London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

English As She Is Spoken

25/08/2003, By David McIntosh

Reader Rating: 3 from 26030 votes


Of all of the things for which the English are famous, the thing they are best known for is the way they speak. People everywhere have been rumored to go all gooey at the sound of an English accent - one American columnist once wrote that an Englishman reading the directions off a box of detergent could make it sound like the Magna Carta. Now one thing to understand is that there is really no such thing as ‘the English accent’ or only one right accent - the British Isles are home to a rich and wondrous variety of different ways of speaking and hearing them all is an adventure and a glimpse into just how rich and textured the spoken language can be. On your visit to Britain, don’t just open your eyes to new sights, open your ears to new sounds.

What most people consider the ‘proper’ English accent is actually something called RP or received pronunciation, as in the style of speaking one receives when he attends the right schools such as Oxford or Cambridge. Linguists, however, refer to it as SES or southern English Standard and some people think of it as ‘BBC English’ from a time when presenters on the ‘beeb’ (or ‘Auntie beeb’ as people used to call it) wore tails when at the microphone and strived to adhere to rigid standards of pronunciation and usage. Generations of listeners to the ‘wireless’ (radio) and viewers of the ‘telly’ (television) considered the ‘beeb’ way of speaking as the standard. An exaggerated form of this style of speaking goes by the name ‘cut glass,’ in which the speaker almost sounds as if he has a lisp. Most people in England consider the ‘cut glass’ style of speaking a bit affected.

Just one example of the richness of language in Britain is the Geordie accent or dialect spoken by people in the north eastern part of England, around Newcastle. People from other parts of England have, in the past, admitted the challenge that understanding Geordie presents. Others in the British Isles might wish you a nice day but a Geordie will say ‘canny day, honey'. Canny elsewhere might mean clever but in Newcastle it means ‘nice’.

Eliza Doolittle

Then there’s the cockney accent with rhyming phrases and words that have no apparent relation to the meaning (part of a way cockneys used, so it’s said, of keeping outsiders from understanding what the conversation was about). You may think you can understand a cockney having seen Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins or Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady or maybe heard some stand-up comedian attempt an imitation in search of a laugh but take our word for it; you ain’t heard cockney til’ you’ve heard a cockney.

I think it was Winston Churchill who once said that the United States and the United Kingdom are countries separated or divided by a common language. Sometimes words and usages can differ - like the subway - and the result may even be humorous but in the end it’s a testament to the richness and variety of the English language. It may annoy the French (and what’s so wrong with that) but these days English truly is the lingua franca of much of the world. And the reason is that English has shown a flexibility and fluid nature unknown to people like, oh say, the French, who prefer to carve their language in stone then pat themselves on the back as it petrifies and hardens into something guaranteed to drive first year foreign language student slightly batty. Just think of the guffaws from everyone in the non-Francophobe world when the French government banned the use of the term e-mail and substituted some ungainly and ugly sounding made-up French term. You get my point.

Sir Winston Churchill

But I digress, since we’re supposed to be talking about the differences between American and British English. So, let’s take a few moments and examine some of the different ways that two peoples speak the same language.

Let’s start with shopping for everyday items of clothing. Suppose you’re rummaging through your suitcase and realize you forgot to pack any undershirts. Well, when you find yourself at Harrod’s, Selfridge’s or Mark and Spencer (known by locals as Marks and Sparks) remember to ask the salesclerk for vests because that what a tee-shirt goes by in Britain. If you need underwear you’ll need knickers. Oh, and should you decide you need a raincoat be sure to purchase a ‘mac’ (short for Macintosh - I couldn’t resist that). Maybe it’s a chilly day out and you think you might need a sweater to keep warm. No problem. Just be sure to find a shop with a good selection of jumpers (in the states a jumper, by the way, refers to a particular type of dress for young girls and are usually a type of school uniform). Could be the wife’s pantyhose have a run in them. What she needs is a new pair of tights. Engage in a bit of bargain hunting and you might save a few quid (a few pounds).

