I suppose we could start with that bizarre word "queue". To me, it captures the essence of British English, although in fact the term has French antecedents.
To wit: "from Old French cue, coe "tail" (12c., also "penis"), from Latin coda (dialectal variant or alternative form of cauda) "tail," of unknown origin" – – Online Etymology Dictionary
(I am trying not to laugh. Let's move on.)
"Queue", btw, now simply means to "stand in line", which is the simple phrase Americans employ to denote this process. In British English "queue" can serve as a verb or a noun, e.g. "We queued for an hour." or "We stood in the queue."
Today I have promised to explain why I believe that, whereas British English is invariably held in higher esteem, in fact, American English may be more serviceable in the time-is-money arena of the 21st century, and I think the example above works well to demonstrate how idiosyncratic British English can be compared to other native English speaking countries. Need more? Well, Brits "hoover" the carpet instead of merely using a vacuum cleaner, and when it rains they take with them their "brawley", instead of their umbrella. Likewise, when signing their names to a document, they use a "biro" and not a ballpoint pen.
I have noticed also that the educated English, in particular, tend to swallow half of their words due to their tendency to begin a speech while actually inhaling air. So "Thank you" often comes out merely as "…you!" "DictionARY" is pronounced "dictionRY". Leicester is not Lie-ses-ter but Lester. Grosvenor Place is just Grove-ner Place in British pronunciation. But "law" becomes "law-er" and clerk becomes clark. Shrewsbury is said as Shrowsbury. And so on.
Some of these wild ways of saying words can be explained by what is known as The Great Vowel Change which occurred in England during the Middle Ages. (If any of you would like to have a tremendous philological experience, please find a rendition of one of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as it would sound in the original Middle English. I listened to one when I was studying Chaucer in grad school and I still remember it.You will laugh your ass off and learn something super at the same time.
I had never imagined that while the differences in American and British English by no means outweigh the similarities, they are vast nevertheless. As an ESL instructor, I spend no small amount of time illustrating and explaining these differences. Sometimes, indeed, I find myself getting annoyed because the two cultures seemed OBSESSED with calling the same thing by different names: elevator/lift, truck/lorry, doctor's office/doctor's surgery, etc. The list runs into the hundreds. I actually lived in England for seven years without noticing it as acutely as I do now, probably because it is part of my job.
In my last blog, I extolled the wonders, especially in terms of dramatization of language, of the British. Even an uneducated eight-pint- a- night chap in a workman's pub is proud to be of the nation that produced Shakespeare — and he is also able to tell a joke and make it sound funny whether, in substance, it is funny or not. The average American is baffled by Shakespeare (being from the land of Edison and Henry Ford) and is apt to turn the most hilarious joke into one of those situations similar to when people are smiling for the camera but then the camera fails to function properly, and so they start to grimace and frown just as the snap is finally shot — the result causing them to seem to glower in a sort of pissed-off confusion instead of beaming with the intended "Say cheese!"happiness. I remember how my step-father could ruin the funniest jokes in the world. It was like an art-form in and of itself. When he finally got to the punch line a bewildered silence would descend over the guests. It was a riot for me, not a comedy but Black comedy. Bless his soul.
Some emotional distraction, anyway) (from editor, AK)
But there are advantages in American English and many very annoying aspects in the British version. Unless you are mixed up in corporate culture or you are pencil-pusher, bean-counter, or politician — and if you are American — you speak directly and have a built-in hatred of pompous affectation, unlike certain elements of the British. This probably explains why writers like Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway (at his brief best) remain read and revered in the USA. You must remember that America (the USA version) was built, for better or worse, upon the backs of adventurers, pilgrims, and deported convicts and religious fanatics, and gradually forged together by frontiersmen and cowboys. Those kinds of people did not have time to memorize Keats and Shelley. They were hard and tough, and even today the no-nonsense American way of speaking reflects that. The Brits were tough too in the true Anglo-Saxon fashion, but the British Isles in 1066 suffered a crushing Norman (French) invasion, and the Conquerers brought their language along with their spears. The upshot of it was that French tongue found something of a permanent home in England, and, even after the Normans had finally been driven out, the French lingo (in England no less than in places like aristocratic Russia) took hold as a symbol of high culture. And, just as it needed Pushkin to show Russians the intrinsic magic of Russian language, so Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare were called upon to persuade the English of the beauty of Englishness. But even today you will find that British English is chock full of French words and expressions, and it is difficult to escape the suspicion that the most irritating of Brits use it as a means of showing off their "sophistication." Therefore, while some Brits of the most precious order sleep beneath the warmth of a "duvet", Americans repose under a mere "bedspread." Americans pronounce the word "fracas" (a scruffy kind of fight) as "fray-kus", whereas I once heard a Brit call it a "fra-cow." And while these same refined Brits relieve themselves in the "ensuite toilette", Americans just piss in the can next to the bed. (Well, not quite. They call it a "bathroom") American English tells it like it is, often with a remarkable level of obnoxiousness.
American English is aggressive, assertive; British English more reticent and self-effacing. The Yank will say, "I have been successful." The Brit will say "I have not been unsuccessful." At its worst, American English is overkill; at its worst British English is too retiring. Americans say what they think; Brits tend to avoid this at all costs. The result of both ways can be disastrous. Americans have produced an "In your face" culture with a bumper sticker mentality, e.g. "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it." And "God, guns, and guts made America great." British people will quite rightfully guffaw at such nonsense, but at least in the USA, the language lets you know where you stand. With English people –, for some reason I am struck by an image of the actor Hugh Grant, who made a career of hemming-and-hawing and sort of looking for the most inoffensive way of putting things, etc, a gimmick that worked for me once in a great film called "Three Weddings and a Funeral" and never again.– the main goal is to be polite and NEVER say what you really think. British culture, moreover, has traditionally enforced with the sternest discipline the virtue of suppressing emotion. It produced the steely and much-renowned "stiff upper lip" required to build an empire, but it also spawned generation after generation of impassive, anal-retentive, inwardly frustrated and secretly furious hypocrites.That remains true to this day.For instance:
""Oy Mate, how are you? Great to see you!. How's the wife? The nippers (kids)? Everything OK?. So, I'll see you one evening for a pint or two, yeah? Alllllll right then, Cheers, mate! All the best!" Then, after the guy is gone…. said under the breath: "Bloody wanker.!"
Yep, that's how some of them are. Sweet upfront, nasty (and cruel) later on.
Both nations SMILE too damned much. That would be just dandy if the smiles were not made of plastic.
But enough! I am out of space for today. Tomorrow I will discuss the differences in grammar. C-H-E-E-R-S !!!
===Eric Richard Le Roy===