Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Confessions of a British Word Nerd by Luisa Plaja

Luisa Plaja is definitely one of my favourite people. Like, ever, in the entire world. So I'm very happy that Luisa agreed to write this post on language differences. Luisa Plaja is definitely a wonderful British author that needs celebrating.

Not only is she a linguist, and author of several funny, romantic YA novels (Split By A Kiss, Extreme Kissing, Swapped By A Kiss, Diary of A Mall Girl and soon to be published Kiss, Date, Love, Hate), but she also runs the ever-wonderful YA book site, Chicklish. Find out more about Luisa and her books on the following websites:

Confession: I am a word nerd. As well as being a writer, with all the in-built word-nerdery this brings (I have been known to spend an hour thinking about the placement of a hyphen), I'm a Linguist who has spent years analysing UK English and comparing it to other varieties. I still work on ‘translating’ computer documents from US to UK and Australian English, and in the past I've worked on many different dictionaries – both the conventional sit-on-your-shelf tomes and the invisible varieties that lurk in computer programs and attempt to give you the impression that microchips understand you better than you understand yourself. *evil Linguist laugh*

For British Month on Fluttering Butterflies, I decided I'd like to write about UK English in Young Adult books. When I started thinking about it, though, I realised that there's just too much to say on this huge subject - more than I can fit into a humble blog post. Most people are familiar with many of the vocabulary differences between the US and UK English. (Cookies, biscuits, pants, knickers, jello, jelly... Let's call the whole thing off!) (Or see this Wikipedia entry for a non-exhaustive list of British words not widely used in the US. One of my favourite anecdotes from my dictionary days is about the time I carefully compiled a list of every curse/swear word I could find for both US and UK English, and the UK list was at least three times as long...

There are also, of course, many differences in sentence construction, and subtle nuances in meaning that we might not notice on either side of the pond until a misunderstanding comes to light. I highly recommend a fabulous blog on the subject of UK/US language differences, run by lynneguist and appropriately named "Separated by a Common Language". It was there that I finally understood the differences in the US and UK terms for shoes, among many other fascinating linguistic points. lynneguist's tweets are also recommended.

I know that many British-authored books have their language lightly (or less lightly) Americanised before publication on the other side of the Atlantic. For books that haven't been through this process – and even for books that have – I often see reviews that say things like: 'This book is very British.' It's something which always makes me stop and think. Are there degrees of Britishness in the storytelling? Or does this just mean: "it contains British cultural references" and/or "if you're unfamiliar with British English, you'll need a glossary". (In fact, I believe the Confessions of Georgia Nicolson series by Louise Rennison WAS published with a glossary in the States.)

I love reading, and writing, about linguistic and cultural differences. My first novel was partly inspired by an article I’d read about the differences in US and UK attitudes to romantic relationships. The piece argued that these were influenced by the national sports of the respective countries – baseball versus soccer, ‘reaching bases’ versus ‘going for the goal’. I wouldn't say I agreed with this, but I did set out to explore it when I wrote Split by a Kiss.

Which brings me to... romance! I can think of quite a few books, including my own, where relationships develop between British and American characters. After all, what better way to bridge that cultural divide? Here is a quick list of YA/teen books which feature at least a little across-the-pond love. I know there are many, many more, and I welcome all suggestions in the comments. I'd love to add to the lists!

Books containing transatlantic romance, by US Authors

Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez
The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E Smith
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
Life Swap by Abby McDonald, titled Sophomore Switch in the US
13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson

Books containing transatlantic romance, by UK Authors

Split by a Kiss/Swapped by a Kiss by Luisa Plaja
Jessie Hearts NYC by Keris Stainton
Finding Sky by Joss Stirling
Jumping to Confusions by Liz Rettig
Nobody's Girl by Sarra Manning

Thanks for having me on Fluttering Butterflies!


  1. Great article/blog post! I remember reading about one YA book that was published in America after the UK and they decided to cut out a few prostitutes and some mild swearing... I think I would rather have the uncensored version!

  2. Great post, Luisa - I could listen to you talk about this stuff all day long! I've had 'this book is SO British', after spending hours supposedly Americanizing the text.

    Loving British month so much, Clover!

  3. I love this post. (And I'm loving British Month too.)

    An American reviewer has called the language in my books "fancy" which made me laugh a lot. It's so not.

  4. Great post Luisa, thanks for this. Its funny how people who supposedly speak the same language as you can't understand half of what your saying - and I love how we brits have the most curse words, although what does that say about us? lol :)

  5. Such an interesting post. In the first year of my first degree I did a module of sociolinguistics, it was one of my favourite modules from the entire four years and not being able to study more of it was probably my biggest disappointment of the whole course. Its='s interesting to hear books being considered very British despite work being done to alter the language within them.

  6. Brilliant post! I enjoyed reading it. It made me laugh in Split By A Kiss when one of the Americans asked whether she knew Prince Charles, and so alienated off from the other side of the world. Go Word Nerds! ;)

  7. Thank you very much for having me here again, Clover, and thank you to everyone for the lovely comments! I'm so enjoying British Month.

  8. Oh thank YOU Luisa, I really love this post! It's something I'm obviously really interested in as well, being an American living in England (and having a transatlantic romance and all!) So thank you, I found this to be very interesting.

  9. This is a really interesting post, and that Separated by a Common Language blog is lifechanging! I think there's definitely a difference between British-authored books and American-authored books in the narrative style but I can't really put my finger on what it is, probably something subtle to do with sentence structure. Something to think about.


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