“Learnt”

Legend has it that when the Harry Potter books were published in the United States, all of the Britishisms were removed with a few exceptions that were deemed essential to the books’ identity, such as ginger, used to describe Ron Weasley’s hair. I wonder the extent to which such translation is generally undertaken. I would imagine it’s routinely done in matters of spelling, as programme, centre, and such would be jarring to American eyes, whereas vocabulary, especially in dialogue, could justly be seen as part of a novel’s flavour flavor.

The actual title of a book would appear to be a special case. A British novel called Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love, by Sarah Butler, has just been published in the U.S., and the fourth in the title word is still spelled Learnt, rather than Learned. That made me curious about the history of the two spellings in the two nations, and so I did a Google Ngrams search for the phrases has learned and has learnt, the results of which are below.

Screen Shot 2013-07-16 at 9.51.54 AMThe chart shows that learned has always been the preferred word in both places, though around 1920, learnt (red line) was briefly as popular as learned (yellow line) in Britain. U.S. learned (blue line) as always kicked the butt of learnt (green line), and unless Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love has Harry Potter-level success, it is likely to continue to do so.

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27 responses to ““Learnt”

  1. is the term skint a similar variant or is it pure slang and not at all based on the word skinned?

  2. Why are US readers routinely protected from text that would be “jarring to American eyes”? UK readers understand that the whole colo(u)r, pants/trousers, eggplant/aubergine divergence exists; they may not like it, but they don’t suffer an existential crisis if they encounter it.

  3. In the U.K. and Canada, the first Harry Potter novel was entitled “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.” Judging that potential American readers lacked the requisite cultural literacy, the novel was released in the U.S, as “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

  4. The learned reader would be familiar with the word spelt either way, except when used as an adjective.

  5. Yes, it seems to me that both forms are used in UK English, depending on context. So: “I learned at school that Henry VIII had six wives.” But: “When the information was released, it was learnt he was innocent.”

  6. If it is impossible for American readers to understand that a courgette is a zucchini, I wish it ran the other way round; American novels are not changed, so I had to learn for myself what in the world “cilantro” was (it’s coriander) and what Keds are (a brand of what we in Ireland would call runners). Either American acculturation is presumed to be at such a point of saturation that overseas English-reading cnsumers already know aht is meant, or we are mdeemed more flexible than Americnas in being ablt to handle variance outside our direct experience. Probably just down to it’s cheaper to dump unedited American editions here than edto ediat and publish a new edition for the smaller by contrast British and Irish (and presumably Australian/New Zealander) markets.

  7. @Martha O’Keefe:

    Probably just down to it’s cheaper to dump unedited American editions here than edto ediat and publish a new edition for the smaller by contrast British and Irish (and presumably Australian/New Zealander) markets.

    This is presumably the reason.

  8. I wonder what they do for the Indian/Pakistani market.

  9. “cilantro” in American usage is not coriander in general, but specifically coriander leaves. The seeds are called coriander.

    • You see? That is never, not once, explained in any mention of it that I’ve encountered. If a British or Irish novel talked about “spotted dick” or “colcannon”, there would either be a full-page explanation for the U.S. market or the publisher would edit it out and replace it with a Big Mac or something :-)

  10. Incidentally, a while back I discovered a website where someone (in Canada, I think) had gone through the US and UK editions of the first Harry Potter book and listed all the differences. Can’t find the page now, but I do recall every reference to “going to the toilet” was changed to “going to the bathroom”. (This euphemism amuses me as in the UK, a bathroom might often not have a toilet in it, and mischievous house owners being asked for the bathroom by US guests have shown them just that.)

    • David Armstrong

      I believe it was originally a Finnish university study. Here it is:

      http://www15.uta.fi/FAST/US1/REF/potter.html

    • Very interesting link.
      Obviously there are a lot of trivial spelling and punctuation changes (although the page itself appears to have at least three errors), numerous grammatical tweaks (including changing less to fewer), and the dates have been changed from D/M to M/D.
      But I was disappointed by the large, tawny owl; tawny is a species of owl, not part of the description, so you couldn’t write tawny large owl for instance.
      I also noticed the Smelting stick which should not have been changed because the name of the associated establishment is actually Smeltings.

  11. Ben:
    The whole AmE/BrE split is a lot of nonsense for any literate reader. If particular words or phrase (such as “Aubergine,” or “going to the loo”) cause consternation for American readers, they can look ‘em up; same way round for other English speakers.

  12. David Armstrong

    Well, this seems to have widened into a general debate which does not address the core issue. “Learned”, I would propose, should be used as the form expressing the simple past tense – “I learned how to swim” – while “learnt” should be reserved as the past participle: “I have learnt how to swim”.

    Surely a Google search for “has learned” would produce anomalies such as “He has learned friends” which would skew the results. NGrams, as I keep telling my students, is not an accurate linguistic tool.

    By the way, regarding the wider issues detailed by the British contributors above, while (as I point out elsewhere) the very expression “Britishisms” annoys me, having been coined by American linguists intent on promoting their widely spoken but insular form of the language over all other varieties, and adopted by their supine British equivalents rather than, for example, “native English expressions”, there are in fact some Americans writing with cultural awareness about the U.K., and in a style acceptable to us, such the journalists of The New Yorker (which, perhaps surprisingly, the blogger here used to work for).

    • “English” is ambiguous between the English language and the country of England. Hence “Britishisms”.

