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The differences behind the similarities, or: why Americans and Britons don't know what the other is talking about: American and British English share names for many things, but do they have the same meanings?


In the first article in this series (Murphy 2016), I recounted Geoff Pullum's (2014) dismissal of British-American linguistic differences as ‘mostly nouns’. From a theoretical linguist's position, nouns can seem simpler and less interesting than other parts of speech, since concrete noun senses are fairly self-contained. Compare a noun like cup to an adjective like big. You can picture a cup in and of itself, but in imagining big we need to think about things that could be big. And what we mean by big changes depending on which thing we are talking about. Since the meaning of cup does not have to interact with other words in order to get its meaning, investigating concrete nouns is a low priority for many linguistic semanticists. It can be ‘difficult to distinguish where the discussion of a noun's sense stops and where discussion of its extension (the things it refers to) begins’ (Murphy 2010: 149), and so that aspect of meaning is often left to philosophers and psychologists: What does love mean, really? or How do you know which things to call green?

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M. L. Murphy 2010. Lexical meaning. Cambridge University Press.

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English Today
  • ISSN: 0266-0784
  • EISSN: 1474-0567
  • URL: /core/journals/english-today
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