© 2012 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
I was born and raised in Australia, and while English is my native language, to be sure, Australian English is a dialect. I've now lived in the US for 32 years, y'all, where they practice another dialect, along with some different spellings and pronunciations, and a whole other vocabulary.
For the past 30 years, I've traveled widely and met and done business with many people who spoke yet other dialects of English. And many of them spoke English as a second, third, or even fourth language.
Some 25 years ago, a series called The Story of English was shown on US television. In nine parts, it detailed the development of the English Language around the world. What intrigued me most was the occasional use of subtitles, not as closed-captioning for deaf viewers, but as an aid to understanding what some people were actually saying. I recall thinking, "These people may well be speaking their dialect of English, but I sure as heck don't understand a word they are saying!"
I am reminded of some international meetings I chaired 20 years ago that were attended by a Scotsman. The group's members were not at all shy about agreeing or disagreeing strongly with each other's presentations, and after any member spoke, there usually was a lively discussion. However, each time the Scotsman spoke there was complete silence, and it took me a while to figure out that no one else had understood him. For the most part, I managed to follow his presentation, so as chair, I took on the job of paraphrasing some of his points, so others could comment.
Different Regional and National Dialects
The dialects of English with which I am most familiar are Australian, British, and American. [With Australia being a member of the British Commonwealth, Australian English is an outgrowth of British English, and started evolving 10 minutes after the First Fleet landed at Botany Bay in 1788.]
In 1979, I was at a travel agent's office in Adelaide, Australia, planning a one-way trip to the US where I was to work for at least a year. I was given a booklet containing 500 words and phrases in Australian English and their equivalent in American English. At the time, I thought it was a rather silly idea, but once I'd been in the US a while I discovered that there were substantial differences in vocabulary and meaning. The problems came in two flavors: using words listeners didn't understand, and using words they understood to mean something entirely different. Here are a few examples:
- Biscuits and gravy – Watch enough American movies or TV shows and you'll come across people eating this for breakfast. However, in British English, a sweet biscuit is what American English calls a cookie while a savory biscuit is called a cracker. On the other hand, in American English a biscuit is what British English calls a scone. [While I have met Americans who know what a scone is, most of them pronounce the one as in phone, while British English says it as on.] Regarding gravy, to me, that was brown and you had it with a roast dinner. As to why anyone would want to smother it on their cookies was a mystery to me. As it happens, breakfast gravy in America is white and thick, and often has bits of sausage in it. So once I saw what this concoction actually looked like, it seemed quite appealing and tasted even better. [Originally a southern tradition, this dish is now widely available throughout the US.]
- Peanut butter and jelly – Again, from my TV- and movie-watching experience, I knew what peanut butter was; it just happened to be called peanut paste in my country. But it was the jelly that sounded strange. To me, jelly was that colored gelatinous desert one made from a box of powder. In the US, that product goes by its trade name, Jell-O. To Americans, jelly is a clear, fruit preserve, and in the case of peanut butter and jelly, it always seems to be red-grape flavored. Once I got passed the idea of wobbly gobs of gelatin on my peanut paste, I found it quite tasty.
- Jumper – Our first location to live in the US was Chicago, which is known for cold winters, and winter was approaching. Some friends were asking us how cold it got back in Australia. My wife replied that in winter she usually wore a jumper, but if it was especially cold she might wear two of them. Now, apparently they privately thought that unusual, but being polite they made no comment. It was only when I said that I too wore a jumper in winter that they sought clarification. To them, a jumper was some sort of a dress worn only by women and children. [See an alternate meaning in the hyperlink above.] It turned out that the meaning we wished to convey is met by the American word sweater. [I can imagine why one would want to drape around oneself a person who sweats, but that has nothing to do with keeping warm!]
- Thongs – Australia has a lot of beaches and Aussies have a lot of free time. They like to go to the beach, especially in hot weather. Now in South Australia, my home state, they often wear thongs to the beach, and many non-Aussies might think that's okay. But when an American hears that Aussies are quite happy to wear their thongs when they "go down the street" or "in the supermarket or bank", they come up with an interesting image. To me, thongs were rubber sandals, that some people call flip-flops. As I have since discovered, the singular thong denotes a very brief covering for ones nether regions.
- Iced coffee – This one sounds simple enough that it's hard to imagine any confusion. Yet to me, its coffee-flavored milk while in the US, I discovered it was simply cold coffee, made with water.
- Soda – I grew up buying bottles of cool drink, but then I heard about pop, soda pop, soft drink, and fizzy drink, among others. [Apparently, soda was also called tonic in some US regions.]
- Rubber – Down under, we have these on the end of each of our lead pencils. (Remember the Boy Scout's motto, "Be prepared!") To many Americans, who understand this word to mean condom, they find this amusing. What Aussies have, Americans call an eraser! [That said, to many older Americans, rubbers are overshoes, those things one puts over ones shoes going out in the rain, while they knew condoms by a popular brand name, Trojan. In a likewise manner, in the UK, Durex was a popular brand of condom while that same name was used for sticky tape in Australia.]
- Fanny pack vs. Bum bag – To Americans, a fanny pack is a zippered pouch you wear around your waist. However, given the vulgar meaning of the word fanny in British and Aussie English, they've come up with an alternate name, bum bag. Since Aussies wear it on their front and not on their bum, that does seem odd. But then bum means something quite different in America. Go figure! [To older Americans from states more closely associated with British English, bum does indeed refer to buttocks.]
