Friday, 4 October 2013


(WARNING: This is a language blog, if those aren't your thing, click X now. There'll be another blog along in a minute. It's like waiting for a bus and choosing the one that doesn't go via the city centre and stop at the mall.)

There is no logic to the differences between English English and American English. Let me give you an obvious example, one you can't have missed.

With the verb "to get", Americans still use the antiquated past participle "gotten", while the English shortened it to "got" about 200 years ago.

On the other hand, when it comes to the verb "to bite", Americans say they "got bit" while the English "got bitten".

No, I have no idea. It's just how it is. It's not as cut and dried as that in Canada, and I'm not even going attempt to cover the versions up here.

But you have noticed this (haven't you?) and you don't worry about it. It's just one of those little variations that make actors earn their keep when attempting accents other than their own.

There are other differences that are less common, and would catch an actor out, I feel.

One that cropped up this week is worthy of pointing out, just in case you know any actors. These type of things are shibboleths, I feel. Your accent could be flawless, but this would single you out as an undercover American.

The first one is where a thing is in relation to you.

It could be "out front", "out the front" or indeed "in the front". It could be "in front of..." but not just "in front" With me so far?


"Where's the UPS drop box?"

"Out front" (sounds fine)
"Out the front" (sounds fine)
"In the front" (still sounds OK)
"In front" (in front of what would help here)

OK, but what if it's not something we keep in the front?

"Where's the dumpster?"

"Out the back" (sounds fine)
"Out back" (sounds like it could be in Australia, and is a bit...informal, but I get you)
"In the back" (I need more details again, but OK)
"In back" (WTF?)

Americans say that a thing is "IN back" and I blink. Why do I blink? "In front", so long as it is followed by what it is in front of for clarity, sounds like perfectly good English. But "in back" even if it is carefully followed by further details, sounds wrong. It sounds wrong to my English ears, simply because it's not a usage you would ever encounter in England. Not by the quirkiest speaker. Why this difference between front and back, between in and out? Nobody knows.

However, "out in front" sounds fine. It does. It makes no sense, does it? But it sounds fine.

Shibboleths can also be pronunciation of certain words.

How do you say Southern? I had always assumed that everyone said "suth'n" or "suthrn", depending on rhoticity. But just this week I heard a highly educated Toronto native say "sow-thrn" - with the sow as in the word south itself. I'd heard that before by ESL speakers, and assumed it was just an error on their parts. But this gentleman speaks perfect CBC News Anchor Canadian English. How do you say it? Tell me.

You've all come across the "squirl" distinction, I think. Americans pronounce the word squirrel as all one syllable. The English break it into two clear syllables squi-rl. There is an audible distinction between them.

But how do you say the name Graham?

In England this is pronounced "grey-um". I keep hearing Americans say "gram". One syllable.

OK, if that's your name, say it how you like.

But what if you meet a man whose name is "Graeme"? What do you say then?

Now then. This is being advertised on Facebook. Do me a favour? Put your comments there please. The comment system here on Blogger sucks. It is NOT conducive to discussion at all. And I want feedback on this one. I collect data.

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