Most people would assume that those who speak English as their native language should easily understand each other; after all, surely the words and the sentence structures are the same. But not everything is what it seems, and that the truth is communication between Anglophone countries can still get lost in translation.
There are five countries considered to be majority English speakers: Britain, Ireland, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. However, the English spoken in these lands is separated not only by distance but also by time (length of time that the place has been settled by English speaking settlers). Just as animals of the same species will evolve differently if stranded on separate islands for long enough, language also develops and changes according to the time it has, and the influences exerted upon it. English arrived in these countries through the British Empire and colonization and developed diverse flavors through the amount of time it took to become to become established and the other different languages, accents, and culture it was exposed to.
The two Anglophone countries with the most considerable differences in their English are the USA and Britain, probably because the US has been settled for longer by the British than any of the other countries. It has had time to develop its own unique nuances. It is this relationship and its breakdowns in communication that we will be concentrating on in this article. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand still retain many elements of British English, and Canada, in particular, has also absorbed many American traits. Australians and New Zealanders can sometimes speak with broad accents and use words and colloquialism particular to their cultures, but there does not seem to be too many problems in communicating with the other Anglophone nations. However, if Americans sometimes find it hard to understand the British, they can take comfort in the fact that in some cases the British can’t understand one another either.
Even the Brits Get Confused Amongst Themselves
Thanks to centuries of invasion and settlement, Britain today has a plethora of dialects and accents. It has been said that every few miles you will hear a change in pronunciation. Some accents have gained notoriety for being hard to understand, especially broad Scouse (from Liverpool), Geordie (from Tyneside), Northern Irish, and Scottish English (as opposed to Scottish Gaelic, which is another language entirely). Out of all of them, a thick Scottish accent is probably the most unintelligible to all but those who use it. There is the somewhat amusing example of a Scottish Member of Parliament (MP) who seems to be speaking a foreign language according to his peers.1 Alan Brown, the MP for Kilmarnock and Loudon has said that, “It first became really clear to me not just when it was ministers looking to respond, but it became a running joke with my colleagues that even if I asked a two-line question, Hansard2 would send me a note asking me to confirm what I said.”3
So, if the British have trouble understanding each other, what chance do other countries have? As mentioned earlier, out of all the other native English-speaking countries, people of the US seem to have the most trouble in understanding many things that the British say.
There have been numerous UK shows and films shown in the US that have caused significant difficulty to the American audience. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels – about London East End criminals is one such example, as the dialect used in it – Cockney – is fast and incorporates rhyming slang and colloquialisms not likely to be understood by the general American audience.4 In the comments of an article entitled “Open Forum Friday: Should British Films Be Subtitled for U.S. Audiences?”, there was a clear consensus that many people had trouble understanding British slang and expressions.5
Do Brits have the same trouble with understanding American dialects? Strangely enough, no. American TV, film, and music have been part of British culture for a long time, and British people have had far more exposure to American culture than vice versa. Therefore it has been easier for them to attune their ears to the different regional accents and to learn the various words and expressions used in daily life. So much so, in fact, that Americanisms have started to creep into British English. However, there does seem to be one US accent, like the thick Scottish accent, that both Brits and Americans have problems with, and that is southern Appalachian speech.6 Interestingly, it has its origins in Scottish and Irish settlers, which may account for some of its impenetrability.
Luckily, those wishing to avoid the worst of communication errors learn to use the standardized version of their language (Standard British English, also known as Received Pronunciation, Standard American English, Standard Australian English, and so on). These standardizations use a neutral accent (as much as is possible), clear speech and no colloquialisms. Of course, even this does not always work, as it is too easy to forget the other person might not understand the joke you have just made or a cultural reference that is country specific.
It is not just the words that get in the way either – it may also be a clash of cultural personality. For example, the British have a tendency to be reserved and do not readily promote themselves whereas in America self-promotion and talking about talents and achievements is second nature. Thus, a British person may come across as lacking confidence or as being unfriendly whereas to them, an American may sound brash and boastful.
Rules To Communicate By
Language is continually changing and adapting according to what other influences it encounters. There is already evidence that American English is sneaking into British English and vice versa. It can be assumed that this is also happening in the other Anglophone countries. While this has always been the case, it seems that the homogenization of language is accelerating mainly due to the influence of cross-cultural media. Until then though, it is wise to bear in mind a few rules that make English-to English understanding a little easier.
Here Are Some Take-Aways:
Speak clearly and not too fast. However, do not talk so slowly that the other party assumes that they think you are an idiot!
Avoid colloquialisms. If you are from Manchester, in the UK, for example, stay away from phrases such as “Will I ‘eck as like”, which translates into “I’m not doing that.”
And if you are American, asking someone from the UK for his ‘John Hancock’ may well cause a few raised eyebrows, as to a Brit it sounds, well, a bit rude.
Avoid jokes. It is a well-known fact that British and American humor is different. Bear in mind that cultural personalities can be different too. Learn how different countries communicate not just with words, but also with tone.
These points also hold true for when talking with those who have English as a second language or are English learners. Often those that speak English as a second or third language (or perhaps as a forth or fifth) find it easier to communicate among themselves rather than with native speakers as they have been taught to speak clearly and simply. To further this point, there are also very unique words or phrases only understood in that culture. In other words, even if these phrases or words are English, a person in another English-speaking country would have no idea what this would mean. Here’s a fascinating piece we did on the topic of language diversity and the Philippines.
Translation or interpretation is about understanding across cultures. Language professionals perform their linguistic services so that written and spoken words are effectively communicated. While it is obvious that the need for these services are apparent in languages that are very different, such as between Japanese and Italian.As we have discussed, this is no always the case. Even among English-speakers, there are plenty of “lost in translation” moments that can significantly impact meaning. In our next series on languages, we will discuss the diversity of the English language, as it is adopted across the globe, highlighting some of these challenges. In addition, we will also discuss differences in Spanish.
- You can hear an example of how Alan Brown, MP, speaks in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_nOJdShvNo
- Hansard is the official published report of everything that is said and happens in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords in the UK parliament.
- Jamieson, Sophie, Scottish MP reveals his accent is so thick it has to be translated when he speaks in the commons’, The Telegraph, 2017/04/03, accessed at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/04/03/scottish-mp-reveals-accent-thick-has-translated-speaks-commons/, on 2017/12/20
- For a funny look at the Cockney accent and rhyming slang, watch this You Tube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFJeMqaFn0E
- ‘Open Forum Friday: Should British Films Be Subtitled For U.S. Audiences?’, Film Junk, 2011/03/25, accessed at https://filmjunk.com/2011/03/25/open-forum-friday-should-british-films-be-subtitled-for-u-s-audiences/ on 2017/12/19
- For an example of South Appalachian, watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPhH0rF7jTE