Wednesday, September 3, 2014

How to Speak Brit by Christopher J. Moore

Despite living three years in England and marrying a Brit, I'm not quite bilingual. British has a different "colour" from American English. I tried to capture this amusing linguistic confusion in a young adult novel about an American teenager on sabbatical in England (on submission to publishers). So I was as pleased as punch to find How to Speak Brit by Christopher J. Moore. The author is an Englishman with an MSc in Linguistics; Moore appreciates the history, as well as the humor, inherent in British expressions.

Like the Union Jack, which is an amalgamation of the flags from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the British language is highly regionalized. Word choice and accent tell other Brits the hometown, the education and the class of the speaker. Moore's book highlights the linguistic diversity in Old Blighty, but at 120 pages, it is not an encyclopedia, although there is a helpful index in the back.

How to Speak Brit is the humorous type of book a Brit would expect to find in the loo. Moore claims that the British slang word for bathroom/toilet came from the Battle of Waterloo. The Oxford Dictionary lists several other derivations for loo. My favorite one (not included in Moore's book) dates to medieval times. Servants would shout, "Regardez l'eau!" (French for "Look out for the water!") before dumping a chamber pot out the window into the road. I used this more colorful derivation in my novel and added a warning that a British "bathroom" may not necessarily contain a toilet.

Moore acknowledges that there are multiple origin stories behind British expressions, and How to Speak Brit is not meant to be an academic book. He organizes the phrases loosely around themes such as food (the Ploughman's Lunch) and etiquette (Fair Play). I would recommend the hardcover version over the ebook to appreciate the blue woodblock-print-style illustrations. Since there is no narrative arc, the book is best consumed in small chunks. Personally, I prefer narrative nonfiction, like Bill Bryson's books, which tells a story while delivering facts, but Moore's book succeeds on its own terms.

How to Speak Brit would make a jolly good visiting gift for an Anglophile, with the aim to amuse without risking offense. Moore avoids the more raunchy expressions that pepper the British vocabulary. Most of Cockney rhyming slang was designed to disguise swearwords and was quite useful for me in a novel marketed to a teenaged audience. Moore skips quickly past Cockney rhyming slang to focus more on quaint expressions with historical origins. His book might be helpful to a foreigner moving to a posh neighborhood in the UK but not to a visitor hoping to pick up current street slang. A linguist or a word pundit would enjoy it the more.

I would recommend How to Speak Brit to Downton Abbey and P.G. Wodehouse fans. The American edition uses Yank spelling and explanations. Chin up, chaps; there's no need to be flummoxed any longer. How to Speak Brit will be released on September 11, 2014 in both the USA and the UK.

Reviewer's Disclaimer: Gotham Books, Penguin USA gave me a digital galley and a print advance copy upon my request. I did not receive any other compensation for my review.

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@Barrie Summy

17 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

The year we lived in Amsterdam, I found a similar book that helped with word usage there. From all the British TV shows and books, it was easier to pick up on that for a year in Manchester.

Ellen Booraem said...

This sounds like fun, and I can already think of people I might give it to. It does seem like a perfect "loo" book!

Linda McLaughlin said...

This books sounds both fun and informative, esp. to historical novelists who often wonder, did they say that when my book takes place?

I've heard that "regardez l'eau" became "gardeyloo" so maybe that is the derivation of loo for water closet. Who knows?

Enjoyed your review.

Unknown said...

This does sound fun (although I admit, I've always been very curious about the rhyming slang myself… I keep meaning to do a bit of research).

It sounds similar ini style to the Let's Bring Back series by Lesley M. M. Blume, which I do enjoy.

I enjoyed your review!

Alyssa

Barrie said...

What a fun-soundiing book! My critique partner's husband is from England. And they lived over there for a while. I bet they'd get a huge kick out of this book. Love the "regarded l'eau" story! Thanks for reviewing, Sarah.

Jennifer A. Jilks said...

