What the HECK are ya’ talkin’ about?
If your friend asked you, „Could you come over to my bachelor pad on the weekend and help me to repair the eavestroughs and to move my dresser?”, what would be your fi rst impression? If you read this question and weren’t quite certain what some of the words meant, or you found fault with the expression „on the weekend,” don’t worry: you’re not going insane; nor are you mad. You’ve simply formed the bulk of your English vocabulary in Europe and perhaps, more specifi cally, in the U.K. However, if you’ve caught a lot of movies from, or in, the United States, you may have recognized some of these otherwise strange terms. You’re probably aware of some of the basic diff erences between American and British English; perhaps, you’ve even wondered about the extent to which you should be able to delineate between the two in order to be fully fl uent in English. Well, being from a linguistic background that is often seen as being a combination of, or a compromise between, American and British English (that is, I’m Canadian), I can tell you that the issue is not as simple or, perhaps, paradoxically, as vitally important for assessing English fl uency, as you may have been led to believe. Nevertheless, an exploration of some of the diff erences between American and British English can be an eye-opening and fun exercise.
The common refrain in most English-learning circles is that “continental” English learners and speakers (that’s us in Poland) are speaking, and learning, British English; we might take this a step further and even venture to say that it is more accurate as well as refl ective of attaining “high” fl uency in the English language if we have honed the fi ner points of our speech and writing under the guidance of the Union Jack. However, an examination of the diff erences between U.S. and British vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and colloquialisms reveals that both languages can be useful in assessing one’s fluency. Also, we might say that the differences between the two languages are relatively minimal, at least to the point where “mixing” the two (at least in speech) will not cause erosion or corruption of one’s language skills (although, later in this paper, I will make a case for maintaining consistency of style in writing English). Furthermore, although the two may not always be mutually exchangeable, they are mutually compatible. Finally, we have to consider that variations in spoken and written English are not limited to these two nationalities. In fact, the many borrowings, inventions, and compromises within and between the “Englishes” of a number of other countries reveal that being aware of some of these differences can be both interesting and useful, even if your travel plans consist of going no further than the local movie theatre . So, sit back on the chesterfield, grab your bag of chips , and enjoy this tour.
First of all, let’s consider some diff erences in spelling. You probably already know the most recognizable diff erences, those involving converting “ou” in British spelling to “o” in American spelling; for example, in British spelling, colour becomes color in American spelling; favourite becomes favorite; bounty hunter becomes “former-Iraq-War-Vet-Who-Couldn’t-Find-a-Real- Job.” Another diff erence – and this one is more complex – is the change from “ise” (in British) to “ize” (in American). This is quite obvious in words such as “subsidize” and “realize,” but did you know that “compromise” (ending in “ise”) is an American as well as British version? As for “plastic-surgerize,” well, that is uniquely American. Earlier, I mentioned some diff erences that are worth exploring among English language characteristics in other countries. In Canada, most often, British spelling is used with the “or” rule but American with the “ize” practice. In Australia, generally, British spelling is used, but both forms are accepted. In South Africa, you’ll fi nd most consistently British spelling in all fi elds. The point here is that both forms are usually universally accepted in published material but that in such formal writing, one should be consistent in terms of their use of one version or the other throughout one written document.
Now, we’ll consider some diff erences in vocabulary. Let’s try to skim quickly over some of the most wellknown diff erences, such as truck (USA) for lorry (British) and “couch” for “sofa,” and explore some perhaps less well-known alternatives: did you know that anti-clockwise in Britain becomes counterclockwise in Canada, the USA, and in Australia? Or that in the United States, you would go to the movies and not to the cinema? In South Africa, you would be going to the bioscope to see a fi lm. Alternatively, in Canada and in India, you would be going to the movie theatre . However, for those of us familiar with Indian cinema, we might prefer to say – if we were in India – that, in fact, we were going to the suffering chamber .
