Do Americans have an inferiority complex? (Part one)

Posted by on October 18, 2010

Spanish English month continues… In this guest blog we leave Spain for a short while and hop over to the Americas. Author (also of an earlier post) Joseph D. Persico is based in Argentina and teaches spoken English for teachers and translators, as well as EFL courses for adult learners in Buenos Aires.

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Spanish and English were born in Europe, of course. Centuries later the two languages crossed the Atlantic and found a new home. 400+ years after that, many Spanish and English speakers here in the Americas still think they speak an inferior version of their own language! In Argentina people occasionally ask me if I teach British English or American English. My response is that most EFL textbooks are produced by British publishers (which I assume is because, in the recent past, the British empire was so big that the sun never set on it.) Then, while pretending I’m cool with the issue(!),  I explain:

(a) why I like using British books:
Because every now and then I find differences in vocabulary between American and British English that are fun to talk about, and even I (!) can learn some new words. For example, the last British English word I learned was crèche, though my all-time favorite still has to be fortnight—or is that fortknight?

(b) why American English is authentic English, too:
Because there are really only three differences between any two dialects of a language:
(1) pronunciation (but this alone doesn’t distinguish one language from another)
(2) vocabulary (but people can usually just laugh at these)
(3) grammar, which is RARELY a problem. (You might ask why it’s rarely a problem, and the answer is simple: if the grammar of two dialects were very different, the two dialects would be two languages: like Spanish and French, or English and German.)

An interesting aside about grammar differences (which may only be only interesting if you’re an American English speaker): one of the most well-known soccer teams in Argentina (in the world?) is called Club Atlético River Plate. But, I never understood why they called it River Plate until I learned that in British English the name of a river goes before the word river in river names (very confusing, I know):

British English: the River Thames, the River Clyde, the River Plate
American English: the Thames River, the Clyde River, the Plate River

Anyways, I sometimes end my short lesson on dialects by asking the following question of the person who asked me if I teach American or British English: do you really think that your Spanish isn’t real Spanish? It should come as no surpirse to me, but, many times, the answer to that question is “yes”.

Next week…
Part two of my post will explore a convincing and conclusive argument for why American English and American Spanish are the real McCoy.

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Comments (18)
  • I have often wondered why Porteños call their language something other than Spanish. They speak Spanish, with a few local splashes of color thrown in. Spanish is qualified in Spain by calling it “Castillian” but what is “Castellano”? It’s not fundamentally different from Spanish just because they use the “vos” rather than the “tu” nor because they pronounce the “ll” like an airy “j” or an “sh” rather than like a soft “y” as in other Spanish speaking countries. If you speak Spanish ANY where else in the world and then make your way to Argentina you can converse with ease with anyone without changing the “tu” to “vos” so in effect it isn’t another language…

    Posted by annie nunya on 18th October, 2010
  • Great post!
    @Joseph: how do you express “fortnight” in AmE?
    @Annie: I’ll give you my opinion: there’s no such thing as Spanish, it’s a political issue in Spain, because Castillian is the most widespread language of all the languages spoken in that country.

    What we speak in Argentina (not only porteños call it “Castillian”) is the same language, but we simply call it by its original name, which is related to the place where it comes from (Castilla). As far as I know, many people in Spain too call it Castillian. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that in Spanish we also call it “español” because in English the language of Spain is Spanish (which doesn’t take into account all the other languages).

    Posted by Adela on 18th October, 2010
  • Interestint and enlightening article like always… Congrats!!!

    Posted by Martin on 18th October, 2010
  • The english usually refer to the thames river and just the thames, and the clyde river as the clyde..
    There is no set rule, just what sounds better.. Where i use to live there is the west looe river and east looe river.. river east looe or river west looe sounds stupid.. Other examples are Minsmere River, West Glen River and East Glen River.. And as for the river plate.. its because its call rio plate in spanish.. so a direct translation is the river plate.. It has nothing to do with british or american english !!!!!

    Posted by Davo on 18th October, 2010
  • Annie, its called castellano because thats what it is technically. Even in mexico when they’re in high school and studying spanish they are studying El Idioma Castellano. Spanish is the toponym applied to things from Spain, therefore Galician, Basque, and Catalan are all also Spanish languages. In certain parts of spain people might take a lot of offense if you’re speaking Castilian and call it spanish.

    Posted by Philip on 19th October, 2010
  • @Davo: I stand corrected! I didn’t know the Thames was also called the Thames River. Re: River Plate, I wouldn’t automatically chalk it up to a direct translation from the Spanish, though nor can I say if the name comes from the BrE custom of using the word “river” before a river name.

