Why don’t Americans understand British English?


This post is SOOOOO not going to go down well. Tracy and Katy are having a conversation about American and British English. Before I begin, I know that I am jumping rather savagely into the fray on this one, that I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone, and that I am responding in a fashion that is full of generalisations. If I seem to go over the top, bear in mind that I am talking more about a cultural phenomenon than about arguments with individuals, and also bear in mind that I have just as many (if not more) issues with the cultural attitudes of Britain.

TRACY: I think the English are very nice, but when I was teaching English in schools run by British expats, I wasn’t too fond of them. They used to laugh at the Americans and tell us our accents made them sick to their stomachs. I wasn’t allowed to teach “American” English. I had to tell my students that their tennis shoes were called “trainers” and their underwear were called “pants.” Then when I went out for drinks with them after class I would say, “Forget that British nonsense, this is how you should really say it.” Because isn’t it true that most foreigners (and these were businesspeople I was teaching) are going to be doing more business with Americans than with British?

KATY: That said, I’d just like to reassure Tracy that we’re not all like that. Boorish expats really aren’t representative of us all – thank goodness! If it’s any consolation, I’d like to say that when I was living in the States, I always said sneaker, cellphone, baked potato, zucchini and gas. Verily, Tracy spaketh the truth – I wouldn’t have got very far talking about trainers, courgettes or petrol. Though I must confess, I still couldn’t bring myself to call trousers ‘pants’, and women’s underwear ‘panties’. You can take the girl out of England but you can’t take England out of the girl I guess…

Now excuse me, but I really think that Tracy needs to be taken to task a little here. I mean I don’t want to come over all Riothero-ish, but really! I mean really! Before I begin, I should make it clear that I do not in any way condone telling people that their accents make them “sick to their stomachs”. And I don’t want to go into details about how if it were a school run by people speaking British English then it makes sense not to confuse your students with two sets of vocabulary for everyday things (although it makes much more sense to teach one branch of the language [whichever one] and then supplement that with a separate class on local variations in Australia, England, US, English-speaking parts of the Far East etc). Nor am I going to talk about how the attitude that you should tell your students to “Forget that British nonsense, this is how you should really say it.” is just as bloody dodgy as the stomach comment. No – I am going to leave all that beside and concentrate on an old bugbear of mine.

In the UK, everyone can understand pretty much everything that an American can come out with. Every accent has been heard on television, or in the cinema or met in person. Similarly, the English can understand pretty much everything that Australians, South Africans and New Zealanders say. Australasians in their turn can understand pretty much everything that people say in the UK and the US. The idiom might seem strange but it is still comprehensible. So why is it that Americans have so much trouble? And what height of arrogance is it to assume that people learn English to speak only to Americans?

The fact is that America has become culturally dominant through the media across the world. The American Dream has been packaged and repackaged and circulated through the world and the world has eagerly bought it up. In the process, the world has become familiar with the US of A. But also in the process, America has become more insular and inward looking – unwilling (on the whole) to import entertainment products (except redubbed and repackaged cartoons) from the rest of the world. And as the news companies (TV and print) compete for market share, they have become gradually more and more caught up in the idea that Americans want to hear about America – that everything important happens there first.

But this insularity does not mean that the rest of the world has to adapt to service [the] US (Borg joke). Our biological and technological distinctiveness will NOT be added to their own. Frankly, Americans understanding or not understanding British English is a matter for the US education system. it is not our responsibility to make it palatable to North Americans. I’m sure the French or the Japanese would feel the same way if it was suggested they should simplify their language for the purposes of tourists – why should the UK be any different?

In Scandinavia at the moment, mobile phone technology and information technology is integrated into the structure of the world like nowhere else. People are already doing all the things that are still being promised in the US, in the UK and the rest of Europe, and in the rest of the world. And the world takes notice. But I heard of a meeting in the last six months where a US company started talking to a business in the UK talking about the magical times of the future when all these things would be possible – a magical time that THEY were helping to bring about. The patient UK CEO listened carefully and then told him about the Scandinavian projects. The US company hadn’t even heard of them, but they didn’t care! They simply didn’t believe that a system that was not invented in the US could catch on.

I don’t have a problem with American English, nor do I have a problem with the gradual homogenisation of language that is inevitably going to occur as international boundaries go down (although I can understand why people might get annoyed). After all, language is a living thing and phrases and structures from other cultures get co-opted all of the time. English (in all its various forms) is full of these borrowings, moreso than any other language. But these ideas: 1) that those of us who speak British English should not teach our own language [because] 2) all foreign people learning English are interested in only in America, 3) that British English speaking people should adapt their language to make it more comprehensible to those trained in American English while 4) Americans remain culturally unwilling to make any attempt to understand anything that happens outside their borders. Well, frankly, I find that slightly ridiculous.

For more on this subject, check out my post for 3/26/2000. If you are furious with me or need to get involved in this particular scrap, e-mail me at tom@no-spam-please-barbelith.com.