The Sixties Book: How "Correct" Is British English?
A first-hand look by an Anglo-American at the real differences between British & American English. Originally a part of the "Sixties Book," it became a wildly popular on-line download on Compuserve's Foreign Language Education Forum. Published by Translation News, 1992.
The alleged differences between British and American English have long provided a topic for learned observations, newspaper articles and even folklore. It is not my intention to rehash any of this material from the past but rather to provide a fresh look at these two language formations from the viewpoint of modern linguistics. The conventional view of these differences, both in Britain and to some extent in American scholarly circles, holds that British English is the parent, the model, the arbiter whose usage is to be preferred in almost all cases, while American English is, like the country itself, merely some kind of colonial colossus run amuck.
There is also a built-in linguistic confusion of a different sortthe United States terms itself America, while England is in fact called England and its inhabitants English. It therefore seems overwhelmingly logical to assume that English is their language: after all, they're English, so it's theirs, isn't it? Or is it? At a time when more and more Europeans, Asians and Africans are learning English as a second language, we really need to clarify this otherwise confusing question. Let us therefore see what kind of light linguistic principles can shed upon this matter, discarding our partisan prejudices as best we can.
From the beginning, one is confronted by the assumption that British usages are "normal" or "correct," their American counterparts aberrant, exotic, and/or "incorrect." Granted, this view is increasingly seen as obsolete in the U.K., for as the Prince of Wales, Malcolm Bradbury and others have lamented, the standards of British English have been alarmingly undermined by transatlantic and internationalist tendencies. But these very protests show that British English is still regarded as a "norm," which many believe they must aspire to and a few actually attain.
Let us start with accent, where we will find no shortage of British informants maintaining that American English is extremely "nasal,"that is, spoken through the nose. It is therefore further characterized as "twangy," unpleasant, or (worst of all) unclear. Something called British pronunciation is supposed to be the norm for the purpose of this comparison, and it is also naturally assumed here that only one British accent need be considered, what is commonly referred to in Britain (but never referred to in America at all) as RP or `Received Pronunciation.' Such a rash assumption is easy enough to assail, but we will leave it to one side for now and turn our attention to what not only linguistics but also medical science have to tell us about British speech, for this matter of accent is most definitely open to scientific discussion.
The truth of the matter, in both linguistic and medical terms, is that it would be just as accurate to refer to British English as excessively throaty and hold up American as the "norm." There is not the slightest doubt from a physiological point of view that speaking correct British English does involve blocking off one's throat, bronchi, and lungs to an abnormal extent as compared not only to American English but also the usual accents of many foreign languages.
The medical reasons for this are not at all hard to discoverit has in fact been known for decades that the national British disease par excellence is bronchitis, with asthma running a close second. No one who has ever heard some of the BBC's roving travelogue narrators wheezing away on the sides of volcanos or breathlessly describing the mating rituals of Bornean lizards can doubt the extent to which these two respiratory ailments have found their way into Received Pronunciation.
Such deformations are also found in some northern French accents and in the miasmal quality of colloquial Italian common in the Arno valley around Florence, also allegedly a model of its national language. I myself developed fairly good cases of both ailments while living in England and Florence, which greatly helped my accent in both languages. Thus, it may well be that British English, long supposed to spring from a high level of breeding, owes its origins instead to a low level of breathing.
This whole question becomes more than
academic when we consider what impact it may have
on foreigners trying to learn English. Is there really
any reason why people from sunny Italy, tropical Africa,
or the earth's higher and drier regions should be
forced to contort their throats and windpipes in an
effort to reproduce what may be only an accident of
climate? Can the British continue to maintain that
their variety of English is "normal" or
preferable in the light of this information?
