Sunday, 21 December 2008

British English vs American English: two quarrel(l)ing stepsisters [Engleza britanică vs engleza americană: două surori vitrege la harţă]

One doesn’t have to be George Bernard Shaw to acknowledge the fact that ‘England and America are two countries separated by a common language.

Having at least a little prior knowledge of English, and being blessed with the chance to visit both these countries (although one is a mid-size island, and the other a continent!) offers a good opportunity to spot the differences.

They are funny differences to me, or rather annoying to others (thanks to a fellow blogger for inspiring this post), however, quite important differences sometimes. If you can’t spell a word correctly or use an inappropriate term nobody will take your head off, but various communication breakdowns could occur.

As far as I experienced myself, I’d say that the most common (or commonest?!) consequences of mistakes in pronounciation are getting on the wrong bus, and ordering some food you didn’t want to… But I’m looking forward to anyone sharing even some worse experiences.

Making lists of different usages of words is beyond the purpose of this blog, but here’s a great site dealing with these linguistical stepsisters :-) What I would like to do here is just ask for my readers’ views about how English is spoken in the UK, in the USA, and in other parts of the world…

I’m only asking of few questions, followed by my own answers to them (an interview with myself – that’s pathetic, isn’t it?), and – God willing – maybe I’ll draw some interesting comments to this blog post.

1. Whose spoken English did you understand easier? The Brits’ or the Americans’?
- Americans of all walks of life speak inteligibly to me, while – irrespective of their regional accent – the Brits tend to speak more intelligibly, the higher their educational background is.

2. Which were the worst native speakers with whom you barely managed to communicate?
- Those in Glasgow were awful. Not only that I very often had to ask for a sentences to be repeated to me, but while I was sitting in the bus trying to eavesdrop on people’s conversations I was always asking myself ‘what language could it be?!’ – and it was no Gaelic or anything else, just English as spoken in Glasgow, also known as Glasgow Patter or Glaswegian.

3. Which of the two versions of English seems easier to learn?
- Obviously, the American one, which appeared to me as a relatively unitary language from California, to Iowa, Virginia and New York, while in the UK, from one county to another people could easily get the impression that they are listening to a different language.

4. Name an advantage (a plus) of the British language!
- The fact that, when pronounced correctly, there’s no chance for misunderstanding: ‘ear’ always sounds like ‘ear,’ not like ‘year,’ when you hear a Brit speak.

5. Name an advantage (a plus) of the American English!
- The fact that, no matter what their country of origin is, immigrants in New York learning American English end up speaking a more comprehensible language (at least to non-native speakers like I am) than immigrants in London. Given an Iraqi with no previous exposure to English, I tend to believe that you could understand him easier if he learned English in America, than if he did so in Britain.

*** NOTE: The British use two ‘l’-s in quarrelling, while the Americans only one, therefore writing quarreling

[For all the posts on this blog go to/Pentru toate postările de pe acest blog mergi la: Contents/Cuprins]


Scott said...

Very interesting post (I am a native speaker of American English). Thoughts like this often obsess me, so I found the style guide at The Economist's website and wrote about it:

MunteanUK said...

I'm glad you found my post interesting... I wish I could open the link which you posted, but it seems it's not possible :(

Anyway, why would someone want a 'crack down' on Americanisms? What's so bad about them?!

Anonymous said...

English spoken in the UK, in the USA, in Australia...
same English, but different.
I had the chance to visit Uk&Scotland and to talk with people from USA and Australia.
americans often abbreviate words or pronounce words differently from English
I noticed that in uk (in some part of the country) they want to hear English pronunciation, not "USA style"

MunteanUK said...

@ C.L.

Both British & American English sound lovely to me... by God's grace, I simply love this language!

What I mean is that, for a foreigner, it may be harder to understand Brits speaking than Americans.

Partly because such a man would have been previously exposed mainly to American English (the 'lingua franca' of today's popular culture). But also because American pronounciation is somehow 'simplified'.


It may only be by personal opinion, not supported by any 'scientific' data, however, I find that the 'colonial versions' of some European languages are clearer to understand.

