Armchair Linguist

An amateur linguist drinks strong coffee and makes interesting observations about language from the comfort of his armchair.

Location: United Kingdom

Friday, July 30, 2004

Getting from A to B and why it's probably a good sight easier on the North American side of the Atlantic

Getting directions in North America is considerably easier than in England. For one thing, the cities tend to be set out in grids, which makes it easier to pinpoint specific places. Then there's the numbers system, which is far simpler to navigate by than our British version: In US and Canada, the number of a building tells you the block and how far along it is; in Britain, they just go from 1 upwards, with odds on one side and evens on the other, and there's no guarantee that they correspond to each other, especially if the street winds a bit or there's a gap on one side of the street with fewer buildings or none at all.

But then there's the linguistic dimension. Here in Britain, we don't really talk about blocks. The direction two blocks down on the right is as likely to confuse as it is to help. Part of that is due to the haphazard layout of British streets, but still it is often easy enough to identify blocks.

Secondly, North Americans have the convenient phrase kitty-corner, which means the corner diagonally opposite, as in the supermarket is kitty-corner to the gas station, where we Brits have only the more complicated-sounding diagonally opposite.

Thirdly, North Americans refer to streets simply by the first part of their name, eg. Madison for Madison Avenue or Main for Main Street. This leads to short, convenient directions like Go down to Foster and Main, meaning Go to the junction where Foster Avenue meets Main Street. Again, this would as likely confuse as help a Briton. We'd have simply to improvise a phrase, for we have no straightforward idiom like the North Americans have.

With all this in mind, I think I'd much rather be lost in New York than in London.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's really interesting--I haven't traveled much, so wouldn't know any of this. When I first moved to a big city (Philadelphia) after having spent 22 years in small towns (< 20,000 population), it was really helpful to know that (a) the city was built on a grid, (b) city hall--visible from nearly anywhere in downtown--was available as a guidepost (and had at one time been the geographical center of the city), and (c) Broad Street was really 14th St. Plus, there were helpful street signs that told you where you were relative to the compass. When I first moved to Chicago, the city had put up very few such signs, so you could not always tell in what direction you were traveling (unless you could see several house numbers in a row and already knew where you were relative to Madison and State). In addition, the center of the grid--Madison and State--was not an obvious center; Madison was not the first president, for example, even though Madison is right in the middle of the President streets (there are also lake streets, a Lake street, and several tree streets). Plus, the highways are numbered on maps, but are called by names--take the Kennedy, or the Dan Ryan (and where does one turn into the other? oh--the Circle interchange! of course!), but just try to find those names on a map. Luckily, perhaps, I don't own a car; public transportation maps are easier to read and comprehend. And the city did finally put up signs telling you how far N/S/E/W you were.


13 August 2004 at 15:14  
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I love this blog! Why did you stop writing, Mr. Armchair Linguist? I even linked to you ... and all my friends will be so disappointed to see that your last post was in July ...

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