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

I imagine this happens to everyone who gets a really specified education – that phenomenon where you hear lay people talking about that thing you actually know pretty well, and you start to boil over with fury at how little people actually know about it. I think it is a little worse for people who either know about or are passionate about linguistics, and that’s because the fact that everyone uses language gives everyone the impression that they understand it. This is really stupid. I use my digestive system everyday too. I haven’t the faintest fucking idea how it works. Idem for languages.

For the past two Christmases my father and a family friend have come over, and the conversation always turns to the differences between American English and British English. The family friend would like to emigrate to England (unlikely now: thanks, Brexit!) and my father is so staunchly anti-american that the two immediately break into conversations about the superiority of British English.

I mostly would sit there looking at my plate.

Lynne Murphy’s The Prodigal Tongue is more than just a rebuttal to all those arguments. It talks in a pretty systematic way about the relationship between the two languages and how the two have grown and evolved, together and apart. Obviously, the story is much more complicated than one language being more correct that the other.

When it comes to linguistics, I am a dilettante. I can admit that. Despite that, the pile of linguistics books I read over the years has taken over more than one bookshelf. It is weird then to what extent I find myself over run when conversations like the one above occur. The aspect of linguistics I have never been all that into was the historical side, and so this book was actually a bit refreshing for me. It was also very well written. I don’t think it is a coincidence that every pop linguistics book I have read has been easy to read and enjoyable. I imagine if one is getting into the field, one most have pretty strong opinions on how to do put together decent sentences.

I enjoyed this book so much that I actually regret having picked it up used at a book store. I should mail Lynne Murphy a check or some shit. Or maybe a cheque. It doesn’t matter. I think she would cash it either way.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

2 thoughts on “The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English – Lynne Murphy

  1. As someone whose primary language is not English, I am always confused which spelling I should use. I fear I mix it up sometimes in the same blog post, but that’s even worse than picking a side.


    • I have some issues with that too – I also have no idea how to write the date (month/day/year? day/month/year? Now that I live in Hungary, is it Year/day/month or year/month/day?). Just set your spell check to one or the other arbitrarily. I think most people have become pretty nice about it.


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