September 01, 2014 21:03 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

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Learn with The News

  • Ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar wave as they are transported by a wooden boat to a temporary shelter in Krueng Raya in Aceh Besar, Indonesia, April 8, 2013.

    Audio UN: Boat People Fleeing Myanmar, Bangladesh

    The United Nations says there has been a sudden increase in people fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat. Activists fear the number will continue to rise as refugees leave unclean camps and violence in Myanmar. They say that is especially true of ethnic Rohingya. More

  • Morgan County dispatcher Larry Holmes talks with a woman reporting a domestic disturbance as deputies respond to her location Friday, April 28, 2007, in Versailles, Mo. Because the 911 call came in on a landline, the address of the disturbance was immedia

    Audio It's an Emergency in Any Language

    In most countries, people can make a telephone call to ask for medical or police help using just three numbers. In the European Union, the number is 1-1-2. Some Asian countries use 9-9-9. In North America, the number is 9-1-1. More

  • A UNICEF worker shares information on Ebola and best practices to help prevent its spread with residents of the Matam neighborhood of Conakry, Guinea in this handout photo courtesy of UNICEF taken Aug. 20, 2014.

    Audio Conflicts, Ebola Put More Demands on UNICEF

    UNICEF says August has been its busiest month for emergency airlifts in the past 10 years. Some of the supplies going to Syria and Iraq are designed to help children deal with the effects of conflict. Some have gone to Liberia for use against the disease Ebola. More

  • FILE - A Vietnamese boy looks at dairy products at a showroom of the Vietnam Dairy Products Co (Vinamilk) in Hanoi.

    Audio Vietnam, We Have a Nutrition Problem

    Vietnam has a nutrition problem: too many of its children are underweight. Yet more and more Vietnamese boys and girls are becoming overweight. The two conditions may appear to be separate, but they are linked. They are both the result of poor diets. More

  • U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) has called the Islamic State an "imminent threat."

    Audio Can Islamic State Militants Attack the US?

    Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called the group, an “imminent threat.” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham warned that the militants are willing and able to “hit the homeland.” | In The News More

Featured Stories

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner BlogConfessions of an English Learner Blog

Tell us About Our Programs