      • David Armstrong

        I’m not sure I get your drift about ambiguity. English is not the language of the British (linguistically defined); “British” could mean the language of the British Isles, but there are ten other indigenous languages here. There is no extant language called “British”, and I don’t see how the confusion you imply is resolved by using “Britishism”. I am English, from England, where the language originates as the mother tongue. It has spread throughout the world as a lingua franca, and since nobody here in England has defined a standard form (as they have in France and Spain, for example), what we have is a worldwide body of users enriching, honing and developing it.

        As you must know, there is no homogeneous “British” set of characteristics in English – except from the point of view of the Americans, as evinced by their ignorance of British linguistic differences in their films and television series – although a better case could be made for England, which, in spite of dialectical differences, speaks more clearly in one voice. I’m sure the Scots would be rather incensed about their variety of English with all its uniqueness being lumped together with that south of the border as “Britishisms”. No, the term that is being sought here is “Anglicism”.

        But non-insular speakers of English, such as the Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and Indians, do not think in terms of “Britishisms”, and are happy to select expressions from all types of English, as we are ourselves in the UK, providing rich additions of lexis and expression from their own cultural experiences. However, most Americans seem to be linguistically guided by a form of xenophobia which prevents them from profiting from this wealth, with the result that their version of English is reductive and, I would argue, shows evidence of semantic obtuseness.

        As I say elsewhere on this site, the term “Britishism” is an insult, and was originally invented to attack the British who opposed the American slave trade. While this blog, written by an English specialist who admits he is not a linguist, is valuable in opening up important debates, it is nonetheless based upon a pure fallacy.

  13. “British” could mean the language of the British Isles, but there are ten other indigenous languages here.

    England itself has more than one indigenous language: this Wikipedia page lists Welsh (in parts of England near the Welsh border), British Sign Language, Angloromani, Cornish, and Shelta. So your argument against the term “Britishism” would apply with almost equal force against your preferred ““native English expressions”.

    I am English, from England, where the language originates as the mother tongue.

    Depends how far back you want to go. Before the “English” speakers came to England, they lived in what is now northern Germany and Denmark. The word “England” itself originates from the Angeln peninsula in Schleswig-Holstein. You’re not from there, are you?

    As you must know, there is no homogeneous “British” set of characteristics in English – except from the point of view of the Americans, as evinced by their ignorance of British linguistic differences in their films and television series

    You think that British films or TV series don’t evince comparable linguistic ignorance? You’re sadly deluded.

    But non-insular speakers of English, such as the Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and Indians

    LOL

    However, most Americans seem to be linguistically guided by a form of xenophobia

    I won’t speculate as to what’s “guiding” your pontifications.

    with the result that their version of English is reductive and, I would argue, shows evidence of semantic obtuseness.

    Of course you would argue that.

    • David Armstrong

      I’m sorry, DW – I wasn’t aware I would touch such a sore spot . It wasn’t a personal attack on you, and while much of what you say is correct I think you miss the central point of my argument, which wasn’t to do with a definition of the word “British”, but rather the American use of the term “Britishism”.

      I still don’t see how “native English expressions” is less accurate than “Britishisms”. England is a country in its own right, and the language is named after it. The languages you name as being indigenous to England are an eclectic and marginalized selection and hardly comparable in scale to those in the British Isles in general.

      I’m afraid that “LOL” and sarcasm are not methods of argument I can respond to, but if you could put a counter-argument for the American use of “Britishism” in a coherent way without the note of personal offence I would be pleased to consider it. No-one I have read has convincingly justified such usage, and until they do I feel I am entitled to express my opinions (as indeed you clearly feel entitled to express yours).

      • I think you miss the central point of my argument, which wasn’t to do with a definition of the word “British”, but rather the American use of the term “Britishism”.

        Please: spare me. The purported “central point of your argument” was just a peg on which to hang accusations of ignorance, insularity, xenophobia, and obtuseness against “the Americans”. I don’t take your posts as a personal attack — I was born and educated in Britain myself, and my usage is still more British than American — I’m just offended by their wild generalizations, scattershot insults and proprietorial attitude towards the English language.

      • David Armstrong

        So let’s turn it round and take the word “Americanism”, another word I abhor. It’s probable that the “Britishism” I object to was coined as a reaction to this. What does it mean? America is a huge continent with a North and a South and there are several English speaking countries – Canada, Guyana, Belize – which should not come under this term. So do we say “Statesism” or “USism”? Well, no, because as a large linguistic unit there are wide differences in the way English is spoken, as well as a mixture of indigenous native languages, Spanish, French and so forth. The people include descendants from the four countries of the British Isles, from the rest of Europe, from Africa, from Asia.

        So what does “Americanism” mean? At best words and expressions used in General American and not RP. It’s a lazy form of labelling, and a noisome one. If I said to an Irish friend that he used an “Irishism” he would be right to take umbrage.- an “Irish expression” would be better. “-ism” as a suffix often is the harbinger of prejudice, and both “Americanism” and “Britishism” are pejorative terms. Professor Yagoda has based this site on the latter of these, and if you go through the comments below the various entries you will see that these invading “Britishisms” are regarded with suspicion, associated with negative qualities such as “tweeness” (a threat to American masculinity?).

        My “proprietorial attitude”, as you call it, is – fairly obviously I think to anyone with an unprejudiced mind – that the wealth of our language should be shared among all users worldwide. This blog portrays Americans as petty and resistant to linguistic influences from abroad – in accordance with the dictionary definition of “xenophobic” – and it is this insularity I refer to in my comments, which I will continue to make until I see evidence to the contrary.

  14. You two are going to have to take this outside, if you want to continue this discussion. I am closing the discussion on the site, as I believe all points have been made, and then some.

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