If one could visit Downton Abbey on a tour of great houses of England, The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes would be the keepsake guidebook. Jessica is uniquely suited for the task: she's both a writer for Great Britain's Country Life magazine and a niece of Emmy Award-wining series creator Julian, who's created the movie Gosford Park among other upper-class English entertainments.
Lavishly illustrated and full of insight into the social history that lies behind and beneath the world of the Crawleys and their servants, the book is nearly as satisfying as watching the series for Anglophiles. At least, for those Anglophiles who love the Upstairs Downstairs world of pre-WWI inequality and snobbishness, upper-class drama and lower-class intrigue that Downton Abbey lovingly re-creates.
The only things missing from the book are the accents. Those marvelous British accents, which reveal one's social standing, upbringing, and education are undoubtedly part of the series' pull. Americans have accents, too, but they are more regional than class-based--at least that used to be the case.
But difference between British and American English is much more than just the accent, of course. The spelling (color and colour, aluminum and aluminium) and even the vocabulary are different. Who hasn't been solemnly instructed by a young alum who's studied abroad or by a British mystery aficionado that "In England they call the elevator a lift, you know" or, even worse, heard amid a discussion of Man United, "In England they call it football, you know."
The Harry Potter books could have educated a whole generation in Britishisms, but some unavoidable American vocabulary obscured a few nice touchs. In Britain, what we call Scotch brand tape is called Sellotape, thus making the original "Spellotape" a lovely little pun that's missing for those of us on this side of the pond.
There's so much that's foreign to our ears when we hear and read Brits: Beyond jumpers (sweaters) and rubbish tips (garbage dumps), from Cockney slang to U and non-U speech, from the trademarks such as Sellotape and references to red-brick universities, there's a whole world of connotation and denotation that lies behind British word choice that we Americans have very little inkling of.
The grammar itself is different in Britain: Collective nouns are plural there! So that means that the jury have decided: British English is decidedly its own entity.
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Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services and the College of Mount Saint Vincent Language Institute.