I'm refering to American English, Latin America Spanish & Brazilian Portuguese.

I don't know if Canadian French is easier to understand than the language of metropolitan France, while Afrikaans appears to be quite different from Dutch, to the point of being considered another different language.

MunteanUK said...

This is one of the posts where I wish I received more comments, examples, interactions between readers, even little 'disputes', as I really like the topic brought into discussion.

In my thirst of vain glory, I thought this presumed 'quarrel' between the ones defending the two versions of English would stir up a debate.

It doesn't seem to be the case; maybe this post simply remained unnoticed to most readers or, of those who read it, none found anything to answer to my five questions/requests :-(


Nevertheless, I am not giving up the hope that, someday, I will get other people's consistent opinions about how they see the 'uneasy' relationship between British and American English.

Here I am giving it another try, drawing attention to a couple of articles that I found very interesting.

After reading them, I realized that my word 'quarrel' was a rather 'mild' (or politically correct :-) one.

Actually, there's some sort of 'attrition warfare' (1) between American and British English, and the first appears to have the upper hand these days.

These are the articles that I suggest reading, both written by the same author (2):





Anonymous said...

1. both
2. Scotland, near Stirling
3. uk
4. understand each other, even if they are from uk, usa, etc
5. really? I don't know...
And in a debate I think I'd be subjective ...

MunteanUK said...

@ C.L.

Some observations regarding your laconic your answers:

4. No, Americans and Britons DO NOT always understand each other; that's the whole point of my article :-)

Obviously, as long as they share a common basic English, most misunderstandings occuring can be clarified pretty quickly.

But what if those engaged in a conversation are both sure of their own meaning of a particular word, without knowing that the other meant another thing?


5. We're not in school here; and surely not in a Romanian school some 20-25 years ago, where students wouldn't be allowed to be 'subjective'.

This MunteanUK has to be about 'subjectivity', about people expressing their personal views about the UK and anything else.

I wouldn't like this website to be some sort of phoney colLection of politically correct opinions.

If I wanted that, I wouldn't allow comments, and would stick to a formal discourse, like - "British researchers have discovered..."
- "British scientists concluded that..."
- "According to a British study..."
- blah-blah-blah...

Therefore, if you do have an opinion on something, will you please say it openly?

Anonymous said...

of course I will...
when I said "subjectivity", I mean that I like too many things that relate to uk, and interactions with the half-sister have left (some) bitter feelings.
From this point of view I thought I might be subjective.
but can I try to be detached ...
4. it was my opinion, from what I saw, interact, heard over time.
anyway I think the best answer here would be from the Romanians who have learned English here and who actually live (for years)in the UK or USA. What difficulties or benefits were and what kind of English are they speaking after a certain period of time, how they understood the natives, etc.

Anonymous said...

Did you know?
Americans citizens who want to work legally in England shall (mandatory) to take a language test. It seems odd considering that is English too.
But the vast majority of men fall to this test, while the vast majority of women pass him.
I don't know why the U.S. men ( even romanians who are living there for several years and initially taught British English) do not understand British English. Or hardly understand...

MunteanUK said...

@ C.L.

I haven't heard (nor found any articles on the WWW related to this) about Americans failing English language tests in the UK.

However, I don't think this would be utterly impossible :-)

As of this autumn, the British Gov makes it mandatory for all non-EU immigrants to the UK to take a new English test, plus another test on British culture, politics, and laws:

Maybe American spouses & partners of British citizens won't find it too difficult to pass the English test (focused on conversational English, not on assessing the level of proficiency).

On the other hand, any questions about the British 'culture' could prove difficult.


In Canada, not even those who have PhDs in Eglish literature or were born in the USA and attended American universities are spared from passing such an English test, if they want an immigration visa:


Here's another very interesting article, giving examples of differences between the American and British versions of English:

Anonymous said...

for the moment I haven't this articles or statistics, but I'll try to find out.
but I talked to people involved in this type of test, native or coming from Romania
as soon as I'll have some references I will write here

MunteanUK said...

An interesting survey offering evidence of the English language's preeminence in the EU:

MunteanUK said...

