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The Great English Fraud

American English and British English are similar enough for there to be no complications for a non native speaker to travel between the two countries. But they are different enough to spark the occasional debate, to cause a little confusion and even to bring about the odd heated argument. The differences are, however, more complex than might at first seem.

For a start, there are a fairly large group of words in American English which are not used across the pond. They are American words, or so many would assume. Faucet, diaper, fall, candy, eyeglasses, skillet and plenty more. In fact they’re not American words. They are British vocabulary, that simply fell from use in the UK, but continued in everyday spoken language in the US. And, with some recent reading I’ve done, this now makes perfect sense.

Once upon a time, logically, Americans spoke with a British accent. I’d long assumed that over the last couple of centuries, the population of the US had developed their own, unique accent according to the mix of ethnic groups, separation from British English speakers, and the new vocabulary and environments the speakers grew up with.

Not true. Or so I’ve read. If you were to bring an Englishman from the 1600’s into the modern day, you’d find that his accent far more closely resembles an accent from the US. It was the British accent that changed, not the other way round, although US accents from parts of the eastern seaboard of the US, which maintained a great deal of contact with Great Britain, also picked up the changes in the British way of speaking.

It’s all to do with rhotic and non rhotic accents. So the next time you are watching American actors performing Shakespeare with American accents, marvel at the authenticity rather than mock it! It has to be said, of course, that both nations, language, accents and all have evolved over the last few hundred years, and therefore generalisations, simplifications and approximations are the order of the day. But I’ve made the basic point.

Which brings me on to the Great English Fraud. Here in Mexico, like most of the world I suspect, British English has prestige. It’s the original. The pure form of the language. Superior. Or so the reputation would have it. And yet, apparently not. Perhaps I should keep this quiet, lest my students discover I’m teaching them a modern, twisted, thoroughly unauthentic, bastardized version of the language. Both in the vocab and the accent.

Meh. What do they care. Many Mexicans tend to aspire away from America and towards the glamour, history and faraway glow of Europe anyway. But is one version better than the other? Is British English really superior anyway? Many would say they’re simply different.

I’ll play devils advocate, and, a little treacherously, declare  that American English is in fact the better variant of the English language. But don’t tell the two students in the photo below. They wouldn’t stay smiling for long…

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25 thoughts on “The Great English Fraud

  1. Ian says:

    I’d heard this story before, but it still amazes me (I’m British).

    “To be or not to be, that is, like, the totally awesome question, dude!”

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  2. Reading this brought to mind a couple of Mexican English teachers here. They learned/teach book British English because of the prestige. Indeed, they speak well. Problem is, they learned formal, by the book British English, yet still carry a bit of the typical Mexican’s pronunciation of English sounds. The result is an accent sounding like a Mexican aristocrat speaking 19th century British English. They certainly feel their English is superior to the degenerate American English. Perhaps I should send them this post. Or, insist on speaking formal Spanish as a Spaniard? 😉

    PS – This is meant as tongue-in-cheek. Both teachers are my friends, but I haven’t the courage to inform them of their odd cadence. Maybe one day if they visit England they will realize it.

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  3. When watching a British film I often have trouble understanding the English speakers – I admit I have taken to calling them marble mouths – as their speech comes out as if they have a mouth full of marbles masking their words.

    I did not know that the more formal and proper English more closely resembles our U.S. version of English – makes me feel better and still more bothered about the marble mouth speeches I try and decipher in some English films 😉

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    • Having claimed that, indirectly (but truthfully, certainly in my experience) that my British accent is a winner when trying to pick up students in Mexico, it is an indisputable fact that my aforementioned accent is utterly unintelligible to those students for the first lesson or two. Sometimes more. So don’t despair. 🙂

      Another problem, that I didn’t mention in the post, is what exactly is a British accent? Strike one* for the Americans, who have a fairly mild range of accents that are rarely strong, with the exception of some of those on the eastern seaboard – those that ‘imitate’ the evolved version of the British accent.

      Numerous British accents can go to extremes that make the language sound like gibberish elsewhere within the country. Fancy a conversation with a little Cockney Rhyming slang? Some Glaswegian?

      I think it’s safe to say that the true representation of British accent internationally is the Queens English. Or BBC English. With a slight drawl, as per New York, Boston etc. But far more polite. Terribly polite in fact. As practised by Stephen Fry and Hugh Grant. Stephen Fry’s partner in crime can do both US and UK accents, of course.

      But it’s this more formal accent that is new, and departed from the mainstream US accent, not the other way round.

      *A very American phrase. I assume. But my assumptions on this subject have been sufficiently incorrect to prompt this post! I may have used it wrongly. Perhaps I should have stuck to British English, and simply said, one nil to the Americans!

      I’m waffling now!