There are in many languages certain pairs
of contrasting words, often linked in their phonetic
structure, which embody and reflect the concerns of
those who speak the language. Good and bad are often
cited for English, brutto and bello for Italian, yin
and yang in Chinese. But in addition to good and bad,
British English also possesses another basic pair
of key words. These words do not figure in at all
the same way in American English. They are almost
constantly on people's lips in Britain, yet they are
used so differently in the UK as to actually require
a translation into American English. And although
these two words do get used frequently enough in America,
they are simply not linked in the same way, and their
usage in the US requires a translation the other way
into British terms. I will discuss in some detail
how these two words reflect their respective societies
and am illustrating their two-way cross-translation
in the form of a table. The two words are rude and
Since it is scarcely at issue that
these two words are used quite differently in Britain
and the U.S., my question from the outset will be,
in line with the title of this article, which is in
fact the "correct" usage? And can the question
of which is "correct" be separated from
larger issues of politics, customs, and social systems?
But this does not qualify as "kind"
at all in America, just barely civil, at best "polite."
This is why our table shows "civil" or "normally
responsive" as the translation into American
of the British usage. The difference is so great that
there might be a case for dropping a footnote on the
pages of all English articles and books where the
word "kind" is used, explaining what it
means in American. Similarly, the English word "rude,"
which marks the opposite of "kind," is used
in an equally off-center way. Words, deeds, or attitudes
which would scarcely merit this description in America
are constantly being described as "rude"
in England. Very specific ritual phrases and mutterings,
which we will soon describe, must accompany any act,
question or statement in England, lest they be called
Here too a relatively impartial linguistic analysis may be useful. The anthropologist Edward Hall has done much of our work for us in setting up different levels of social distance defined by different cultures and embedded in their language (1). His two most famous examples are the different social distances observed by Japanese and Americans and by speakers of Arabic and Americans. There can be no doubt that we are witnessing a comparable cultural phenomenon between Britons and Americans as well, and these differences are equally well reflected in language.
The proof of this is that these usages of "rude" and "kind" cut both ways. Many British friends visiting the U.S. have expressed to me their impressions that Americans are going out of their way to be explicitly rude to them, especially during their first weeks in the countryand often their only onesso that they do not discover that a difference in social space might be involved. Edward Hall describes much the same thing happening to him in his relations with the Japanese. Most Britons unfortunately do not remain in America long enough to break through this barrier, and so it is supposed that Americans go on forever being impossibly "rude" to one another but are simply too insensitive to notice. For this reason, I have also provided translations of the American meanings into English: for "rude," overtly, and often personally, insulting; and for "kind," actively compassionate.
The reason for this different social
space, at least as far as I have ever been able to
discover, is that the British do indeed feel themselves
more distant from one another than do Americans (2).
Any violation of their personal or psychic space by
another counts as "rude." Minimal observance
or non-violation of this space gets graded as "kind."
To my knowledge no other European language makes such
The point once again is this: out of all Europeans, perhaps only some Scandinavians might agree with the British on their concept of social distance and their distinctions between "rude" and "kind." Most other Europeans, while they might occasionally pay lip service to such distinctions, live lives a good deal closer to the American view. As do most peoples of Asia, Africa, and South America for that matter. Should all these peoples, when and if they choose to learn English, also be required to accept the British definitions in this field as the "correct" ones? And if so required, are they likely to obey?
As we shall see, this concept of "social
distance" has further consequences in every stage
of learning British English. Let us first take a simple
conversational question, one quite likely to be asked
by or of newcomers but one which also illustrates
the different rules for American and English. If,
for example, you are in New York and you wish to find
Fifth Avenue, you may turn to most passers-by and
simply say, "Which way is Fifth Avenue?"
