Sunday, January 29, 2012

British and American English Differences Part 1: Pronunciation and Accent

A concept image combining British and American flags. Image Credit.

My former student Sharon recently suggested that I write a blog post about the differences between British and American English. I told her that I didn't actually know many of the differences, since I've spoken and taught American English all my life, and the only time I've been to a place that speaks British English was a single night I spent in London about 14 years ago.

But she said that didn't matter, and that I should do it anyway. And she's right; I realized that just because I don't speak British English, it doesn't mean that I'm clueless about the differences. So, this is just a very basic introduction, but I'd also like to refer you to resources that can give you more information if you're interested in this topic.

One website that I like is called "Separated by a Common Language." Lynne, the writer for that blog, is an American woman who's been living in Britain, and she talks a lot about this topic. Another resource --possibly my favorite-- is Bill Bryson's book The Mother Tongue: English And How It Got That Way. If you're interested in this topic and you're able to get access to this book, it's very interesting and entertaining.

So, let's talk about some differences! Today we'll focus on pronunciation and accent, and in a few days we'll have a second part which will focus on vocabulary differences. 


For many English learners, and even native speakers, this is the most noticeable difference between these two types of English. There are many, many sites and blog posts dedicated exclusively to this topic, but for me personally, the biggest differences I notice in pronunciation are in the vowels and in the R's at the end of words.

For example, in this song by the British singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor, she sings, "If I can't dance...then I don't want any part of your revolution." You'll probably notice that the words "can't" and "dance" have a soft "A," which would likely be pronounced differently in most American English dialects. Most American English speakers would likely say the A's in this song like /æ/, in other words, like the A in "cat" or "hat." To my ears, when Sophie Ellis-Bextor says these words, the A's sound more like the O in "hot" or "got"; they seem softer. 

I also notice differences in words with an R sound near the end, such as "cards," "party," "heart," "turn," "darling," and "never." In each of these examples, the strong "American" R sound is absent; British English seems to "swallow" these sounds, or convert them to a soft "uh" sound in some cases. Notice that this doesn't happen with words that start with the R sound, though.

I was actually going to put up this Billy Bragg song as a British English example because Angela told me that for her, it didn't even sound like it was English. But then I had to admit that I didn't understand about 75% of the song, either! Still, in the first two lines you can (probably) hear the words "afternoon" and "warmest," which exhibit the "A" and "R" differences I mentioned above. So maybe it's not a good example to analyze, but you can definitely tell he's not from Los Angeles or Cleveland!  

If you compare these two songs with this song by Johnny Cash, you'll notice quite a bit of difference in the two accents --and you should also notice musical differences, since they're different genres, but all great! In Johnny Cash's song, almost all the R's in words like "hurt," "beer," and "first" are pronounced strongly. That's typical of country music, but it's also typical of much of the American English accent. You'll probably also hear some stronger vowel sounds, like the A in "half" and "laughing."

One thing that I think is interesting is how British Accents are perceived in the United States. There's a perception or stereotype in the U.S. that British accents are more "sophisticated" than American ones. British tourists tend to get a lot of attention in the U.S., and some Americans actually try to "adopt" a British accent. This usually doesn't work out well, though, since Americans who do that are usually considered to be "snobs" or "fakes." Additionally, many villains in American movies and TV shows seem to have British accents, even if the villains the actors are portraying happen to be British, German, French, or any other nationality. It makes me wonder if the villains in British TV shows  speak with American accents!

So which one is "better" or "more correct"? Well, I think they're both great, but I'll let you be the judge about which you think sounds better to your ear. American English obviously came from British English, but American English and its words and expressions have also played a role in the development of British English.

If you have any questions, comments, or anecdotes about your experience with British or American pronunciation, please feel free to leave a comment below. And check back in the next few days for the second half of this post, where we'll talk about differences between British and American vocabulary in English.

Thanks for reading, and have a great week!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Do German Words Have Sex??

