Language is a funny thing

Language is a powerful tool used in all the world. Evidence of language spans back centuries. While Manderain Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world, English is close behind with the Spanish language. As an American English speaker, I feel blessed to have a tool that allows me to communicate with nearly one billion people in the world. As I travel, I am able to get around in nearly all the developed countries regardless of their offical national language.

Over the past month I have personally observed the differences between the British and American English. While observing language variations, more questions arise than answers: Where did these changes come about? Is one right? Is one wrong? How has language evolved?

I have purposefully sought out answers as well as differences during my time in the United Kingdom. I am not the only one that has these questions and biases about language.

For example, last night a Northern Irish gentleman, Bryan, told me that it is absolutely ridiculous that we spell color without a “u,” while I think it is ridiculous they spell it with a “u.” The British also spell other words differently: color as colour, tire as tyre, fiber as fibre and theater as theatre.

The American English made these changes. Some theorists say that it was in the hands of one man, Noah Webster. When Webster published Webster’s Dictionary, he thought it was important to distance America from the British English and thus the spelling changes arrived. He later wrote An American Dictionary of the English Langauge, which further influences how America speaks today.

The differences stretch far beyond spelling. Even punctuation differences exist. In England they use single quotations marks for quotes in text, while in America we use double. This is not a vocabulary difference, but still an important difference to note.

This week I visited a friends’ sister and her newborn baby. As we spoke, I realized that simple things such as a pacifier, baby toys and medicine have different names. She said he needed a nappy, which I thought was a cute way to say he needed a nap or rest. It would have been really funny had I said, “I needed nappy, too,” because a nappy is a diaper. This reminded me of a Bill Bryson story I once read. Bryson, an American, lived in the UK for two decades before moving his English wife and children to America. There he discovered that his native tongue wasn’t so native. While working on his home, he ran off to the hardware store where he needed to pick up a few things. Bryson thought this would be an easy stop in and go. Little did he know that the British English had influenced him more than he imagined. While he struggled to think of what items were called in British English, the American store worker were left clueless on how to help him. “What do you call the thing that hangs the picture? We call it a bobble, I think?” Bryson couldn’t remember what the nick knacks were really called in England, let alone American English. It is funny how one language can vary so much.

For example, when talking about names, the English say someone is “called” Bob; whereas, in America, we say someone is “named” Bob. While I call my friend named Bob on the phone, the English ring their mate Bob. One question that remains answered is who decided to call someone rather than ring him or her. Who named sweatpants “sweatpants”? This is one concept that translates horribly into the British English language. Sweat is still sweat in English but pants are underwear. You get the picture. Translation can often times be difficult between a Brit and an American.

Word pronunciation is an evident difference between British English and American English, and dialects affect pronunciation immensely. Even here in England there are five or six names for what I call a “bread roll.” It can be called a Bap, Roll.  Hannah, born in Nottingham, which is considered the Midlands, now lives in Manchester and finds the dialects completely different. According to Hannah, in Manchester they call a bread roll a muffin. A muffin to Hannah is a pastry. While living in Manchester, she has to translate constantly; even the accents are completely different. A Manchester accent pronounces Mom like Mam, which often can be confused with ma’am. Yet most of the UK pronouns Mom as Mum. Pronunciation differences are typically the most noticeable. Words like garage, car, and schedule.

I spoke with a woman from Lancaster and her daughter on the train this morning about language. She mentioned one of Bill Bryson’s books on language, which is quite a coincidence because I had just written about Bryson’s experience at the hardware store. The woman had said that some American English stems from Old England. For example, the word trash is actually old English, yet here in England have steered away from Old English. The mother said that most Brits believe that Americans have taken most their words, but in this case, it is the Brits that have abandoned their Old English by calling trash litter or rubbish.

Through my experience, language differences are rarely negative. The differences typically trigger a conversation of vocabulary and language. The language differences have triggered many laughs and even more confusion. For me, it always is an opportunity to learn something more about a culture rather it be Britain’s or even my own.

My Vocabulary List – American to British:

Bangs- fringe

Trunk of a car – boot

Hood of a car – bonnet

Windshield – window screen

Stove top – hob

Pants – trousers

Underwear – pants or knickers

Sweatshirt – jumper

Sweatpants – track bottoms

Friends – mates

Purse- bag

Woman’s wallet – purse

Bobble – hair tie

Bobby pin – hair grip

Movie- cinema

Duffle bag – overnight bag

Trash – litter/rubbish

Trash can –litter bin/rubbish bin

Making out- pulling

Landry mat – launderette

Lorry – truck

Lift- elevator

Bathroom – toilet / loo

Planner – diary

Soccer – football

Cookie – biscuit

Vacation – holiday

Gas (gasoline) – petrol

Gas station – petrol station/filling station

Vacuum – hoover (verb and adjective)

Highway- motorway

Pudding – desert

Line (as in to stand in line) – queue

Living room – lounge

Flashlight – torch

Cigarette – fag

Slang or abbreviations:

University – Uni

Cardigan – cardi

Television – tele

Hoodlum – Ned (Scotland)

White trash – Chav