A Brit’s take on American English

Posted by on July 17, 2010

As part of American English month, we return to Philadephia, where blogger and EFL teacher & author Vicki Hollett discusses the hazards of a Brit speaking ‘merican. Thank you to Vicki for another great guest post!

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The US is a hazardous place for Brits. Since moving to Philadelphia, I’ve inadvertently commented on my hostess’s homely (=ugly) home; I’ve offended my gay neighbours by mentioning their fairy (=holiday) lights and I’ve even described the deceased at a funeral as having a wicked (=nasty – but not in Boston, where I might have been understood) sense of humour.

But there are lots of mistakes I’ve avoided. I’ve understood that batteries don’t go flat here (they die instead) and at the hardware store I’ve learnt how to ask for rawl plugs (=anchors) to put in the plasterboard (=sheet rock) along with some polyfilla (=spackle). I can now dress myself in trousers (=pants) with turn ups (=cuffs) and a jumper (=sweater – take it from me, ’merican jumpers are not a fashion item you’d ever want to wear). So I like to think I’ve had a lot of successes here. When I’ve written something wrongly, I’ve avoided asking my co-workers to lend me a rubber (=contraceptive). And when I’ve forgotten my alarm clock, I’ve never asked my travelling companions to knock me up (=get me pregnant) in the morning.

But whenever I open my mouth here, I’m conscious that it’s always a bit of an experiment. People think we speak the same language and they reason I know what I’m saying, but I don’t. The lexical differences are fun, but they’re actually small fry. Learning how to structure my thoughts ’merican-style is the biggest challenge for me.

The different styles of politeness are tricky. Putting it crudely, I come from a culture where politeness is mostly about not getting in anyone’s way, but in the US it’s more about awarding esteem. I have to remember to show approval, warmth and friendliness, and that’s tough for a Brit. If you think about it, the stereotypical Brit is aloof, standoffish and reserved. Our customs dictate we should leave people alone so they can go about their business without us getting in their way. Meanwhile the stereotype of the American is friendly and garrulous – someone who gives you a run-down of their entire life history within five minutes of meeting them. It’s just not polite to hold back, so I’ve had to learn to show more solidarity, share and be open.

It’s not that one form of politeness is good or bad, but they are different. Have you had any similar experiences with British/American differences? If so, please do share. And in my best British, I do hope I haven’t gone on too long and reading this hasn’t been a bother. And in my best ’merican, y’all come back sometime and set awhile, ye hear?

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Comments (31)
  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Roel Thijssen, ThijssenTranslations. ThijssenTranslations said: A Brit’s take on American English http://bit.ly/aqTRGL […]

    Posted by Tweets that mention A Brit’s take on American English | Macmillan -- Topsy.com on 17th July, 2010
  • […] A Brit’s take on American English […]

    Posted by Englischlinks der Woche (KW29) - Englisch lernen on 18th July, 2010
  • […] The different styles of politeness are tricky. Putting it crudely, I come from a culture where politeness is mostly about not getting in anyone’s way, but in the US it’s more about awarding esteem. I have to remember to show approval, warmth and friendliness, and that’s tough for a Brit. If you think about it, the stereotypical Brit is aloof, standoffish and reserved. Our customs dictate we should leave people alone so they can go about their business without us getting in their way. Meanwhile the stereotype of the American is friendly and garrulous – someone who gives you a run-down of their entire life history within five minutes of meeting them. It’s just not polite to hold back, so I’ve had to learn to show more solidarity, share and be open. (Source: Macmillan Dictionary Blog) […]

    Posted by Listen & Learn » Blog Archive » American English – a British take on 18th July, 2010
  • I wish I’d known you when I was another Brit struggling to make herself understood in Philly! I was there for two years and I never quite got to the point when I relaxed in a conversation, confident that I was understanding and being understood without fear of putting my foot in it.

    Posted by Ros on 19th July, 2010
  • It seems it’s almost more difficult to feel at ease in conversation in the USA because you apparently speak the same language and so assumptions about your meaning and understanding are made. At least when conversing in a foreign language you partly expect to be misunderstood! and generally any successful, embarrassment-free communication is always a plus point!

