English. What a wonderful language, but how irritating that it comes in two flavours (flavors.) How should an author handle this problem?
If you’re a British author writing for a British audience, you can simply use British spellings. Colour. Organisation. Defence. Similarly for American writers – use American spellings. Color. Organization. Defense.
But what if you want to make your book as accessible as possible? Tricky.
Writers like Stephen King make no attempt whatsoever to cater for British readers. Never mind issues with spelling, his books are full of foreign words that British readers don’t understand. Faucet. Spigot. Sophomore. Jock. Bangs. Bellhop. It’s hard for a Brit to read a single page of a Stephen King novel without stumbling over some alien concept.
Then again, you could be even more authentic and vernacular, throwing in slang expressions that add welcome colour (color). British slang words like mate, gutted, skint, fuzz, shag, bog, minging or snog. American readers may end up baffled. They may not be able to read the book at all. Honestly, how do Americans manage without these words?
A compromise solution is to avoid words that don’t exist in the other language, and to minimise (minimize) the use of words that are spelt (spelled) differently.
George RR Martin seems to use this approach, whether deliberately or simply because high fantasy just doesn’t sound right in American. Instead of the word color (colour) he writes tint or hue or shade, or just writes the colour (color) itself – blue, cyan, aquamarine, or whatever. Instead of armor (armour), he tells us that a man at arms is wearing plate or chain mail or boiled leather. Sometimes he slips in an American spelling. It’s almost unavoidable. Very occasionally he uses a word that doesn’t exist in British English – gotten, for instance. Such words stick in the throat of a British reader, even if we know what they mean.
Sometimes publishers go to the trouble of translating books from British English into American English. The first Harry Potter book even had a different title in the US – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone instead of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I think they were taking the piss (being absurdly unreasonable) here, but hey, it seemed to be popular enough.
In my latest soon-to-be-published novel, I’m aiming to write British English that hopefully won’t alienate American readers too much. For instance, instead of mobile phone (cell phone) I wrote phone. I’ve had to make some changes I wasn’t expecting. Abattoir became slaughterhouse, for instance. Fortnight became a couple of weeks. Thanks to my American proof readers for drawing those to my attention! I’ve avoided the use of the word colour (color.) I’ve written organize (valid in both languages) instead of organise (the more common British spelling, but off-limits in the US), but I couldn’t stop myself from writing armour or defence or reveller (all British spellings.) I hope that American readers will be able to handle this. I’ve even slipped in a small amount of British slang – the use of mate meaning friend, for example. It’s hard to write authentic-sounding dialogue without some use of slang.
What do you think? Do you struggle with American/British words or spelling in fiction? Do you look up unfamiliar words or just ignore them? How many strange words or spellings are too many for you, or do you find yourself revelling (reveling) in the vivid authenticity of strange slang words and phrases?