Why English isn’t always English – The US-UK divide
Have you ever felt that despite speaking the same language, you just couldn’t get your message across to your conversation partner? You might think that sharing a common language would guarantee flawless communication, but anyone who has ever learned English as a second language, in particular, would quickly disagree.
Imagine a student of English sitting down to talk with a native of a small Scottish island, an Australian cattle rancher, a Texan oil tycoon or a New York cab driver. Pronunciation, vocabulary and idioms would quickly get in the way of comprehension. Although English is the most widely spoken language in the world, it varies greatly – even within English-speaking countries. To understand the differences in the dialects of English spoken around the globe today, we need to go back and take a look at its origins and development.
From invaders to traders
First appearing on the linguistic map in written form in approximately 450 AD as Old English, it was originally brought to present-day England by the Angle invaders, who pushed out the Celts and established their “Englisch” (originally “Englisc”, which means: pertaining to the Angles) as the dominant language, lasting until 1100. The arrival of William the Conqueror and his French influence in 1066 introduced new vocabulary, and Middle English prevailed until 1500.
The Great Vowel Shift in 1400 saw significant changes to pronunciation, and more contact with the rest of the world resulted in the adoption of many foreign words and phrases and the prevalence of Early Modern English from 1500 until 1800. The invention of the printing press around 1440 encouraged standardisation, fixed spellings and grammar, and the London dialect became accepted as the norm, with the first English dictionary printed in 1604.
Late Modern English is what we use today, with the main difference being a greatly expanded vocabulary thanks to the industrial and technological revolutions requiring more words to describe new machines, concepts and processes. The British Empire, whose influence was still felt right up until 1997 with the handover of Hong Kong to China, spread all over the world from the 16th century onward, adopting words from other languages along the way and ensuring that English was used as a “lingua franca” in some of the earth’s most remotest corners, and especially in former colonies such as Australia, New Zealand, India, Hong Kong, South Africa, Canada, many islands in the Caribbean, Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malaysia (including Singapore) and the United States.
A smorgasbord of dialects and regional accents
An example of an adopted word can be seen in the heading of this paragraph. The majority of English speakers would have no problem understanding “smorgasbord”, but likely would be unable to tell you that it is originally a Swedish word that literally means “bread and butter + table” and is used to refer to an extensive Scandinavian meal with multiple hot and cold dishes set out on a table. In English, it usually describes an extensive array or variety of items, edible or otherwise. English definitely has a smorgasbord of dialects when you consider all of the places it is spoken around the world.
The typical Irish, English and Scottish dialects first come to mind. These are distinct from one another yet mutually comprehensible in that they all use some aspects of standard UK English. The greater difference becomes evident once you head across the Atlantic. The English colonisation of North America at the beginning of the 17th century resulted in another influential variety of English – US English. Today, the two main varieties of English used in the translation industry are UK and US English, meaning that a translation is carried out using the specific spelling, vocabulary and grammar preferences for verb tenses and prepositions common to that particular dialect. Table 1 below below highlights some of the differences between three of the main English dialects. As you can see, in order to avoid misunderstandings that could have serious consequences, a translation must be tailored to the target audience in terms of spelling, vocabulary and formats, such as written dates and numbers. Speaking of UK and US influences, an interesting trend emerged in the early 1900s with the development of the Mid-Atlantic accent in the United States. An artificial blend of cultivated British and American accents, it was taught to upper-class pupils of private schools and was also employed by stage and film actors, most notably Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn. Although it is no longer as popular as it was, it is still used by some North American actors today to produce a specific historical or stylistic effect.
Table 1 below below highlights some of the differences between three of the main English dialects. As you can see, in order to avoid misunderstandings that could have serious consequences, a translation must be tailored to the target audience in terms of spelling, vocabulary and formats, such as written dates and numbers.
Speaking of UK and US influences, an interesting trend emerged in the early 1900s with the development of the Mid-Atlantic accent in the United States. An artificial blend of cultivated British and American accents, it was taught to upper-class pupils of private schools and was also employed by stage and film actors, most notably Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn. Although it is no longer as popular as it was, it is still used by some North American actors today to produce a specific historical or stylistic effect.
