The evolution of English in a growing technological era is rapid. A high speed internet connection means you don’t need to know, don’t even need to be within 2,000 miles of, a speaker of American English, and you might still find yourself using their vocabulary. England, whilst it still has its beautifully British quirks, has certainly adopted some Americanisms in the last decade or so. Do you get take-out or takeaway at 4am? Do you binge watch three seasons of a show or three series?
I’m partial to the normal social media interaction between British English and American English, but I also have a closer influence that perhaps makes my vernacular more susceptible. The first is my partner, an American from Maine. The second, an international student from Colorado on my course. Most of the time our conversations aren’t linguistically interesting, but sometimes we accidentally stumble on words or phrases that are completely alien to the other person. And a lot of the time it’s hilarious.
Telling the time
In British English we can say “half-four” to mean “half past four” but not “five-four” to mean “five past four”. Perhaps that has something to do with the latter using a number, where-as the former uses a measure of quantity. That’s a reasonable hypothesis to make about a vernacular you’re unfamiliar with, and it was the one my friend came up with when we were making plans for breakfast one morning. We’d agreed to get to the café for half-nine, and meet fifteen minutes earlier.
“Quarter-nine outside Tesco then?”
I was confused and curious. My friend explained that, where she’s from, people don’t say “half-four” to mean “half-past-four”, so she’d assumed the elision could be used with quarter, too!
North America and The North have very little in common, apparently
By now he’s used to it, but when me and my partner first started talking my South Yorkshire dialect was a minefield of missing words and slang homophony.
It didn’t take long before I had to pause our conversations to make a cuppa. Even once we’d established that this was short, orthographically, for “cup of”, he was still left bemused at what liquid substance I was drinking. After I explained what “tea” really meant in England (because it is more than just a hot drink), we appeared to be on the same page again. Until later one evening when I told him what I was having for tea that night.
The best insults can be ruined, too, through this linguistic division between the two English’s. A productive insult in British English is the use of male genitalia, and commonalities can be found across the pond for the most part. My choice of a certain word in a moment of temper, it turned out, was not one of those mutually intelligible terms. My temper quickly subdued when I not only had to explain that it was an insulting term, but what it actually referred to on the human body.
The discrepancies are far and wide
It’s not just niche vocabulary that my American friends seem to have a problem with.
Our politeness seems to cause feelings of anxiety in some, who are unable to tell whoever asks that they’re “fine” no matter how they are. Our gender-marked money-holders, money-receiving machines and sources of electricity also caused confusion.
It’s a wonder how these two make it through the day with our bizarre British English words?!
Are all of your words traditionally British, do you think? Probably not. And that says a lot about the influence of the media on our language choices, both national and social. Linguistically I embrace the Americanism; not only because no lexical item is superior to another, but because without proper research, those Americanisms might not even be Americanisms at all!