Now that we’re probably attired or have our proper ‘kit’ as they say in England, it’s time to think of heading out for a bite to eat since you’re feeling a bit peckish, or hungry. Just so you’re not mystified by the menu let’s spend a few moments learning how to order. If it’s breakfast you’re after then you’ll have to try a fry-up, which is the traditional English breakfast of eggs with sausage and a rasher of bacon, plus baked beans and tomatoes. Or maybe you’d like kipper with that. Excuse me, what you say is kipper? Easy, it’s a smoked fish that just happens to be very good.

Pie and a Pint

But it just happens to be another time of the day or you don’t feel like breakfast. When you look at the menu you’ll see starters, which are the appetizers, and ‘mains’ which is just another way of saying main course. Some great English dishes that are worth trying include cottage pie, ground meat and mashed potatoes baked in a pie; or maybe a joint (I can hear the snicker of you flower children in the back- stop it) which is meat roasted on the bone. Another type of pie is called the shepherd’s pie, it’s a pie comprised of meat and veggies then covered with mashed potatoes and gravy and baked in the oven. Could be you’re in a hurry, and that’s understandable since there’s so much in London to see, and a quick bite is all you can spare the time for. A ploughman’s lunch should hit the spot. You can find a ploughman’s lunch in any pub - pub grub if you will - and it’s some bread and cheese or maybe pate’.

After you’ve finished mains it’s time for ‘afters’, or dessert which can include a piece of sponge or sponge cake or maybe spotted dick (stop snickering) which steamed sponge with raisins and fruit served with custard. Spotted dick without the fruit and served with a warm butterscotch sauce is known as sticky toffee pudding.

Oops, you’ve gone and spilled a bit of the toffee pudding on your jacket; don’t ask your waiter for an extra napkin (that’s a baby diaper - also called a ‘nappy’), what you need to dab off that bit of pudding is a serviette. Just thought you’d like to know.

We should take a moment here to give credit to the folks back in the kitchen working hard at preparing your meal on the ‘cooker’, in other words slaving over the stove. Speaking of cookers, England is home to that world famous design classic, the timeless AGA cooker, which occupies a place of honor in many of the best kitchens to found anywhere.

Now that we’ve finished dining it’s time to settle up things and ask for the bill, or check and then head back on our way. Oops, it’s raining outside, better reach for your brolly, that’s umbrella for those of you from distant shores. Of course we already puchased our ‘mac’ didn’t we?

Sounds like we’re about ready for a day on the town. It’s going to be ‘brilliant’ - another way of saying great or the brit-speak equivalent of the American ‘cool.’ During your day on the town you’ll meet a lot of really pleasant people; do remember to thank them for their courtesy, tell them thank you or’kew.’ When you’re saying good bye to a newly found friend in London, just say ‘cheers’ (which is also spoken when giving a toast). Also as you see the sights and make new friends around London, there’s a good chance you’ll have to join a queue or line at some of the museums and galleries. In fact, you’ll need to remember that in the UK near the top of the faux pas list is ‘breaking the queue’ or jumping ahead in line.

It’s almost evening and after a brilliant day of touring London we’re pretty well ‘knackered’, well truthfully who wouldn’t be tired after seeing all there is to see in the world’s most exciting city. Time to head back to the hotel; and as go up to our room on the ‘lift’ or elevator, we can plan in our minds tomorrow’s adventures and activities because no matter how many of London’s attractions you’ve seen today, rest assured there’s always tomorrow. There’s, a lot more to see. And hear.

David McIntosh

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Re: English As She Is Spoken

By Anonymous 01/09/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 24577 votes)

As the son of a Mancunian who first came to Britain as a "Yank" in 1943 and married a young lady from Islington (no, not a war bride) and have been coming to England on a regular basis ever since, I feel I am somewhat of an expert on this subject. I get a big big laugh out of Americans who become impressed with English accents that actually are bloody awful. I was really surprised that you called Geordie the accent of Manchester. I was always under the impression that was the "language" of Newcastle.