One of the most surprising things I've learned about differences was to do with regional vocabularies. After having traveled to many countries while based in the US, I started to explore Australia, visiting parts of my own state I'd never gone to before as well as other states. I very quickly found that the Australia I grew up knowing was not quite the same as that country others 300 or more miles away had experienced.
Those Dreadful Americans are Taking Over the World
Yes they are, but what's your point? Seriously though, the lingua franca of international business and travel is English, with more and more emphasis on some form of an American dialect. [Unfortunately, one of America's biggest exports in that category is the unnecessary and inappropriate use of like. For like some speakers, like it pervades like every phrase!]
Some years ago, I was visiting Australia where I ran into a local complaining about the "excessive" influence the US had on the world. I asked her if she was taking a stand, marching in the streets, or doing anything at all about it. (Of course, she wasn't; she was just complaining about it.) In particular, I pointed out that for many years, what used to be called Chemist Shops were now called pharmacies. Yet I didn't recall that being forced on Australia. Similarly, somewhere along the way peanut paste became known as peanut butter.
If you are tired of all that American influence, remember, "Nothing is a complete waste. It can always serve as a bad example!" In any event, if you recognize a "problem" yet you do nothing but talk about it, then you've become part of the problem.
It is not uncommon for people to guess at one's national origins by one's accent or dialect use. However, after some rather negative encounters, I've learned to be a bit cautious.
As you might imagine, when traveling abroad, Canadians do get mistaken for Americans, something they generally deny rather quickly. However, if one listens carefully and long enough to many native English-speaking Canadians, one can hear words like out and about pronounced as owt and abowt, respectively. And speakers from certain areas like to add an extra a between some words. [The joke goes that when officials were picking a name for their new country, they said, "Let's have a C, a, an N, a, and a D, a", which resulted in the present day Canada!]
Well, like Canadians, some New Zealanders are tired of being in the shadow, but for them it's Australia. [NO, New Zealand is not a state of Australia, and NO, it's not on the other end of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Apparently, it's a whole separate country—thanks Wikipedia.] I ran into a rabid Kiwi in a hotel in rural Scotland. My family and I were eating lunch in the dining room when I heard the group at the table next to me talk, and it sounded Orstralian to me. However, when I asked the elderly gentleman if he was an Aussie, he was most indignant. He behaved as if I'd accused him of being English!
Although it's not really a language issue, you may have heard that there is a certain amount of friction between the English and other peoples in the United Kingdom. [That tends to happen when you go around subjugating folks for hundreds of years.] An illustration of this is the Scotsman and the Englishman talking over a beer when the issue of heritage came up. In a loud voice the Englishman said, "I was born an Englishman; I've lived as an Englishman; and by God I'll die an Englishman." To which the Scotsman replied, "Have ye no ambition?"
The Secret to Successful Writing and Speaking
To those of you claiming to have a really extensive vocabulary, I present you with the following quote to test that claim. For the rest of you, you might want to keep a copy handy to impress your friends and to have ready a short and entertaining speech just in case you are asked to speak publicly at a minute's notice:
"In promulgating your esoteric cogitations, or articulating your superficial sentimentalities, and amicable, philosophical or psychological observations, beware of platitudinous ponderosity. Let your conversational communications possess a clarified conciseness, a compact comprehensibleness, coalescent consistency, and a concatenated cogency. Eschew all conglomerations of flatulent garrulity, jejune babblement and asinine affectation. Let your extemporaneous descantings and unpremeditated expatiations have intelligibility and veracious vivacity, without rodomontade or thrasonical bombast. Sedulously avoid all polysyllabic profundity, pompous prolixity, psittaceous vacuity, ventriloquial verbosity, and vaniloquent vapidity. Shun double entendre, pruriant jocosity, and pestiferous profanity, obscurant or apparent.
In other words, talk plainly, briefly, naturally, sensibly, truthfully, purely. Keep from 'slang;' don't put on airs; say what you mean; mean what you say; and don't use big words!"
Wisconsin Journal of Education, vol. XI 1881, p. 79, (W.C. Whitford and S.S. Rockwood, editors and publishers), citing The New England Journal of Education.
George Bernard Shaw once wrote that, "England and America are two countries separated by a common language." I think he hit it right on.
Of all English dialects, which do you think is the easiest to understand? To me, it's South African. I find they tend to speak clearly and not too fast.
Regarding people being able to identify someone's dialect, I'm reminded of a time when my (Aussie) wife was playing tennis, and a woman who had heard her talking came over and said, "Don't tell where you are from. I'm good with accents, so let me figure it out." After a few minutes she said, "You're from just outside London, England, right?" To which my wife replied, "Yes, about 10,000 miles outside!"
I have read that one possible way to identify the native dialect of an English speaker is to ask them to say fish and chips. I'm no linguist, but the sound of that simple phrase is quite different when heard across the dialect spectrum.
Finally, let me give a plug to a website and book whose contents were written by my friend and colleague (who, by the way, is not called Dr. Watson). Chris Rae's The Septic's Companion "is an A-to-Zed dictionary of British Slang words and phrases, written by a Scotsman living in America." While the dictionary entries are all available on-line for free, the book has enough clever extras to make it worth buying. Besides, Chris could do with the royalties to help pay for his elocution lessons!