When I first studied in the United Kingdom, it was the fall semester of 2008 in London, the head of the programme read this quote to us more times than I could count.
“England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” – George Bernard Shaw
Apparently, he thought us perpetually wary. However, his endless repetition of this particular quote became a sort of silly mantra for us all.
In fact, what we were was curious.
Curious of how a land, where many of us drew our ethnic heritage, could be so alike and yet so vastly dissimilar all at once.
What was queuing? How does one respond to ‘Cheers!’? Which inconspicuous house front is the façade for the Sir John Soane Museum?
Fast forward seven years and, as most of you know, I’ve spent an additional nine months and counting living and studying in the UK.
Now I can answer most of those questions, but have replaced them with similar quandaries about Welsh culture…but that’s a different story.
Back to that quote, mantra thing.
You might think cross-communication among 82 students of varying international backgrounds would be the toughest feat of my time as a postgraduate student, it’s not. Not even close.
In fact, the hardest obstacle has been clearly conveying my opinions and points to my British friends and professors.
Trousers are worn on the outside, pants on the inside.
The letter Z (or Zed) does not exist in British spellings unless it is the first letter of the word.
Boxes are ticked and clocks are turned anti-clockwise.
You’re never tired, you’re knackered.
For the last time, no, Bob is not my Uncle.
All of this is to say, we speak the same language yet are sometimes forced to resort to racking our brain for the equivalent of a Webster’s dictionary definition or trying to spell a random vocabulary word in order to understand one another.
I’ve even had to switch the language settings on my laptop from English (US) to English (UK) so that I don’t cower in my chair every time I hear: “Organisation is spelled with an ‘S’ not a ‘Z’ people!”
As a journalist this can be both frustrating, if as in the case of “khaki” the issue lies solely in pronunciation and accent, and beneficial.
Forced to use adjectives ad nauseum or rack my brain for synonyms of the word in question, this exercise necessitates a more refined mental image of whatever I’m thinking about. In these instances I expand the moment, a writer’s trick when looking for a better way to convey the message.
Sometimes when we write a first draft as the author we understand the context, the subsidiary issues, everything surrounding the subject because we’ve ate/slept/breathed that article for the past fortnight. Our audience, on the other hand, may be encountering the subject for the first time. Therefore it is important to illustrate the subject matter in a clear manner so they may understand from the word “Go!”
My time here in Cardiff has not only enhanced my skills and made me a more employable journalist, it’s made me think twice about each and every word I choose.
Challenge for other journalists: provide 5 rationale or descriptive words for every noun or adjective in your next story!
Or take a leaf out of Hemingway’s book and write a series of 6 word stories, if nothing else this exercise will definitely make you concise and fastidious but not persnickety nor trite.