Culture may seem like a very visual concept, with emphasis often put on clothing, food, or historical landmarks, but culture goes much deeper than this. One way culture breaks through the barrier into the intangible is through language. Because the United States of America and England both speak English, many would assume that the cultures would be very similar as well. This is far from the case. These two dialects of English are less of a parent-child relationship and more like a sibling relationship. Like Darwin and his Galapagos Finches, language evolves at different rates and forms different meanings in separate locations. For example, “sorry” means two different things in the two countries. In America, “sorry” is more of an apologetic, polite thing to say. If I were to bump into someone on the subway, I would say “sorry.” However, in Britain sorry could have a more disrespectful meaning. For example, if someone is standing close to me on the Tube I would say “sorry” meaning move away, give me space, get out of my way, or something of that nature. This would be negative vs. positive politeness.
Language can also tell a lot about a person. In America, we love the underdog. We respect those who come from nothing and end up very successful. Because of this, it can be difficult to decipher a person’s history based just off of their words. In England, this is different, and people infer a lot about a person through their language choices. With US American English, we can only use our language to decipher where a person is from regionally and maybe some educational background. For instance, if I were to say “y’all” over “you guys,” listeners would be quick to point out that I was from the South.
In contrast to this, in England word choice can be a great indicator of family background and status. There, status is not only about money and power but about lineage and history. Language and small gestures can quickly give away where a person is from, their education level, what family structure they have, whether they are from new or old money, etc.
Even simple phrases such as “Okay” are different in the two cultures. Americans are generally seeking approval with this question and will say “Okay?” at the end of a statement to verify that the other person agrees or understands. In England, saying “innit,” a condensed version of the contraction “isn’t it,” can have the same meaning in certain classes.
This blog post was based on the KERA podcast The Differences In Dialects of English, which you can listen to at: http://www.kera.org/2015/03/26/the-differences-in-dialects-of-english. For more information on the differences between British and American English, be sure to check out the book That’s Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms, and What Our English Says About Us by Erin Moore.