our American Cousin” is now sold out through its last performance on April 14. That’s the anniversary of the play’s most famous performance.


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The grammar of cuisine

Is this food combination ungrammatical? (Photo: Ryan Basilio/Flickr)

Is this food combination ungrammatical? (Photo: Ryan Basilio/Flickr)


Here’s a post from Nina Porzucki.

You are what you eat, or so the saying goes. And much of what we eat — and how we eat it — is influenced by what linguist Dan Jurafsky calls the “grammar” of food.

“The grammar of cuisine is the idea that every culture has a different way of thinking about what makes up a meal,” says Jurafsky, whose new book, The Language of Food, comes out this month.

Part of what makes up a meal are the words that we use to describe it. Take the word entrée, for example. Americans think of an entrée as the main course — the meatloaf or the roast chicken. But the French word actually means “entrance.” On a menu in France, an entrée is more of an appetizer.

But if you think Americans simply messed up the original French, you’re wrong. Americans actually got it right, according to Jurafsky. The original meaning of entrée — as it was used during the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance — was much closer to the American meaning. It meant a heavy meat course that was just the first of many meat courses to come.

“So American English kept that sense of a substantial meat course, and [from] France and then England came some sense of this idea of entrance,” Jurafsky says. “So the word really changed in France and England from meaning a heavy meat course to meaning a light appetizer.”

The grammar of food impacts not only the order of the meal, but the types of dishes that are acceptable to eat at different times during the meal.

“We grew up with these rules that say that the salty things happen first and the sweet things happen at the end,” says Jurafsky. “And coffee is a morning thing or maybe a dessert thing, but certainly not a main course thing.”

Of course, the rules are broken all of the time: savory is mixed with sweet, dessert becomes the main course or the meat becomes the dessert. Think bacon ice cream or cappuccino-flavored potato chips. They make an American eater do a double take because they violate the American rules of culinary grammar.

But some things just don’t translate, like one of Jurafsky’s favorite Chinese delicacies: hasma, a Cantonese sweet soup. It’s made of a mix of dates and frog fallopian tubes.

Hasma, a Chinese sweet soup or dessert that combines the dried tissue around the fallopian tubes of some frogs with jujubes (red dates) or other fruit. (Photo: Benjwong via Wikimedia Commons)

Hasma, a Chinese sweet soup or dessert that combines the dried tissue around the fallopian tubes of some frogs with jujubes (red dates) or other fruit. (Photo: Benjwong via Wikimedia Commons)

“Texture is very important in Cantonese foods, so there’s your crunchy things and slimy things,” Jurafsky explains. “There’s a lot of very slimy foods in lots of cultures that don’t work … in the grammar of American food.”

Then there are some food items that seem universal, like tea. Tea was introduced to the world via China. Lots of languages have a word that begins, like the English word, with a “t” sound. But many others, like Arabic or Russian, use words that start with a “ch” sound, like “chai.”

“All the languages that got tea via the south of China from trading with the Fujianese, all of those languages pronounce the word with a ‘t’ because they got it from the English or the Dutch — who got it straight from the Fujianese,” Jurafsky explains.”Everybody else who uses a word like ‘chai,’ they got the word over land from China through Central Asia, where the northern Chinese dialects start with a ‘ch.’”

In his book, Jurafsky also looks at correlations between the description of food and food quality. By analyzing restaurant reviews online, he found that food descriptions often fell into two categories: sex and drugs.

“If someone likes an expensive restaurant they use amazing sensual terms: ‘orgasmic pastry,’ ‘very naughty deep fried pork belly,'” he says. “There’s something about sex and food that’s obviously linked, but it’s interesting that we only talk about that when we’re thinking about our expensive restaurants. Expensive food is a sensory pleasure, just like sex.”

Cheap food is another story: “‘Oh, those wings, they’re addicting.’ ‘The chocolate in their cookies, they must have crack in it.’ It’s as if the food forces us to eat it. It’s not my fault that I ate those wings. The wings forced me to devour them. It lets us distance ourselves from eating these awful foods.”