    @Adela: fortnight = two weeks!

    @Annie: you are right, the two names refer to exactly the same language. Look for part 2 next week for a bit more on this!

    Posted by Joseph on 19th October, 2010
  • Actually Davo, in Spanish it’s the Rio Plata , which translates as Silver River. I suspect River Plate just stems from an early translation error.

    Posted by Sharon Creese on 19th October, 2010
  • Actually, Sharon, it’s Río de la Plata.

    Posted by Adela on 19th October, 2010
  • @Davo – it’s true that Brits often refer simply to the Thames or the Clyde, but it’s not true that “the English usually talk about the Thames river”. Joseph’s examples were right – we say the River Thames, the River Clyde, the River Wey etc. The West/East Looe Rivers are an exception. Corpus analysis shows that River Thames is 17 times more frequent than Thames RIver, and that Thames River is usually used as a modifier, eg Thames River Cruises, a Thames river boat, etc.

    Canals behave differently: the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, the Grand Union Canal etc. And if they use the word navigation, as the Wey does along some of its length, it’s the Wey Navigation.

    Posted by Stephen on 19th October, 2010
  • Really, the empire where the sun never rises was the Spanish empire, not the English empire.

    Posted by Foo on 26th October, 2010
  • Even without leaving Spain you can find enormous pronounciation differences between regions (and even languages), I’m from the north of Spain and sometiems I have more trouble understanding southern Spanish pronounciations than understanding some Argentinian and Mexican friends.

    Posted by hombrehorizontal on 26th October, 2010
  • Re: Español being called Castellano.

    The fact that this is an issue is because of Spanish politics (issues of identity, regions, heritage, history). When the Spanish financed their explorations in the Americas the two kings were Castillian speakers, and the language of the Spanish empire was Castellano. In fact, one of the reasons why one of the earliest grammars of Castellano was published was so that the language was standarised across all the Spanish territories. So when the language and its speakers settled in the Americas they spoke Español (the language of the empire), and so to speakers of other non-Spanish languages the people in Nueva España and the other Virreinatos all speak Español.

    The non-Castillian regions of Spain have a strong sense of identity, which obviously encompasses their languages (which for historical reasons did not happen to have been the language of the Spanish empire), but their discomfort when calling Castellano “Español” thus excluding their own Spanish languages is really only relevant in Spain. I know of Spanish speakers who (yes, shockingly) do not even know that languages other than Castillian are spoken in Spain.

    Are Breton speakers irritated when French is not called Parisian? (I don’t know if what we know as French is what was at some point only spoken there) Or Cornish speakers (if there are any left) when English isn’t called Anglo-Saxon cocktail?

    Posted by Ramiro Padilla on 27th October, 2010
  • you said “before” stead “after” in this part

    “I never understood why they called it River Plate until I learned that in British English the name of a river goes before the word river in river names (very confusing, I know):”

    Let me know if I’m wrong or not

    waiting for the second part

    Posted by ivan on 30th October, 2010
  • @IVam: you are right! It should have been “after”!

    Also, the second part is already out. Click on my name at the top of this page and that will take you to a page with the other posts I’ve made.

    @Ramiro P & hombrehorizontal: So, could we say that most Spaniards (except those who live in Cataluña, Galicia, País Vasco etc) call their language “español”?

    Posted by Joseph on 1st November, 2010
  • @Joseph I think they would, but I’ve heard Venezuelans referring to the language as Castellano, so I’m not sure. I know Mexicans call it “español”, though.

    Posted by Ramiro Padilla on 3rd November, 2010
  • @Ramiro: Thanks! At one I had been under the impression the castellano was/is the term of choice for the language in most of South America.

    Posted by Joseph on 4th November, 2010
  • @Foo as a slight correction, twas the British empire the sun never set on. That is because we owned somewhere on all landmasses on earth. North America, Africa and Australasia. Europe being the exception because even though we are often classed as Europeans we are neither part of the European Union or the actual landmass (except Gibraltar). The other nation you could say the same of is the Dutch. We even traded New York with them (they had named it New Amsterdam, but I’m sure you knew that). They also owned parts of Africa and Australia. Not to take anything away from the Spanish of course

    Posted by Ben B on 18th December, 2010
  • Maybe it’s from my decades of living in Germany, but I don’t really think so, that I, an American, call it the River Thames. If it’s a UK river, I use UK conventions; if it’s in the U.S., I use US conventions, which are usually N+River, but there is the River Rouge in Michigan.

    Posted by Kim Dammers on 28th November, 2013
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