Differences between American & British English

dodyskin   Tuesday, May 25, 2004, 12:38 GMT
Hi, I stumbled across this page whilst researching something for a piece on Lancashire dialect. Can I clear a few things up ex tempore?

Great Britain is the name of the island group of which Ireland, Britain, the Isle of Man etc are all a part. It is not a matter of politics, it is a matter of geography. It is called Great Britain to distinguish it from the island group of Brittannia Minor: the Channel Islands. Anyone who lives in any part of this island group can claim to be British. Anyone who lives in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland can claim to be part of the United Kingdom.

An accent is the way one speaks, the sounds one uses to pronounce words. Someone can speak Standard English with a northern accent, a southern accent, an Indian accent etc but they are all speaking the same dialect.

A dialect is the words one uses and the way in which one uses them. They are specific to a region or a social group and often have very different words, different meanings for words. Sometimes they have a distinct and separate grammar. An example of this is the old Lancashire dialect of Bolton: it has no separate definite article.

There are lots and lots of different accents and dialects in Britain. This is partly due to the unique way the English language developed. It has a Germanic base. Fundamentally it is Germanic, with overlays of words from Norse, Fresian, Saxon, Angle, Jute and others which are all still essentially Germanic. On top of this came Norman French, from where English gets many of its institutional words like magistrate. Incidentally, Norman French, whilst a Romance language, was also influenced by the original Germanic base of the Norse-men or Norman speakers. Because of this unusual two-tier development, dialects vary massively over the country; it is possible to map different accents by invasion. Then there's Celtic.

It would take far too long to really get into this but the upshot is that, fundamentally, there are more distinct dialects in Britain because of the indigeneous development of the language. Dialects need to time to develop in isolation and American history is all about the mass movement of peoples. It is not a value judgement; it is an historical fact.

This is not to say that there are not many and varied accents and dialect extant in the US. Some particularly interesting examples include Appalachian English (very close to a southern Elizabethan English) and Gullah (a hybrid African-English dialect that developed during slavery).

Another big influence on dialect since widespread literacy is the different attitudes of the main American and English dictionaries. The O.E.D is a descriptive record of English as it is used. The Merriam-Webster is a prescriptive text, which actually specifically standardised spellings when it was compiled.

Damian   Tuesday, May 25, 2004, 13:54 GMT
Good point Simon...I can't quite work out why they used the American actress Gwyneth Paltrow...some commercial reason, who knows, but all I wanted to say was that her English accent was faultless to my ears anyway, giving her due credit. Usually, Americans trying to speak with a British accent are either excruciating or hilarious, as with Dick van Dyke (I looked up his name!) I would never get away with using an American accent...I could never get rid of my Scottish inflections, if that is the correct word. Texas twang and Lowland Scots don't sort of mix too well.

Dodyskin...how are you getting on with the Lancashire dialect? I think it's nice to listen to. There is a presenter on BBC radio called Andy Kershaw...his accent is perfect Lancashire..joy to listen to. Cheers.
Septic   Tuesday, May 25, 2004, 14:15 GMT
Should all foreign actors be prohibited from playing American parts as well? I can think of dozens of recent examples. Incidentally, the accents are often crap. There are also Americans who do British accents that most people probably thought were British.
Sirako   Tuesday, May 25, 2004, 14:44 GMT
"Great Britain is the name of the island group of which Ireland, Britain, the Isle of Man etc are all a part. It is not a matter of politics, it is a matter of geography."

If this were true, why do British passports say Great Britain AND Northern Ireland!!

It's complete nonsense, and furthermore, attempts by British people to say that Ireland is British in a purely geographical sense is disengenuous and offensive.
mjd   Tuesday, May 25, 2004, 18:49 GMT
Septic said: "Should all foreign actors be prohibited from playing American parts as well? I can think of dozens of recent examples."

However I can think of many good examples as well....Naomi Watts, for example. I think her American accent is flawless. Nicole Kidman does a good job too.
Septic   Tuesday, May 25, 2004, 19:59 GMT
mjd - Are you saying that these people should be prohibited from playing American characters? Obviously not. But there is another side of the coin, which is what I was trying to describe.

