English Language: American or British?

2006-10-30 14:31:57    博士教育网  
  • A quarrel about how great would the differences between the two kinds of English be in the future caused vehement argument and the following is my point of view

    Being the paternal language of the other native Englishes (Canadian English, Australian English, New Zealand English and South African English), British English and American English today are the two main English languages of the English-speaking world. Although too many has already been said over how the scope, the types, and the possible effects of the inconsistency between the two kinds will be in the future, the quarrel on the issue has not come to an end at all.

    The cover of the journal Forum XXVII, No 3, July 1989, recalling the topic and provides a research of evidence of the difference between the two kinds of English over the centuries. Noah Webster (in Dissertations on the English Language) claimed that a further incompatibility of the American language from the English necessary and inevitable. He also predicted that “North American English would eventually be as different from British as Dutch, Danish and Swedish are from German or from one another”. Mark Twain (in The Stolen White Elephant) thought American and British English to be different languages and declared that the former, spoken “in its utmost purity”, cannot be understood by an English people at all. This attitude was previously expressed by Captain Thomas Hamilton (in Men and Manners in America). He said that “in another century, the dialect of the Americans will become utterly unintelligible to an Englishman.”

    Authors of the twentieth century hold entirely different attitude toward those of the previous centuries, they tend to have a much more distinctive feeling of sameness between American and British English. Thus, Mitford M. Mathews (from Beginnings of American English) sees the two kinds to be “so overwhelmingly alike.” For Stephen Leacock (from How to Write), “There is not the faintest chance of there ever being an American language as apart from English.” Randolph Quirk (in The New York Times Magazine), believes that, ”even in matters of pronunciation, it is difficult to find many absolute British and American distinctions”; Quirk claimed that even Noah Webster, after fruitless years in trying to create a “linguistic gulf”, “came to realize that in all essentials Britains and Americans spoke the same language”. Albert H. Marckwardt and Randolph Quirk lately expressed their conclusion that they consider British English and American as the same in their book A Common Language: British and American English. It’s Introduction which is an excerpt from the book reads that “The two varieties of English have never been so different as people have imagined, and the dominant tendency, for several decades now, has been that of convergence and even greater similarities.”

    The present books argues that this growing view of sameness between American and British English give out the risk of neglecting the existence of some significant differences whose impact in certain domains of life should not be overlooked. But before looking into the problems which arise from the differences between the two Englishes, I will give a background showing the development process of the status of American English in the world, its influence and expansion and analyze it’s causes of growing.

    1. The development and popularity of American English

    Long after its introduction into the New World, American English was still considered non-standard English. Mr. Kahane pointed out that according to some people of the 1780s American English was the “underdog” or a peasant’s language that a “gentleman” will not speak. Considered in a bilingual point of view, British English was the dominant language linked to prestige and (linguistic) purism. The belief in the authority or say in the superior of British English, has maintained to the twentieth century, especially in the former British Empire or in the fields of British influence. Thus, it is reported that in China, teachers and school textbooks refer to and recommend Received Pronunciation as the model, as well as standard British syntax, spelling and lexis. British English is also encouraged and accepted as the criteria of some major official examinations, for example, College English Test and Test for English Majors which are conducted by government. Similar situations could be found in other countries, for example, in Africa, the West African Examination Council and Joint Admission and Matriculation Board accept the British English as the standard English. Report can also be found that in Cairo, as recently as 1984, some university students received lower grades if they used American spellings instead of British. Modiano wrote that in Europe, “we find teachers, British people as well as natives of the country in which they work, who follow the British English standard, and scorn the American English”.

    However the above attitudes are nothing but the last influence of a long-gone period of British supremacy. According to Campbell and others, the beginning of a distinct lead of American English can be traced to the decades after World War II. This coincides with the simultaneous rise of the US as a military and technological power and the decline of the British Empire, which drove many to American English. And from then on, American English has continuously sent its influence to every corner of the planet.

