Great Britain and America: “Two Countries Separated by a Common Language”
Last month I spoke at the 2012 NATO eLearning Conference where delegates from member nations discussed ‘best practices’ for online learning. My presentation, “Delivering Training to Multinational Audiences” sparked an important question, germane to both online and onsite training: “What do you do when the same word has different meanings depending on what side of the Atlantic you’re on?” For example, the word “boot” in British English describes what Americans would call the trunk of a car, the word “hire” means “to rent” in British English and “to employ” in American English, and while “to luck out” is a wonderful thing in America (where it means to have great luck) it’s an awful thing in Britain (where it means to run out of luck.) To get an appreciation for just how many words and phrases fall into this category (thousands upon thousands), whole books and anthologies have been written on the topic (see Divided by a Common Language: A Guide to British and American English by Davies Christopher and Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions: Making Sense of Transatlantic English, by Orin Hargraves). To test your own cross-border knowledge, try an easy and fun online game that measures how good you are at determining whether someone’s from the U.S. or the U.K. The answer certainly surprised me!
This challenge isn’t limited to just British-to-American discourse or, for that matter, South African-to-American, Irish-to-American, Australian-to-American and, believe it or not, American-to-American communication. Hence, per the latter, the publication of D.A.R.E –the Dictionary of American Regional English, to help those of us living and working in the U.S. who might otherwise be lost in translation. DARE is a multi-volume reference work that documents words, phrases, and pronunciations that vary from one place to another across the United States. It even includes a map of “regionalisms.”
Which leads us back to the original question…With so many people speaking correct, yet significantly different, English, how can we develop courseware so that learning is as easy and effective as possible? We like to recommend using what ARI has coined, “The Hover Solution.” It works like this… Comb through the material and cross reference each word, and especially all idiomatic phrases, to see if there are dialectical or regional differences. When you find them, indicate these words/phrases by either bolding or underlining them. Then allow the learner to hover over the marked word with his/her cursor until the “translation” appears on the screen. It’s an easy fix to a problem that causes communication disconnects day in and day out, all around the globe.
To learn more about creating instructional material for a diverse workforce, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. To share your own “best practices,” please comment below. Communication is key, and we’re all in this together!
How many times have you heard that the British accent is “the real” accent? If we define ‘real’ as being first then, yes, the British accent is the real deal. However, let’s consider that the way American English is spoken today is actually much closer to the way it was pronounced long before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. That being the case, in strictly phonetic terms, the American accent may just be the ‘real’ English accent!
It all has to do with what we linguists call the “rhotic r”. American speakers of English pronounce the “r” at the end of a word, as in the word ‘doctor’. British speakers don’t. (It will sound more like ‘doctuh.’)
Until the early 1700′s, most English speakers referred to a person who practiced medicine as a doctor. Sometime thereafter, due to the changing socio-economic climate of southeastern England, the aristocracy made a concerted effort to change their speech pattern. They wanted to differentiate themselves from the lower classes. What did they do? They dropped their ‘r’s.
I’m not one to argue for right or wrong accents. In my book, an accent equals articulation which equals a speech pattern which equals an accent. So who has an accent? We all do!
At ARI, we provide American accent training not because it’s the real accent, but because it most closely corresponds to the way it’s most widely spoken today (in the US). The goal of American pronunciation training is not that we all include a ‘rhotic r’ each and every time, and certainly not that we all sound the same. Our goal is a simple one: eliminate language barriers by building bridges of communication.
Even though the words accent and dialect are often used interchangeably, they actually mean two different things. An accent refers to pronunciation. A dialect refers to pronunciation and vocabulary, grammar, and idiomatic phrases. Think of it this way, the Midwestern preference for the vowel sound ‘a’ as in ‘bad’, the New York City penchant to change the ‘er’ sound to ‘oi’ (as in Murphy to Moify), and the West Virginian fondness for dropping the ‘i’ sound in Ryan, so that it sounds like Ron, are all examples of regional accents.
Dialect, on the other hand, refers to the Midwestern word ‘pop’ as a kind of soft-drink, the New York ‘soda’ for its counterpart, and the Southern ‘coke’ for its equivalent… regardless if the said ‘coke’ is Sprite, 7-Up, or Pepsi. (View a map of this phenomena)
In addition to regions within the US, there are many words that are quite different between the English spoken on either side of the Atlantic. Why is this? One reason is that the newcomers to the Americas had to literally invent words to describe their new surroundings. One way they did this was to take two known English words and combine them to create a new word. Examples include ‘sagebrush’ and ‘rattlesnake’, typical enough to frontiersmen and women but not your everyday motif in Lancashire. Another way to expand the region’s repertoire of words was to ‘borrow’ them from speakers native to the area, like the words ‘canoe’ and ‘tobacco’. Eventually these words made it into the mainstream of ‘Americanisms’.
It’s estimated there are over 4,500 words used in American English that either don’t “exist” in British English or are used in an altogether different sense. The word ‘crib’, for example, is uniquely American; the word ‘cot’ is the British equivalent.
This begs the question… with different accents, and thousands of different words, are British and American English the same language or are they really two distinct dialects?