    Posted by Paddy on 20th July, 2010
  • That would explain why most of the Americans I follow on Twitter keep retweeting each other and saying things like “Awesome post!” and gushing about where and what they’re eating or doing…
    Some of the Canadians seem confused, the Aussies don’t seem bothered, or they say exactly what they think, and my British friends seem to spend a lot of time lurking because they don’t want to interrupt…
    Just joking, of course, wouldn’t want to offend anyone, and by the way, if it’s not too rude, isn’t the plural of “y’all” “all y’all”? 😉

    Posted by Colin Graham on 20th July, 2010
  • I laughed reading this text as being a non-native speaker of English, I learned to speak British English and in a trip to the US I got myself into ackward situations like these. I went shopping for a wireless “router” /u:/ but the shop assistant corrected me saying what I wanted was a “router” /au/.

    For me, those differences are what make the language so lively and interesting to study and to teach, making students aware of those differences make them functional in every situation.

    Posted by Beatriz Meneguetti on 20th July, 2010
  • Oh wow! I wish I’d known you too Ros. We could have cried on each others shoulders. Do tell me if you’re ever coming back.

    Posted by Vicki Hollett on 21st July, 2010
  • I think you’re absolutely right, Paddy. And actually I think it has implications for my very advanced students. In work settings I think they sometimes tend to get cast in the role of ‘translator’ for a group, and nobody really understands the depth of the challenges they face. Sometimes there’s merit to be had with speaking an imperfect form of English. Ha!

    But when all this has been said, there are also plusses to being ‘British’ when I am teaching classes in the US. Knowing I’m another ‘outsider’, I think my students might be more more candid when cultural differences arise.

    Posted by Vicki Hollett on 21st July, 2010
  • It’s interesting to read all those differences and now I know that my English is very American nt British.

    Posted by AllaSobirova on 21st July, 2010
  • Thank you for giving me a good chuckle, Colin! Loved that image of the Brits lurking around on Twitter not wanting to interrupt!

    Posted by Vicki Hollett on 22nd July, 2010
  • Oh, and I forgot to say Colin, in South Philly, there’s an equivalent to ‘all ya’ll’. It’s “yous” – as in “What are yous guys up to”.

    Posted by Vicki Hollett on 22nd July, 2010
  • […] 2. Macmillan have allowed be to describe my key struggles with ‘merican  (in their wonderful ‘merican English month) here. […]

    Posted by Guest posts | Learning to speak 'merican on 23rd July, 2010
  • What does “a wicked sense of humo(u)r” mean in British English? To me it just means a sharp, keen, generally mischievous sense of humor. I would be surprised if any adult didn’t understand that in the US–it’s pretty different from saying someone is a wicked person. (It doesn’t mean the same thing as Boston “wicked,” which seems to serve either as an intensifier or yet another synonym for “cool,” but I don’t speak any East Coast dialects.)

    At any rate, while I love giving compliments, I don’t really like forced interaction all that much, so maybe I should move. Heh.

    Posted by Clarissa at Talk to the Clouds on 24th July, 2010
  • I am curious to know which words the British “translate” for Americans and which ones they leave alone. For instance, do you still say “whilst” or has it become “while”? Can you bring yourself to say “candy” instead of “sweets”? Do you still put the i in “Aluminium”? Are there any words that you just won’t say?

    I am a native Californian who lived in North Carolina for 6 years and never could call a shopping cart a “buggy.” I just couldn’t do it.

    Love the comments above. The stories are great!

    Posted by Ruth on 24th July, 2010
  • Hi Clarissa, great to see you here!
    I was trying to describe something really good when I used that word ‘wicked’. In informal(ish) Brit-speak ‘cool’, ‘brill’, ‘great’, ‘ace’, and maybe even ‘sound’, or ‘sweet’ could have worked for me as well.
    The guy was very funny and always had us in stitches. Sharp and keen? Hmmm… yes but only in the sense that he was on target – he had a very gentle sense of fun. Mischievous – oh yes. Absolutely!
    What I didn’t mean to convey was ‘sarcastic’, but unfortunately the guy officiating at the funeral understood it that way. He later said something like ‘And although he had a sarcastic sense of humour, he was much loved.’ We were all very surprised and it took me a while to realise I must have been responsible.
    From your blog, it seems like you might be planning a move. Wishing you very happy travels if that’s the case and hope you have a wicked time!