In England even this last phrasing might mark you as extremely "rude," if not actively hostiledepending on your accent, you would be classed as a Northerner, a foreigner with poor English, someone from the lower classes, or a "rude American." This is because you are obliged to say things quite differently in Englandwe shall now see what was meant by ritual phrases and murmurings. Let us now suppose you are in London and wish to find your way to Leicester Square. As astounding as it may seem, the full correct form of your question, including all its linguistic and stylistic subtleties, is as follows:
This is not intended as a joke, though
it may sound like one to some. It was the full and
correct form of asking a question during my time in
England and, from everything I hear from friends and
see on TV, still remains very much the standard. Its
multiple phrases permits your British interlocutor
1) to realize he is being addressed; 2) to decide
whether he wishes to bother answering; and 3) to devise
some sort of reply. Your chances of obtaining one
will be greatly increased if you pronounce the name
Leicester correctly, another hidden land-mine in the
This would not do at all in England. While such a statement might lead to further and more intense argument in America, it would not necessarily offend Jim or anyone else, and it certainly would not lead to the end of the conversation or a breach of friendship. In England it almost certainly would. The approved British form for saying essentially the same thing runs more or less as follows:
"There is great merit in what you say. I could not help but applaud as I heard you state your views, and I have on countless occasions in the past found myself coming to much the same conclusions, though of course I have never been able to phrase them as skilfully as you just have. There is no doubt in my mind that you are essentially correct in every particular, and I would not presume to amend your statement in the slightest detail. But I must admit that I find myself compelled to point out that it might conceivably be to your advantage to consider the following circumstances regarding the Chinese, however irrelevant they might seem at first hearing....."
As many Americans may find this uproariously funny, I must insist once again that this is not my intention. It truly shows how the English may address you, and it also reflects how you must address them in your reply if you are to have any hope of communicating with them. You are still a long way from expressing what it was you really wanted to say, but at least you are on your way, and provided you have omitted none of the obligatory politesses and murmurings and provided your tone of voice conveys complete sincerityand your accent is correct and you commit no major gaffes in your choice of wordsyou may have a chance of getting an idea across.
Anything less may well be dismissed as rude or "embarrassing," another key word with different meanings in England and the States. Many remarks, questions, and challenges considered unexceptional in the U.S. would be regarded as deeply "embarrassing" in Britain. This attitude is in fact embedded within British libel laws, under which statements are open to prosecution not because they are false but because someone may find them "embarrassing." Needless to say, as has been frequently observed by British and American journalists alike, these laws present a considerable obstacle to free discussion.
Once again, which of our two versions is the "correct" one? Is it inevitably the British one, or is another choice possible? This choice is ultimately a very practical matter and belongs to the learner. Those who speak Japanese with all its honorifics or Chinese with its multiple self-abnegations may find the British version a challenge, may in fact be disappointed if a language offers any fewer subtleties than British English. Or they may not. What is important is that this level of knowledge should be available to all learning either variety of English before they begin their studies.
The differences between the two versions of English extend to the structural level. There are some specific differences between British and American in verb forms used for declarative sentences and in how questions are asked. They are not at all subtle differences, though they require careful study, and they are not to be found in the grammar books. To begin with, the Assertive-Interrogative formor what I will call the "Isn't It?" structure has a totally different function in British than in American. In the United States, this structure is normally used to express doubt, even of one's own judgment, for example:
In England, however, this simple structure, which we all use every day and which can color our attitudes towards our own thought processes, is often used quite differently. It expresses not doubt at all, but rather confirmation of one's previously held views or prejudices. Two typical examples:
In fact, despite the question mark,
no question is being asked at all, rather an assertion
is being made. The answer "Of course!" is
assumed, even expected. This structure can on occasion
be used in a similar fashion by Americans, but far
less frequently than in England (3).
Another British-only structure which
reaffirms existing prejudices in the mind of the speaker
is what I call the Reinforcing Conditional form, often
utilizing the "I should have thought" sequence.
It is constantly heard whenever one expresses any
idea the slightest bit novel and usually means, if
you are the one who has provoked it, that someone
has decided you are quite mistaken and will go on
believing what they always did, regardless of what
you may have said or will ever say. If, for example,
one is discussing the permissibility of tea with lemon
as a beverage, the response may well be:
And that is that, your conversation
has effectively ended. Although you may go on arguing,
you will achieve nothing except to demonstrate that
you are an insensitive foreigner. Here too the would-be
learner of English must make his or her own decision.
