American or British? Divided by a common language

That’s what Winston Churchill said about the Americans and the British.  George Bernard Shaw referred to American English as a « foreign language », and Oscar Wilde quipped:

We and the Americans have much in common, but there is always the language barrier.

I am often asked if it’s better to use American or British English.  I remember being surprised when I first came to France that people routinely refer to them as two different languages, as in : « Are you learning American or English? » This is reinforced by language schools offering courses in « American English ».

Just how different are they? I was watching a quebecois film the other day, and although after 14 years in France I am very comfortable understanding spoken French, I probably only caught one word in two of the broad Canadian French accent. Surely English on the two sides of the Atlantic can’t be as different as French?

Well, it all depends where you go. The term « American English » is deceptive – which « American English » are we referring to?  You put a Minnesotan and a New Yorker in the same room and you may wonder if they are speaking the same language.  Well, slight exaggeration, but accents and vocabulary vary widely.

And then there’s « British English » – in some parts of England you only need to drive a few miles to hear accents change dramatically, and even such basic language building blocks as personal pronouns aren’t always consistent.  Go to Yorkshire where you can still hear people use « thou » instead of « you« .

As a New Zealander I generally say I speak « British English » when asked, but then hear myself saying « sidewalk » instead of « pavement » (or the more kiwi « footpath« ) and there is often a conspicuous /k/ in my pronunciation of « schedule« . I guess I’m just linguistically confused…

The fact of the matter is that in our day of globalisation you can get away with a variety of different ways of speaking English.  In France I tend to teach sentences like: « Have you been to the doctor yet?« , knowing full well that one day my student will be in the US and hear someone say « Did you go to the doctor yet?« , and will at that point have to decide whether his teacher really knew what he was talking about, or whether Americans have just got it wrong.  The truth is that both forms are completely correct, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on, whether you’re American or British.  I have to admit I still balk when an American friend assures me that « If I’d have known you were coming, I’d have baked a cake » (I’m tempted to do my teacher thing and say, « If I KNEW you were coming!« ), but even there, that « mistake » is so widespread – who am I to say that this is not « standard » English, as it certainly is standard in parts of the world.

Choosing American or British?  My advice for learners:

1. Be consistent. Adopt the grammatical habits and vocabulary of one region and stick to them as much as possible.

2. Learn regional varieties. Not that you have to use the different forms yourself, but it’s useful to recognise them so as not to be completely lost when faced with someone who has a different variety of English.

3. Don’t stress about it! The differences are fairly superficial, and any misunderstandings are quickly straightened out.

4. If you are a foreigner living in an English speaking country, why not adopt the local speech patterns?  Regional variations make a language rich – it’s boring if everyone speaks the same way.  I recently met a German living in South Africa, and it was wonderful to hear her say things like « all raht » (for « all right« ), « is it? », « hectic« , and « pshaw » – made a nice change from the standard German English accent!

So aside from the obvious accent and vocabulary differences, here are a few lesser known British-American equivalents to add to your list:

British American
bedsitter studio appartment
beetroot beet
bumf paperwork
capsicum green pepper
codswallop nonsense
crisps chips
drawing pin thumbtack
flannel washcloth
fish slice spatula
grotty shabby
jacket potato baked potato
motorway freeway / turnpike
nappy diaper
outgoings expenses
pillar box mailbox
surgery doctor’s office

If you have any more to add to the list, write them in the comments.

Photo Credit: Chris Turner Photography cc

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3 Commentaires

  1. 10 avril 2013 à 6 h 20 min

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  2. Mikeyc-Reply
    29 avril 2013 à 5 h 48 min

    This is highly inaccurate, in the uk we don’t use pillar box, we use postbox, we use green pepper and spatula, it’s bedsit not bedsitter and the rest are generally poorly researched

    • Simon Bourn-Reply
      29 avril 2013 à 11 h 10 min

      Interesting – thanks for that. It’s not so black and white then. English vocabulary is certainly becoming more globalised. Out of interest, what region of the UK are you from?

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