    Posted by Vicki Hollett on 24th July, 2010
  • Welcome Ruth, and what an interesting question! Are ther any words I won’t say?

    Well, in mission critical situations when I need to be sure I’m understood, I don’t think there’s anything I won’t say. Heck, I’ll even have a stab at an American accent when I find I’m talking to voice recognition software on the phone. But around the house I’m lazy about translating and my husband has come to understand that leftovers will be wrapped in cling film rather than ceran wrap, or thrown in the dustbin rather than the trash can. He eats toMAYtoes and I eat toMAHtoes, and I tend to still eat puddings rather than desserts. ‘Whilst’ is alive and well in my vocabulary (along with amongst) and ‘aluminium’ still has that extra ‘i’ for me, though they might disappear in official correspondence. I have heard myself talking about candy to kids though. That might not involve too much of a mental leap for me. English chocolate is very different to American chocolate in my mind, so they almost merit different names.

    My husband has just pointed out that I still occasionally try to get into the wrong side of the car – so maybe I’m just a slow learner. 🙂

    Posted by Vicki Hollett on 26th July, 2010
  • Vicki, thank you so much for your response–it is invaluable! I got up the nerve to ask a man in the bookstore the other day whether he still said “whilst” and all I got was an embarrassed “I dunno.” Strangely though, he didn’t even seem to recognize the word in my American accent until I had repeated it. I walked away, red in the face.

    Posted by Ruth on 26th July, 2010
  • […] blev mindet om det af en blog, min fætter (som er lige så sprognørdet som jeg) har opdaget og sendt mig et link til – en […]

    Posted by Kender I Wordle? « Hos Mommer on 27th July, 2010
  • Interesting article. I had the opposite experience years ago as an American encountering British overseas. I learned quickly what the loo is, and that trucks are called lorries and run on petrol, not gas(oline). These are pretty well known differences. But it was a surprise to hear vacuum cleaners called hoovers (which is a brand name in the US) and dish detergent called ‘washing-up liquid’. Yeah, the language is the same, but the idioms can differ radically.

    Posted by Henrik on 20th August, 2010
  • Dear Vicki,
    I feel thrilled to start writing. I have been using your textbook Business Objectives for almost 15 years so it feels like writing to the Queen.

    I have a rather funny experience from last year. In one group of about 20 adult students we have used the older version of the book, which is British English and the newer version which is International (which means American English). If you ask why we did such a funny thing it was because we just got into the particular moment where the old and new versions were still sold and as the book is quite expensive I did not want to force my students into buying a new copy and throwing the old one away…
    The truth is that the Americanized version of the book is simpler and the recordings are more understandable. I am sorry to admit that as I am in favour of British culture and English as well.
    Nice greetings from Prague
    Vladimir

    Posted by Vladimir on 1st September, 2010
  • What about the … American confusion with bring/take and come/go; and of course the present perfect doesn’t seem to rate very highly!

    Posted by Clarrie Whistance on 9th September, 2010
  • Thanks so much for the kind words, Vladimir. And thanks for telling me about those two different sets of audio recordings too! I think we should make those American recordings faster. 🙂
    It was interesting ‘translating’ Business Objectives actually because there were all sorts of od changes I found we needed to make. In case you’re interested, I’ve written about them here: http://www.vickihollett.com/?p=128
    All the best!

    Posted by Vicki on 9th September, 2010
  • Hi Clarrie! Thanks for joining in. I haven’t noticed any variation between AmE and BrE with bring/take and come/go and I wonder if it’s a regional thing. Do you know how we are supposed to use them differently?

    It’s funny you should mention the present perfect, because I thought I’d be coming to a land that rarely used it. Instead I found it alive and well in the US. In case you’re interested, I’ve written more about it here:
    http://www.vickihollett.com/?p=126

    Posted by Vicki on 9th September, 2010
  • Re: Bring/take

    Excerpt from an American recipe: “you have to make it a day in advance, which works well if you’re having people over or bringing it somewhere.”

