How British Is Your English? Americanisms AREN'T Taking over Our Language ... and Here's the Research (English Pronunciation Please!) That Proves It

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), March 13, 2011 | Go to article overview

How British Is Your English? Americanisms AREN'T Taking over Our Language ... and Here's the Research (English Pronunciation Please!) That Proves It


Byline: Chris Hastings

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 US 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 US 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 US 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.'

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 threequarters 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 US 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. …

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