    Britain made English an international language in the nineteenth century with its imperialism power, but Americans have been the driving force behind its globalization in the twentieth century. A great deal of examples of the influence of American English can be found in a large quantity of current books, magazines, movies. According to Foster, the popularity of Americanism among the young generation in Britain is “the hall-mark of the tough-guy and the he-man”. After reviewing the presence of American English features in the British variety of English itself, Awonusi gives a great deal of examples of Americanized English in phonology and lexis that he has identified co-exiting in his own Nigerian English. Modiano reports that, despite the influence of expert English teachers from Britain, Europeans “are subjected to a massive amount of American English”, which many students are much more interested in. Campbell’s examples of the influence of American English include the fact that young people in Europe, Asia and Russia use it in daily conversation, even when many of them have been taught British English. In Brazil, people demand for courses in American style rather than British. This is because American English is infiltrating the territories formerly known to be the territory of British English influence, for example, Nigeria, Egypt, Thailand, and more forcefully penetrating Latin America, Japan, and south Korea. Americanized words like guy, campus, movie which do not exist in British English, are now widely used. Today even the BBC, which has long used British English speaking announcers exclusively, now added American announcers in its broadcasts, especially in programs that go to countries like South Korea, where American English is favored.

    According to Campbell’s estimate, 70% of the roughly 350 million native English speakers speak the American version of English. In fact, the populations of the two leading mother tongue English countries are even more suggestive: The United States has a population of about 260 million while there is only about 55 million in Britain. This seemingly gives the American English much more advantage. The causes of the unprecedented expansion of American English include, as stated above, the post-World War II military and technological advancement. They are for demographic, political reasons, or have to do with the computer and the internet, the mass media, trade, the Peace Corps, and immigration policies:

    The last few decades have witnessed an ever-increasing political domination of America on the planet. This status was further reinforced in the late 1980s by the fall of communism, which resulted in the US penetrating and consolidating its position in formerly socialist territories.
    The lead of the US in the computer and Internet industry has long been established. That Bill Gates and other computer geniuses are Americans, they create everything by Americanism. As a consequence of the US domination of computer industry, the favored language of this industry is American English, which force people who use American computer hardware and software to accept the American English, either consciously or unconsciously.
    American radio and television networks are spread all over the world. Campbell reports that, as recently as 1993, the United States controlled 75% of the world’s television programming, “beaming ‘Sesame Street’ to Lagos, Nigeria, for example”. The Voice of America and CNN have no competitors all over the world over.
    Trade with the US has steadily risen in volume over the past few years, even in territories formerly controlled by Britain and considered by many people to be count of bounds to America. For example, the US is one of Nigeria’s main partners in the crude oil business.
    The Peace Corps, founded by President J.F. Kennedy in 1962, has been a major cause of emigration of Americans to various parts of the Third World. The Peace Corps volunteers have been working in the medical sector, in agriculture, and very significantly in English language teaching, leaving considerable influence of American English after their returning back.
    The strict immigration laws of Britain, coupled with the alleged inhospitality of the British, have of late diverted to America students and people from various parts of the world seeking a substitute place — the United States. The chain reaction of this factor has resulted in much more migration to the US. For people hold the sense that they tend to find help from friends and relatives living in the States. The recent policy, enacted by the US, of the visa program to “recruit” 50,000 new immigrants to the States each year has added to the attempt to migrant to the US. The long-term reaction of the large migration to the States on the Americanization of English in native countries of the immigrants is obvious; the immigrants continue to communicate with their friends and relatives back in their homeland, and many eventually come back and settle.
    Told above is the story of the baby version of a English language that has grown and is threatening to shake the domination of the mother language. This phenomenon could hardly been seen elsewhere. Neither the case with Canadian, Belgian or Swiss French in relation to the French of France, nor with Latin American Spanish or Portuguese in relation to the Spanish or Portuguese of Spain or Portugal, respectively. The speaker, and especially the learner, of English is now faced with the task of managing the co-existence of the two competing languages. They are, however, not problem-free.

