The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

English – is it really the international language it claims to be?

Despite speaking English as the Wonderland creatures did, Alice frequently found there to be a language barrier:

Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s remark seemed to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English. “I don’t quite understand you,” she said as politely as she could.

I sympathize with Alice; some years after the publication of Wonderland, George Bernard Shaw made his famous remark that

England and America are two countries separated by a common language

and that sentiment is as true today as it was in the 1800s.

“Perhaps it doesn’t understand English,” thought Alice.

I’ve got a piece of Facebook flair that says

“Sar-chasm: The giant gulf between the sarcastic comment and the person who doesn’t get it”

and this definition pretty much accounts for the language barrier between my home country and my adopted one.

Sarcasm is a Brit’s second language, and it’s disconcerting not to be understood when you speak it. A few years ago when our house in the States was for sale, we had the misfortune to deal with a prospective buyer who said he’d like to buy our house, but who actually wanted to amuse himself over several months by grinding our asking price down to the 1985 construction cost before saying, “You know, I think I’d rather live ten miles away in a different town altogether.”

When negotiations had come to an unpleasant halt, we observed facetiously to our real estate agent that at this point we’d prefer to torch the place than let this particular person live in the neighborhood, to which she replied, quite seriously, “I don’t think that would be a good idea. Arson’s illegal.”

A British estate agent may have replied, “Here’s twenty quid. Get some matches and petrol on me.”

Or maybe they wouldn’t these days. The litigious society has been shipped from America to Britain and is doing quite nicely, from what I can tell from the Daily Mail. Had the place had gone up in flames after an overenthusiastic barbecue, we could have sued the realtor for giving us ideas.

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

Occasionally I do meet that rare American who understands sarcasm, but because they don’t go around ringing bells and shouting “Unclean!” I don’t realize they’re using it until it’s too late and I’m saying, “Oh, wait – no, I get this, I do, it’s just I’m out of practice…” (The exception is if he or she has a Brooklyn accent, in which case we greet each other with a secret handshake.)

The best way to identify sarcasm-users is to ask them what they watch on TV. Assuming they correctly identify your accent, they’ll generally say one of two things in reply: either “I have the whole of Monty Python on DVD!” or “Oh, wow, that Benny Hill – isn’t he just awesome?” If it’s the latter, don’t even think of mentioning the benefits of lighter fuel and matches in any part of the house other than the brick barbecue.

Especially if there’s a For Sale sign in the garden.


STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post on the characters you can meet along the way in your own Wonderland…

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17 responses to “English – is it really the international language it claims to be?

  1. Jack Scott June 13, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    For some unfathomable reason my sarcastic comments are going down quite well across the pond. I suspect, though, it’s a bunch a Brit expats in need of a fix.

    • Kate Allison June 13, 2011 at 1:22 pm

      Could be!
      Another litmus test of humor is whether people prefer the US or UK version of ‘The Office.’ Perhaps you should run a poll 🙂

  2. Kate Allison June 13, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    @ML – I know you speak and understand sarcasm very well (!) but I’d love to hear your perspective on this, from the Japanese point of view. Not so much re sarcasm, but the Japanese reputation of saying one thing and meaning something else. Is it a fair or current reputation? Or is it something the rest of the world thinks is typical of a country but doesn’t actually happen – like Brits saying Cheerio all the time? (They don’t.)

    • ML Awanohara June 13, 2011 at 6:41 pm

      I’m glad you didn’t ask me to comment on whether Japanese get sarcasm. As you may recall, I was the only foreigner in a Japanese office for nearly four years. Once I earned my colleagues’ trust, they learned to tolerate my sense of humor. Whether or not they liked it, I’ll never know… I suspect they thought I was being a henna gaijin — weird foreigner — whenever I cracked a sarcastic remark, which I tended to do when we were under pressure. But since I was useful to them in certain ways, they ignored it. (They certainly didn’t take personal offense, which might have happened — and has happened since — in American offices.)

      As to the Japanese saying one thing and meaning another — that’s somewhat easier to comment on… Or is it? This being Alice month, I’m in a bit of a muddle…

      The thing about Japan — and here we go back to why it’s so often been called a Wonderland or likened to Alice’s experience of going through the looking glass — is that what’s unsaid is much more important than what’s said. You have to be able to read the unspoken signals, which only comes after prolonged exposure to how the culture works…

      Does that sound mysterious? To be honest, I think Brits have an easier time with this than Americans, who put much greater stress on “saying what you feel” than any other place I’ve experienced.

  3. amblerangel June 13, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    The Japanese do not understand sarcasm. I was told when we got here that’s why understood “American English” better than British English (sorry) because the Brits never said what they meant. Hahaha!!!! (This from a Japanese professor doing my culture training) I think the Japanese saying one thing and meaning another is actually the “dual face” – a public vs a private face. Meaning they present you with a face that is what you want vs what they actually think. Also, they don’t say no- for instance if someone at work says, “That will be extremely difficult” that is the same as saying, “There ain’t no way in Hell and over my dead cold body that’s going to happen”
    ML knows much more about it than I do… would love to hear some examples…..

  4. amblerangel June 13, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    /Users/brookscannell/Pictures/iPhoto Library/Originals/2011/Jun 7, 2011/IMG_3338.JPG
    Trying to figure out how to leave a hilarious picture of a wax museum Alice from The Tokyo Tower…..

