The Prodigal Tongue: The love–hate relationship between British and American English

Lynne Murphy (London: Oneworld, 2019), 360pp, £9.99
ISBN 978 1 78 607497 3

Reviewed by Sara Donaldson


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Are we really separated by a common language?

Lynne Murphy is a professor in linguistics at the University of Sussex, has spoken at SfEP conferences and has a marvellous blog called, surprisingly enough, ‘Separated by a Common Language’. If you’ve heard her talk at a conference, or spoken to her, you’ll know she’s funny, intelligent and unafraid to point out the elephant in the room. After 20 years in the UK she’s perfectly situated to see things from both an American and British perspective. And she’s retained her sense of humour.

The Prodigal Tongue isn’t for the stuffy, pedantic lover of language; it’s for those of us who value language as an ever-changing beast. Lynne shows how cognitive bias, novelty bias and confirmation bias (‘the tendency to notice things that help support our preconceptions’) can lead to misconceptions and that our view on language can be just plain wrong. She digs deep into linguistic history and shows that often what are seen as Americanisms are far from it. If you don’t believe her there are three little quizzes at the end of the book – try them before you start reading!

She dives into the everyday and the stereotypical views of language, how slang has jumped back and forth across the Atlantic and even how Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is partly to blame. Even the horrendous turn of phrase ‘would of’ is mentioned.

As you can imagine, if you’ve heard Lynne speak or read her blog, this is anything but a boring, scholarly linguistic tome. Her look at euphemism had me snorting coffee and the four pages dedicated to ‘poo places’ is just too good.

She looks at accents, scrutinises pronunciation and regional differences, and even uses a banana bread recipe to show the differences in the written language (it also made me hungry). Stylistic preferences from both Britain and America are also shown by looking at obituaries of Prince from a variety of newspapers. More interesting than it probably sounds, to be honest.

Of course, the distance between our two lands comes up as one reason why our languages are so different – we merge our language with the language of our surroundings and those around us. Not surprisingly, American English is scattered with Native American words, as well as words from other early European settlers. But Lynne looks more closely at why our languages are not so different after all.

It’s like a transatlantic game of ping-pong with linguistic properties being batted to and fro.

She addresses the idea that many Americanisms are rooted in good old-fashioned English, and her deep dive into punctuation is admirable. Regionalisms rub shoulders with dialect, Elizabethan English stands beside Victorian language, and the comparisons between the emergence of Creole and Afrikaans is fascinating.

Want to know why we say ‘herb’ and our American cousins say ‘erb’? It’s in this book. Should you pronounce it ‘skedule’ or ‘schedule’? It’s in here too. The -ise or -ize problem is also looked into in detail. For the insistent copy editor (or copyeditor or copy-editor) there’s a whole chapter on logical nonsense, which includes a discussion on verbing (which, by the way, I love).

Trying to review this book in so few words is difficult. It’s jam-packed full of the most interesting wordy information. Every page is a joy to read (honestly, it is). And you know what? Read this book and I’ll reckon you might win a pub quiz or two … well a virtual pub quiz for now, I suppose.

In the end, Lynne says, ‘Our Englishes will continue to grow and change in ways that bring us together’. I hope so.

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