Friday, August 8, 2008

You say ‘tomahto’ and I say ‘tomayto’ - The Star


Aug 8, 2008 By Dr LIM CHIN LAM

ENGLISH is used in many countries — originally Britain, then the countries that started off as colonies, dominions, and protectorates of Britain. It is now used, to varying extents and to various degrees of proficiency, in the rest of the world.

The native English-speaking countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) and those in which English is used to a large extent (India, Malaysia, Fiji, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda, etc.) each have their brand of English. Even then, these different Englishes are generally intelligible to the users of English at large.

But are they?

Let us look at British English (BrE) and American English (AmE, specifically North American English), the two most widely used kinds of English. The English spoken in other countries generally follows BrE or AmE — but with its own peculiarities. In Malaysia, the English we use is of the British variety.

BrE and AmE differ in many areas which I can but try to classify and summarise, with limited examples, within the constraints of this column.

Same words, different pronunciations

The word herb is pronounced HERB in BrE but ERB in AmE.

Other examples: chance (CHAHNS/CHENS – the same difference in vowel sound also in class, command, dance, grass, past); fertile (FERTYL/FERTL); consortium (KONSORTIEM/KONSORSHIUM); route (ROOT/ROWT), schedule (SHEDIUL/SKEDIUL); and so on.

Same words, difference in spelling

Nowadays, the ligatures “æ” and “?” are rarely encountered. BrE tends to separate out the conjoined vowels in print while AmE reduces them to the single letter ‘e’.

Examples: anaemia/anemia, diarrhoea/diarrhea, encyclopaedia/encyclopedia, foetus/fetus, oedema/edema.

Furthermore, AmE tends to differ from BrE in the following ways.

· dropping silent vowels [axe/ax, acknowledgement/acknowledgment, furore/furor/]

· dropping a vowel from a digraph [caulk/calk; gauge/gage, mould/mold]

· reducing doubled consonants to a single consonant [waggon/wagon]

· trimming off unsounded letter clusters [dialogue/dialog, programme/program — except that both BrE and AmE use program to refer to computer software]

· adding, for words ending in an unstressed syllable with a terminal ‘l’, a suffix beginning with a vowel without doubling the final ‘l’ [travelled/traveled, counselling/counseling, medallist/medalist, councillor/councilor, marvellous/marvelous. Note, however, that in words such as compel and propel, where the last syllable is stressed, the BrE-styled compelled and propellant also apply in AmE.]

· choosing –or over –our [colour/color, odour/odor].

Yet, against its common practice of trimming off vowels and consonants, AmE actually adds on a consonant by doubling it in such words as enrol/enroll, enrolment/enrollment, instil/instill, and skilful/skillful.

Other differences are in respect of deletion of vowels [caulk/calk, gauntlet/gantlet]; word-ending –ce/se [defence/defense; pretence/pretense]; and verb suffix –ise/-ize [BrE accepts both, e.g. realise and realize, but AmE normally admits only the –ize suffix; furthermore, AmE extends the –z- ending to words not formed with the original Greek verb suffix –izein, e.g. analyze (BrE analyse), paralyze (BrE paralyse) and advertize (BrE advertise); and differentiation between noun and verb [BrE noun practice, verb practise but AmE noun and verb practice; similarly BrE licence (noun) and license (verb) as against AmE license (noun, verb) — but advice (noun) and advise (verb) and device (noun) and devise (verb) are differentiated in AmE, as in BrE)].

And still there are other differences: -que/-ck [cheque/check, racquet/racket]; ph/f [sulphate/sulfate, draught/draft], -re/-er [centre/center, theatre/theater, manoeuvre/maneuver, calibre/caliber, fibre/fiber]; and a miscellaneous group of one-offs [aluminium/aluminum, candidature/candidacy, jewellery/jewelry, kerb/curb, ketchup/catsup, sceptical/skeptical, storey/story].

Same words, different meanings

Some BrE words seem to have acquired a different meaning after crossing the Atlantic Ocean. For example, dumb means “mute” in Britain but “stupid” in the U.S. The word mad means “insane” in Britain but “very angry, furious” in the U.S.

Homely, meaning “simple and ordinary” in BrE, becomes a disparaging attribute in AmE where it means “unattractive”. The adjective nuts, used predicatively (Are you nuts?), apparently does not exist in Britain but it means “crazy” in AmE.

Different words, same meaning

Americanisms include the use of words different from those used in British English.

For example, in AmE, funny = odd/peculiar, mad = angry, and nuts = mad/crazy. The Americans can be funny (i.e. odd). They can make you mad (i.e. angry) or drive you nuts (i.e. crazy).

Because different words are used for the same things on either side of the Atlantic — and are likely to cause confusion — I take the trouble to put up a longer-than-usual list of examples, as follows:

aerial (BrE) = antenna (AmE),

brinjal = eggplant,

barrister/solicitor = attorney/lawyer,

bill (e.g. for restaurant meal) = check,

boot (of car) = trunk,

conscription = draft,

crossroads = intersection,

counterfeit/false = fake/phoney,

flyover = overpass,

full-stop = period,

fuss = hassle,

groundnut = peanut,

joking = kidding,

leave (of absence) = furlough,

letter-box = mailbox,

maize = corn,

pavement = sidewalk,

petrol = gasoline,

post-mortem = autopsy,

prison = penitentiary,

ragging = hazing,

refuse/rubbish/waste = garbage/trash,

tap = faucet,

taxi (from “taxicab”) = cab (from “taxicab”),

toilet = lavatory/restroom,

torchlight = flashlight,

truant (play truant) = hooky (play hooky),

wrecked (as of a car in an accident) = totaled.

Is that all?

I have thus far covered — adequately, I hope — BrE and AmE differences in words as they are pronounced, as spelt, and as differing in meaning. But the divide between BrE and AmE is not only in words. I shall cover other aspects in a future article.

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