Well, no, German words don't have sex, but the nouns do have gender. What does that mean, exactly?

In English, our nouns don't have gender, so this isn't really a problem. But it is a problem for people learning languages like Spanish or German, and it's something that I personally still have problems with in both of those languages.

Spanish is easier than German in this respect. For example, if a noun ends in the letter "o" in Spanish, like muchacho, libro, or carro, the word is usually masculine. Similarly, if it ends in the letter "a," as in casa, puerta, or chica, it's usually feminine. There are a few exceptions (like la manoel idioma, or el planeta), and there are also nouns that don't end in -o or -a, which can cause problems. For some reason, I always forget if words like corazón (heart) and amor (love) are masculine or feminine, but generally it's not too difficult to just look in a dictionary or ask someone. 

German is a lot more difficult, though.

German has three genders, which a lot of people joke about. There is masculine, feminine, and what's usually called "neuter" or "neutral" in English. For some words, it's easy to determine if a word is masculine or feminine. For example, der Mann (the man) is masculine, and die Frau (the woman) is feminine. These make sense, since the noun gender matches the gender in real life. But there are definitely some weird ones, like das Mädchen (the girl); why is a girl neutral, while a boy (der Junge) isn't? And why do the words seem to end in all sorts of different letters? Isn't there a system?

In the 1990s the musician Prince changed his name to this symbol.
Maybe he was just trying to tell us that he's German. (Image Credit)

Not especially. There are some common patterns to German noun gender, and I'll include links to a site that's been highlighting those recently. But the sad truth is that if you are learning German, you simply have to learn the gender of every new noun when you learn vocabulary. This gender also affects adjectives; to compare with Spanish, you'd say "la casa blanca," not "la casa blanco," since blanca (white) needs to be feminine, since casa (house) is feminine. German is the same way, but it's more complicated, since the adjective endings change not only based on gender, but also depending on whether the noun is the subject, object, indirect object, or possessive actor in a sentence.

I won't go into much more detail here today, since other blogs focus a lot more on this (and most of my readers are here for English tips, not to learn about why German nouns are so depressing). If you are learning German, though, you should check out the Transparent Language German Blog. It's generally got good language and cultural information, and they've recently been doing a series on tips and patterns for determining German noun gender. At the moment they're on part 1 of the feminine nouns, but they've already posted a four-part series on German masculine nouns (click here for parts 1, 2, 3, and 4). It's got some really good information, so check it out!

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

False Friends: Actual/Actualmente vs. Actual/Actually

Hello! I was on vacation for the last month or so, so I apologize that I didn't do any blog posts. I did put up a few things on Sitzman ABC's Facebook page, so if you want to follow that, you can do it by clicking here

What's another way to say this phrase in English? How would you say it in Spanish? Image Credit

Today we have another False Friend. If you don't know what a False Friend is, see this introductory post. Today we're going to look at the difference between actual and actualmente in Spanish and actual and actually in English. This is one of the most common False Friends I notice my students having problems with: 

False Friend: actual/actualmente vs. actual/actually 
This SPANISH word...
Looks like this ENGLISH word...
...but they are DIFFERENT because...
actual / actualmente
actual / actually
These two words look exactly the same, but they have different pronunciations and meanings:

In Spanish, actual is a word used to indicate something relevant at this present time, right now:
"Mi trabajo actual es bastante difícil."

If you want to say the same thing in English, instead use the word current or present:
"My current/present job is rather difficult."

"We are studying current events in our Social Studies class."

The adverb forms of these words are currently and presently:
"I'm currently (right now) working on my Sitzman ABC blog."

In English, the words actual and actually indicate a contradiction. They mean the same thing as real or really in this context. For example:

Jane: "Pete, you have a beautiful car!"
Pete: "Actually, I think it's ugly."

Good luck! If you have any questions, please leave a comment below. If you have suggestions for other False Friends or Common Errors, please tell me. 

Thanks for reading, and have a great day!