When you consider the differences between the United States and Britain, it’s not hard to conclude that they are, ultimately, much the same. While there is 3,000 or so miles separating these tiny Isles in Northern Europe from the vast continent of the North Americas physically, it’s merely a drop in the ocean in most ways.
Culturally, you can make a compelling case that we Brits and our colonial cousins are at best, “a little bit different”. They drive on the right, we drive on the left. They take their cars EVERYWHERE (I mean everywhere), while we moan about public transport. We take tea seriously; they prefer it cold and with corn syrup.
“It’s not as if you speak a different language either, is it…” Well…
Back in 2008 I was busy readying myself for a year studying in the US. The last thing on my mind was a language barrier. The concerns I had were amusing and featured quite low on the fear factor scale: Is my humour too dry? Will they really ask if I know the Queen? Do I have to say ‘You’re welcome’ and mean it? It was a long flight and so I toyed with an affected American accent, just for kicks.
While linguistic challenges where not on my agenda, in a New York minute, it soon became clear that they were to feature quite prominently indeed. Here is some of what I learnt during my experience living in the home of the brave.
SO CLOSE AND YET SO FAR.
Most of us know the common precepts which distinguish British and American English. Americans drop the ‘u’ from colour, replace the “s” with “z” in the nouns such as globalised, localised and so on. Nevertheless, I failed to adapt my word processor before writing my first stateside assignment. Returning my work, the prof. littered the margins with “This is in British English”. My retort, “It’s not my fault your ancestors forgot their dictionaries on the voyage” fell flat [Ed. Really? I am surprised :D].
AMERICANS – THEY’RE DIRECT.
Understanding communication styles across languages and cultures is important for a lot of people in the globalised modern world. From day to day interaction to business etiquette, what you say and how you say it can be vital. Here in the UK, we’re experts at indirectness and diplomacy when it comes to using our language. “Beating around the bush” is our middle name. Americans on the other hand say what they mean and mean what they say. “I don’t suppose” “I’m afraid” and “Would it be possible” are about as common as roundabouts in America.
¿HABLAS ESPAÑOL ?
Did you know that in some parts of the States, English is a minority language? Yes, in fact, the fastest growing language in the USA is Spanish. Currently 37 MILLION Americans speak it as their primary language, and the Latino population also happens to be the fastest growing demographic. I had some insight of this pre travel, but it really hit home when I was on holiday (vacation) in Florida. I tried to get a taxi (cab) from Miami airport. Upon entering the taxi, to my surprise, I found myself having to muster my vast knowledge of Spanish (AHEM) because the taxi driver spoke no English, whatsoever.
SOMEONE ONCE SAID…
“England and America are two countries separated by a common language”. This quote’s an oldie but remains a relevant observation today. American English (AmE) is FILLED with words and phrases that sound utterly alien to untrained ears.
To illustrate, I will sign off by localising a couple of commonly used Americanisms into British English (BrE).
“MY BAD” – Slang term – Casual admittance of mistake. Means; “OH, I’M SORRY”.
“GOING FORWARD” – Origins: American/ Corporate. Means; “IN THE FUTURE”.
“I COULD CARE LESS” – Idiom – Off shoot from the originally British; “I COULDN’T CARE LESS “– Adapted. Possibly to avoid the double negatives.
On my return to the UK I had to unlearn these rules, but what is in store for all of us? Will English truly become the lingua franca of the world? Will British English become a minority pursuit for Anglophiles? Based on my experience, I predict in 100 years, English will have evolved quite dramatically. English would have long been Americanised, punctuated with Spanish and internet vocab. Who knows, maybe even Chinese would have entered the mix, especially in Business.
Have a nice day now.