September 17, 2014 13:32 UTC

December 26, 2002 - American vs. British English - 2002-12-27

MUSIC: "Help!"/Beatles

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble. This week on Wordmaster we talk about a few of the differences between American English and British English.

RS: It's a question we often get. After all, some differences can lead to embarrassment, others to plain old confusion.

AA: For instance, Americans put babies to sleep in a "crib." The British call the same kind of bed a "cot."

RS: In America a cot is a flimsy, fold-up bed made of canvas.

AA: Oh, you mean what the British call a "camp bed."

RS: In Britain, "public school" is what Americans would call "private school," where you pay to have your children go. Now let's say you have "to go" -- or you're looking for the toilet. Here, it's not polite to ask where "the toilet" is. Say "bathroom" or "restroom" when speaking to an American.

AA: Joining us now from New York is the author of a handy little book called "Speak American: A Survival Guide to the Language and Culture of the U-S-A." Dileri Borunda Johnston lived in England, so she knows what it's like from both sides.

JOHNSTON: "A lot of the grammar is slightly different, so you would have things in British English that perhaps you wouldn't want an American child to learn because it might sound slightly incorrect. Like you wouldn't say 'I haven't got any more.' You would rather an American kid would learn to say 'I don't have any more.'"

AA: Let's say a speaker of British English steps off a plane in the States. Just to catch a bus or train into town from the airport requires a different vocabulary.

JOHNSTON: "In England you would catch a 'coach' whereas here you take the 'bus,' or if you're taking the public transportation you would take the 'subway in America rather than the 'tube' or the 'underground' as you would in England."

AA: Also, what the British call "lorries" we Americans call "trucks."

RS: Now let's say the weather is cold and wet, and our traveler didn't pack the right clothes. Dileri Johnston pointed out some British terms that might confuse an American clerk.

JOHNSTON: "Like, for example, 'jumper,' which in England is the most common thing to call a sweater."

RS: "Here it's a dress."

JOHNSTON: "And a jumper here is a dress, yes."

AA: "And then here we have 'boots' and 'galoshes' and there..."

JOHNSTON: "They have 'wellies,' yes."

RS: "They have what?"

JOHNSTON: "Wellies."

AA: "Here we talk about 'boots,' but, again, a 'boot' is in British English the trunk of a car. Here it's a heavy shoe that you wear when you're going through puddles."

JOHNSTON: "You use the word 'boot' in British English as well; you know, for regular boots or cowboy boots or riding boots or anything like that. But just the rubber boots are called 'wellies.'"

RS: And the differences don't stop there!

JOHNSTON: "'Pants' is the very big sort of trouble spot, because 'pants' here are quite -- you know, the common thing to call the things you put on your -- the long things you put on your legs, whereas 'pants' in England is always referring to underwear."

RS: "So here that would be 'underpants.'"

JOHNSTON: "Underpants, or underwear or boxers or whatever."

RS: "So if you say, 'do you have a pair of pants to wear to the party,' that would be pretty inappropriate to say in England unless you were forewarned."

JOHNSTON: "And over there they say 'trousers,' which is not a word that is completely unknown in American English, but it's not the most common one."

RS: Along these lines, it seemed to us that a lot of the terms used in British English are older forms of the words used by Americans -- for instance, it might sound odd for an American to say "spectacles" instead of "glasses."

JOHNSTON: "That's often the case. You know, you have 'spectacles,' you have 'trousers.' They tend to be sort of things that might be more common in regional varieties of American English. You know, like in England, it's quite common to say 'reckon,' which in American English is quite unusual, or you might here it in the South perhaps or in more old-fashioned contexts."

AA: "Like, 'I reckon I'll go in when the sun gets too hot.'"

JOHNSTON: "Yeah, and people in England say it sort of quite seriously, without meaning it to be funny or ironic or anything like that."

RS: Same with some other terms that might strike Americans as funny.

JOHNSTON: "You know, if you go shopping, for example, you don't really want to take a 'trolley' which is what Americans ride around in on the street, like say in San Francisco. Here you would rather use a 'shopping cart' when you go to do your groceries."

AA: And, it's not just words that set American and British speakers apart.

JOHNSTON: "Speakers of British English have to be very conscious of the fact that British accents are quite incomprehensible to Americans at times. I know from experience -- my husband, who's British, has a horrible time ordering water in restaurants. Nobody understands him when he asks for 'waw-tuh.' So he's tried to modify it and say 'waw-da, can I have some waw-da please.' (laughter) And he more or less gets understood nowadays."

AA: Dileri Borunda Johnston, author of "Speak American: A Survival Guide to the Language and Culture of the USA."

RS: That's Wordmaster for this week. Send your language questions to VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC two-zero-two-three-seven USA or word@voanews.com. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "American English"/Wax UK

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