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  4. Sid Ayted says:

    Being a Londoner, originally, living in Texas, with a Mexican-born Chinese wife has presented me with some interesting linguistic opportunities. On the bright side, I have been exposed to a multitude of really cool and unusual accents, on the flip side of that, trying to understand ‘Changlish’ is sometimes a challenge.

    Bill Bryson has some fantastic books that provide some very interesting and humorous history of the similarities and difference between the two language variants you mention. Check out ‘The Mother Tongue’ and ‘Made in America’ for some good reading.

    http://www.google.com/search?tbs=bks:1&tbo=p&q=+inauthor:%22Bill+Bryson%22

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  5. I always remember watching on Canal Onze one of those gritty, earnest films about working class blokes in the North of England and only able to follow the story by reading the Spanish subtitles. There’s something on the order of 25 recognized “American English accents” (and about 75 “British English” ones), so I always wonder which one is THE accent. For a time, I worked with a school that hired Nigerian teachers, since our Mexican students claimed they had the best accents. Go figger.

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  6. Well done! Yes, British English has a certain prestige. I lived over a year in Tegucigalpa, Honduras near The England School. Not the English School. England. The prestige was that one could learn better English there than say, the American School or some other bilingual school. Interesting.

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    • There are a couple of plus points I can think of to teaching British English. most of the better course books seem to be in British English. In my experience anyway. also, if you like to play videos in class now and then, British programming (my opinion again!) is much better!

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  7. Kim G says:

    Well, I’m sure you’ve researched your point well, but it does raise an interesting question. If indeed American English is the more “true” or “historical” accent, then what of Australia, New Zealand, and the English-speaking bits of India? All their accents are far more similar to most British accents than they are to American English. So how would it be that these geographically disparate areas all moved their accents in more or less the same direction while the Americans held fast to the mother tongue?

    That’s the problem I have with the American-as-original-English theory.

    But I’m keeping an open mind.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we have plenty of regional accents within 50 miles or so.

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    • I have a couple of ideas, assuming the Aussies etc accents and language use are more similar. To me, they sound more like Americans than Brits. But anyway, as I mentioned, some accents and English use in the US did evolve with those in the UK due to greater and more extensive contact with the UK. Would it be surprising that language in Oz etc also evolved with the UK, especially considering that immigration from the UK continued on a massive, even increasing, scale right up to just a few decades ago. more than a million in the aftermath of WW2 alone.

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  8. Pingback: Border Athletics | The Mexile

    • A friend did post this on Facebook recently….I thought about adding it to the comments here, but I couldn’t get past what a dork he looked! But he does have a range of accents on him, so given the topic of the post I guess you adding it here is a good thing!

      What he should have done is cut out the chat crap at the beginning and got straight into the accents, with his mug hidden behind some cool typography like in this video….

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  9. GRY says:

    I (a Canadian) recall teaching English for a bit in Japan with a guy from Manchester who opined that students of English should avoid Brits and seek out a Scandinavian teacher instead (presumably for linguistic reasons).

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    • Well, I’m not sure I’d say international students should avoid Brits. Maybe just Mancs! 🙂

      Only kidding of course, although it is fair to say that Brits with strong, regional accents might find some doors closed to them. I know of a Brummie who got rejected from a school in DF based on his rather broad brogue*. And they employ anyone. Except, as it turned out, Brummies. He did get enough work elsewhere to pay the bills though.

      I’m also pretty dubious about the merits of employing a Scandinavian teacher over a British (or American/Canadian, Australian etc) one, assuming they are non native English speakers, particularly for upper intermediate or advanced students. Which I would imagine is a pretty safe assumption.

      I know a fair few very advanced Mexican students, and a couple of pretty fluent university level professors here. But no matter how good they are, they all fall far short in comparison to my good self (or any other reasonably literate native English speaker) when it comes to phrasal verbs, phrases and the contexts they can be used in. Pronunciation too.

      That is my number one selling point as a teacher, and one that a non native speaker, who doesn’t have my 37 years of full time English language use and experience, cannot compete with.

      I did lose out on a potential job to a non native teacher at a university in DF once though, about six months after I arrived here. The course was for the university’s own English teachers, all of whom wanted to add a little more polish to their fluency. The interviewer, who also had sole say in choosing the successful candidate, was most unimpressed that I couldn’t speak much Spanish, and told me I’d be no good if I couldn’t translate words.

      I tried to point out that a class at that level should have zero spoken Spanish in it, but she wouldn’t believe me. I tried to make a point by asking her to translate ‘mas o menos’ into English, with regard to common usage. “More or less” she triumphantly stated.

      Nope. I explained her error, but that just seemed to put her back up even more. I didn’t get the job. But truth be told, I didn’t expect to get the job. I fully expected it to go to my one rival, a company owned by her brother.

      I did get some satisfaction. None of the uni’s teachers, all of whom spoke better English than their new teacher, bothered to turn up for the course.

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