<b>Editor: a slight mistake, changed now.</b>

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Re: English As She Is Spoken

By Alfred Ross 01/09/2003, (Rating: 3 from 24647 votes)

I am Annonymous and for some reason I was cut off before I completed my posting. Getting back to Newcastle and Geordie, I once asked for car directions near Newcastle and almost thought the man was not speaking English, let alone a dialect.

I am surprised by some of the pronunciation differences,especially the anglicised French words like filet in which Americans retain the French pronunciation "filay" while the English say "filette". Or Americans say BroCHURE rather than BROcher as in England. I would have imagined that the English would have retained the French pronunciation.

How about the English saying conTROVersy while we say
CONtroversy. Or we say aloominum(aluminum)while you say aluminium and spell it that way.

My wife speaks a beautiful what you call southern standard English, but is wonderfully adept at real cockney and we are surprised that it is still found in the East End. One would think that regional accents would be fading out with national television being such a factor.

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Re: English As She Is Spoken

By Angela Ross 02/09/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 24774 votes)

I am English and am interested to find out which accents Alfred thinks are 'bloody awful' and what is his justification for his choice? England is full of thousands of different accents and dialects each reflecting the richness of the area, the history and even class of the speaker. Most people in Britain are very proud of their accent and proud that it is an indication of their background.

Accents in Britain are changing slowly but with so much of our identity tied into the way we shape our vowels or use our colloquialisms, I think it would take more than a few sitcoms to change us all into having the same accent.

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Re: English As She Is Spoken

By JH 02/09/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 24329 votes)

And you are quite correct, I am from a village near Manchester and I never in my life heard anything so ridiculous, Newcastle is indeed the Geordie section of the country, this guy is wrong.

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Re: English As She Is Spoken

By Martha Pedersen-Jones 02/09/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 24550 votes)

I enjoyed the article, but am confused; I have always been under the impression that a Geordie is a Scot. Oh dear!

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Re: English As She Is Spoken

By Carole Mayo 01/09/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 24453 votes)

I really enjoyed your article. But you made a huge mistake in paragraph 3. Geordies are NOT from Manchester in the northwest. Geordies are from Newcastle in the northeast and have a totally different accent from Mancunians. Your example of the word canny is Geordie usage.
Also I am assuming something was cut because paragraph five said to see “see subways above” but there was nothing to refer back to.

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Re: English As She Is Spoken

By Karen 01/09/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 24455 votes)

As an American lady who 'asn't heard many English accents, I can only say that the ones I have heard have made me go all 'gooey'. I love the accent<s> and hope to be able to hear more of them one day. A dream of mine is to visit England and believe me, my ears will be open... ta ta... Karen

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Re: English As She Is Spoken

By Jess Green 01/09/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 24793 votes)

I am amazed! You said Geordie was a Manchester accent??? Surely you mean a Newcastle accent or better still, north eastern?????

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Re: English As She Is Spoken

By David McIntosh 02/09/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 24582 votes)

To all of the above who so kindly pointed out my mistake I think you. Geordie is indeed Newcastle and "this guy" as one of you so kindly refers to me as is wrong. I simply made a mistake with my notes and I apologize. Again, many thanks to everyone for catching my error. That is one of the strengths of the internet is that mistakes can be caught and quickly corrected.

Sincerely
David McIntosh

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Re: English As She Is Spoken

By D.Smyth 02/09/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 24100 votes)

Here in Canada, many of us struggle to maintain English usage, if not accents. We can become livid when words such as "honour" are misspelled without the "u'(although most Canadian newspapers use the American form, mainly because it saves a surprising amount of space.) Whereas New York has its "west side" Toronto has a "west end." Nor do we have "railroads." They are "railways" (admittedly poor substitutes for the excellent British trains.)

We also call the last letter of the alphabet "zed" rather than "zee" and our army, such as it is, has "left-enants" rather than "loo-tenants. Yet American usage is common in many other areas. We write "checks" rather than "cheques" and ride the "subway" rather than walk through it. Our cars have "hoods" rather than "bonnets" and on Saturday we go to "garage sales" or "yard sales" rather than "car boot sales." Another interesting fact is that unlike Britain or the US, there are almost no regional accents or dialects.

