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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

The differences between British and American English

The American philosopher Willard van Orman Quine famously questioned the veracity of the following phrase:

"It is raining" is true if and only if it is raining.

Now this may seem a very strange sentence indeed, and an even stranger question the truth of which to be questioning. However it turned out to be one of the most important questions in the twentieth century philosophy of language, and also for modern diplomacy. That is because underlying this extraordinary assertion is a theory of language called "the indeterminacy of translation", which turns out to be essential to successful diplomacy and to inter-cultural communication more generally. The point is that the meaning of all language is relative to a culture that uses the language in question; therefore two different cultures, even if they apparently speak the same language, may mean quite different things by the same words that they use.

Different meanings of words and phrases in British and American English are classic examples of the application of this theory. English words in the two countries that share a common language simply do not mean the same thing in many instances, although in other instances they do. Hence every engagement between British and American people is ripe for miscommunication and misunderstanding, no matter how well-intentioned the parties and irrespective of the extent to which they share common goals (that they undoubtedly do in virtually every sphere of human activity).

When philosophers started writing about language in analytical terms in the early twentieth century, they repudiated the concept of the indeterminacy of translation. An early theory of how language works, logical atomism, took the common sense view (which turned out to be wrong) that the way words acquire meaning is by attaching sounds to objects in the external world. So I see a tall brown wooden object with green leaves and I call it "tree", and this is how the word "tree" acquires meaning. A curious and lively offshoot of logical atomism, logical positivism, espoused by the notoriously eccentric English philosopher Sir A. J. Ayer who nonetheless made substantial contributions to the British national interest and for which he was knighted, averred that the meaning of a sentence is the method of its verification.

It was never entirely clear what Ayer meant by this; the basic idea was something like the meaning of the expression "I see a tree" is going into the park and looking at one. Anyway the real point of logical positivism was that the meaning of words and phrases is linked to determinate objects out there in the external world, whether they be trees or experiences of trees. There was always a lingering suspicion that Ayer's entire philosophy was based about his desire to make his most notorious assertion that talk of God is literally meaningless (because it is impossible to verify God's existence, so he thought); and therefore he was writing everything he did to support his own sort of crazy atheism. Nevertheless for all his bizarre views Ayer was a fine patriot and a brilliant thinker who advanced academic thinking and Western values in equal measure.

The problem with these sorts of theories about how language works is that they degenerate into a sort of scepticism. Let us give an example. I may see a green car and call it "green"; but you may be looking at a blue car and calling it green. We do not know whether we are each attaching the same linguistic labels to the same objects out there, and I don't know whether you and I are talking about the same thing at all when we use the same words - which was precisely Quine's point. Theories of language in which words are imagined to acquire meaning by being associated with objects out there in the external world turn out to make us all individually isolated and ultimately lead to the philosophical conclusion known as solipsism - that I am the only person in the whole world, and everyone else is just a feature of my experiences, a profoundly depressing conclusion.

The twentieth century's most brilliant philosopher, a Cambridge don (whereas Ayer had studied at Oxford), Ludwig Wittgenstein, started out as a logical atomist but then dramatically changed his mind and in large part this was as a result of his consideration of Quine's work. Wittgenstein realised that words acquire their meaning not through referring to objects in the external world but by being used to communicate. And different cultures (and even subcultures) use the same words to communicate in different ways. Hence the indeterminacy of translation is inevitable. "It is raining" might be used by some group of people or other to mean "we're going to have a bad day ahead". Indeed statements about the weather are often used as euphemisms for other things by all sorts of professional and other people.

The solution to the indeterminacy of translation - which infects diplomatic difficulties arising between the British and the Americans who are otherwise such natural allies - is to explain everything one means in different ways and with undiminished clarity. It greatly assists if British and American counterparts in any endeavour - whether diplomatic, commercial, governmental or anything else - have access to people who have lived in the other country and understand each of the two allies' distinctive cultural qualities. The use and hence meaning of language is tied to culture and history, and therefore you need access to people who are familiar with the culture and history of each nation - which is different although there are common routes. Such people may serve as a linguistic bridge to help correct misunderstandings that so commonly arise in the expression of substantially the same values and world views.

This author is a lawyer qualified in both nations, and he has observed something about legal language in England and the United States that illustrates the two nations' common and divergent histories. Legal documents in the United States emanating from the period immediately subsequent to US independence read in a very similar way to English legal documents. The US Constitution is a model of English legal drafting and its meaning is very clear to an English lawyer - until (s)he reads some of the more recent US Supreme Court case law when (s)he starts to realise that the document has been interpreted in some very distinctive directions as American history has diverged from British history.

By contrast some contemporary US legislation is quite bewildering to an English lawyer, and this author must read it extremely carefully to understand exactly what it means. Again, that is because there have been divergences in the development of the political systems in each country; the United States has a Presidential system in which the President may not be from the same political party as those controlling the two legislative houses, whereas in the United Kingdom such a scenario involving the Prime Minister is exceptionally unlikely. And, perhaps remarkably, this has given rise to substantial divergences in the way legislation is drafted and hence what it means, although the precise mechanics of this are beyond the scope of this essay.

The important point to take away from this essay is that when British and American people talk to one-another about anything at all, they need a translator. It is not just a question of understanding that "fine" means "good" in England and "bad" in the United States; or that "brave" means "courageous" in the United States and "foolish" in some parts of British society. Virtually every single sentence used by British and American people, in almost every context, has the potential to mean something different, depending upon the extent to which what is being talked about turns upon a relevant cultural or historical difference between the two nations. Both sides must take the utmost care to explain clearly to one-another exactly what they mean, and without causing offence. And this requires a specialist.


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