Mastery of the "Isn't It" and "I should
have thought" structures is absolutely central
to speaking "correct" English, though these
phrases are never taught in class and will, like much
of the other material discussed here, tend to bypass,
confuse or irritate Americans.
Many of these same people also assume
that they can achieve a proper British accent simply
by substituting broad English A's for all those frightful
American "a-as-in-fast" sounds. Since this
assumption is widespread among many students of English,
the following example may be useful as a test of how
well it works. Try reading this passage aloud with
what you believe to be a correct English accent, and
then check your way of saying it against the "correct,"
"received" pronunciation given at the end
of this article. Unless I am mistaken, even quite
a few Britons will ignominiously fail at least part
of this test, which may also provide a measure of
the difficulties involved. Here's the passage:
It is for readers to decide, after perusing the "correct" version of this little quiz, how "correct" they want their own English to be. In fact, as few as twenty percent of Britons are likely to pronounce this passage close to "correctly" (and perhaps only ten percent will get it totally "right"). These all too probable results raise considerable questions as to whether the British should go on teaching this as correct pronunciation and whether the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary (our source here) should continue marking vowels as they now do.
The point of this example is to point
out, in case any further evidence were needed, that
the British form of English is in its way an armed
camp, bristling with devices to repel the foreigner,
the invader, yes, the learner. These devices may even
be aimed at the people of Britain. During my time
in the UK, I was sufficiently skilled with languages
to make it past a number of these barriers, only to
find others yet in waiting. I believe it possible
that such barriers may ultimately be directed not
so much against Americans or foreignerswho are
perhaps only an after-thoughtas against the
British themselves. It may be that their existence
has something to do with class differences in Britain.
And yet the impression persists that
where pronunciation is concerned, the British can
do no wrong, that any British pronunciation of a word
must by its very nature be far superior to anything
any mere colonial might ever say. The influence of
this belief has been evident in recent years in the
use by some American TV-casters of "weekEND"
instead of the older "WEEKend" or the occasional
"checkMATE'" for CHECKmate. Suffice it to
say that there is not the slightest linguistic, phonetic,
or stylistic reason for preferring the former to the
latter (or for that matter vice versa). But this is
only the tip of the iceberg: leaving to one side these
questions of faddish taste, the English have long
been demonstrably guilty of committing such wholesale
errors of pronunciation all on their own that there
is really no way any objective person can possibly
Here, surprisingly or not, those who
disagree may not be British but American. So vast
is the certainty in some American circles that where
pronunciation is concerned, the British can do no
wrong that I can already hear the chorus of American
objectors trying to shout me down with cries of "If
it's British, it must be cultivated" or even
"Look, it's Britishlet's pretend it's cultivated,
even if it isn't." Something comparable once
occurred to my wife and me in London when we attended
an educational production of Fielding's hilarious
satire Tom Thumb, the play that triggered the
infamous Licensing Act.
This play is obviously a comedy, replete
with characters named Huncamunca and Floradora. It
litters the stage with even more corpses than Hamlet
and contains numerous quite funny parodies of bad
pentameter lines from Fielding's time, such as "Oh,
Huncamunca, Huncamunca, Oh." We came quite
prepared, having reread the play beforehand. The cast
and production were quite proficient, and naturally
we began to laugh. No one else was laughing. Soon
people around us began to shush and hiss us and tell
us to shut up. We did so, more or less, in somewhat
servile fashion. At the break we were castigated:
"How dare you laugh? How dare you interrupt the
beautiful poetry?" These good Englishmen were
unable to tell one pentameter line from another. Because
it was pentameter, it had to be poetry. I insert this
before my instances of what in the U.S. might be called
"BBC Bloopers," because it shows that many
British still have a tin ear for poetry. Or for pronunciation.
There is simply no other way of phrasing it.