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Re: English As She Is Spoken

By Graham Wright 07/09/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 24708 votes)

One also needs to ask as to why the Americans saw fit to change the spelling and 'bastardise' their mother tongue and make it considerably different from the more correct English used by us here in Britain. It seems to me that most of the spelling differences have been put there to cater for those Americans that cannot grasp the complexities of the language as it should be used.

One can knock the French as much as they wish, but the French have an academy for the French language, which insists on its correct usage. It seems to me that the Americans have done the same with England's language as it has with everything else 'American'. It has taken something from the UK, its mother country, and changed it in such a dramatic fashion so that America can call it its own. Putting that minor skirmish known as the 'war' of independence aside, what would the USA be now if it wasn't for the culture and language that it took from the UK? It would probably be in league with its Southern American cousins and a third world country besides!

As an Englishman, it annoys me when I hear brash Americans boasting about how much better things are 'back home' whilst they are in London, because, without all the input from us English in the building of their nation, it would amount to nothing!

<b>Editor: A rather serious response to a very light-hearted article!</b>

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Re: English As She Is Spoken

By Jane 07/09/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 24335 votes)

Graham,

I will admit that I have been embarrassed on the two occasions that I have seen Americans behaving badly in Britain in terms of "things back home." I do see your point, but quite frankly, sir, you need to dismount from your high horse!

I am British, though I live in the US, and am offended at the practically hostile tone of your email. You can call it "bastardization" if you like, but perhaps you can put aside your pomposity for half a second and realize there is such a thing as "evolution" both in language in in culture, you pompous git! It only makes sense that in two countries as far separated by both distance and 226 years of cultural development, there just might be a bit of divergence between the two.

Cheers (hardly...)

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Re: English As She Is Spoken

By Pirate 21/09/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 24997 votes)

You sound very angry maybe you should stop spending so much energy in worrying about us (Americans). You sound a bit jealous!

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Re: English As She Is Spoken

By Judy Sweet 06/10/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 24287 votes)

I think perhaps that Graham Wright has forgotten that language is an ever-growing, constantly changing thing.

As for the "more correct English used in Britain", since Graham is not speaking the English Language as was spoken by Chaucer, nor by Shakespeare, can we then assume that he also "cannot grasp the complexities of of the language" used by his countrymen?

Of course not. The language has evolved, just as we have. We no longer speak Old English. In regards to the spelling differences, 200 years ago, spelling was not a constant. Relatively speaking, dictionaries are a fairly new item in the history of language. Look at Shakespeare and see how many ways he spelled his own last name! Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh) as well.

As someone else mentioned, 227 years and a lot of miles make a huge difference in a language.

I think Mr Wright just has a chip on his shoulder.

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Re: English As She Is Spoken

By Augusta Eller 20/09/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 24593 votes)

As a West Virginian living in the Detroit area, near Windsor, Ontario, Canada, I do believe Canadians have regional accents. The people in the Windsor area speak very much like the old timers of French Canadian heritage living in southeastern Michigan. I once vacationed, holidayed to the British, in northern Ontario and listened to some visitors from Toronto speak. I found their speech quite different from the Windsor natives and tricky to understand. I worked with a native of Alberta and she did not speak at all like the Ontario natives. People from Ontario pronounce about "aboot" or "aboat". Albertans pronounce it as Americans do. So to me Canadians do have regional accents.

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Re: English As She Is Spoken

By Martine 02/09/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 24499 votes)

Very interesting article, especially on the meaning of some words depending on the side of the Ocean you are...

As you say when people travel, they should not only open their eyes, but their ears too... A country is made of different landscapes and accents.

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Re: English As She Is Spoken

By Vicki Park 04/09/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 24203 votes)

I really enjoyed your article and smiled through most of it. Also I sent the link to my daughter who will become a "not ordinary resident of the UK" attending university in a few weeks time. Thanks so much for some enlightenment of a charming language!

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