The meanings of many food-related words have often been lost to history. Like why do we “toast” someone at the dinner table? What does a celebratory act have anything to do with charred bread?

Turns out toast was long ago used as a seasoning agent for wine. We used to put grilled bread in wine with spices to enhance its flavor.

“And people said ‘Oh, the belle of the ball, the lady of the evening, she spices the party like the toast spices the wine,’” Jurafsky says. “So there are these historical explanations for how the word came about. But it’s true that, as a modern eater, you just have to learn the words.”


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John Smith, Pocahontas, and the beginnings of American English

A detail of a window panel at St Helena's Church in Willoughby, Britain (Photo: Patrick Cox)

A detail of a window panel at St Helena’s Church in Willoughby, Britain (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Willoughby, Lincolnshire is a village a few miles inland from the North Sea.

It’s also the birthplace of adventurer John Smith. Smith was baptized in the village church, St Helena’s.

The church dates back to the 14th century. There have been several additions in the past few decades — gifts from various American organizations.

There are a series of stained glass windows as well as plaque and other items. Together they depict John Smith’s life: His arrival on American shores, the settlement in Jamestown that he governed, which began the expansion overseas of the English-speaking peoples; and his encounter with the native American, Pocahontas.

There are other scenes that are less known to Americans: Smith’s schooling days, his training as a soldier, his fighting days in Europe. Most of what we know comes from Smith himself, who wrote several books about his adventures.

Daffyd Robinson, former rector of St Helena's Church in Willougby, Britain  (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Daffyd Robinson, former rector of St Helena’s Church in Willougby, Britain (Photo: Patrick Cox)

There was the time he was captured in what is today Turkey.

“He became a slave, and eventually he killed his slave-master, nicked his clothes, nicked his horse and rode back to England one way or another,” says Daffyd Robinson, former rector of St. Helena’s church in Willoughby.

But it wasn’t all breathless action. Smith was a great communicator too.

“He would have learned several languages along the way, going up into the Turks, going through France,” says Robinson. “And so when he got to America, to him it was important to learn the local language, and that saved him several times probably.”

The word “probably” is a useful one when it comes to Smith.

We can’t verify much of what he wrote. And most historians find his memoirs unreliable.

There is, for example, an episode in Turkey in which a girl saves Smith’s life by pleading with his captor, just as Pocahontas did a few years later.

All of which has given the likes of Disney a conveniently free hand. Their two animated films about Pocahontas are largely fiction. There is still plenty of debate about just about every aspect of Pocahontas’ life.

What is clear, is that the settlers and local met, traded and taught each other words from their languages.

British linguist David Crystal, co-author with Hilary Crystal of Wordsmiths and Warriors: The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain, says it took surprisingly little time before the settlers incorporated local words into their vocabulary.

“It only takes a few weeks before the first signs of this new dialect of English starts to emerge in the letters that these mariners sent home to their families, says Crystal. “Words like skunk, wigwam or moccasin.”

Words are one thing, but what about an accent? Surely, settlers born in England wouldn’t speak differently after just a few years in Jamestown?

“It does take longer for a community accent to evolve, but not that long,” says Crystal. “Already in the 1620s and 30s, American settlers coming back to England were being commented on for their accent — people were saying, ‘What a strange way of talking you’ve got.’ Within a generation, enough had changed for it to be a noticeably different way of talking.”

A few contemporary accounts tell us this. But we don’t know for sure what British accents sounded like then, and how American accents may have diverged from them.

Stained glass windows in St Helena's Church, Willoughby. The window panels depict scenes from John Smith's life. They are among several items in the church that were donated by Americans.   (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Stained glass windows in St Helena’s Church, Willoughby. The window panels depict scenes from John Smith’s life. They are among several items in the church that were donated by Americans. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

In St. Helena’s church in Willoughby, some of the most basic questions about John Smith are unanswered. Like, when he was baptized.

“If you look at the register, and you look at the window and you look at the plaque, that’s three different actual dates when he was baptised,” says the retired rector Robinson.

