This post has been quite a while in coming. This week, I would like to explore the myriad of ways that British English and American English differ, sometimes remarkably, with the inevitable mix of awkward and hilarious results. It must be said, of course, that the vast majority of the language remains the same and—regional accents notwithstanding—I have generally been able to understand/ decipher what people are talking about. There were some words that I was warned of ahead of time (an especially big thank you to Alexander Augustus Peck for his linguistic tips before I left the US), but most of the following I have discovered on my own. These must be taken as a mere sampling, for I am sure that there are many, many for British-isms that I will encounter in the remaining months.
First off, I would like to begin with spelling. Whatever the reason, British English is inundated with the letter ‘U’. Besides the normal places an American would expect it to show up (like ‘would’), many words have retained the ‘U’s that their relatives must have lost on their way across the Pond. Most of these are pretty innocuous and rarely catch my attention, such as the ‘U’s in ‘colour’, ‘neighbour’, ‘savour’, and ‘honour’. They seem to fit quite nicely there. I have even picked up the habit of writing a few of these myself. However, I still can’t quite bring myself to write ‘favourite’; it just doesn’t feel right. The same goes for ‘theatre’ and ‘centre’. Although I can manage ‘theatre’, ‘centre’ still simply looks wrong. A spelling/pronunciation I have picked up whole-heartedly, on the other hand, is the alternative to ‘while’: ‘whilst’. It just rolls off the tongue, as does its brother ‘amongst’.
This brings me to the realm of pronunciation. There are some words, especially place names, whose spellings simply don’t match how they are pronounced. My very first encounter with this occurred on my first day in the UK, when the bus driver informed me that my stop was in what sounded like ‘Glawster Green’; it wasn’t until we had actually arrived that I discovered the stop was spelled ‘Gloucester Green’. Equally confusing was when I was trying to find Worcester College for an audition; my pronunciation was eventually kindly corrected to ‘Wouster’ (pronounced somewhere half-way between ‘Wooster’ and ‘Wuster’). Magdalene College also caught me by surprise, as it is pronounced ‘Maudlin’. I still haven’t figured out where all the missing syllables went. Two more words also continue to catch my attention: the river Thames (pronounced ‘Tems’ or ‘Tames’), and the suffix ‘shire’ (used synonymously with ‘county’, and pronounced both as ‘shy-er’ and ‘sheer’, depending on whom you are speaking with). Maybe the pronunciations are the product of various region accents.
Beyond spelling and pronunciation, some words simply don’t mean the same thing in British English as they do in American English. If you ask for ‘chips’, you will get fries or potato wedges; you have to ask for ‘crisps’ if you want to enjoy thin strips of fried potato. The Brits also differentiate between ‘biscuits’ and ‘cookies’: cookies are soft and gooey, like chocolate chip, whilst biscuits are crisper, like ginger snaps and shortbread. For an American biscuit, however, you’ll have to ask for a ‘scone’ (variously pronounced as ‘sc-own’ or ‘sc-on’). Sometimes you’ll come across ‘mash’ (mashed potatoes, simply enough), which is usually paired with ‘bangers’ (sausages, less obviously). And ‘puddings’ tend to be much more substantial than in the States; think bread pudding or rice pudding.
Besides food, many day-to-day objects simply have different names. When walking downtown on the ‘High Street’ (Main Street) looking at shops, be sure to walk on the ‘pavement’ (sidewalk) and to throw away your ‘litter’ into the ‘rubbish bins’. If it is getting late, you may want to consider bringing a ‘torch’ to light your way. If it is chilly, put on your ‘jumper’ (sweater) to keep you warm. When you get home, you may want to change out of your ‘trousers’ into something more comfortable; but remember, ‘pants’ are what you wear under your trousers (giving the term ‘pantsuit’ all sorts of amusing connotations). Also, whilst you are driving, if you run out of ‘petrol’, you should pull off to the side of the road, or into a ‘car park’. Speaking of cars, you put your luggage into the ‘boot’ of the car, and you have to lift the ‘bonnet’ if you want to check your oil. Whilst at ‘Uni’, you ‘read’ for your degree and graduate after you have ‘sat your exams’. If you are reading for music, be sure to keep all of your ‘semibreves’ (whole notes), ‘minums’ (half notes), ‘crochets’ (quarter notes), ‘quavers’ (eighth notes), ‘semiquavers’ (sixteenth notes’), ‘demisemiquavers’ (thirty-second notes), and ‘hemidemisemiquavers’ (sixty-fourth notes) in order.
Additionally, there are a couple differences in grammar and punctuation that I’m still working on wrapping my head around. Personally, I am a fan of the British tendency to place periods (or ‘full-stops’, as they are known) after a quotation, rather than inside it. But it still takes me a moment when someone says “Where I’m stood” or asks “Is anyone sat here?”, rather than “Where I’m standing” and “Is anyone sitting here?” And, when someone is very sick, you will find them ‘in hospital’, rather than ‘at the hospital’.
Of course, there are also a plethora of, well, impolite words that differ between British and American English (some of which sound quite amusing to members of the opposite culture), but I hope I will be forgiven for not exploring them here. Instead, I will leave you with a quote. Whilst several of us were hanging out in a pub after choir rehearsal this past Monday, I mentioned that the UK is generally more expensive than the US, to which our choir director replied, “Of course it is; someone has to pay for all those ‘U’s!” Thanks for reading this exploration of British English, or as the British would say, “Cheers!”