by Kristin Fehlauer
I first noticed the initial signs in 2002. I had just moved to Europe from the United States and was a teaching assistant in Rostock, Germany. Assigned to an elementary school, I was tasked with helping kids aged 5 to 10 or so learn some English basics. Pretty typical conversational stuff:
“Hello. How are you?”
“What’s your name?”
“Have you got a brother?”
“What colour is the woolly hat?”
I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch…
“It’s a fancy dress party.”
But they’re not wearing fancy dresses—
All the words by themselves made sense, but were strung together in ways I had not seen or heard before. I protested. I have no problem with the children learning British English, I said, but why have an American assistant? I would never say these things naturally; it’s almost like learning a different language! And the pairing of my accent with British speech patterns just sounded ludicrous. However, I was overruled, and tried my best to get the children to speak in a way I hoped approximated what people might say in the UK.
Little did I know this would be the beginning of a long love/hate relationship with another form of English. Like many Americans, I love the way it sounds; it connotes education, culture, centuries of tradition. So charming, so quaint! And yet, the deeper I delve into its intricacies, the more I fear it is having an inescapable impact on my American English. It’s not always obvious, hence the “creeping” aspect. “Lime” is a reference to “limey,” slang for a British sailor or, by extension, a British person.
Disclaimer: I realize “British English” is a sweeping label that covers a hugely diverse group of accents and dialects. Here I will mostly be dealing with what I would probably call “the Queen’s English,” by which I mean the fairly standard variety Americans would tend to associate with the British upper class and aristocracy.
Another disclaimer: There are plenty more varieties of English out there! But my personal experiences as an American are with British English; I’ll be leaving Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa out of this particular story…
Pasta with basil and tomato sauce
Shocker: pronunciation in British and American can be different! Usually these differences don’t interfere with comprehension; they’re just amusing little curiosities, things to compare with new friends and laugh over. But every now and then, it gets slightly more serious. For example, I will never get used to the fact that Brits can rhyme “clerk” with “park,” “rain” with “again,” or even “port” with “ought.” This can result in some confusion in poetry and song lyrics!
Intonation is another key difference. British questions tend to sound more like a statements to me, as though they are merely seeking confirmation. It’s difficult to describe the rise and fall of someone’s pitch in text form, but I’ll give it a go:
If a British speaker asks, “Have you got a sister?”, their voice will go something like:
Whereas if an American asks, “Do you have a sister?”, their voice will start down and move continuously up:
That Brits and Yanks have different words for things is pretty clear to anyone who’s stepped, however briefly, across the pond. Some of the classics are boot/trunk, flat/apartment, nappy/diaper. A couple less well-known examples may be coriander/cilantro and anticlockwise/counterclockwise. The Brits join with many of their neighbors on the Continent in calling it coriander (see Koriander, coriandre, coriandolo, кориандр, etc.), whereas Americans get “cilantro” by way of their neighbors to the south, who imported both the herb itself and their term for it from Spain.
Regarding counter- and anticlockwise, which one would you think is the British one? To be honest, if I didn’t know better, I would’ve gone with counterclockwise. To me, “counter” looks and sounds like an old Anglo-Saxon prefix, maybe because at first glance, I can’t trace it back to any other language root. It’s the perfect companion to clock and wise! “Anti,” on the other hand, strikes me as so markedly non-English that “anticlockwise” has to be a more recent formation. I imagine the conversation went something like this:
Person A: OK, we have clockwise.
Person B: Excellent. But wait, what about things that go the other way?
A: You mean, things that are the opposite of clockwise?
A: Hmm, I don’t know… Well, you can slap “anti” onto just about anything and you get the opposite. Why don’t we just say “anticlockwise”?
B: Sounds good!
Although I feel slightly disloyal in saying so, I can far more easily imagine this conversation happening stateside versus in merry olde Englande. So how did we wind up with counterclockwise and the Brits with anticlockwise? I have no idea; but a more important question is, why are we bothering with those words when we could be using the wonderfully fantastic “widdershins”??
That’s never a subtle grammar difference
The preceding two aspects of British vs. American English are fairly surface-level and obvious. Given that people are usually familiar with the regional variations in these languages, I think it’s easier for them to grasp the notion of alternative pronunciations or different labels for things. Yet the more I’ve been exposed to the two variants, the more I’ve become aware of deeper, more subtle differences.
One of the first I encountered as a translator was the British “in future.” Americans always use the article; you have to say “in the future,” regardless of context. Sadly, this misses out on a pleasing nuance: for the British, “in the future” refers to the period of time that has not yet occurred, whereas “in future” means “from now on” or “next time.” This is still hard for me to wrap my brain around – not good when the client is asking for British English! It’s a good thing I have British colleagues I can call on when I need a hand.
Another particularly British characteristic is one specific use of the word “never,” when they want to say “there’s no way that can be true.” You might be trying on an item of clothing that’s labeled in your size, but if it’s ridiculously tight or loose, you could say, “That’s never a size 9!” Americans use it in this sense – well, never!
How do you do “do”?
Finally, one of the most salient features of British English, and one where my own case of creeping lime has had the most impact, is verbs. The Brits seem to be much fonder of the verb “do,” especially when paired with a modal verb:
“Are you going to work on that project this evening?”
“I should do, but I’ll probably just watch the telly instead.”
An American would never insert “do” in that instance (and we don’t watch “the telly”, we watch TV!).
Another case happened to me recently when an American friend of mine asked if I’d read a blog post he’d written several weeks before. I wasn’t sure, so I answered, “I might have done.” He gave me an amused look and commented, “That’s very British!” And he was right; the more American response would probably have been “Maybe I did,” but I had to think about it first.
I think most native speakers of a language – any language – are hard pressed to describe the rules and principles they adhere to when using it. So I apologize if I’ve supplied more examples than abstract descriptions, but for me, it’s the easiest way to make my point.
So what? you may ask. Fair enough – after all, it’s fun to learn new words and adopt new ways of speaking. I kind of like that I am developing my own unique blend of English. And if I didn’t make my living based on my facility with the US brand of English, it wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, I have to be able to deliver texts that sound as though they were written by an American, and with a Scotsman on the other side of my desk, an Englishman down the hall, and an Irish freelancer in close contact over Skype, I am virtually embedded in a microcosm of the British Isles.
Making matters worse is that most of the media I choose to consume is of British origin as well – including some of my favorite TV shows and my favorite podcast. All of this is causing interference with my mental ear; there are times when it’s hard to tell what “sounds right.” I try to offset the effect by purposely listening to American radio and reading American print media, and of course talking to family and friends helps. Still, as in the “might have done” example above, sometimes I find myself having to think a little bit about phrasing that should be completely intuitive.
It’s similar to the struggle many people have when they live abroad and are immersed in the local language. So do any expats out there have any tips for keeping your native language intact?