TeachingEnglish
AMERICAN VERSUS STANDARD BRITISH ENGLISH:

AMERICAN VERSUS BRITISH ENGLISH: WHY TRANSLATORS NEED TO KNOW THE DIFFERENCE

Edited by Marc Chen from the content by Josephine Bacon

The following content mostly by Josephine Bacon expresses the same view as mine and I would like to use it to open a discussion on the idea that Standard English is indeed a standard. Whereas American English is abnormal. Abnormal, in this definition meaning 'anything which does not conform to the rule or standard or to what is acceptable.
For too long now the British have allowed standards of English to fall and accommodated various forms of colloquial and colonial English. If grammar can be viewed as a a measure, then why not use it and set the standard in concrete.
Most native English-speakers are aware of George Bernard Shaw's dictum that the British and the Americans are: “two nations divided by a single language”. Most non-native English-speakers, however, remain ignorant of the fundamental differences between the ways in which the British and the Americans express themselves and this can be of vital importance to a translator.

AWARENESS OF THE DIFFERENCE

The British are far more aware of the difference than their American counterparts thanks to the influence of the movies, and the arrival of the GIs during World War II. When the first American talkies were shown in Great Britain, they had to be subtitled because the British had never heard an American accent and could not understand the dialogue! Even today, I am asked in the United States about my accent. My reply is always, ‘No, I don’t have an accent, you have an accent’. [Standard Received Pronunciation, as all British people know, has no accent.]

The problem is not confined to dialogue and dialect speech, what we translators call the ‘familiar register’. For legal translators, the most fundamental difference is in the date. Throughout the English-speaking world (don’t forget there are far more speakers of British and British-based English in the former colonies and dominions, for instance, than there are of American English), the date is written dd/mm/yyyy. But not in the U.S., oh no, they have to be different. In the U.S. the date is written mm/dd/yyyy. Except in what the Americans refer to as ‘the military’ and what we in the UK call ‘the forces’. And not just there. When I first went to the United States in the 1970s, the immigration forms required that you to write the date the universal way, but the customs forms required that you to write it the American way. How confusing is that? Can you imagine the sort of hassles? I know American attorneys who employed translators from outside the U.S. to translate their documents and who had to go into court and take the oath in the witness box to convince the judge that their client was not lying about his birthdate, the translator had gotten (gotten is an Americanism, by the way) it the wrong way round! Another confusion in legal circles arises from the word continued. To continue a case in British English means for it to carry on; to continue a case in American English means to postpone it. To table a motion or proposal in British English means to deal with it right away. The same expression in American English means to shelve it.

A BRIEF SURVEY OF STYLISTIC DIFFERENCES: AMERICAN VERSUS BRITISH ENGLISH

The above are just a few of the confusions that can arise. Some translators and editors think that a text can be converted from one form of English to the other merely by running it through the correct spellchecker. Changing the spelling is only the beginning, however. Firstly, there are questions of style. In British English, words like "can't," "don't," etc. are not used in publicity material. Americans are more verbose, use more adjectives and more hyperbole, and they love long words. They will always write "utilize" when "use" would do perfectly well, and we are all familiar with the dreadful – ‘at this time’, when it would be even better to say ‘now’. Of course, this is also a sort of euphemism, as in ‘we can’t make use of your services at this time’, which sounds much better than ‘you’re fired!’.

Major differences in vocabulary occur in areas in which the two cultures have diverged. These include law, construction and architecture, transport, food and cookery and the home. Examples include "shake" - American (for roof tiles -British), "fieldstone" - American (believe it or not, we British call it "crazy paving"), "burlap" - American (Hessian - British), "diaper" - American (nappy - British ), "shade" - American (blind - British), "dust ruffle" - American (valance - British ), "valance" - American (pelmet - British), "baseboard" - American (skirting board - British ).

Banking and finance are other areas in which the two languages diverge. A "routing code" in American banking is a "sort code" in British banking. In accountancy, "private ledger" in America is "bought ledger" in the UK.
If all this is confusing, here is some input from my fellow director at American Pie, Dan Henderson, a Texan by birth, in order to ensure that you are confused further:
"Nobody would think twice in America about naming a child Randolph Pratt ('Randy' as you can find out by looking in any British dictionary, means 'horny' and a 'Prat' is one of many words meaning twerp, plonker, berk, etc. for an idiot). The chain of equipment rental stores called B.U.M Equipment always raises a laugh among Brits, as did the name of the coach of the New Orleans Saints, Bum Philips. Although a bum is a derelict in the U.S., in the UK it is a ‘bottom’, 'butt' or 'rear end'! Americans might consider 'spotted dick' to be a symptom of a social disease (a euphemism the Brits would not recognize, by the way). It is actually a dessert in the UK. American 'chicks' are 'birds' in the UK (both expressions are somewhat antiquated, meaning young woman). Americans park on a ‘driveway’ and drive on a ‘parkway’ and for us in the UK, a ‘jumbo shrimp’ is a contradiction in terms as ‘jumbo’ means big and ‘shrimp’ is a small prawn. When Americans send something somewhere by automobile or truck they call it ‘shipping’, but put it on a ship and it becomes ‘cargo’. In the U.S., 'slim chance' and 'fat chance' mean the same thing, and they tend to say they ‘could care less’ when what they mean is that they ‘couldn’t care less’.

TYPOGRAPHY

American typography differs from British, a good typographer can immediately spot if a book was printed in the United States, because of the choice of typefaces. There are differences in the punctuation that are immediately evident, such as the en dash without spaces used for a dash, whereas the British use an en dash with spaces. Modern American English abhors colons and uses them rarely. The British are not nearly as fond of colons as are the Germans, French and Italians, incidentally. The semi-colon is also a punctuation device that is rarer in American than British English.
All of these changes in punctuation, and many changes in speech, have crept in during the twentieth century, the writings of such classical American authors as Mark Twain would have been typographically identical to those of their British contemporaries. The same is not true of the language. An excellent article in the ATA [American Teacher’s Association] Chronicle highlights some of the differences in legal language.

I look forward to and appreciate any comments.

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Comments

Nicola Robinsonova's picture
Nicola Robinsonova

In my opinion, anyone who believes that they don't have an accent is somewhat unaware of the world outside their own social circle.

Most Brits understand most US English - however sometimes the confusion is delightful - recently when our Canadian friends said that the neighbour had been really pissed when we had visitors.

The thing with language is that it evolves - especially with more informal words. They date quickly - so slang today is slung tomorrow.

wellencinas24's picture
wellencinas24

In my point of view as a foreign person living in The UK, Everyone has an accent. We cannot forget that the US was inhabited by british people in the past and it changed like all other countries in the world. If you check diferences between Brazil and Portugal, you'll have the same problem than US and UK. Sometimes they cannot understand their accent when they are talking to each other and they  have the same words which meanings are different.The point is: British people are conservative and American people thing they are the best people arround the world. They can understand each other but they sometimes fake they don't understand each other. We can see differents accents in the same country, everywhere.

It is impossible to control CUTURES. The US is an independent country now and of course they are different.

They must respect each other. Language is built by people from their own country and each one has their own thoughts.

dnorb888's picture
dnorb888

[quote=wellencinas24] American people thing they are the best people arround the world. [/quote] Please explain how Americans think they are the best "arround the world"?   I'm not American,  but this ignorant viewpoint perpetuates stereotypes that are simply not true.  I've meet some Americans that think they are great but I've also meet some that are humble...just like people I've meet from Canada, Japan,  Mexico, England, ect.   And I'm sure that goes for your country as well. ,I'm assuming you've formulated these "ideas" due to a simple lack of life experience.  I encourage you not to walk around with these ideas in your head.. not have a prejudice of what people are/ are not like will open you up to many more experiences that you would otherwise not have. Good luck and good day.

 

curiosityist's picture
curiosityist

 It is unfortunate that many Americans have a "we are the best in the world" attitude, but that is not completely limited to Americans, by any means. I am an American and unabashed Anglophile/'Celtophile'. The stereotype that the Americans are the loud people easily recognized on the Underground trains and the haughtiest of tourists was perpetuated by the ones that, unfortunatly, do act this way. It makes me cringe with embarrassment by association.  Thankfully, there are plenty of acceptions.  I am a quiet reader on the tube about London, just as I am on public transit in my own city. I blended in rather well (at least when I wasn't talking!) There is a similar stereotype believed by many Americans (especially those who have never traveled to Great Britain) that British people are all overly proper and unfriendly. I have personally found this to be most untrue. Well-mannered often, yes, but not unfriendly, not to me. I like to think that we are all citizens of the world and the lines blur more and more with technology and the communication level that allows, everchanging and expanding. Thank goodness, cultural differences do remain to delight our curiosiites and offer variety.When I was a small child involved with reading Lewis Carroll's Alice books, Frances Hodgson Burnett stories, Williams' The Velveteen Rabbit and watching films like International Velvet, I used to imagine some grave error had taken place that caused me to be brought up in America with the wrong family, when actually, I was English. I was almost certain that I was. I never left the United States in my younger life, but as a now mature student, post-marriage and with older children, I have studied abroad in London twice, the first time in 2009 and again in 2011. I was not at all disappointed with the place I'd imaginged so much about.  I found that city and its people welcoming, refreshingly open-minded, wonderfully cuturally British, and yet cosmopolitan. As to blending in, I was once asked for directions to local places twice in the same day by English citizens when walking around in Covent Garden.  I received kind looks of surprise when I humbly was able to supply the requested directions in my West Coast American accent.  I explained that I only happened to have knowledge of these locations as I'd very recently passed them on my own walks! I was left with the dearest wishes from those people.  I will always treasure that memory. It gave me a real feeling of world citizenship and made me realize how priviledged I was to be a guest and student in that lovely capital city. But London is different to any other place, even within the United Kingdom.  I hope to return again and see much more of the place and also the Republic of Ireland.

