Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Are Americans better at English?

By Sarah Kingston

As an American doing a reverse immigration back to the English Motherland there are many dangers to consider at any one time.

I’ve had to learn not to end any and all arguments with triumphant references to the Revolutionary War (that’s The American War Of Independence to y’all). I face death daily whilst trying to cross the street and finding that the oncoming traffic is oncoming from the wrong direction… or is it the left direction? But by far the most perilous thing I have encountered is American English vs British English – pronunciation, spelling, word meanings… and all.

The consequences of this difficulty range from embarrassing references to needing to change my “pants” meaning, of course my trousers, to remembering to add unnecessary extra letters to words such as coloUr and humoUr. The most frustrating of all? Not being understood at 2am in the kebab shop when asking for chilli sauce but no “to-ma-do-s”. There may be other factors at play there.

I have, on the whole, accepted my inferior speaking ability with good grace until a few weeks ago when a friend of mine told me that American English is actually closer to English in its earlier, purer forms. And that my good friends, is called vindication. Now before you scroll down to the “post a comment” section, I feel it necessary to add that the aforementioned friend is not only English but also an amateur linguist. You can imagine my surprise, my glee, and it got me thinking.

The British tend to believe that because they started the language and deliver it in a much more pleasing way (this I really can’t deny), that their form of the language must be correct, but I wonder, is it really?

Browsing the internet, which as we all know is the only foolproof source of information, I saw several references offering further validation to my friend’s, and now my own, statements. One site claimed that the dialect of the Ozarks is very close to Elizabethan English.

While the last American Head of State was a complete embarrassment to any form of the English language , or any form of communication whatsoever while we’re at it, he doesn’t represent the speaking capabilities of the rest of us. Some Americans can even string whole sentences together , shocking, I know.

And while the Brits remain confident in their speaking abilities I must say that there are several dialects that are barely intelligible and certainly don’t follow the laws of “the English language.” In fact there is a whole film dedicated to this concept with Henry Higgins asking “Why can’t the English learn to speak?

Readers, please don’t get me wrong, I’m not another puffed up American patriot who thinks that we created the universe and do everything right. There is a reason I’m living in England and the sound of my own American voice often makes me cringe. But accents aside, I do have to wonder – are Americans better at English?

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  1. Amateur linguist. That says it all.

  2. Tell me about it, fellow American sista. I've been in the UK so long I sometimes forget I even have an accent. When I posted my mini documentary of Borough Market on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSsmfN4_l8k) a fellow New Yorker on Twitter accused me of putting on a faux British accent. Brits give me schtick for my Americanisms; Americans for my Britishisms. I can't win.

  3. It's the right direction....
    Yes, except for Red Nose Day, you should indeed keep your pants IN you trousers, LOL!

  4. I must agree with your ascertainment. My 'mom' is a writer -- mainly an expert in 18th century literature -- and an English teacher. She's also a full-blown American. However, I've been brought up in the UK and experienced the method of teaching the English language in schools here. Basic things like grammar and proper use of punctuation were non-existent; I learnt everything from my mum. The Ironic thing is she's always had a terrible time finding a job teaching in the UK as thery somehow refuse to believe a yank can teach the Queen's english.

  5. i for one love the sound of an American voice (as long as it's not too bellowing and/or on the tube.) i think they commandeer the english language pretty well - you guys are able to speak a lot quicker than us, don't if you've noticed that? i find that impressive - you also know more about the structure of language. unless you do English A level or a degree over here we have no idea of the technical terms for the fabric of our language whereas yanks (sorry) seem to know it as a matter of course. but this is partly the reason why they have trouble understanding Scottish, Welsh, Irish people or indeed Northerners. we long ago gave up the notion of speaking 'correctly'. unless of course we're from the aristocracy - although i take serious issue with the way the aristocracy speak. however, ours is still a more complex use of the language that some Americans are still baffled by whether it be archaic words or simply prounciations of things with silent letters e.g. Greenwich or Loughbourough (a colleague of mine once overheard this being pronounced Logey-bo-rogey. Seriously.)

    one thing that really does annoy me about American-English (yes, it should have it's own category), however, is simple things like pronouncing pasta (paaarsta) and duty (dooooty). and what's aluminum all about? couldn't be bothered with the extra 'i'?? tomaaatoes is funny, i'll let that one go but zucchini?? (what's wrong with courgette)?

    there's absoulutely NO WAY the American-English is the original English. we haven't drastically changed our pronounciation of things over time, that's clear from reading back through things like Shakespeare or poems and sonnets by Keats, Milton etc. i think the Americanisation of English developed generally because it was imported via several accents - particularly Irish and Scottish. it's an interesting linguistic evolution but no more so than the hundreds of regional local dialects and accents that are found around Britain and Ireland

  6. joshua sutees well said!!
    i was actually cracking up at the pronunciation of loughborough for about 5 mins and still curently have a smile on my face!

  7. By way of showing you how misthought your previous statement was Helena, might I point out for comparison the word Laugh?