    The problems

    It is over simplified to say, like M. Mathews in the introduction above, that American English and British English are “so overwhelmingly alike” or, like Quirk equally cited above, that “even in matters of pronunciation, it is difficult to find many British and American absolute distinctions”. It really depends here on what quantity Quirk considers to be many. Already, the list of pronunciation differences that he and Marckwardt themselves give affects hundreds of words, which can be considered to be major, by any standard. Qualitatively, too, the differences are important. Learners all over the world will surely agree with me, for example, that the following differences are quite confusing: British English ant[i], mult[i]; sem[i]; do[sail], fu[tail]; l[e]sure, fer[tail], [lef]tenant, g[o]t, p[o]tter vs American English ant[ai]-, mult[ai], sem[ai]; do[sl], fer[tl]; l[i:]sure, [lu]tenant, g[a:]t, p[a:]tter. And there are many other such contrasts, In lexis and grammer, we can also find many distinct contrasts with an obvious incidence on communication, as will be shown later.

    Differences between American and British English do not matter when the speaker or writer is familiar with the two codes and can easily find in his/her own variety correspondences to features from the other variety. But confusion, embarrassment or sheer incomprehension will arise in many daily-life situations when the listener or reader who is not familiar with the other variety. Good illustrations come from your PC in this computer age: where your spelling checker, based on American English, identifies clour, centre, dialogue, civilise, towards, defence, enclose, travelled from your text as incorrectly spelt, you need to be familiar with the two varieties to know that your spelling checker expects American spellings which are color, center, dialog, civilize, toward, defense, inclose, traveled. (If your text is in British English you will simply click “ignore” and move on.)

    Knowledge of the two varieties is equally important in the classroom for the students and teachers where a decision often has to be made about what form is correct. If the teacher and students know that fiber and fibre, transportation and transport, proctor and invigilator, barette and hairslide, faucet and tap, fall and autumn, five years back and five years ago, Monday through Friday and Monday to Friday, a half meter and half a metre are features of American and British English, Respectively, the teaching and the learning process can proceed unhampered, if it is agreed that the two varieties are accepted. But it is dramatic, especially in a testing situation, when features used from one variety by the student are not known by the teacher/tester, familiar only with the other variety. The student will then be unjustly penalized.

    He/she will be all the more penalized as some features in one variety may clearly violate the grammar of the other variety. Many American changes of categories observed in some cases are in outright violation of British English grammar. For example, accommodation becomes countable (e.g. Good accommodations are rare); some irregular verbs become regular (e.g. broadcasted, shined); some regular verbs become irregular (snuck out for British English sneaked out); some intransitive verbs become transitive (e.g. The plane departed New York; We protested the salary cuts); some transitive verbs become intransitive (e.g. I visited with my friends for British English I visited my friends): some adjectives may be used as adverbs (e.g. It’s real nice). Other major violations of British English syntax are seen in usages such as: A is different than B, where than is used without the corresponding –er/more or less required for comparatives; in Susan wants out, where a whole verb and its preceding particle (to go) are omitted; in like I said where like, instead of British English as, introduces a clause; in I want for you to go, where there is a major intrusion of a preposition; in He looked out the window, where there is a major deletion of a preposition; in He just left, where, despite the clear fact that a past action has some relevance to the present, the present perfect is not used. And so on.

    An informal survey recently carried out among teachers of English who had been working for long, showed that, although they declared that they readily accepted American English, they would consider the above American English usages, and many more as incorrect. All they know of American English is –or for –our (e.g. color), -ize for ise, center for centre and similar minor and common differences.

    The problem of multiple standards is aggravated in countries like those of the former British Empire where indigenized varieties of English have already established themselves athoritively as local standards. There, the intrusion of American English adds to the already existing conflict and competition between British English and the local forms. Awonusi (1994) aptly describes this phenomenon in Nigeria. What’s more, other countries, like China, face a similar situation. In China English for example, the most interesting manifestation of this triple scale is when a local English form establishes itself, and differs from both the established British English and American English forms. For example, you relax in a sitting room in Britain, a living room in America and a parlour in China; you fill in form in Britain, fill out a form in the US and fill a form in China. Phonology offers many more of such systematic contrasts.

    In addition to problems of correctness discussed above, the divergences between American and British English raised problems of intelligibility that cannot be altogether overlooked.

