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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