US vs. Them: British vs. American English

Sep 12, 2011 7:15:25 AM / by Rachel Reardon

[Thanks to Matt Owen for this guest post and his perspective!

Matt is a social media manager and part time alpenhorn champion from London.]


Hey there! I’m Matt, and I’m from England. I was trying to write a few words for Mango on the differences between UK and US English. I thought it would be fun.

Unfortunately I can’t do it.

I mean, I can write the words down easily enough, but it’s nearly impossible for me to point out the differences.

Because Microsoft Word won’t let me.

As in all fields of combat, the US tends to rely on technology to dominate the battlefield, and the battle for control of the language has been running since you guys decided you were probably better off without the King sticking his royal nose in your business.

And yeah, I’ve tried changing my settings (which incidentally, read “English” or “UK English” – make of that what you will), but every time I save or reopen a document, Microsoft discards all of this.

I’ve tried to convince it that I like spelling "Favour" like that, but it won’t take the hint. Or do me any favors.

Of course, this isn’t the only way American English has become the version most of the world speaks. When Britain was at the height of its powers, it spread the language by forcing people to use it to buy and sell, and by using it in churches and schools across the globe.

America on the other hand simply visits any given country, and quietly builds a Starbuck’s around anyone speaking another language.

I’ve already mentioned the war of independence, and John Adams himself was (unsurprisingly) a great fan of "Americanisms", happily announcing that he thought the US would do a great job of “Polishing the language”.

What John forgot to mention was that we Brits had been polishing away ourselves for several hundred years already, and people continue to do so on both sides of the Atlantic.

To really understand the differences, you have to delve further back into history.

Despite the name, English is actually something that crawled out of the mud of French, Saxon and pig-Latin [He’s kidding about the pig-latin part, ightray, Attmay? -Rachel].

You can also add a few other factors to those weird roots: A history of being invaded by nearly every country in Europe (quite why the Romans were so keen on trooping all the way from sunny Lazio to get their hands on a small grey island with nothing but a bit of tin and constant rain going for it remains a mystery), and books written by semi-illiterates on printing presses that couldn’t handle all the letters.

Take the word ‘Ye’ for example, it only exists because old printing presses had a symbol that looked like a ‘Y’ instead of a ‘TH’.

Next up, Britain went through an industrial revolution a bit earlier than most countries, with the billowing smog in London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool filling the local people’s sinuses and having a similar effect on the local accents – they all make you sound as though you’ve got a clothes-peg on your nose [For Americans: case in point; we say clothes pin -Rachel].

Meanwhile, in the US, something more profound was happening. We like to call it “Hollywood”. The movie industry has a huge history of imposing standards on across the world.

Here’s a question for you – what noise do frogs make?

If you answered "Ribbit", it’s because that’s the noise frogs from Southern California make, most other places they go "Bloik".

And English is the same. All over the world, countries got used to the language of Shakespeare through films, where trousers were pants, pavements were sidewalks and words followed the general American rule –pronounce it how you spell it.

This approach is sensible, but wouldn’t really work in England, where no word seems complete without a hidden ‘H’ or a silent ‘U’ in the middle. This is why tourists constantly ask me the way to “Li-ses-ter Square”. It’s actually pronounced “Les-ter”, but spelled “Leicester”.

Meanwhile, my American workmate gets weird looks when she asks for Pleated Pants in stores here. In the office, any businessman who wears ‘Suspenders’ probably shouldn’t mention it if he wants that promotion (If you want to know why, try using to look the word up –just don’t do it while you’re at work!).

We’ve also got different words for commonplace things: some make more sense, some make less. Want to give me a call? I’ll take it on my mobile. It’s a phone, and it’s mobile. Makes sense yes? ‘Cellphone’ actually means ‘battery powered phone’. When you think about it, that’s just weird.

On the other hand, a Truck sounds much better to me than a Lorry…

The differences don’t stop there either: remember the history bit earlier? England has a pretty long tradition of battling with France at every given opportunity, so that any word sounding vaguely French is considered low class, so the Toilet is the ‘Loo’, although you guys might say ‘restroom’. A few years back an Aunt of mine told me that when she first visited back in the 80s, she honestly thought that a restroom was just a quiet area where you could go and sit down and read a book for a while…

And then there’s slang. In the US, English has had a healthy injection of Dutch, German, Spanish, Yiddish and Eminem to help it along, In England we just go for weird rhyming slang (Apples and pears= stairs, dog and bone = phone), text speak and references to weird English sitcoms from the 70s. In other words, If we fancy an ace night out we get bladdered down the nags, and hopefully there’s no aggro involved innit, y’get me?

I’ve tried to come up with an American equivalent for that last line. Let’s just say a few beers after work doesn’t quite sum it up…

Meanwhile the yoofs have well and truly looted the language for all it’s worth. Where I live, most kids is speakin the Jafaican mon [Matt explained this to me as "fake-Jamaican" -Rachel] (when they aren’t stealing ‘Trainers’ from the local sporting goods store), usually in a weird accent that arrives in Hackney after swinging through Kingston Town and early 90s South Central LA. Don U be letting the feds catch ya janga sistrin innit?

Nope, I don’t know what that means either…

Overall, the language we speak is vaguely similar, but history, immigration and culture have changed the two so that visitors from either side have to make a real effort. Whenever I write for a website, a good bit of my time is spent going through and putting ‘Z’ instead of ‘S’ in words – although in England even the letter would be pronounced differently, so bad news for any fans of Zed Zed Top out there.

On the plus side it means that the way we speak gets more and more interesting as we go along. The regional diction of newscasters doesn’t really match what people say in San Diego, or in Des Moines, and in England it has to be said that even the Queen (god bless you ma’am…) has a pretty weird accent compared to most of her subjects.

The reason English is so dominant on the world stage is because it’s inclusive, always happy to add in a new expression from a different country or a new technology – look for ‘Twiterati’ in Websters and the Oxford English soon. And hey, next time I walk into a diner and order a beefburger and chips, cut me some slack yo?

Topics: Language Learning and Culture

Rachel Reardon

Written by Rachel Reardon

Rachel works with some of the coolest marketers, designers, and writers around to help Mango look and sound its best. She loves bold colors, old books, the Montréal metro, and Star Trek. She has conflicting feelings about the Oxford comma.

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