How is your English? Research shows Americanisms AREN'T taking over the British language
By CHRIS HASTINGS
Last updated at 10:40 AM on 13th March 2011
Last updated at 10:40 AM on 13th March 2011
The differences in pronunciation have been well known since Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers sang Let's Call The Whole Thing Off in the 1937 film Shall We Dance
Anyone who has ever taken a ride in an elevator or ordered a regular coffee in a fast food restaurant would be forgiven for thinking that Americanisms are taking over the English language.
But new research by linguistic experts at the British Library has found that British English is alive and well and is holding its own against its American rival.
The study has found that many British English speakers are refusing to use American pronunciations for everyday words such as schedule, patriot and advertisement.
It also discovered that British English is evolving at a faster rate than its transatlantic counterpart, meaning that in many instances it is the American speakers who are sticking to more ‘traditional’ speech patterns.
Jonnie Robinson, curator of sociolinguists at the British Library, said: ‘British English and American English continue to be very distinct entities and the way both sets of speakers pronounce words continues to differ.
‘But that doesn’t mean that British English speakers are sticking with traditional pronunciations while American English speakers come up with their own alternatives.
‘In fact, in some cases it is the other way around. British English, for whatever reason, is innovating and changing while American English remains very conservative and traditional in its speech patterns.’
As part of the study, researchers at the British Library recorded the voices of more than 10,000 English speakers from home and abroad.
The volunteers were asked to read extracts from Mr Tickle, one of the series of Mr Men books by Roger Hargreaves.
They were also asked to pronounce a set of six different words which included ‘controversy’, ‘garage’, ‘scone’, ‘neither’, ‘attitude’ and ‘schedule’.
Linguists then examined the recordings made by 60 of the British and Irish participants and 60 of their counterparts from the U.S. and Canada.
When it came to the word attitude, more than three-quarters of the British and Irish contingent preferred ‘atti-chewed’ while every single participant from the U.S. opted for ‘atti-tood.’
There was an equally pronounced transatlantic clash when it came to the word controversy.
Two-thirds of the British and Irish participants favoured a version of the word which emphasised the middle syllable of trov.
In stark contrast, all the U.S. participants said a version which stressed the first three letters of the word.
The differences in pronunciation on either side of the Atlantic have been well known since Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers provided their own take on the subject with the song Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off in the 1937 film Shall We Dance.
The pair famously sang: ‘You say neither and I say neither... let’s call the whole thing off.’
Poet and former children¿s¿ laureate Michael Rosen said that even the most successful Americanisms tended only to have limited appeal to Britons
More than seven decades on, the debate appears to continue.
Just over half of the British and Irish sample prefer the version of neither where the first syllable rhymes with ‘scythe’ but three-quarters of the North American participants opted for the version which rhymed with ‘seethe’.
The word garage also proved linguistically divisive with the Brits ‘overwhelmingly’ opting for a version which rhymed with marriage while the U.S. speakers preferred one which rhymed with mirage.
But in many cases the differences were down to the fact that the British English speakers were moving away from pronunciations which would have been regarded as standard just 50 years ago.
In the case of garage and controversy for instance, the US volunteers were more likely to use the British English pronunciations favoured or given prominence by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
Tim Charrington, a dialect coach who has worked with actors on the West End stage, said it was true that American speech patterns could be more traditional.
He said: ‘Americans tend to be much better at stressing the French origins of words such as garage and ballet.’
Experts say it is too early to say why British English speakers may be abandoning the standard pronunciations.
Mr Robinson said: ‘I think there is a new generation of British English speakers who are now stressing the second syllable of some words such as controversy and harass.
‘This method of pronunciation will be unfamiliar to an older generation. People are much more influenced by those they interact with than was perhaps previously thought.
‘They are much more likely to adopt the speech patterns of their friends, family and workmates rather than copy what they see in a film or television programme.
'Fashion also has a great role to play. What is acceptable now may look completely different in 30 years.’
In the study researchers recorded the voices of more than 10,000 English speakers from home and abroad
The British Library did find that American English was making advances in at least one respect.
The study found that almost half of British English speakers were now saying schedule as skedule.
But experts believe this may be more to do with accident than the triumph of American culture.
Mr Robinson said: ‘Schedule is not a high-frequency word and it is certainly not one which is used a lot by children. The first time they come across the word is likely to be when they see it written down.
‘They may pronounce it skedule because they assume the Sch at the beginning of the word is pronounced the same as the sch at the beginning of school.’
Michael Rosen, the poet and former children’s’ laureate, said one reason why the language was so resilient was that even the most successful Americanisms tended only to have limited appeal.
He said: ‘An American term such as “dog whistling politics”, which is used to describe a particular kind of political debate, has been taken up by the Westminster village and its followers in the Press but not by the youth of Leicester.
‘On the other hand, new terms from rap music might be taken up by a Cornish boy in a band, but not a Welsh hill farmer.’
Mr Robinson said most people only used Americanisms in particular contexts.
He said: ‘I may be quite happy to go into an American fast food restaurant and ask for a portion of fries and a regular latte, but I am certainly not going to do that in a fish and chip shop.’
The British Library study, which is still ongoing, also looked at the hot topic of the word scone which continues to be a matter of fierce debate among Britons.
The OED’s definition puts the pronunciation rhyming with bone ahead of the one rhyming with gone.
For the record, all of the US English speakers in the survey opted for the former while 41 out of the 60 of the British and Irish contingent chose the latter.
* Anyone who would like to take part in the research and record their voice should go to www.bl.uk/evolvingenglish/mapabout.html
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