    Studies specifically measuring the intelligibility between American English and British English are not available to me at the moment. But others involving the intelligibility of the two varieties, from the point of view of the non-native speaker, do exist, and show that American English and British English do not have the same degree of intelligibility. For example, in Smith’s (1992) study conducted in America, a British English speaker (interacting with a Papua Guinean) is 70% understandable to non-native speakers while an American (interacting with an Indonesian is 90% undertandable). The rates of comprehensibility and interpretability in the same context are 90% and 60%, 10% and 30%, respectively.

    Differences between American English and British English would have no major impact on intelligibility if they only concerned, for example, features in phonology like American English rhoticity, darkening of “l” across the board, the nasal twang, some word stress differences; in spelling like –ize, -or and –er discussed above; or in lexis items like vacation, movie, cab, schedule (for British English timetable), etc. But the various levels of analysis offer more serious, and very often, less known divergences. In phonology for example, a learner who is used to British English /dentist, kla:k, le3e/ (dentist, clerk, leisure) may not find (American English) /deni:st, kle:rk, li:3er/ intelligibe unless the context is very supportive. And when one bears in mind that processes yielding there differences affect a multitude of other words, one easily understands the risk of intelligibility failure.

    Lexis also offers very interesting cases. A user of British English who listens to or reads American English will face problems of intelligibility with words that do not exist in his/her own version like faucet (British English tap), janitor (caretaker), pitcher (jug), mortician (undertaker), realtor (estate agent), closet (cupboard), penitentiary [noun] (prison). He/she will also find words which exist in his/her variety, but have a different meaning. The difference in meaning may be negligible and not cause communication problems, as in American English vacation vs British English holidays, call (by phone) vs ring, schedule vs time; both members of these pairs, in particular, and many others, are now used in Britain, which further reduces the risk of communication failure. But major semantic differences sometimes exist, such as between (American English) first floor, second floor and British English ground floor, first floor, pants and trousers, gas and petrol, (from American English, 12th of February 1998). These extreme cases of divergence may cause communication problems or great embarrassment in some cases. Just imagine an American English speaker directing a British English speaker to the first or second floor, asking him/her for gas, asking him/her to show his/her pants, and you will agree that American English and British English are not “so overwhelmingly alike”, as claimed above.

    Cases of communication failure (or potential failure) due to such lexico-semantic problems are reported by Modiano. They include American English round trip ticket vs British English return ticket, American English eraser vs British English rubber, and British English public school (vs its American English meaning).

    Modiano requested a ticket to London but he was asked whether he wanted a return ticket. Interpreting return ticket as meaning a ticket from London to the place from which he was travelling, Modiano replied, “How do you expect me to get there?” As for British English rubber, the author found that in American English it is an American slang for the word condom and its use in some contexts may cause embarrassment. Modiano go on noticed that the British English use of Rubber rather than eraser is unknown in the US. Concerning public school, Modiano points out the contrast in British English where it means privately owned institutions and in American English where it means “schools owned and operated with public funds”.

    Efforts to be made

    The best thing to deal with the situation of co-existence, or competition, of American English and British English would be some kind of harmonization. This solution, which suggests changing the natural course of a language or language variety, had hardly been succeeded. The other question is even if this solution were possible, the harmonization in the direction of American English are demographic, technological, political, commercial, and media-related, as analyzed above; in fact, most predictions, including that of David Crystal, are that English in future will be American-dominated. Arguments for harmonization in the direction of British English include the fact that the majority of dictionaries and English Language Teaching materials outside the US are British English–dominated. The other argument is of an emotional and symbolic feeling and mixed with the sense that British English is after all the mother variety.

    Modiano’s solution to the exposure to, and mixing of, American English and British English is that Mid-Atlantic, spoken in increasing numbers by Europeans. Should replace British English as the educational standard in Europe. According to the author of “The Americanization of Euro-English”, Mid-Atlantic is “a variety that encourages neutral pronunciation and a vocabulary based on the interlocutor’s frame of reference’. The only problem in Modiano’s argument is that he carefully explains the reasons for Mid-Atlantic English to be used, and what does not constitute Mid-Atlantic, but fails to discuss in concrete terms some detailed characteristics of this variety.

    For lacking in a guaranteed solution to the problem, I suggested that courses in contrastive analysis of American English and British English should be widely included in English Lessons to wipe out the confusion of those who learn English as a second language.

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