According to a linguist, English's spread into the world is threatened with a 'reversal' to the same extent as other languages.

In his view, any lingua franca is due to either disappear after centuries or to keep being used only on a severely restricted geographical area.

What happened to Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, Latin, Medieval Persian could one day happen to English...

...that is if the end of the world will not come before that, I'd say.

Mihai said...

I think this observation about a language being due to either disappear after centuries or to keep being used only on a severely restricted geographical area is very interesting.

Is it just an observation of what happened to other languages or has the author identified the process that leads to that ?

Mihai said...

I have just read the article about the English language being on the way of dieing out and I must say I'm not very convinced that Nicholas Ostler is right.

I think he failed to identify a realistic process through which the English language will die out. I'm not saying that this will not happen, but if it will happen, than it must be related to some concrete (and maybe violent) historical factors and not just because great languages eventually die.

Also, I strongly doubt that machine translation will become so efficient that there will be no need for a person to learn a new language other than the native one.

MunteanUK said...

@ Mihai

Well, I hope you noticed my ironic comment "that is if the end of the world will not come before that"...

Moreover, see another ironic note from the 7th comment of the above ones...
- "British researchers have discovered..."
- "British scientists concluded that..."
- "According to a British study..."
- blah-blah-blah...

I often have serious 'doubts' in relation to these 'studies', but this is precisely why I am giving linkes to them here... that we could comment them, and see to what extent they are credible or not!


I agree that the article offers no clear explanation on why English would follow the example of other languages which once held a similar role in history.

I also agree that 'translation equipments' of whatever kind are very unlikely to suppress the need of people to learn languages.

We know that languages come along with a certain culture, and that learning foreign words and phrases actually 'enriches' one's personality.

However, do you thing that there's a 'risk' of people worldwide being turned into shallow characters, with no true identity, so that translation would not mean 'adaption' but only changing one word for another?


I'm rather reluctant to embracing this overpessimistic idea of the 'death of culture', but what if it's possible?

What if, one day, 'culture' would be seen exclusively as a reflection of the material world, with no spiritual connotations?

Obviously, this seems impossible for now... And the spreading of English has not 'hypersimplified' the mindset of those who use it; on the contrary...

Well, no matter what I say may considered 'biased' - I love English :-)

Mihai said...


I think it would be very hard to make translation just a process of changing one word for another.
But who knows, maybe Big Brother will try something similar to the New Language (as in Orwell's book), a language stripped of all "unnecessary" and "unpractical" words. Maybe then machines will be efficient at translating from one human language to another :)

Maybe the ones pulling the strings in these days do wish to slowly inflict the 'death of culture'. And I think I'm wrong about the 'maybe' part: they certainly wish for that. It would make people much easier to control.

I'm also reluctant to considering such a scenario possible, but if it is possible that one day we could live in a world that has focused all its attention on the material values, totally disregarding the spiritual ones, then I really hope the end of the world will come before that.

MunteanUK said...

@ Mihai

I supposed that you also noticed that the more 'depersonalized' and hedonistic human beings become, the less rich their language is.

Given the way our world looks like today, I wouldn't say that this nightmarish scenario - languages losing their 'flavour' and turning into Orwell's 'Newspeak' - is a complete exaggeration.

The day when humans become no more than machines, having given up any spiritual dimension, it will probably be very easy to translate one language into another.

MunteanUK said...

@ everyone

I discovered another interesting article about the evolution of the English language, assesing that there are 1,022,000 English words today.

Out of that huge number, the average speaker knows some 75,000 words, yet 'actively' uses no more than 50,000.

May this be an enjoyable reading for my readers:

MunteanUK said...

@ everyone

I found two more articles relevant to the topic that was brought into discussion by my post and by the subsequent comments.

One is concerned with the extent to which Britons find 'irritable' and 'barbarous' the Americanisms that keep invading contemporary British English:

The other offers a non-exhaustive list of 50 annoying Americanisms:

MunteanUK said...

@ everyone

Here's an interesting poll among The Economist's British readers about the Americanisms they have adopted:

Also, a selection of British words whose adoption by American English speakers is suggested: