According to an article from BBC News, British English words and phrases are creeping in to American English.
Ben Yagoda, Professor of English at the University of Delaware, has even set up a blog to track them. He’s so far found around 150, from skint to cheers and loo to mate.
According to an associate editor of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, some Britishisms can be linked to the release of the Harry Potter books:
There has also been “a huge up-tick”, says Stamper, in the use of ginger as a way of describing someone with red hair.
She sees this as clearly tied to the publication in the US of the first Harry Potter book. Dozens of words and phrases were changed for the American market, but ginger slipped through, as did snog(meaning “to kiss amorously”) – though that has not proved so popular. (Source: BBC News)
Read the full story in the BBC Magazine, plus a follow up with reader comments.
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There are a lot of similarities between American English and British English. There are also a lot of differences, and these are a lot more fun!
BBC America is helping smooth the linguistic pathway, with its list of “10 Stinging British Insults”, only one of which is reproduced below as the rest are NSFW.
A recent addition to the canon, and a rather grand one. At first, minger simply referred to ugly people. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there’s not a human born who won’t have been called a minger at some point or other, even David Beckham (although probably not very often). However, the word also means disgusting, so yes, you can be David Beckham, you can be admired for your looks from here to way over there, but if you’re eating yesterday’s takeout from the garbage with your fingers, you’re a minger.
To further expand your insult vocabulary, head over to the article at BBC America.
An interesting article in Slate busts the myth that the American accent is becoming homogenized.
They take as an example the changes happening in accents around the Great Lakes – known to linguists as the Northern Cities Shift (NCS). This is seen as perhaps being the biggest change for centuries in English pronunciation.
And when it comes to accents, nothing divides English dialects more efficiently than vowel pronunciation. Consider the three-letter words that begin with b and end in t: bat, bet, bit, bot, and but. All five of those words contain short vowel sounds. Their long-vowel equivalents—bate, beet, bite, boat, boot, and bout—arrived at their modern pronunciations as a result of the Great Vowel Shift that began around 1400 and established the basic contours of today’s English. But those short vowels have remained pretty much constant since the eighth century—in other words, for more than a thousand years. Until now.
Some linguists believe that the NCS began with a simple change to the short a sound. When using words with that sound, speakers in the region began moving their tongues forward and up. This “tensing,” as linguists call it, produces a nasal-like sound that is the hallmark of the NCS dialect. Many speakers tense their short a so much that monosyllabic words like cat nearly take on a second syllable. The a sound begins to resemble the wordyeah or the final two syllables of the word idea. “If that were the end of it,” Labov explains, “it wouldn’t be a problem, but a language is a set of connected items.” And so, he says, all the vowel sounds start to move around in “something like a game of musical chairs.” (Source: Slate)
It’s a fascinating article, I recommend reading the full text.
Whilst visiting the states last month, I discovered there’s a lot of things Americans don’t understand about the British (one being the difference between England, Britain and the UK). But there’s also a lot the British don’t understand about Americans.
BBC America has compiled a list of five American expressions Brits don’t understand. Here are my two favourite, with descriptions:
Oh what? Snap? Snap what? What ARE you on about? And what purpose does this expression serve? Are you saying it to commend a smart-ass for their witty quip, or pat them on the head condescendingly for trying? Is it one of those phrases that started out as a high fiving “oh you got SERVED” and has now ended up meaning an eye-rolling “nice try, Seinfeld”? It’s just that we’d probably be quite good at saying it, if it turned out to be the latter. Eye-rolling is a British specialty, after all.
I only found out about this the other day, but it’s a good one. It seems that our two great nations have different understandings of the same word. Suppose you have friends coming over to stay, and they send a text message when they’re just around the corner, just to be sure you’re ready for them: “Hi! We’ll be there momentarily!” In America, this means “we’ll be there in a moment,” but in the UK, it means “we’ll be there FOR a moment.”
I understand both of these expressions – perhaps my love of American television is to blame? What British expressions do Americans find difficult to interpret?
Back in 1962, Fred Cassidy was named chief editor of an American dialect dictionary project.
He envisioned the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) would be complete by 1976; the first volume was not published until 1985, and covered A to C. The final volume, V, is published in March.
DARE stands alone as the most exhaustive record of regional speech in America, each page bursting with geographically nuanced information about the country’s diverse lexicon. It’s a joy to page through: Where else would you learn that snuff for chewing is called snoose in the Pacific Northwest, and also goes by the name Swedish condition powder?
Though DARE is finally done, with Volume V officially publishing in March, the varied language of Americans marches on. How can DARE avoid becoming a relic? It’s a substantial challenge of capturing something as dynamic as American dialects: No single historical snapshot can really do it justice, especially one trapped on the printed page.
