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CHOSEN BY THE ECONOMIST AS A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
An American linguist teaching in England explores the sibling rivalry between British and American English
“English accents are the sexiest.”
“Americans have ruined the English language.”
Such claims about the English language are often repeated but rarely examined. Professor Lynne Murphy is on the linguistic front line. In The Prodigal Tongue she explores the fiction and reality of the special relationship between British and American English. By examining the causes and symptoms of American Verbal Inferiority Complex and its flipside, British Verbal Superiority Complex, Murphy unravels the prejudices, stereotypes and insecurities that shape our attitudes to our own language.
With great humo(u)r and new insights, Lynne Murphy looks at the social, political and linguistic forces that have driven American and British English in different directions: how Americans got from centre to center, why British accents are growing away from American ones, and what different things we mean when we say estate, frown, or middle class. Is anyone winning this war of the words? Will Yanks and Brits ever really understand each other?
Murphy, an American linguistics professor, longtime U.K. resident, and creator of the Separated by a Common Language blog, continues her investigation of the unique relationship between British and American English in this thoughtful, funny, and approachable book. Murphy frames the divide in terms of illness: the British are pathologically afflicted by "Amerilexicosis" (obsessive vitriol toward Americanisms in British English), while Americans neurotically suffer from "AVIC" (American verbal inferiority complex). Murphy uses the drama of these opposing anxieties to draw attention to grammatical minutiae and spelling differences and to explain esoteric linguistic concepts such as prototypes in terms of how bacon doesn't refer to the same thing in the U.S. and the U.K. because "the set of properties that makes something supremely bacon-y" is different in each place. She also shares surprising factual tidbits Oxford University Press's British and American dictionary databases only overlap in 78% of their definitions and revealing cultural divergences saying ate as et is considered standard pronunciation in the U.K. but is often thought of as a trait of backwoods accents in the U.S. The book's momentum comes from Murphy's witty presentation, but its real power comes from its commitment to inquiry and its profound belief that "communication involves a million little acts of faith."