Is there such a thing today as ‘the English language’? With the arrival of globalisation – and the British Empire rendered a mere historical footnote – the notion that there exists one pure, superior strain of English, a standard to which all other forms must adhere and aspire to, seems quaintly antiquated. In today´s world, the truth is that there are as many Englishes as there are countries in which the language is used.
For starters, of course, we have British English; long considered the most ‘authentic’ version of English, given that the language originated on the British Isles. Then there is American English, arguably the most prevalent influence on non-native speakers due to Hollywood´s vast reach. However, even a cursory examination of British English exposes basic ontological difficulties. What is meant by British English, exactly? The version spoken mainly in England, the United Kingdom´s most populous country? A dash of Scottish English, perhaps? Or the English spoken in Wales, or Northern Ireland?
Clearly, an obsession with specificity could lead to reductio ad absurdum, where we find ourselves filing down through various geographical and socio-political strata until we alight on a small village or tiny hamlet before we satisfy our craving for a pure definition of English. Better to accept that varieties of English exist, and should be respected for their qualities and idiosyncracies.
Nowhere is this best exemplified than in differences in vocabulary. Britons and Americans may ostensibly share a language but there are many variations in lexis. Some examples are: pavement (UK), sidewalk (US); petrol (UK), gas (US); lift (UK), elevator (US); aubergine (UK), eggplant (US); autumn (UK), fall (US); full stop (UK), period (US); crisps (UK), chips (US); etc.
There are also variations in British and American spelling, which are largely down to the intervention of a man named Noah Webster: he of the now famous Webster’s Dictionary of English. Webster was a Connecticut-born lexicographer who believed that English spelling could be many unneccesarily tricky at times, and so decided to simplify many words for American use. Probably the most well-known change he affected was in the spelling of words that end ‘ -our’ in British English, e.g. ‘colour’, ‘humour’, ‘rumour’. Webster removed the ‘u’, which he deemed superfluous, and gave the world ‘color’, ‘humor’ and ‘rumor’ – spellings which are used in the US to this day. Canadian and Australian English often follow the British example, as though out of some sense of post-colonial affiliation: for example, they both retain the ‘u’ in ‘ -our’ words.
When it comes to the names of rivers, British English places the word ‘river’ before the name (e.g. the river Thames’), whereas American English places it after (e.g. the Hudson river). When forming compound nouns using a verb and a noun, British English favours the gerund (e.g. skipping rope, filing cabinet) whilst American English opts for the bare infinitive (e.g. jump rope, file cabinet).
Slang is the biggest minefield for a non-native speaker. Slang can differ greatly from one Anglophone country to another, though often there will be some shared expressions. For example, Australians call taking a day off work when one feels ill a ‘sickie’; the same word is used in the UK. However if an Australian talks about a ‘gurgler’, or says ‘hooroo!’, or complains about the number of ‘reffos’ on the streets, a British, Canadian or American person would respond with incomprehension (‘gurgler’ means drain, ‘hooroo’ means goodbye or see you later and ‘reffo’ means refugee). In Britain we talk about being ‘chuffed’, which means feeling pleased about something; an Australian or New Zealander may understand this word, but an American or Canadian (unless they have spent significant time in the UK) most likely will not.
In fact it is much more likely that British, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand speakers of English will understand American vernacular due to their aforementioned exposure to Hollywood’s products and the language used in American films (or ‘movies’, to use the American word). Brits, Aussies and Kiwis (New Zealanders) are more likely to use American expressions in their day-to-day business.
For example, the New York expression ‘Can I get’ is becoming more popular than ‘Can I have’, e.g. ‘Can I get a cup of coffee?’ This could elicit confusion in older British speakers who are not as au fait with American English as their younger compatriots, many of whom have been raised on a diet of American comedies like ‘Friends’ or ‘Seinfeld’. To the question ‘Can I get some paper?’ an older English person might reply ‘Yes, help yourself’, thinking that the other person is asking permission to obtain some more paper – rather than the intended meaning, which is ‘Can you give me some more paper?’
Some expressions simply do not transfer from one country to another. For example the British expression ‘taking the mickey’ reflects the British and Irish tendency to make fun of one’s friends. Whilst this trait is evident in the US too, the fact that there is no equivalent phrase (apart from something more vague, like ‘yanking my chain’) highlights a difference in national character. Brits and Irishmen show their affection by engaging in banter: lightly aggressive badinage. Americans are sometimes confused by what appears to be a wantonly bellicose mindset amongst friends.
Moving on to grammar, a particularly vexing peculiarity for non-native speakers – and, indeed, native speakers of English from other regions or different countries – is the trait evinced in the southern USA, in states like Alabama, where speakers may deploy two modal verbs where one would normally be used. For example, someone might say “Might should we have invited Jim?” or “I was afraid you might couldn’t find it”, instead of “Should we have invited Jim?” and “I was afraid you might not find it”. This linguistic quirk does not occur in British, Canadian or Australian English, or in other dialects of American English.
In terms of pronunciation, Canadian and American English speakers emphasise the letter ‘r’ in words like ‘father’, whereas British and Australian speakers do not. However differences in pronunciation occur from one town to the next. Such is the diversity of English speech.
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