British or American – or doesn’t it matter?

I’d never have thought I would read a Young Adult novel, but I did, and here is why.

At ICEHL-20, two months ago in Edinburgh, Jane Hodson presented a paper in the course of which she referred to The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (2008). She discussed how the protagonist uses chav-like language, and that a particular issue in his language use was ain’t, which was at first criticised and later formally considered acceptable (given sanction posthumously by his mother).

To me, ain’t didn’t seem to match the notion of chav-speak, the reason being that ain’t has become iconic of the linguistic controversy that arose upon the publication of Webster’s Third in 1961 because it included this much stigmatised verb form. In the US, that is. For the UK, and chavs in particular, the stigmatised verb would have been innit instead.

Looking up Patrick Ness in Wikipedia, I discovered that he was an American by birth (though naturalised British later in life), and this seemed to confirm my original impression.

When I asked Jane about it,  particularly in connection with her argument that we as readers bring along a certain amount of sociolinguistic knowledge when reading, she was surprised, saying that she hadn’t realised this when she read the novel. So I decided to read the novel myself, also because I was curious to see why ain’t had been singled out the way it had.

The novel is situated on another planet, so the setting itself doesn’t actually matter. But the language I would say is largely American: their are swamps inhabited by crocs, the girl in novel lost her ma and pa, there are barns and so on, all to my mind American usages. In the Bridging the Unbridgeable project, we’ve looked at different attitudes to British and American usage problems, and to different approaches to usage by British and American usage guide writers. And we found that there are indeed major differences, on the acceptability of have went, for instance, which is a usage problem in American English but only a dialectal variant in the British tradition. Hence my surprise.

But perhaps it is becoming less relevant, as Jane hadn’t noticed it, and perhaps most other readers haven’t either. My (library) copy cites reviews from the Sunday Telegraph, the Guardian, The Times, the Independent  and many more, and the book was published in London. I wonder if any of the reviewers picked up the language notion that I identified, whether as problematical or not. I haven’t read any of the reviews, so I don’t know, but I’d be very curious to hear what readers of this blog think!

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2 Responses to British or American – or doesn’t it matter?

  1. Lee Dembart in Los Angeles says:

    May I suggest that the word “chav” is essentially unknown in American English? According to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, “chav” appears exactly once in its database of 560 million words of text (spoken and written) gathered between 1990 and 2017.

  2. Yes, you are right: chavs are a very British phenomenon. See Wikipedia for this for instance. How interesting to see that it occurs only once in COCA! Not surprised, though.

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