    • ML Awanohara June 13, 2011 at 6:53 pm

      @Emily aka amblerangel
      Is this the Alice you mean? Goodness, she looks a lot like me when I used to live in Japan (had longer hair then). You know, I’m starting to feel a little like Homer Simpson, when he discovered the Japanese had put his face on a washing powder box. 😦

      • ML Awanohara June 13, 2011 at 6:58 pm

        Seriously, though, at this point I’m so inured to Japanese understatement — I don’t find it all that different from what Janet Brown had to say about the Thais to be honest — that it doesn’t really bother me. What’s much harder to read are those unspoken signals (see my comment above). No one can learn meta-communications right away (it takes time), and in any case, it’s something that can’t really be taught. You have to blunder your way through lots of situations, what’s known as trial and error, before beginning to get an inkling of how to read common situations.

        It helps if you have, as I did, tolerant Japanese colleagues/friends, who can jolly you along by pointing out your lacunae.

        No doubt they were also having a good laugh behind my back. Much after the fact, I found out for instance that my office colleagues had nicknamed me Sailor Moon. I was insulted at first but then I realized it could also be taken as a kind of compliment. Sailor is flawed as a heroine, to be sure — she doesn’t always get it right. But she’s also very likable because so kind hearted. From her Wikipedia description:

        She starts out as a frightened, reluctant girl, and others often have to bail her out, but she gradually comes to accept her full identity. She eventually becomes the most powerful Senshi in the galaxy, but her capacity for caring about other people is frequently shown to be more powerful still.

        So there!

  5. Janet Brown June 13, 2011 at 9:38 pm

    Everything I learned about sarcasm came from British novels and was carefully nurtured by my parents. Sarcasm was our favorite indoor sport and it was impossible to understand when people outside of our household didn’t laugh at a sardonic remark. And after a few years in Thailand when I met a sarcastic British crime-writer, I’d stare at him with a mixture of bemused delight, thinking, “Oh, I used to know that language.” If it doesn’t come back to me when I return to the states, I may have to move to Brooklyn.
    Thanks for making me laugh before I finished my first cup of morning coffee, Kate.

    • ML Awanohara June 13, 2011 at 11:57 pm

      Indeed, you may have to move to Brooklyn. As Kate’s remark about the Brooklyn accent intimates, the only thing remotely close to British humor in this country is Jewish humor.

  6. Janet Brown June 13, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    Those nonverbal signals are crucial when you have a shaky grasp on the spoken language of another country, aren’t they? But even with a basic command of Thai, I’ve gotten glimmers of the sarcasm that I’m not adept enough to understand–the motorcycle taxi driver who stopped at the entrance to my flooded street during a particularly bad rainy season and grinned, “This isn’t a boat,” leaving me to slosh the rest of my way home. A friend who is extremely fluent in Thai says sarcasm here is well-honed and frequently practiced–but if I’m not able to pick it up in Thai, people here probably aren’t able to express it in English.

    • ML Awanohara June 14, 2011 at 12:35 am

      Yes, language fluency is a major inhibitor to picking up another culture’s humor — which is why I think Kate was right to focus on English — and the surprising gap that exists between the U.S. and England when it comes to sarcasm. What makes us Yanks so inclined to be literal?

      I recall my dad once saying, “An Englishman tells you a joke on Saturday night, and you laugh in church on Sunday morning.”

      I don’t think he meant it necessarily as a criticism, but his comment makes me wonder: Do Americans not have the patience for layering and subtlety? (We like everything to be instantaneous, and in your face — including punch lines…)

      And are we too insecure to be irreverent and self deprecating because we’re such a new culture? In which case, when can we graduate?

      Having lived in a much more homogeneous culture (Japan), I often think the problem in America is our heterogeneity. For all of its fine points, it tends to foster a lack of trust. And I think you have to be able to trust the other person’s intentions before you can feel comfortable with having them use sarcasm and take the mickey out of you. (This lack of trust also explains why we’re so litigious — which, as Kate points out, puts another huge damper on sarcasm…)

      But I’d like to ask Kate one further Q if I may: what’s the difference between sarcasm and snark? I lived in Britain long enough to appreciate the former but not quite long enough to appreciate the latter — tho perhaps it’s something you need to be born with?

  7. awindram June 14, 2011 at 1:37 am

    I think of snark as being more recent, the lingua Franca of the Internet. Gawker, Television without pity – that sort of site. It’s people showing that they have an inability to take anything entirely seriously. I’d be interested to now just how often snark was mentioned in publications pre-2000 and post-2000.    

    • Kate Allison June 14, 2011 at 6:25 am

      I agree, Anthony. I hadn’t even heard of the word Snark until a few years ago when I came across Miss Snark’s blogspot.

      • ML Awanohara June 14, 2011 at 10:24 am

        Okay, so my time in the UK predates snark — but is it quintessentially English (English people seem to excel at it in my observation) or more of a transatlantic phenomenon? And if the latter, why am I always the last to know? hahaha (Don’t answer that!)

  8. Sabrina June 14, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    As an American living in England, I find sarcasm a bit disconcerting. My husband is English and in his family, it appears that learning to communicate their way—with sarcasm…is a right of passage. The first time a biting and sarcastic comment came out of my mouth, my mother-in-law muttered under her breath, “See, you do know how to talk to us.” Astonished, I blankly stared at her. She gave a polite smirk in response and walked out of the room. We get on quite well now….

    • Kate Allison June 14, 2011 at 3:42 pm

      Hi Sabrina! You were one of those I was hoping to hear from – I love this anecdote. 🙂 Tell me, does it come ever more naturally, or is it still something you have to think about?

      I read once that you shouldn’t use sarcasm with a child, because they are incapable of understanding it until they are about twelve. Interesting thought, but by the same logic, perhaps you shouldn’t try to teach them a second language until then either. My own kids will testify that they were fluent in sarcasm by the end of first grade. Nature or nurture, I wonder?

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