    As a Brit, I would say “taking it somewhere,” and “bringing it somewhere” sounds strange to me.

    I see the difference as whether or not I am going to be with you and the object in question.

    For example:
    “Don’t forget to bring your umbrella!” suggests I am going with you, or you are coming where I am or will be.
    “Don’t forget to take your umbrella!” suggests you are going somewhere and I am not.

    Maybe American usage is looks at the ‘person + object’ relationship, rather than ‘person + speaker’ relationship here?

    Posted by Colin Graham on 10th September, 2010
  • Haven’t touched on it here and it’s probably somewhat outside the scope of this thread, but what about the American fondness – all too often! – of changing syllable stress. And then of course there’s what has been written about elsewhere as ‘verbing the noun’ and ‘nouning the verb’.

    Posted by clarrie whistance on 14th September, 2010
  • […] the other direction, “Belts and Braces” has the same problem, but isn’t as much of a double […]

    Posted by Frequently Asked Questions about British English « Science and Language on 21st November, 2010
  • I like your paragraph about “politeness.” I am South African by marriage, American by birth. Now I’m not a red neck, I consider myself well educated and cultured, but when communicating with my mother-in-law, who is of British descent in SA, I always take what she says the wrong way. (And I’m a person who loved visiting France and didn’t think the French were rude at all!) Needless to say our relationship suffers because we both tend to think the other has a level of rudeness. Example: My husband and I are not the best at keeping in touch, especially since she still lives in Cape Town, and we received a text (SMS for non-Americans) this morning about his little cousin’s birthday and the text read “Please acknowledge him.” To me, like many things she says, that sounds like a “jab.” Like we should “acknowledge” that they exist. But I am constantly reminding myself that it is just the way she speaks. It always comes across as harsh. Like my encounter once with a British woman in public saying “exCUSE me.” The inflection just sounds rude to my Americanized ears. I know it isn’t meant to be offensive, it’s just so hard! If an American said some of these things, it would be intended as rude/harsh. Of course, I’m sure I come across as rude to most Americans too since I am not talkative and I don’t like small talk with strangers.

    Just to make myself clear, I think Queen’s English is quite nice, I’ve even picked up some of the lingual habits like saying “quite nice.” 🙂 I no longer make fun of my husband for adding extra syllables in words like aluminum and he tries not to make fun of my southern way of adding an extra syllable for R’s like foo-erk for fork. Now if I could just learn to communicate with the in-laws! (Well my father-in-law is Afrikaans so I don’t have so much trouble with him-he rarely speaks English to me despite the fact that the only Afrikaans phrase I know is “Can I please have a margarita”). Obviously I should just get over it and realize the British aren’t out to get me As my mother would say, “Stop wearin’ your emotions on your sleeve.”

    Posted by Stephanie on 21st November, 2010
  • Oh Clarrie,

    Speaking as a Brit, married to an American, your response rang so many of chords for me. The potential for misunderstanding is huge. Folks think we speak the same language and we do… but only up to an extent because in the one hand we have a culture that favours warmth, friendliness and openness and on the other we have one that favours non-intrusion and not getting in anyone’s way and letting other people do whatever they want to do without intruding.

    And then on top of this we have personalities (like your mother-in-law) – that add new personal and idiosyncratic layers to the communication exchanges.

    Thank you so much for this response and please come visit my blog because I am trying to tease some of that stuff out there.
    Vicki

    Posted by Vicki Hollett on 22nd November, 2010
  • […] describe my key struggles with ‘merican  (in their wonderful ‘merican English month) here.  Posted by Vicki at 7:42 […]

    Posted by Guest posts » Vicki Hollett on 29th July, 2012
  • It’s Irish English rather than American English that has a different pattern of usage for bring and take. The distinction has nothing to do with direction; take means a transfer of possession, whereas bring is used for all other carrying. So Irish people say Bring your coat when you go to school in all cases, rather than Take your coat … from the perspective of the home and Bring your coat … from the perspective of the school.

    This tracks a corresponding semantic distinction in Irish.

    Posted by John Cowan on 22nd August, 2012
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