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Can you speak American?

I was once asked by a Czech student of mine whether I (as a Brit) could understand “American English”. The question took me quite by surprise and for a few seconds I floundered for an informative answer. “Yes, of course,” I replied at last. “It’s the same language!”

On reflection, though, I shouldn’t really have been startled. For the last 26 years – that is, since arriving to teach English in the Czech Republic – I have been confronted by the myth of two (or more) English languages, and, more depressingly, by the perception that “American English” is somehow a poor relation, a bastard child that was jettisoned by its parent language 400 years ago and condemned to grow up in poverty in the New World. With this perception still prevalent in some quarters, it’s no wonder that some Czechs imagine “British English” to be the “correct” version of the language, and “American English” to be somehow scruffy, casual, and substandard.

So, how did such a perception arise? My view (and I’m sure it’s not original) is that when the former communist countries of Europe opened up their borders to “Western” influence, language per se somehow became conflated with culture. In the sphere of language learning, one little red book was replaced by an equally tedious one, the infamous Cambridge course-book, which, thanks to vigorous sponsorship and promotion by the British Council, became the textbook of choice for many schools and language schools across the land before other language schemes (mostly prefaced by the words “Oxford” or “Cambridge”) entered the fray. For the first time, ordinary Czech folk could, through language, identify with (or at least somehow feel in touch with) the mythical British tropes they had perhaps previously found admirable or, at least, quaint: “the English Gentleman”, “tea at five o’clock”, “Sir Winston Churchill”, “the Few”, “Sherlock Holmes”, “Princess Diana”, “Manchester United” to name but a few. At the same time, however, McDonalds arrived, cinemas were awash with American films, and pubs and nightclubs installed bowling alleys, sported American flags, and nailed up tin plaques of Harley Davidson motorbikes. Yet, whereas learning English (in a thoroughly British context) became a badge of honour for many Czechs, there was a certain ambivalence towards this parallel influx of American culture.  People flocked to cinemas to see movies like Die Hard and Terminator dubbed into Czech and yet were equally happy to dismiss them as “stupid American action films”; kids rejected dumplings at home in favour of hamburgers on the street, much to the chagrin of their parents; and old people, bemoaning graffiti in underpasses, wondered who Kurt Cobain was and why the hell they should care. The Americanization of Czech society was associated by some with brashness, with instant gratification, with a kind of shallowness or cheapness – and, perhaps, because of this, the imagined English spoken by Americans was tarred with the same brush. It was soon perceived by many as inferior to the British variety – Czechs wanted communion with British ladies and gentlemen who spoke “properly”; they didn’t want a grammar class run by mumbling Bruce Willis lookalikes chomping on hamburgers and waving handguns.

Of course, this is mostly a caricature of a bygone age; nowadays, many Czechs (at least, going by the university students I once taught) no longer express a preference for one kind of English or another, or, if they do, it’s just as likely to be a preference for American spelling and American accents. Yet, Czech people I meet are still occasionally surprised when I, as a Brit, express the opinion that Hollywood has produced many of the finest intellectual and art films ever made; that, in general, post-war American literature surpasses British literature in terms of its scope, quality and ambition; and that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is one of the best in the world. Let’s not even mention jazz, blues, musical theatre, Woody Allen, Bobby Fischer, or Noam Chomsky. And let’s scotch the myth at once that, in spite of all this greatness, Americans somehow speak badly. It has been my experience that the average American, no matter what his educational background, speaks a good deal more articulately and more eloquently than the average Brit, who is stymied by layers of regional dialect and social class.

So, are there any differences between British and American English? And, if so, do they matter?

The most prevalent differences exist in spelling – but the number of words that are spelled differently is such an infinitesimally small proportion of the whole that it’s practically insignificant. We are all familiar with color vs. colour, gray vs. grey and exercize vs. exercise. Big deal! All forms – British and American – are equally correct, equally acceptable. The only advice is not to mix them up in the same text as it looks somewhat sloppy. If you prefer to spell the American way, then stick to that approach; if you prefer British spelling, so be it. Beyond that, there’s really nothing else to say.

There are also differences in pronunciation, of course – and not simply in terms of accent. Brits and Americans occasionally emphasise different syllables, as in the name Bernard and in the word hostile. But, again, such differences are negligible in the context of the whole. In fact, it’s hard to think of many examples.

More obvious differences exist in vocabulary, but, as before, these are minimal, and most Americans and Brits are familiar with, and understand, the others’ terms. Indeed, thanks to American TV, there has been an increasing Americanization of British English with regard to some lexical items, many Brits now referring to crisps as chips, and some even occasionally using pants to mean trousers rather than underpants. As for genuine differences, the American terms sidewalk and janitor are actually more archaic than their British equivalents pavement and caretaker. The term sidewalk was first used at the turn of the 18supth century and would have been familiar to Brits of that time, for whom pavement simply referred to any paved surface, including roads themselves. The term Janitor comes from Janus, the Roman god of doorways, and you can’t get much more archaic than that! Meanwhile, whether you use a carpark or a parking lot is, linguistically speaking, of no consequence – nor whether you fly in an airplane or aeroplane; it’s clear that both words mean the same thing. And some terms have become so interchangeable that train station and soccer are to most Brits’ ears just as British as railway station and football. So, what’s the big deal? Well, in short, there simply isn’t one.

For me, the only significant differences are not in the supposed languages themselves but simply in how they are used. In everyday conversation, Americans use the present perfect tense less than Brits [I did it already rather than I’ve done it], and may be slightly perplexed by the British predilection for question tags […isn’t it? …don’t you? …hasn’t he? …could I?], which they see as redundant and perhaps even slightly annoying. But perhaps the most salient difference is more to do with national character than any aspect of spelling, lexis, or grammar. When Americans speak, they don’t prevaricate like the Brits. They say what they mean and get to the point so directly that Brits quiver in fear of being “put on the spot”. Brits, meanwhile, often say what they don’t mean, or at least understate things to such a polite  – or alternatively, ironic - extent that others are confused or misunderstand the message completely. Perhaps this is what was meant by the well-known saying, attributed to George Bernard Shaw, that Great Britain and the USA are “two countries separated by a common language”. And perhaps it is also fitting that Shaw was neither American nor British, but Irish!

In essence, then, there’s really no such thing as “American English” or “British English” – any more than there’s “Prague Czech” or “Brno Czech”. There’s just one language – English – spoken for better or worse by different people.