A good reminder, if one were needed, that we can be certain of very little when it comes to John Smith, and Pocahontas.

What we can say is that Smith’s arrival in America was a big moment for English. Not that anyone knew it then, but in leaping from a small island to a huge continent, English had gone global, or started to.

The language was in an early stage of reinventing itself with new words, phrases and spellings — something it repeated in places like Australia, India and Africa, creating not one, but many Englishes. Something it’s still doing today.


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UK English Blown to US Shores, ‘Like Some Exotic Seed’

Hypothetical flag quartering the British and American flags (Lunar Dragon via Wikimedia Commons)

Hypothetical flag quartering the British and American flags (Lunar Dragon via Wikimedia Commons)


For decades, Brits have complained about American contamination of British English. More recently, the reverse has been taking place: British expressions are elbowing their way into American speech. So far, Americans don’t seem to mind.

Listen above for a conversation with two people who closely follow these lexical exchanges: Lynne Murphy at the University of Sussex and author of the Separated by a Common Language blog; and Ben Yagoda at the University of Delaware and author of the Not One-Off Britishisms blog.

Other posts:



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Does Banning Bilingual Education Change Anything?

Nine years after bilingual education was banned in Massachusetts, educators are still arguing over the effect on students’ language abilities.  Massachusetts is among of several states, including California and Arizona, to ban bilingual education. The fear seems to be that non-English speaking kids won’t learn English fast enough if they receive much of their instruction in their native tongue (which in the US is usually Spanish). The solution has been “total immersion” in English.

There’s no shortage of studies related to bilingual education. Here are the cases for and against . Also, the National Association for Bilingual Education, and some other links.

Reporter Andrea Smardon of WGBH-Boston has been looking at why the ban came into being, and its effects– whether  non-English speakers are now picking English faster, or whether they’re dropping out of school. There’s more on her series here.

Also in the pod, more conversation with UK-based American, Lynne Murphy. Murphy teaches linguistics at the University of Sussex. She also writes the clever and droll blog,  Separated by a Common Language. In the last podcast, we talked about twangy accents, pronunciation of the world water, and the declining status of British English in the United States. This time, we consider politeness, and why neither Yanks nor Brits live up to each others’ expectations. One word encapsulates this: toilet. Misuse this word at your peril. But there are others: excuse me and sorry have subtle differences in usage, which if you don’t get them right, may result in the locals thinking you arrogant.

Murphy has an entertaining theory about British people and the word sorry. If you’ve spent any time in the UK, you’ll know that the word comes up all the time, especially in official announcements (“We are sorry to announce that the 9:16 train to Chingford is delayed due to a staff shortage.”). But when Brits bump into people– which they do a lot on their crowded island–  they don’t always apologize. Murphy suspects this is because they are in denial about having made any physical contact.

We round off the pod with some girl pop from the 1960s, en español.

Back then, Francisco Franco was still running Spain with an iron fist, and his government resisted anything that smacked of  youthful rebellion.  But there were mini skirts (not quite so mini in Spain). And there were carefree female singers.

Spain’s best known singer was Marisel.

Marisel is one of many artists featured in a new CD called Chicas: Spanish Female Singers 1962 to 1974.

Most of the tunes on the CD were released as original singles, composed by Spanish song writers.

They had been influenced by British rock, American soul and dance crazes like the twist. The lyrics are Spanish, but the musical language is very much imported.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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Twanging with Lynne Murphy aka Lynneguist

A conversation with University of Sussex linguist Lynne Murphy. An American in Britain, Murphy maintains the Separated by a Common Language blog, where she goes by the moniker Lynneguist.

Murphy’s accent is soft, but that doesn’t stop Brits from mocking it and labeling it twangy. If she has a twang, then the guitarist in the painting is Dolly Parton.

Among the many observations noted in her blog, Murphy has seen British English lose some of its status among Americans. We talk about that, along with the changing accent patterns in Britain surrounding social class, and pronunciation of the word water.

Listen via iTunes or here.

Photos: Wikicommons


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