curiosityist's picture
curiosityist

[quote=Nicola Robinsonova]In my opinion, anyone who believes that they don't have an accent is somewhat unaware of the world outside their own social circle. Most Brits understand most US English - however sometimes the confusion is delightful - recently when our Canadian friends said that the neighbour had been really pissed when we had visitors. The thing with language is that it evolves - especially with more informal words. They date quickly - so slang today is slung tomorrow.[/quote]I agree.  And yes, I find that sort of thing entertaining! (re: angry/drunk.)  Of course, "pants" is always a favorite/favourite!  Everyone does have an accent. They can be natural, learned, or aspired to and invented. Spellings have evolved throughout the history of English long before the colonies; I see no reason why it should not be expected to continue beyond British borders?  I find the differences in my American English (I like to refer to it as 'Yanklish' to my lovely British friends) and British English most delightful.  I prefer British spellings, too, as they are "prettier" to my eye.  However, as a student of sociolinguistics (taught from a British text, The Cambridge Encyclopædia of the English Language by David Crystal) I have learned/learnt that many American spellings are truer to original Englaish than are the modern English spellings (e.g., those pretty 'U's that make 'color'  a lovelier 'colour' and 'favor' appear more 'favour'-able, are the result of the Norman invasion and French language influences on English.  As to the dates issue, that is more about problems with beaurocracy than with language. I do not know why America writes this differently, and I do feel the European method makes much more sense (smalleset increment [day] >medium-sized increment [month] > largest increment [year]) whereas the US format follows no logical sense of order. Nonetheless, if a date contains the exact correct numbers such that when they are rearranged into the other system it comes out as the person's exact and true birthdate, then it is extremely likely that was the date intended and constitutes no good reason to stall or dismiss a case! (Which lawyers will often find any means to do; but as previously stated, that is another topic and matter, eintirely. ^_~)As to the author's reference to not having an accent because of speaking in RP English, as if that is the standard that all other manner of English accents from all regions branched away from (and the American accent supposedly has done, as well) my kindest apologies for this, but that is rubbish!  RP English is a social construct and one that is relatively recent.  When we see royals such as Queen Elizabeth I portrayed in films by the likes of (the wonderful) Miranda Richardson, Judi Dench and others, speaking in RP English, this is most inaccurate.  The real Queen Elizabeth would have spoken/spoke in a distinghishable country accent common to her region at that period that would not resemble the RP accent of today.  (I learned this as an American student of British Literature when studying at a British university in London in 2009.) As for Queen Victoria, as she grew up speaking German, English was not even her first language (though her journals reflect she mastered it well.)  As to the perfect RP accent we hear from actresses portraying Queen Victoria, again, this is a due to a socially-taught modern day mindset that if one is/was highborn, they must/would speak in an RP accent!  If one can recall hearing audio from radio announcers of the 1930s and 1940s and also the way actors speak in American films from that era, you will hear the so-called "transatlantic accent" that was taught to performers and braodcasters of that time as the standad pronunciation, an American "RP" accent, if you will, and also a social construct, as these were the only people in America who actually spoke this way! (Well, they and those wishing to immitate them.)  I am an unabashed Anglophile/'Celtophile'. It rather makes me sad when British spellings, words, and phrasings (that sometimes inadvertantly and delightfully creep into my daily usage after having studied 2 terms in England) get underlined in red by my word processor set to American English. I sometimes feel I should not have to change them, as this definitely IS English.  The fact remains, though, that failing to use "have gotten" instead of "have got" would get me marked down for incorrect grammar usage in my country. The past practice of colonization (or practise of colonisation, rather) have made Englsih a language of many dialects.  I do not see this as a bad thing.  I see it as a delighful, varietal spice of linguistic life.