Nicole Kidman makes a lot of mistakes in terms of vowels. I hear that her accent in "Cold Mountain" was crap. I also think that often people believe that somebody has nailed an American accent (Americans included) when they have only spoken in what I think is often a very rough generic American accent (a monotone and a rolling r) that nobody here really speaks. The people who really nail accents nail more "organic" regional accents. Most actors/ actresses cannot do this. A few can.

I could tell the Aussie guy on "The Wire" was Australian right away, even if most people thought that the accent was good. The same is true with a new guy on ER. I think that a good example of a foreigner doing a good accent is Damien Lewis on "Band of Brothers". You'd never guess that he's English.
confuzzeled   Tuesday, May 25, 2004, 22:58 GMT
hey! im from america, and i speak english, i think if you are from spain, speak the way you want, the same as if you were from france, britain, or japan. you can't argue with people about the way they speak because they will speak the way everyone else does in their country. nobody get mad at me for saying that but its my opinon.
Taiko Hirogi   Tuesday, May 25, 2004, 23:00 GMT
I agree with Confuzzeled. Everyone stop messing with people about the way they speak, or how their accent is.
Damian   Wednesday, May 26, 2004, 07:36 GMT
It's true, my passport says "European Union; United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". The UK includes Northern Ireland, but Great Britain excludes Northern Ireland. It's all historical.

Most British people don't think Ireland is British. If you mean the republic of Ireland then in reality that is as "foreign" as is Spain or Finland or wherever. Personally I would like the entire island of Ireland to be united as one but that is the problem we all know about. As in so many similar disputes in this world, religion is the problem.

I like the contrast between the Belfast and Dublin accents. If I had to choose, it would be Dublin.....remember the guys from Westlife? :-)
mjd   Wednesday, May 26, 2004, 09:08 GMT

Perhaps my ear isn't as finely tuned as yours. I haven't seen "Cold Mountain" so I can't judge Nicole in that movie. I will say that Naomi Watts' American accent in "21 Grams" is excellent...I detected no accent on her. Hell, I even thought Hugo Weaving's accent was pretty good in the "Matrix" (It was exaggerated, as the character of Agent Smith was a kind of a caricature, but it didn't jump out at me as an Australian immitating an American).
Sirako   Wednesday, May 26, 2004, 13:19 GMT
Thanks for the support Damien!

However, I think your comment that religion is the problem is typical of many ill-informed people. The British media play a central role in such disinformation.

As in so many similar disputes in this world (Indian subcontinent/Africa/Iraq/Middle East, the problems in Ireland are the result of British interference - in this case going back almost 1,000 years.

If it were really about religion, can you tell me if they believe in a different Jesus Christ and don't have the same 10 commandments? Why are there no forced conversions?

It is all about territory, religious status is a handy faultline.

You might want to do some research and you will see that many who fought for Ireland's freedom were protestant - Wolfe Tone, Parnell etc. and the first president of Ireland was protestant.
Ryan   Wednesday, May 26, 2004, 14:58 GMT
When foreigners do American accents in movies, they always sound a bit "formalized." They sound okay, except that nobody on the street would probably ever talk that way.

My favorite accent gaffe is Hugh Jackman in the X-Men. They have him sounding like a very normal American. But he's playing Wolverine so he's supposed to be Canadian! No sign of a Canadian accent on him at all...
Damian   Wednesday, May 26, 2004, 16:30 GMT
I once unwittingly annoyed a Canadian guy by asking him whereabouts in the USA he came from! I can ONLY distinguish the difference between Canadian and American accents when the Canadian says words like "out"! I would love to know what other features I should look out for in the Canadian accent to prevent me making the same mistake again.
Damian   Wednesday, May 26, 2004, 16:35 GMT
I don't want to discuss religion or politics on this site to be honest....both are a bit dangerous and the last thing I want to do is to upset or offend anyone in here. I may have done so already I fear! This site really is all about language, and the English language in particular. My views on religious issues and the effect they have had on people over the centuries will never alter. Sorry. :-)
Damian   Wednesday, May 26, 2004, 16:39 GMT
Oops I think I have made a linguistic error in my last posting! It is religious issues that have had an effect on people over the centuries (and a bad effect at that) not my views on the religious issues! Cheers!