Bri­tish or Amer­i­can?

Malaysia favours Bri­tish English but Amer­i­can English has a wider reach.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - MUSIC - By HAU BOON LAI

Malaysia favours Bri­tish English but Amer­i­can English has a greater reach.

WHEN teach­ing in a school or writ­ing for a news­pa­per, a de­ci­sion has to be made on which of two vari­ants of English to adopt – Bri­tish or Amer­i­can – so that there is con­sis­tency in us­age.

Coun­tries in South-East Asia tend to favour the English of their ex-colo­nial masters. So Malaysia and Singapore have largely adopted Bri­tish English while the Philip­pines has tended to­wards Amer­i­can English. This ar­ti­cle will fo­cus on a short dis­cus­sion of the three crit­i­cal dif­fer­ences that ac­count for the vari­a­tions be­tween Amer­i­can and Bri­tish English – vo­cab­u­lary, spell­ing and pro­nun­ci­a­tion.

In terms of vo­cab­u­lary, it is clear that con­fu­sion can oc­cur in some cases if we mix the two vari­ants of English. For in­stance, we use petrol for our cars while the Amer­i­cans use gas for theirs. To us, gas would be of the cook­ing kind, as in gas cooker. Car-re­lated vo­cab­u­lary throws up quite a few more dif­fer­ences. So be­fore go­ing on a road tour, we will put our lug­gage into the car boot and check un­der the bon­net while Amer­i­cans will stash their bag­gage into the trunk and pop the hood for a last look un­der it be­fore they de­part.

That they have dif­fer­ent words mean­ing the same thing is the sim­ple part. The more dif­fi­cult is­sue is when they have dif­fer­ent mean­ings for the same word. For in­stance, the ad­jec­tive “mean” is gen­er­ally used by Amer­i­cans to say that some­one is un­kind, as in Lind­say Lo­han’s Mean Girls, while the more com­mon us­age in Bri­tain would be tight-fisted or stingy.

The dif­fer­ence in spell­ing be­tween Bri­tish and Amer­i­can English is not as com­pli­cated as many would imag­ine. Words end­ing in -our in Bri­tain such as colour, har­bour and par­lour be­come in Amer­ica color, har­bor and par­lor. Words end­ing in -ise in Bri­tain such as re­alise, crit­i­cise and equalise would in Amer­ica be­come re­al­ize, crit­i­cize and equal­ize.

An­other set of well-known spell­ing dif­fer­ences is the Amer­i­can de­fense and cen­ter as op­posed to the Bri­tish de­fence and cen­tre. Such con­sis­tent, rule-based dif­fer­ences mean that it is not too much of a bur­den to de­mand that our stu­dents adopt one and not the other.

The area of pro­nun­ci­a­tion is one which is more rel­e­vant to teach­ing than to writ­ing, and it is one which gives teach­ers who adopt Bri­tish English a great headache be­cause Amer­i­can pro­nun­ci­a­tion and stress pat­terns are pre­dom­i­nant in the movies and TV pro­grammes we watch. Our stu­dents of­ten style their speech af­ter such pro­grammes. For in­stance, in Bri­tish English, we stress the sec­ond syl­la­ble in the word “con­trac­tor” while the Amer­i­cans would place their stress on the first syl­la­ble.

My years of teach­ing have con­vinced me that stu­dents who take af­ter Amer­i­can stress pat­terns ought not to be con­sid­ered wrong as they are also eas­ily un­der­stand­able. Teach­ers’ ef­forts are more pro­duc­tive when they are fo­cused on words with more un­com­mon pro­nun­ci­a­tions such as wicked (wi-ked) and façade (fe-sard).

The Amer­i­cans also have a greater out­put of books, mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers as well as a greater supremacy in on­line re­sources util­is­ing their brand of spell­ing, mak­ing our task of cham­pi­oning Bri­tish English seem al­most like a los­ing bat­tle at times. More­over, some for­mer stu­dents of mine have rightly pointed out that more stu­dents from Asia are opt­ing to fur­ther their ed­u­ca­tion in Amer­ica than in Bri­tain, so it would ap­pear that our adop­tion of Bri­tish English does not quite ben­e­fit them.

Some peo­ple have, how­ever, ar­gued that if we are to adopt Bri­tish English, we should adopt it wholly, with­out ex­cep­tions. I find this ap­proach prob­lem­atic as I have al­ways found that we should not be dog­matic in the use of lan­guage as it is a con­stantly evolv­ing force and stays rel­e­vant through its abil­ity to ab­sorb and dis­card what­ever the source.

While it is well and good to be con­sis­tent, we cer­tainly don’t need to be pedan­tic. For in­stance, some words that we are used to are spelled the Amer­i­can way. The com­monly used “fo­cused” is Amer­i­can while “fo­cussed” is Bri­tish and can seem a lit­tle clumsy. I see no prob­lem with con­tin­u­ing to adopt the Amer­i­can ver­sion if one can be con­sis­tent about it. Also, if we are too in­sis­tent about us­ing only Bri­tish English, we will end up hav­ing to say off-li­cence when we mean a liquor store or chips, as in fish and chips, when we mean French fries.

Bri­tish and Amer­i­can English do in­ter­act closely with each other and there is a trend among mod­ern users to know and use both, es­pe­cially in the area of vo­cab­u­lary. So while “film” is Bri­tish and “movie” Amer­i­can, peo­ple these days tend to use them in­ter­change­ably and as a way of not hav­ing to re­peat them­selves.

There are also mi­nor gram­mat­i­cal dif­fer­ences be­tween the two, such as in the use of cer­tain prepo­si­tions and tenses, but I have not touched on them as I feel that both ver­sions are ac­cept­able and eas­ily un­der­stand­able.

De­spite its wan­ing in­flu­ence, Bri­tish English still has great cache among English lan­guage speak­ers, not least be­cause of its still strong lit­er­ary tra­di­tions, so it is not nec­es­sary to jump on the Amer­i­can English band­wagon as yet.

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