Viewpoints

Published: Tuesday March 6, 2012 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday August 5, 2013 MYT 4:27:17 PM

British or American English?

Should you call it ‘movie’ or ‘film’? Well, it depends whether you’re talking about an Oscar (Hollywood’s Academy Award) or a BAFTA (British Academy Film Award). Confused? Read on...

THE ideas in this article have long been playing around in my mind, because I am aware that Malaysians are exposed to the two main varieties of English: British English and the English used in the United States, which I shall refer to here as “American English”.

Some of the older ones among us were taught British English during the colonial days, and passed it on to the generations after us with varying degrees of success. American English, on the other hand, is the variety we are more exposed to now through cinema, TV, the Internet, popular songs, and so on.

Although, due to the circumstances of my education, I feel more at home using British English. I don’t think that one variety is necessarily better than the other. I was stunned, therefore, to come across this paragraph in a letter from a reader of Sunday Star on Feb 12: For decades, Malaysians have been proud of using British English without the American corruption of the language. (emphasis mine)

Surely this is a harsh and inaccurate way of describing American English, the language used by John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, Mark Twain, and a whole lot of other excellent writers, some of whom have won the Nobel Prize in Literature!

While I share the concerns of the writer about the need to improve the standard of English and English teaching in our country, I do not think we can or should prevent the American variety of English from being used here, whether in writing or in speech.

Speaking as a former teacher, I don’t really mind if at first my students mix up the two varieties of English, as long as they can use the language clearly and grammatically, and continue to increase their vocabulary. As they get better, some of them would perhaps be able to distinguish between the two varieties, in their spelling, pronunciation and vocabulary.

American and British English are not that different from each other. They are about as different as Bahasa Malaysia is from Bahasa Indonesia. Speakers of each language can understand each other, with a little bit of accommodation on each side.

The differences between American and British English are perhaps most apparent in their pronunciations. For example, when there is an “r” within a word like “burn”, the Americans would pronounce the “r” while the British generally don’t – except for the Scots. Also, the “a” in many words like “pass”, “dance”, “chance” is pronounced like the “a” in “that” (indicated phonetically as /ae/) by Americans, while the British would use a long “a” sound as in “calm” (indicated phonetically as /a:/ - the colon denoting that the vowel is long.)

However, how many of us Malaysians who were partly educated in Britain or America really speak like the natives of those countries? Most of us will have a Malaysian accent, with a trace of British or American flavour in it. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, as long as we can be clearly understood by other speakers of English, and don’t sound strained through trying too hard – and failing!

Let us look at how a few words of different origins are used or pronounced in British English, American English and in Malaysia. Since the Academy Awards were recently presented in Los Angeles and telecast live here, let us take the word “movie”. The word is of US origin, is an abbreviation for “moving picture” and has been in use since 1912.

The equivalent in British English is “film”. In 1950s Malaya, English-speaking people would say they were going to “see a film in a cinema”, or less formally, they were going to “the pictures”. I never heard anyone mention the word “movie” then. Nowadays, “movie” seems to be the preferred word, especially among the young. Even the British Daily Telegraph uses it interchangeably with “film”. For example, in its online edition of Feb 29, in the section called “Film”, the phrase “Movie reviews and previews” is written before “film news”. So, the word has not only gained currency in Malaysia: it has also sneaked into British English.

On the other hand, there is the word “fall”, in the US sense of “autumn”. It is not a US coinage, even in that sense. It was first used in British English in 1545 in its full form, “fall of the leaf”.

Although “fall” meaning “autumn” is only used in some dialects of British English now, the poet G.M. Hopkins used “Spring and Fall” as the title of one of his poems (published 1918) and the Scottish essayist and historian, Thomas Carlyle, used it in that sense in his biography of the Scottish author John Sterling: His first child ... was born there ... in the fall of that year 1831 (OED).

The word “momentarily” gave me a fright during my first visit to the US. It has different meanings in American English and British English. In the former, it means “very soon” or “in a moment”, while in British English it means “for a very short time”. Imagine my alarm, while travelling from one city in the US to another by plane, when I heard this announcement: “We will be landing momentarily in Atlanta.”

Since Atlanta was my destination, I thought I really had to hurry off the plane in the short time it would be on the runway! And what about my luggage? Then I calmed down, thinking, it must mean something a little different here; and it does!

To come to pronunciation, let’s take the word “vase”. It is usually pronounced /veis/ in the US and /va:z/ in British English and in Malaysia.

Many years ago, I was watching the film Plenty, with great admiration for Meryl Streep’s faultless English accent. Then she said “veis”! Well, her English accent was almost faultless.

The word “route” has an alternative pronunciation in the US: it sounds like “rout”. So don’t be surprised if while on a visit there, your bus driver says what sounds like: “We have a little change of ‘rout’ today.”

FROM today, Mind Our English will be appearing once a week on Tuesdays.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle

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