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