Given my background in Canada, I’d like to expand upon some Canadian vocabulary that I’ve noticed is not used in most other English-speaking countries, including in continental Europe. In Canada, if you were a single man, you would return to your bachelor apartment (or pad), if you were a single woman, to your bachelorette apartment. It is, perhaps, an ironic refl ection on our society that we do not say bachelorette pad (the implication being that women are less likely to be leading a “swinging” lifestyle!). Also in Canada, people who wish to withdraw money from an ATM look for a bank machine, and those who want to go for a run will wear their runners (not their trainers). Although Canadian is, lexically, closer to American, very few Americans will speak of wearing a toque on their head in cold weather (unless they live in the lower mid-western states).
Many vocabulary changes are made with respect to the names of foods. If you are hungry for some crisps, in the United States and Canada, you would say that you wanted some chips. However, in Britain, chips would mean french fries in the U.S. Perhaps, you’d like to try a cookie (and not a biscuit?) or some eggplant (and not aubergine)? But, then again, if you’re in Britain, perhaps you’d like to skip the food altogether and go straight for an ale. If you’re in South Africa and you are referred to as a bagel, that doesn’t mean that your friend wants to eat you for breakfast. Instead, he’s claiming that you are an overly groomed and materialistic young man. Do you know what a Nanaimo bar is? Have you ever had a Beaver Tail while skating on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa? (The latter is a sweet, fl at sugar-coated pastry shaped like the tail of a beaver; the former is a thick wafer covered in custard and dark chocolate.)
Some of the most interesting variations between English terms are found among colloquial phrases. For instance, you might say “Cheers” to your friend as a substitute for “Good bye” if you are English. However, in North America or India, this would seldom be the case, where “See you later,” “Bye bye,” or even “Adios, Amigo(s)” and “Chow” are much more frequently used. When meeting someone for the fi rst time, you’ve probably heard the familiar, “How are you doing?” (in North America or in Britain), and this is actually shortened to “How ya’ doin’?” or even “How ya’ ben?” in Canada and the United States and to “How ya’?” in Australia. In African American and Afro Canadian circles, it’s not uncommon to hear “Wha’s up?” and “Yo, Bro’” among people who are encountering each other. Similar categorizations for “That’s OK, no worries” (British) are “No prob” or “No sweat” (USA and Canada) and “S’O.K.” or “S’Cool” among Afro Canadians. Of course, there are many idioms that we could explore here that diff er depending on the country, but by and large, the similarities and constancy among these are greater than the diff erences. In my experience, some of the most memorable idioms have actually occurred as a result of misunderstandings or mistakes when using them: During my fi rst year of teaching English abroad, I remember that one of my students asked me to explain what, for him, was an oddity in the idiom “(One struggles) to make ends meet.” “Why,” he asked me, “are people who are struggling trying (to get) to make meat? Do you mean to imply that they aren’t wealthy enough to aff ord this type of ‘ends’ meat, so instead, they are only buying vegetables and bread?” We could even use this topic of idioms to stress the similarities or uniformity among one type of idiom, that of the simile. Did you know that many comparative similes, such as “as hungry as a wolf” or “as fast as a cheetah,” or “as sly as a fox” use the exact same animal as a point of reference not only across English speaking countries but across Indo-European languages? For example, in Poland, we say “tak głodny jak wilk” and “tak szybki jak gepard,” and “tak chytry jak lis.”
So, if you fi nd yourself a bit overwhelmed in keeping track of the aforementioned variations among “international Englishes,” don’t get your feathers ruffl ed! A general observation here is that we can take any underlining of these international variations “with a grain of salt.” In other words, as the world becomes more interconnected, English speakers are becoming increasingly aware of each other’s idiosyncrasies and more likely to use the forms interchangeably. As that happens, our diff erences may disappear in the blink of an eye.
- Oxford English Dictionary (online), www.oxforddictionary. com, retrieved from website by the author, January, 2012.
- About English website, www.esl.about.com/od.html, retrieved from website by this author, January, 2012.
- Conversations with Native English Speaker teacher, Raymond Clarke (from Australia).
- Website, www.fi nancialexpress.com/news/world-cinemacomes, references on Indian fi lm. Website, http://www.southafrica.info/travel/advice/ saenglish.htm, retrieved by the author January, 2012.