“The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.”
George Bernard Shaw (1942)
“We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.”
Oscar Wilde (1887)
During my time in London, I was very much fascinated by the language differences between American English and British English.
I won’t use the word barrier, as that makes it seem like some sort-of insurmountable entity in the way of conversing. I use ‘difference’ instead, as we could still converse, there would just be some confusion as to what I meant by certain words.
As someone who had never been to the UK before leaving for my year abroad, I naively assumed that I would just pop on over and immediately comprehend both the accents and the actual diction. After all, I saw Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice, and Sherlock and it couldn’t be that much different, right? Ha. The Brits speak a lot faster than you might think. And the varieties of accents and vocabulary caught me off guard as well. What I thought would be a smooth transition language-wise across the pond, actually turned into a lot of me saying “sorry?” and “what?” to many things people would say.
What also annoyed me as well was the fact that we (Americans and Brits) both speak English, but over there I stuck out because I had an accent. In France, I can speak French with enough of a French accent that I blend in, but in England, I couldn’t sound ‘English’ without affecting an obviously fake accent. However, that’s a tale for another day. Below are some examples of vocabulary differences I had both prepared myself for before arriving, and differences that arose after some cross-language miscommunication.
*Disclaimer* There are many more language differences, some more prevalent than others. This is just a sampling of the ones I experienced during my time living in and attending university in central London.
- bits = pulp (think orange juice)
- chips = fries
- crisps = chips
- fries = thin-cut fries (for the most part)
- courgette = zucchini
- aubergine = eggplant
- pudding = dessert
- rocket = arugula
- jelly = jello
- biscuit = cookie
- I remember talking with someone from England, saying how biscuits and gravy was a popular dish in the American South. He looked at me in an incredibly strange way until I realised that biscuits has a different meaning…
- fancy dress = costume *be careful with this one!
- overalls = jumpsuit
- pants = underwear *be careful with this one, too!
- trousers = pants
- cot = crib
- My friend Sam had a friend coming to stay in our dorm and asked for a cot to be put in her room so her friend would have a place to sleep. The front desk guy had to explain to her that she, in fact, asked for a crib and that she should have asked for a mattress!
- mattress = cot
- rubbish = trash
- toilet = bathroom
- I’ve gotten so used to asking where the toilet is (it’s the same in French as well) that I say it in America and get weird looks. It makes more sense I think.
- torch = flashlight
- I learnt this one from Chronicles of Narnia!
- way out = exit
- out of service = out of order
- Only a slight difference, but still one that I noticed!
- lift = elevator
- Saying lift is faster than saying elevator and I love it.
- mobile phone = cellphone
- This could just be a word I had never heard of since I’ve never lived in a city, but busking easily became my favourite word!
- zebra crossing = crosswalk
- I still say this (with the British English pronunciation of zebra) just because it’s so fun!
- surgery = doctors office
- autumn = fall
- bill = check
- z = zed
- This one caught me off guard the first time one of my teachers said it in class.
What language differences/barriers have you encountered in England or Britain?