THE PRODIGAL TONGUE by Lynne Murphy

THE PRODIGAL TONGUE

The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English
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KIRKUS REVIEW

What is it about Americans’ way with words that makes Brits so angry? An American linguistics professor attempts to find out.

Murphy (Linguistics/Univ. of Sussex), who lives in Britain and writes the blog Separated by a Common Language, hears frequent complaints “about the wrecking ball that is American English.” In this book, she tries to understand how it became “Linguistic Public Enemy Number 1” and explains the phenomenon she calls amerilexicosis, “a pathologically unhinged reaction to American English.” As the author notes, many American phrases that proponents of British English detest come from Britain. The earliest uses of “might of,” considered an American monstrosity, “have been found in letters sent in England in the 1770s.” Murphy covers all the greatest linguistic hits—e.g., the -or/-our divide in words like “color”—but she tends to generalize: not every American or Brit speaks as she describes. Some of her examples, even in the service of legitimate points, leave room for debate. The author defends the supposedly American practice of turning nouns into verbs by writing, “people are tasked with doing things because that’s shorter than giving someone the task of doing something.” One might respectfully argue that “he asked me to clean my room” is shorter and better than “I’ve been tasked with cleaning my room.” But perhaps that speaks to Murphy’s thesis: English is full of inconsistencies and pitfalls, and no single set of standards is necessarily superior. This is an entertaining work that defends English’s so-called Americanization, and the author has a delightfully sardonic style, as when she tells Brits, “Americans call your football soccer because you taught them to….Soccer came from the full name of the game, association football. The word comes from England. You should be proud of it. There, that feels better.”

A passionate defense (or is it defence?) of the “fantastically flexible medium” that is English.

Pub Date: April 10th, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-14-313110-6
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Penguin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2018




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