We've seen what the British do to their
own languagenow let's look at how they handle
foreign words and names. It isn't as though one can't
hear such names and places mispronounced in the U.S.
But the British do it with absolute abandon, as though
that's what the blighters deserve anyway, and "our"
way of saying their words is better than "theirs"
anyway. Not a touch of false humility here. Before
I get upset by Scarlatti pronounced with not one but
two short "a"s, a truly difficult feat (try
it yourself), I should perhaps explain that in the
pronunciation of Latin the British never went through
the great century-long debate we had in the US between
advocates of Church Latin and neoclassical Latin.
It never occurred to Britons (nor does it today) to
pronounce Latin in any but a totally English way,
complete with modern English accent and diphthongs.
This fairly typifies their approach
to pronouncing foreign words. But the actual examples
one hears continually on the BBC suggest that there
is no approach or method at all. Each announcer seems
to invent his own mispronunciation as he goes along.
We will quite overlook the announcer totally unable
to say Brest-Litovsk in any form and also not dally
to fight over PortuGUESE for PORTuguese. Or the 1991
cultural extravaganza about the history of map-making,
where one heard both "Magellan" and "longitude"
pronounced with "g" as in "go."
Nor will we really bother with MY-thology where Americans
would say "mith-ology," or quite the opposite
logic of ID-olatry for US eye-dolatry. There is simply
no logic for these British choices, and we suspect
they are just making things up as they go along.
Matters do become a mite more serious
when we come to the name of a part of the world that
has been in the news for at least three decades, and
in the Bible before that. Apparently the entire British
population is suffering from a collective eye disease,
and not a soul in Albion is capable of seeing that
the name Sinai (as in Sinai peninsula, Moses, and
all that) has twoand only twosyllables.
I do not believe I have ever met a single Britonor
heard a single BBC announcerwho did not add
an extra "ee" and pronounce it SIGH-nee-eye.
I really would like to know the reason for this.
Perhaps because I am partial to aspects
of Japanese culture, I find the pronunciation Sam-Your-Eye
for Samurai (closer to correct, Sah-moo-rye) even
more wrenching. But the worst of all is yet to come:
not only every British announcer in the world pronounces
it this way, but even the late Graham Greene, an author
whom I had long respected, recently let the U.S. have
it for its deeds in Nicker-RAG-You-Ah. Like many Americans
I have mixed feelings over certain events in Nicaragua
(which nonetheless recently decided at the polls against
Mr. Greene), but his pronunciation alone has convinced
me that he could know virtually nothing about this
None of the examples I have presented would be of more than anecdotal interest, were it not for a slightly more disturbing factor that has recently become evident. It may turn out to be of no lasting significance, but the widely respected editor of a major British publication on language has recently declared something of a war on American English. This gentleman has actually proclaimed his variety of British English as a major means of preventing a "shallow Dallas or Coca-Cola uniform world culture with bad English as the international language." English eccentricism being what it is, it is probable that we will hear no more of this.
And yet there are some strains in the
current British make-up suggesting that such linguistic
fascism may be more than a flash in the pan. When
Dean Acheson pointed out a few decades ago that the
British had lost an empire but not yet found a role
for themselves, it provoked a degree of anger among
the British difficult to imagine for those who did
not witness it. And yet this observation hadand
hasa ring of truth to it.
All of the instances I have suggested
simply overwhelm reason, but I will now do my best
to recall some semblance of objectivity and sum up
my theme in a cogent manner. I apologize to my many
British friends and colleagues within Albion and around
the world if I have inflicted any real pain upon them.
