I was dismayed to learn the other day, that my all-time favourite George Bernard Shaw quote may not in fact have been uttered by him.
Nevertheless, even the misquotation that Britain and the United States are two countries divided by a common language, will ring true with any British Expat who has tried to make their new home in America.
There are hundreds and probably thousands of words that are different or embody a changed meaning or intent.
British people coming to America often assume that they’ve picked up everything they need to know about American English from a lifetime of consuming American movies and television.
There is, undeniably, a huge advantage Britons have over other migrants, just by speaking a variant of the same language. It is also astonishing how much British English has itself become Americanised.
Forty years ago it would have been difficult to find a British person alive who pronounced the word secretary in any way other than the short, clipped sec-rit-tree. These days, that sounds old-fashioned to many people in the U.K as the American sec-reh-tar-ee has taken full root. Mind you in Britain forty years ago, no-one said “hi” and few people knew what a teenager was.
In these globalised days American slang takes only a few months to cross the Atlantic, such as the 90’s fad of adding “not”on the end of sentences, or saying “I’m like” as a substitute for “I thought” or “I said” which has regrettably survived well into the new Millennium on both sides of the Atlantic.
Perhaps it is because of the every day prevalence of American English in Britain that few British Expats realise what a linguistic minefield they are entering when they cross over that big moat.
The very worst attitude to adopt when arriving on these shores, is what the veteran transatlantic broadcaster Alasdair Cooke once referred to as immediately deciding that “….Americans are British people gone wrong.”
There is a long and inglorious history of British sneering at the way Americans speak, often based on ignorant assumptions.
Now of course, we all have our own beefs about American pronunciations. I wince every time I hear the American president say noo-coo-ler for nuclear. I’ve never quite worked out why some Americans say eye-talians for Italians. (Does this mean the country is called eye-taly?) And I feel like inflicting a great deal of real physical pain on someone when I hear, even seasoned American sports broadcasters, call the tennis championship Wimble-ton or even more horribly Wimple-ton – as if the d in Wimbledon is somehow invisible.
But for every one of these ear-sores, we are equal opportunity manglers of American English. Brits routinely mispronounce relatively simple American place names such as Michigan, Houston and Arkansas. And despite pleas from the performer herself, the British adamantly refuse to pronounce Dionne Warwick’s name the way it is pronounced in America – literally war-wick.
In fact, there is a great body of historical evidence that American English is much closer to historical English in England, than the version that is spoken today in modern day Britain.
It may come as a surprise to the sneerers to learn that words such as fall, for autumn, mad for angry, trash for rubbish and scores of other Amercanisms all come from Elizabethan England. Many linguists believe that the accent Shakespeare’s plays would have been performed in would have sounded nothing like the classic renditions we’ve heard by Gielgud or Olivier. These linguists believe that the accent typically heard in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, would had a distinct twang that we would associate today with the west country. A little bit more like, shock of shocks, the American accent.
Indeed, Gielgud and Olivier spoke what we know in Britain as received or BBC English. This is now largely acknowledged to be an upper-class Victorian affectation. It nevertheless became the standard English of public schools and was rammed into the consciousness of the British people with the advent of BBC radio in the 1920s. While it may have created some sort of standard out of a chaotic collection of wildly differing regional dialects, it is an artificial, almost worthless creation that has almost no historical value in the understanding of the way English was spoken.
So if we accept that those early settlers in America took with them some of the vocabulary and sound of historic England, it’s still amazing that the language survived the onslaught of subsequent settlers.
In the second half of the 19th century some thirty million people poured into America, including Austro-Hungarians. Germans, Swedes, Dutch, Ukrainians, Irish, Poles and Russians. By 1890 there were over 300 German newspapers in the U.S.
French was once spoken broadly in a geographical ribbon that stretched from Quebec (where it is still the first language today) to New Orleans. Cajun – a mangling of Acadian – still survives as a language today.
Words poured into the American linguistic landscape from all these groups and others: Cookie came from the Dutch, avocado and mustang from the Spanish, canoe and tobacco from native Americans.
It may be a short history but it has been an intense one. When you really stop to consider it, it’s amazing American English does bear as much similarity to what is spoken in modern day Britain. After all, the Dutch and the Belgian Flemish actually share a border, but often find each other unintelligible.
But even when you’ve been humbled by the historical evidence, it does not prevent the unsuspecting Brit from cocking up (to use a comforting ripe old British expression).
In fact it is because the English is so similar between the two nations that the pitfalls become bigger.
You can make a complete fool out of yourself in the simple act of ordering a cup of tea. Unless you specifically ask for “hot tea” in America you’re just as likely to be served iced tea. (Of course, some would argue that even the hot tea is neither hot nor tea).
Some of the differences are extremely subtle.
A word like jolly in Britain has gained a large range of meanings. There is the jolly Father Christmas of course. But we also say somebody is jolly when they’re drunk, or in the sense of humouring or appeasing: To jolly along. It’s used to describe perks or salacious fun; “I see he’s getting his jollies”. We describe things as being “jolly good”. It’s also used by some British people, usually those who sound a bit like Penelope Keith, in phrases such as “I’m going to jolly well go down there and give him a piece of my mind!”.
In America jolly has only one meaning – merry. Other definitions used on this side of the pond will be greeted with bewildered stares.
Some words are just designed to be confusing. A pavement in Britain is a sidewalk in America – where a pavement means the actual road or street. How potentially dangerous could that be?
I once had an extremely long and strange conversation before I determined that that an aerial is an antenna in America.
Similarly video as a noun refers only to a tape, not the machine. In the States the machine is a VCR.
I quite recently had to carry out some swift damage control when I was taken to a party consisting largely of my girlfriend’s family. My host, kindly introduced me to everyone.
“This is Lee.” she said and then added helpfully, “He’s English.”
“Well spotted!” I replied, a tad sarcastically but meant harmlessly, possibly summoning up a little Basil Fawlty humour. The whole room fell into an uncomfortable silence as I searched desperately for a hole to open in the living room carpet that would envelop me.
Not only was the jovial sarcasm completely misinterpreted but nobody in the room had a clue what “well spotted” meant anyway.
That story does however illustrate what a lonely place being caught in between two cultures can be. This can be compounded by the cruel attitude of friends looking for any evidence that you’ve gone soft in the head when you revisit the U.K
“Hmmmm! You’ve got a twang!” is a typical observation usually accompanied by knowing looks signifying an innate cultural superiority. Then, with all the human empathy found in the act of pulling wings off butterflies they’ll furtively search and pounce upon every piece of newly acquired vocabulary or potentially offensive pronunciation.
Once, when submitting a story to an editor in Britain, she noticed I had repeatedly used the word “lines”.
“Do you mean queues?” she asked.
“Oh yes I do.” I replied, embarrassed by letting an Americanism slip in.
“Mind you, ” she added generously “Line is a much more logical word.”
“Oh I don’t know,” I replied feeling a sudden rush of British nostalgia. “I think queue is quite a charming word.”
“My dear Mr. Carter,” she scolded, in her best schoolmistress voice, “if you’re starting to find your own people charming then you really have gone native!”
And so this is the netherworld we inhabit. Neither one nor the other
But the next time you’re struggling to order a cup of tea, or to make a fool out of yourself in the drug store, or if you’re called a hopeless yank by your British friends, just remind yourself that you’re actually a part of a new breed of hardy internationalists.
This article was first published on http://www.britsinamerica.com
Brits In America (c) 2005 All Rights Reserved
About the author: Lee is a freelance journalist, who has worked for numerous publications and media outlets on both sides of the Atlantic including the BBC and CBC.
Lee can be contacted at email@example.com