English on the move
Although the English spoken in the United States can vary greatly across different regions, US English is still more standardised when compared to the higher number of dialects in the UK, which is much smaller in size and population, for example. This can be attributed to the fact that as US English was establishing itself as the predominant language in North America, it was also on the move. It was being used by pilgrims, pioneers, explorers, traders and missionaries who were constantly on the go instead of being settled in their own isolated little valley or village for centuries. The most efficient use of language possible aided in ensuring comprehension as they traversed the continent and interacted with the Native Americans and immigrants from all over the world. There was no use for quaint little sayings and words that only a small group of people would understand.
Of course, as people did begin to settle down and build towns and cities, and states were formed, regional dialects and accents emerged that were influenced by other colonising powers as well, such as Spanish and French in the southern states and more British influence on the east coast. Another interesting phenomenon is that many of the pronunciations and vocabulary words once common in Great Britain have been preserved in the USA and continue to be used today, known ironically as “Americanisms”, while UK English has kept evolving and abandoned them. Examples of these are the US usage of “trash” for rubbish, “loan” as a verb, and “fall” for autumn.
Why is English everywhere?
Due to the British Empire and colonisation, the Industrial Revolution, Hollywood, technology and the internet, English has become a common language in a vast range of sectors. Its lack of gender and cases and its relatively simple grammar also mean that a basic level of English can be achieved more quickly than other languages with a higher initial learning curve, such as French or German. This has helped it become a true lingua franca like no other language before it. Nonetheless, Latin was also once the dominant world language until English took over.
Will English ever be displaced? The statistics seem to suggest otherwise. Although the number of native English speakers at around 380 million is lower than native speakers of Mandarin Chinese or Spanish, they all choose English for cross-cultural communication. Around 1.5 billion people (20% of the global population) speak some English, and just over half of all internet content is in English.
US English is now more predominant worldwide than UK English, mostly due to popular culture and the internet. Nevertheless, many different varieties exist, from Irish, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and South African dialects to Indian and Jamaican English.
One language, many meanings
With all of these English varieties and influences, a person ordering a translation must consider the target audience and which variety would be most suitable. Otherwise, the target message could become twisted by the wrong implementation of words or phrases particular to a specific variety. Most people are familiar with the best-known differences between UK and US English, such as trousers vs. pants, queue vs. line, loo vs. restroom/bathroom.
Then there are the fascinating neologisms that appear in the different English varieties around the world, often influenced by local languages or customs. For example, traffic lights are called “robots” in South Africa, because when they were first introduced, people would refer to them as “robot policemen”, which was then shortened to “robots”. The name stuck and is still the commonly used term today in South Africa. A knitted wool hat or cap in Canada is known as a “tuque”, based on the French word. A “gimmick” in the Philippines is a night out with friends. “Prepone” is the opposite of the verb “postpone” in Indian English, and in New Zealand something broken or ruined is “puckerood”, which comes from the Maori word “pakaru”
However, things become trickier when specific words can have a different meaning depending on the dialect in which they are being used. For example, a detour in the US is known as a “diversion” in the UK, but a diversion in the US is a ruse to distract someone from something. Whereas “quite” means “significantly” in the US, it conveys the idea of “not so much” in the UK. In the US, “legislation” is something that has been tabled and will no longer be discussed, but in the UK it is something put on the table for discussion. And a “moot point” in the US means no more discussion is needed, while it is something open to discussion in the UK. It quickly becomes apparent that a translator would need to choose their words very carefully depending on the variety of English they were translating into.
Cultural perspectives colour a languageˋs psyche
Even when the same general English vocabulary is being used, how the message is framed will depend on the cultural perspective of the target audience. For example, US English reflects the people who use it and tends to be more positive and direct, whereas UK English is more restrained, favours the passive voice and is less likely to boast. According to surveys, British people associate more extreme positive and negative connotations to adjectives such as dreadful, abysmal, perfect, or satisfactory than do US English speakers, who view the adjectives as milder in general. In practical terms, this means that a translation of an annual report into US English should not be afraid to focus on the good results and praise them directly, instead of being reserved and cautious, as would be acceptable for a British target audience.
When looking for the right language services provider for your translations, keep in mind the importance of knowing the difference between US and UK English usage (vocabulary, spelling, grammar and spin) and translating texts that are tailored to a specific target audience. At SwissGlobal Language Services, we place a top priority on always selecting the most suitable copywriter, translator and proofreader for your project based on your criteria. Our language professionals are experts at differentiating between US and UK English to ensure that the final product will convey your message without any cultural or linguistic misunderstandings getting in the way.