Lost in translation

Worlds Collide

Oscar Wilde once said, “The Americans are identical to the British in all respects except, of course, language.” Until recently, I would have committed the brave act of declaring that Wilde was wrong. Speech is the main thing I thought would work to my advantage when I decided to study abroad in the United States. England speaks English; the United States speaks English. How hard could it be, I thought, blissfully unaware of my own pitiful ignorance. Given the perpetual state of cluelessness I have been in since my arrival to this country and the number of times someone has replied, “Wait, what?” to something I’ve said, it is clear that Wilde was painfully right. I was caught totally unprepared when I stepped off the plane and was told to turn off my “cellphone” instead of my “mobile.”

“Have you ever noticed how nobody speaks … fully here?” I asked my friend, confounded. When I started at UC Berkeley, I made the curious discovery that most people had a tendency to either neglect to finish their sentences or spoke largely in acronyms. I would be part of numerous conversations in which people would  solely declare “I can’t,” to which I would inwardly reply, “Can’t what?”, hoping they would read my mind and put some closure to the matter. Of course, the acronyms were no easier. When I arrived on campus with no clue as to what I was doing or where I was going, every conversation that involved me asking for directions seemed to begin and end like this:

“OK, so you know where FSM is right?”
“Yes.” (no)
“Cool, so just walk past there, until you pass Dwinelle and the GBC. you know about the GBC, right?”
“Yes.” (no)
“And then, just after you pass the GBC, the SLC is just behind there, OK?”
“Cool, thanks.” (for nothing)

No one seemed to realize that acronyms meant nothing to me. You might as well have been recounting the bloody alphabet. When I finally plucked up the courage to ask why no one seemed to bother to actually recite the full name of anything, I was simply told it was easier for everyone not to say the whole thing — easier to everyone except me, who took to making up my own meanings for acronyms as a feeble way of entertaining myself.

Once I came to know at least some of the campus acronyms and learned that the affirmation of the word “can’t” was just a declaration of no longer dealing with a situation, there was the small task of becoming accustomed to American terms. The “boot” of a car was now a “trunk,” “car parks” were “parking lots” and “trousers” were now “pants” (which was an awkward change, because the word “pants” is used solely in regards to underwear in England). If I asked where the dustbin was, I was met with blank stares; I assumed a pacifier was something to do with a pacifist (until I was told it was the American equivalent of a British “dummy”) and the football I knew certainly did not stop every five seconds or allow the players to touch the ball. Mystified by the way I’d been duped into thinking I would be getting an easy ride in terms of language, I cursed every episode of “Big Bang Theory” I’d watched for not having prepared me for these moments.

Indeed, the difference in pronunciation has played a huge part in the reciprocal confusion between myself and Americans I’ve met. You could never imagine the difficulty of buying a tuna sandwich when you pronounce it “choon-a” and the rest of the country pronounces it “toon-a” or the number of times I’ve interrogated my American roommate as to why she insists on dropping the “h” at the beginning of “herbs.” Also, the number of people I seem to mystify by telling them they have an accent never ceases to amaze me. “So do we have accents to you?” is steadily becoming my favorite (marginally stupid) question, with “what accent?” and “what does my accent sound like to you?” coming in as close seconds.

Clearly, watching an embarrassing amount of American reality TV does not make me an expert in American language, nor does it make it any easier when most Americans’ knowledge of British speech sits somewhere between the Mary Poppins era and shows such as “Skins” or “Misfits.” I still sound like an idiot when I say words such as “baller,” I still can’t understand why most “pre-games” don’t even involve a game and I am yet to successfully explain to an American the difference between a biscuit and a cookie. The phrase “lost in translation” has never been more relevant to me now. I am literally, always, lost. Touche, Wilde, touche.

Gena writes the Tuesday blog on cultural exchanges. Contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: or follow her on Twitter: @SmileGena.