Why Americans have gone bonkers over Lynne's latest book

The Prodigal Tongue

Lynne Murphy

“When people talk about the love-hate relationship between British and American English, the hate mostly goes one way and the love the other.”

Lynne Murphy, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sussex, is explaining why she felt compelled to write The Prodigal Tongue, a wry examination of the welcome and unwelcome influences and exchanges in language between the two nations.

The book, published at the end of March, has received rave reviews, both in the UK and across the pond, and has proved so popular that it’s already into its third US print run.

The FT describes it as “witty and erudite”, while London-based American novelist Lionel Shriver, writing in Times Literary Supplement, says it’s a “potpourri of enchanting, counter-intuitive surprises”.

Lynne, who is giving her professorial lecture on the subject on Wednesday 9 May, provides plenty of proof from her extensive research that, rather than becoming homogenous, both versions of the language are growing and expanding.

“There’s no denying that American English has an effect on British English,” says Lynne, “But there’s no reason to exaggerate it either.  If you don’t look for ways in which British English is holding its own, or diverging, then you are not going to find it.  But that evidence is there too.”

In Britain, these exaggerations include the fear that business speak comes from America. In fact, says Lynne, many of the most annoying, such as “thought shower”, “flag it up”, and “at this moment in time” are all homegrown.

It’s also not true that American English is lazier. Americans, she points out, can be the greater sticklers for grammar and punctuation, particularly commas. And since American pronunciation has not gone through all the same changes as British Received Pronunciation, Americans might just sound “more Elizabethan than the sirs and dames who tread the boards at the Royal Shakespeare Company”.

Indeed, the exchange has almost come full circle, with “Anglocreep” being responsible for Americans adopting more recent British lexical gems such as “brilliant” in place of “great”, and “bonkers” for “crazy”.

Lynne, who was born and raised in New York State and studied linguistics at the Universities of Massachusetts and Illinois, taught at universities in Texas and South Africa before arriving at Sussex in 2000.

She created a blog, Separated by a Common Language, in 2006 while procrastinating writing a book on her specialism, lexical semantics (theories of word meaning), and because as a linguist (her blogger alter ego is Lynneguist) and an American, it was a fascinating and daily challenge to understand and be understood in her adopted environment.

Hundreds have responded to her posts on subjects as wide-ranging as “topping oneself” (in America it means to surpass oneself, as opposed to suicide in UK slang), to the “poo” versus “poop” debate.

Now married to a Londoner, and with a daughter who says bahth and zeb-bra, Lynne finds the cupboard keeps giving.

“The more people started reading the blog and commenting on it, the more there seemed to be to talk about,” she says. “I have been lucky that I have always had a positive experience on the internet. I’ve learned that I don’t need to respond to the comments because there’s now a small band of loyal blog readers who will check the facts and keep the conversation going.”

While the idea for the book grew from the blog, the book contains new research, including a history of the development of the language in both Britain and America, and a chapter on its future – particularly relevant given that, as well the 60-plus nations who have it as their official language, there are more people again for whom it is a second language.

Indeed, she notes that an international English accent is often easier for non-native speakers to understand than the drawl or short vowels of native speakers.

She also observes that the global success of the language could leave its monolingual US and UK speakers sidelined. 

“International students studying English in the UK and US now will go back to their countries and train the next generation of English teachers there. The UK language export market will shrink while English grows.”

But it’s not worth anyone getting their “panties in a twist” (as Americans are now wont to say, apparently) over the future of their common language, she says.

“English deserves our love. But it doesn’t deserve our worry. We should let it go and see where it takes us.”

  • Lynne’s Professorial Lecture: “Who Framed American English? is on 9 May at the Chowen Lecture Theatre, 18.00 to 19.30. The event is open to all, but space is limited. Book tickets here


By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Thursday, 14 June 2018