Which English do you speak?

American English and British English and the significance of their differences is often the subject of debate, whether in language institutes, online or in heated discussions between cross-Atlantic friends.

It is certainly true that with the dissemination of the internet and social networking, the two variations of the language often merge and it seems that American English is infiltrating British English faster than Bieber fever. British English is deeply rooted in History and is still closely followed in Commonwealth countries such as India, however countries which in the past had a largely American influence, such as the Philippines use American English. American English is considered newer and people often have archaic ideas that this means it is wrong. However, is this the result of language evolution, the very basis of all modern languages, rendering it more correct? or is it relative to the ‘slang’ of a new generation? either way American English is spoken and therefore must be understood.

The general perception is that the difference between American and British English is limited to a few differences in spelling, colloquial expressions and conjugations of some irregular verbs. However, the differences are much more extensive and are not just limited to vocabulary but also require the use of distinct grammar and the difference is often influenced by historic, cultural and ethnical aspects that play a key role in language structure.

With this difference lies a major risk of unknowingly jeopardizing the outcome of a negotiation.
Does this seem like an exaggeration?

During a meeting with the Allies, Sir Winston Churchill experienced firsthand the relevance of the differences between the two variations of English, when a certain confusion was created caused by an error in the interpretation of “table” (a more in-depth account of the anecdote can be found in the book “The Second World War, Volume 3: The Gathering Storm“).

In England, the verb ‘to table’ (i.e. the expression to put sth. on the table) means “to put forward”, “to propose” (for example, to propose the agenda for a meeting). In the United States this same verb means “to suspend”, “to refuse” (a proposal). Practically the opposite. So, when the English put forward the proposal (to table, in the “British sense”, so to speak) to discuss a priority topic, the United States countered that it was not possible to postpone this discussion (to table, in the “American sense”).

Another example that might be even more risky, not to mention embarrassing is the verb “to knock up”. Mainly used in British English with the meaning “to call on someone” (knocking on the door, for example), or “to whistle”, the same verb means “to get someone pregnant” in colloquial American. The English language has a long list of similar (more or less risqué) which may seriously compromise the result of a conversation.

But the differences do not finish here: there are intransitive verbs in England that are used as transitive verbs in the United States. This is the case of the verb “to appeal against”, which in the USA simply becomes “to appeal” (to protest, for example – in a legal context – against the decision of a Court). Or even, verbs of common use such as “to write” (to write sth. to sb. in British English, often becomes to write sb. in American English).

And the list of differences goes on with a different use of the prepositions and expressions of time, spelling, lexicon…not to mention all the variations in pronunciation (but this is fuel for another topic).

We could continue page after page but this small snippet is enough to understand that to communicate and an International level and to localise a text for the audience of reference is not something to take lightly, especially in the age of the global market.

Originally posted 2012-12-12 15:25:19.

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