May 1, 2013

Differences in English

By Jill Burgoyne

My Bachelor's degree is in Linguistics (Okay, well officially its English with a Linguistics Concentration, but it's Linguistics). I LOVE my degree. I loved going to school for it and I have always had an insane fascination with language.

Recently, I have been pondering language and specifically British English vs American English. I'm going to jump to some generalizations here, and I hope not to offend anyone. By drawing on some personal experience and also how the British Accent is perceived. Now: it is important to note that there is more than just one British accent. In London alone, there are several different accents (Wikipedia specifies three different accents). But it didn't mention one we talked about in class that we referred to as the Queen's English or RP (Received Pronunciation). This one is what we typically think of when we think about a British accent.

My husband and I spent some time in Europe before our babies were born. (We had a honeymoon baby, so I was in my second trimester when we were in Europe) and we had some funny experiences with our American accent. :)

One in particular was when we were spending a day at the beach (Brighton?) with the family that we were staying with and I was rolling up my pants to play in the waves. A little bit later, I commented on how my pants had gotten a little wet. The mother paused and asked for me to repeat. "My pants got a little wet," I replied. To which several in the family began to laugh. Apparently I said my underwear was wet and it made them laugh.  Another instance, we were at a little cafe, this was in Northern Ireland, and we asked for the check... which is NOT equivalent to a bill... here you can say either check OR bill when you want to pay for a meal, but in Ireland... the waitress began laughing at us and told us she most CERTAINLY would NOT. She knew it was a vocabulary difference between the two dialects, but everyone made sure to laugh at us. We laughed too, but we didn't think it was worth as many laughs as they gave. (I think they laughed nearly 10 minutes).

When there is a British Accent in an American movie, it either means its the eccentric bad guy, the royal, or the hot guy. If its a girl, its usually the proper or snobbish girl, not usually the girl that wins the guy. Usually. I can think of a exceptions, but the point I'm making is that the accent plays into stereotypes that we have already established in society. The accent cues our minds tho think differently than we would have if the character spoke with an American accent.

Have you noticed the spelling differences between British English and American English? Words like : honour vs honor or saviour vs savior. Or organise vs organize? We can thank Webster for that. Noah Webster, that is, he consciously wrote the differences into his dictionary. I'm not kidding either. And personally, I think it was one of the best ways for us to set ourselves apart as a different sovereign. Changing the language. We don't have the same qualms with Britain now that we did in the 1700s, but the language differences have survived; for better or worse.


  1. That was really interesting! I love looking at different languages and in fact this last semester I spent a good deal of time thinking about the language differences because of Shakespeare. I don't know where I heard this (and maybe my source was wrong) but I heard that British people talk the way they do because it was how the Royalty talked so it was popular and everyone else decided to start talking that way to make it seem like they were higher in society than they really were. I love the differences between our languages, because it set us apart and because it's kind of funny hearing them talk haha Thanks for the lesson in linguistics, Jill!


  2. Great post Jill! My son is a linguistics major. I have a good friend who is a British citizen, but was born in Pakistan. Her accent is quite unique. Her husband is thoroughly British and has a great timbre to his voice as well. A lot of her friends comment on how "dreamy" her husband sounds and how they love to listen to him speak.


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