To address these concerns, Harvard University Press is planning an online interactive edition of the dictionary, slated to launch next year. And if Hall has her way, the work of DARE will continue, with a return to the communities that the fieldworkers visited with their Word Wagons. (Source: Boston.com)
DARE is an incredible accomplishment, let’s hope the Harvard University Press project adds to it.
Over at the Economist’s Johnson blog, they’ve been running a highly unscientific but incredibly interesting survey asking British people what Americanisms they use.
Having lived and worked in the States, as well as worked for an American boss in the UK, I can attest to the fact it’s easier to acclimate than hold on to your British pronunciation. My boss took such offence to my use of the word “toilet” (as in “I’m going to the toilet”) that I still use “bathroom” even with my now all-British colleagues.
It seems that Brits living in America are still holding on to some things though, with more using “holiday” than “vacation” and “zed” rather than “zee”. To take a look at some lovely pie charts representing word comparisons, head over to the results blog post.
The differences between American English and British English have always been of interest to me, partly I suppose because I watch so much American television.
One difference that is obvious to those who have been to both countries is the use of ‘main street’ and ‘high street’. Both mean the same thing – they refer to the principal road in a town, but whilst ‘main street’ is American English, ‘high street’ is preferred by British English.
There’s an interesting exploration of the origins of both terms over at Word Origins; here’s a short excerpt from the article:
Both main and high trace back to Old English, but their relevant adjectival uses are somewhat more recent. Main comes from the Old English noun mægn, meaning “physical strength, power,” and it has been used adjectivally to mean “principal, chief” since c. 1400. The Old English adjective heah, “tall, lofty, exalted,” could only signify “principal” when used in compounds; heahburh, for example, means “principal or capital city.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, as a standalone adjective, high developed a sense of “principal” in Middle English, but this sense faded out and ceased to be productive in the seventeenth century, just as streets in the New World were beginning to be named.
My last post wished you all a happy Thanksgiving – I hope everyone has now digested their turkey and is ready to read more about languages!
I’m not straying too far from the holiday however, as a friend sent me a link to this post on the excellent Separated By a Common Language blog, which revels in the differences between British and American English.
The post explores the differences between the American English use of the word dressing versus general-English stuffing, with the author concluding:
Some people make a distinction between stuffing and dressing, with stuffing being what is stuffed into the bird (or whatever) and dressing being the same material, but cooked separately. I’ve been known to make that distinction myself, but I note that the most famous US for a non-stuffed version of this foodstuff is called Stove Top Stuffing. And there are plenty of (North American) people who stuff dressing into turkeys–I suspect that the stuffed-stuffing/non-stuffed-dressing distinction has come about because people found themselves with two words for the same thing and had the natural desire to find a distinction. As Alan Cruse once wrote, “natural languages abhor absolute synonyms just as nature abhors a vacuum”.
The comments on the post are pretty interesting, with plenty of different opinions on the subject. Which do you use?
Earlier this month I posted about a debate in The Economist over whether the English-speaking world should adopt American English.
Some people who commented on the debate pointed out that no single group of people controls the English language – like all languages it is constantly in motion and changing, depending on who uses is and how. In this video, Professor David Crystal explores that notion further, discussing whether control of the English language is shifting away from native British and American speakers. Take a look.
Professor Crystal on English
Following on from my post about the Economist debating whether the English-speaking world should adopt American English, here’s an interesting blog post about some of the differences between American and British English. A sample:
But whenever I open my mouth here, I’m conscious that it’s always a bit of an experiment. People think we speak the same language and they reason I know what I’m saying, but I don’t. The lexical differences are fun, but they’re actually small fry. Learning how to structure my thoughts ’merican-style is the biggest challenge for me.
The different styles of politeness are tricky. Putting it crudely, I come from a culture where politeness is mostly about not getting in anyone’s way, but in the US it’s more about awarding esteem. I have to remember to show approval, warmth and friendliness, and that’s tough for a Brit. If you think about it, the stereotypical Brit is aloof, standoffish and reserved. Our customs dictate we should leave people alone so they can go about their business without us getting in their way. Meanwhile the stereotype of the American is friendly and garrulous – someone who gives you a run-down of their entire life history within five minutes of meeting them. It’s just not polite to hold back, so I’ve had to learn to show more solidarity, share and be open. (Source: Macmillan Dictionary Blog)
I have to agree with the writer here – having spent time in America, and especially in the South, the cultural difference can be hard to adjust to. Whilst it’s nice to meet friendliness wherever you go, it can sometimes leave a Brit wishing for a transaction that doesn’t involve a conversation about where you’re from, what you’re doing there, how wonderful everything is, and ending in “you have a nice day now”.
But then I suppose Americans find the British quite odd and funny too…