Great review. Good luck with your book, too!
I like books like this.
We have a book based on unusual Canadian town names. I cannot think of one now, but you get the gist! Good for you!

Lucy said...

As others have said, it sounds like it would be a fun book to check out. I would think this would have a specific target audience but I can also see others outside the target audience enjoying it. Also made me think of something that could be used for game night.

Thanks for the reivew.

A Cuban In London said...

A jolly good review, me ol' mucker, if I may say so! :-)

Seriously, I loved the way your dropped a few "Britishisms" in your blogpost.

Greetings from London.

Jacoba said...

Love your post and will certainly get and read the book. Language is such an intriguing thing. In my area the drawl goes over from the Utrecht accent to the Amsterdam accent - absolutely impossible to immitate or master for a 'foreigner' (outsider).
Just hold on to your own language!
Happy Sunday!
Jacoba

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Sarah,

This sounds to be a jolly read, just the sort for train travelling or, as you say, to languish in the loo.

The English language is, of course, not only diverse in its dialects but also is heavily influenced by class. Just the mention of 'toilet' rather than the correct 'lavatory' can single a person out in so many different ways.

We shall certainly keep a look out for this book when we are next in Blighty!

Rose said...

This sounds like a fun book! Being a fan of mysteries set in the UK, I'm often confused by the expressions used. It took me a long time to figure out what a "jumper" was, and I'm still not sure what a Ploughman's lunch is. The detectives always seem, too, to be able to figure out exactly where someone is from and the type of schooling they've had from their speech.

Hope you had a good vacation, Sarah!

Amanda said...

Sounds like this would be fun. Recalling all the funny phrases I learned from a couple years in an English girls' convent school and wondering if he includes needing to go "drop a penny" (or perhaps that is antiquated by now:)

troutbirder said...

My on short week in England didn't give me much background for this book but I'm sure I would enjoy it. Methinks several long visits to British Columbia probably gave me a hint though.

tina said...

I would imagine there is definitely a but of wry humor in this book to really paint the Brits. They are an open and sometimes humorous bunch. I will never forget just how open their press is with reporting all the 'sordid' details of private lives and that is perfectly normal over there but oh so different in America. Although, with the advent of computers I think we are becoming more liberal too. Sounds like a good read.

Gloria Baker said...

For me though english is my second languaje sometimes is difficult.I All these years I learned some words and quotes only are used in US and others used in England so Sometimes I have a mix of all:)
BTW I begin to blog in English sites so for me is more easy talk with brits than US people.
I love this book sounds really intetesting:)

Stacy said...

What a fun book! I think any topic is more interesting when discussed in British English. Partly it's the great accents and partly their vocabulary is just awesome.

Sarah Laurence said...

Pattinase, Ellen, Linda, Alyssa, Jennifer, Lucy, Stacy, thanks! I enjoyed your reviews too. And Barrie, thanks for hosting!

ACIL, Jane and Lance, troutbirder ha! Thanks for playing along.

Jacoba, interesting to hear that the Netherlands has strong regional accents too.

Rose, my British husband uses the word jumper too. Ploughman’s Lunch is usually cheese, chutney, bread and a bit of fruit sometimes. It’s a simple lunch served at a pub, like what a farmer would eat on the job. I took a week of vacation and another week touring colleges with my daughter. The rest of the time offline I was revising my manuscript. It’s nice to get back to blogging now.

Amanda, it didn’t have all expressions, but it had quaint ones like the one you mentioned. It would trigger memories, I’m sure.

Tina, the British presses still are unique in their political leaning and the range from trashy to up-market. They still love sordid details that wouldn’t make it into American newspapers. You’re right about the internet leveling, or should I saw lowering, the field.

Gloria, your bilingual blogging/commenting is inspiring (as is ACIL and Jacoba). Your English is improving, and even when you don’t get every sentence perfect (I don’t either and it’s my first language!) your meaning is always clear.