My apology is real and heart-felt, for I have lived
in Britain long enough to have gained profound respect
for its history and culture. But I do think it is
a legitimate part of my exercise to ensure that a
people who has heaped so much condescension on others
over so many years, particularly where language is
concerned, should have at least some passing notion
of what it feels like to be condescended towards in
As I have said earlier, it is extremely important that those many people now learning English should have some idea what they may be getting into when they choose to learn one variety or another. There is really no way to learn a foreign language without also absorbing a great deal of its social, political and philosophical outlook. This is equally true whether one chooses to learn British or American English. It is for learners themselves to choose, but they must have all necessary knowledge available to them in order to make an informed choice. Whether they ultimately choose British or American or another language altogether, let us hope that they make a wise choice leading all of our nations to an era of sustained world peace.
The preceding article (How "Correct" Is British English?) has had an interesting history. It was first discussed with the Editor of Translation International in October, 1989 and submitted to that publication in May of 1990. Its immediate reception was quite cordial, and the author awaited its imminent publication in a 1990 issue. Unfortunately he went on waiting throughout 1991 as well, and polite inquiries about the piece were met with at first with assurances that it would soon be published but then with increasingly evasive and inconsistent replies that one or another of the publication's two chief offices (Nottingham and Amsterdam) might be responsible for the delay.
It soon became only too obvious that the sole grounds for this delay was the reluctance of at least one editor to concede that an American author might criticize British English, although generations of British authors had routinely assumed that they had the right to criticize American English. The entire disagreement soon also ran afoul of the growing "European Hysteria Over 1992", alluded to in two articles accessible from the "Other Topics" menu, and no meaningful response came from either Nottingham or Amsterdam.
This entire disagreement soon culminated in a series of published assertions by the editor of Language International that all of Europe was seriously menaced by "an international, intrinsically shallow Coca-Cola-and Dallas culture run by a rootless, jet-travelling, Hilton-hopping English-speaking elite...with bad English as the international language."
These pronunciamentos further led to a detailed reply by twelve European and American translators, authors, and editors, who pointed out that a publication such as Language International should be the last place where such blatantly chauvinistic and one-sided views ought to be expressed. )
By this time the author reluctantly
decided to permit the piece to be printed in two installments
by Translation News with the proviso that it
remain under his Copyright. It has since also been
electronically published on many bulletin boards world-wide.
The author still hopes it can be published in printed
form in Britain, since the English were always intended
as a major part of the audience, and he regrets the
contretemps that have so far delayed such publication.
The following concerns much the same topic as the above, and since it is quite short, it is being placed here for the sake of convenience.
The following letter is the product
of ten American translators, two of them born in Great
Britain, and was written in response to remarks advocating
"high quality British English terminology,"
which were published in the March 1988 issue of Language
Monthly. When that publication merged with
Although I have been working as a professional translator for over twenty years, until I read your piece on the Surrey University glossary project I had never before realized the pressing urgency of my need for "high quality British English" terminology. But now I have seen the light, and I am sure that it will also soon appear to all my American colleagues in a blinding flash.
A few years back, the editors of the
Oxford English Dictionary admitted to being avid readers
of Scientific American, from which they culled an
average of 80 new scientific terms per issue. And
the editor of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language
actually chose the majority of his editorial advisors
Gee whiz, I just don't know what to do. By golly, I guess all us inferior American translators will just have to close up shop and wait for the high quality British English translators to get here. And henceforth all American research projects will have to include an English terminologist on their teams in order to bestow sufficiently high quality British English names on any phenomena that may arise.
Or perhaps British terminologists should meet together before any American project is started and decide in advance what will be discovered and how best to name it. And of course all technical terms devised in all fields over the last century or so must immediately be renamed so as to expunge any trace of their vulgar, low quality American influence, whatever minor and temporary inconvenience this may cause to industry, diplomacy, and world trade. Gosh, I guess until this can be done, all American research and writing just has to be halted. There is simply no other way out.
Just two slight qualms occur to me: will these English terminologists be products of Oxbridge, Redbrick, or the B.B.C.? And who will explain their neologisms to the 95% of the British people who do not speak received high quality British English? Gee, since I'm now out of a job, maybe I could come over there and help translate for all those people, but you've probably got that already covered as well.
Peter Mark Roget
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