The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English

Lynne Murphy. Penguin, $17 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-0-14-313110-6
Murphy, an American linguistics professor, longtime U.K. resident, and creator of the Separated by a Common Language blog, continues her investigation of the unique relationship between British and American English in this thoughtful, funny, and approachable book. Murphy frames the divide in terms of illness: the British are pathologically afflicted by “Amerilexicosis” (obsessive vitriol toward Americanisms in British English), while Americans neurotically suffer from “AVIC” (American verbal inferiority complex). Murphy uses the drama of these opposing anxieties to draw attention to grammatical minutiae and spelling differences and to explain esoteric linguistic concepts such as prototypes in terms of how bacon doesn’t refer to the same thing in the U.S. and the U.K. because “the set of properties that makes something supremely bacon-y” is different in each place. She also shares surprising factual tidbits—Oxford University Press’s British and American dictionary databases only overlap in 78% of their definitions—and revealing cultural divergences—saying ate as et is considered standard pronunciation in the U.K. but is often thought of as a trait of backwoods accents in the U.S. The book’s momentum comes from Murphy’s witty presentation, but its real power comes from its commitment to inquiry and its profound belief that “communication involves a million little acts of faith.” Agent: Daniel Conway, DHH Literary Agency. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 01/29/2018
Release date: 04/10/2018
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