A Language Divided by an Ocean

Great Britain and America: “Two Countries Separated by a Common Language”
-Oscar Wilde

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).

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 info@lessaccent.com. To share your own “best practices,” please comment below. Communication is key, and we’re all in this together!

British and American English: More than just a difference in accent!

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.

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?