bellisimoproducts's picture
bellisimoproducts

It is obvious that all language evolves and changes over many thousands of years. just go to your local church in the uk and see Also spelt Alfo for instance.However i do feel that english people need to seriously dedide what direction the english language should take, after all many globally are trying to learn and make this the global communicated language, if that is the case can you see anyone even in UK being able to memorise the concise english dictionary. of course not generally speaking we could only manage to memorise about half at best, so does it not make sense that we should eliminate some of the less used words that make out language so complex.A good example is the word group, this is a good word but why then must we have a troop of ants, a herd of cattle and so on surely its just a group by any other name, are we seriously asking "MR. Gupta of Bangladesh" to memorize this to? As educated people we should try to weed out the unnecessary words to make a "UNIVERSAL GLOBAL LANGUAGE" that all can accept.Also in some ways i appreciate the simplification of spelling to. Why can we not spell Elephant with an F seems to me ph really makes not sense at all. We have so many silent letters in out words that it seems incredibly stupid to continue this trend in the age of texting.If you think English should stand still forget it, the world needs to embrace change and move forward BUT it should try to move forward in a logical and more inclusive fashion.Therefore color become color, yes i am for it. so how can we embrass this thinking.I think the obvious way to go is to create a dictionary that only uses words that allow for "Mr. Gupta of Bangladesh" to be able to speak english without having to memorise a million words so give him a dictionary that has not troop of ants, no herd of cattle because although the majority of english speaking may know this its going to take many lifetimes and reincarnations for Gupta to get it and i feel that we need to encourage the simplicity of english, one word one meaning dictionary not a hundred words for Big or Small (gigantic, massive, huge, enourmous and little, petite etc) lets just give them one to learn, if they want to learn the rest fine but lets get a NEW STANDARD UNIFIED  ENGLISH and calle this the NEW STANDARD UNIFIED  ENGLISH that the world can commincate with.Many words are somewhat unnecessary in english, these have no translation in othe languages but still the foreigners can communicate the idea of these words in other ways, i discovered this in China as they have no words for Barb but still among themselves seem to be able to understand the meaning of this word, not sure how and seriously would be good to investigate.I pity anyone trying to learn english, not only have you got to contend with the fact that across UK there are 37 ways  of saying the word THE (going up "tup" hill for instance) but also they have to contend with accents and the fact we have to many words for the same thing, are we English so overly proud of our language that we cannot improve to make it easier for outsiders to learn, if you do not then you can all expect them to be speaking American tomorrow as they prefer to learn from movies anyway and most have Microsoft spell check in American.I am keen to see English expand as it has, but also keen to see a more unified version of english that is common globally, i do not want to go to China and here SEE YA instead of GOODBYE when they say this i say you have learnt American well but not English.Part of the issue here is that many english people have still not travelled and seen how the students struggle to pronounce our words and work so hard to learn a language that has originated from so many other languages creating this overly complex language that could be so easily rectified.Please UK universities (cambridge and oxford especially)  take pity on the poor little kids of China and India etc that already studying so hard with other things and you still want them to learn this overly complex language. SHAME ON YOU I SAY! Its pure elitism and selfishness.These Universities are being selfish and heartless in there determination to make everyone speak "their language".  I have travelled the world and seen how hard the books are for foreigners to study our language, seriously they expect too much. Chinese parents are grilling their kids to learn English but these poor kids are being asked to much are we really that selfish we cannot make it easier for them?IF WE DO THIS SURELY WE WIN TO? As we will have atleast another billion people speaking english sooner, this will help with global travel and communication issues in so many areas of trade, if we improve trade we and keep our language simple so that others want to come to UK to learn here it is good for economy to, why let them go to US to learn American when they can come to UK and learn the NEW STANDARD ENGLISH and become more compitent more quickly.This for me seems like a win/win.We need to take the first steps to a UNIFIED SIMPLE ENGLISH that can be embrassed by third world and emerging power China, by doing this we will elimanate (or partly embrase) the American Englsih.Lets face American Engliish is not the only one global version of English there is also Australian and Singapore etc, none of these local languages should be allowed to florish its is not good for them or for us. We all need to work towards one common language, the truth is we have a overly complex language if we can simplfy this then we can bring people to us and embrase our language AND our culture again. Maybe Prince Charles could embrase it and instead of saying "Jolly good idea, what!".He could just say, "ITS A vERY GOOD IDEA".