Did You Eat Yet?
Language is a very important part of any culture, whether on an international level or simply with the minutiae of dialect differences between one village and the next. It is a very meaningful part of one’s identity and in the UK the variety of accents offer a wonderful array of different sounds and vocabulary, like with such heated inter-county arguments on what the correct way to call a bread roll is.
The title of this blog came from a conversation I had with an American back in 2010 during my year abroad in Japan. ‘Do you mean, “have you eaten yet?”’ was my response, to which they replied with a non-committal ‘whatever’. I wasn’t trying to be high and mighty at all, but my brain did do a double-take because I had never heard anyone construct a sentence that way before. Once we start opening up these language differences with other countries, even if we speak the same language, those differences can become even starker and it is a topic that I have become more interested in the longer I spend in Japan amongst an international community, many of whom are native English speakers, whether from the UK or not.
The biggest comparison that is often made is ‘American English vs British English’. I’ll admit it’s a very general comparison and many people in each country will argue that there is no such thing as each has its own wide variety of dialects and accents. There is a generic version of each though that is taught, and this is a topic that does seem to have been talked to death; a quick search on YouTube and you’ll find a load of videos on the topic, all generally containing the same content and usually following the same format of one person from each country having a giggle at each other’s differences. Sometimes they may even throw an Australian in to really mix things up. Usually they focus purely on pronunciation and vocabulary differences, like petrol vs gas, pants vs trousers, etc. I’m sure there are many sources out there on this topic and I would never claim to be a language expert with a wealth of knowledge to add to the discussion, but I felt like I wanted to write about some of the observations I have made over the past few years during my time abroad. I won’t be able to write about everything I’d like to in this post, so there will be future posts about this topic that will explore some of the things I can’t write about here.
What I’ve found particularly interesting is how I’ve noticed people’s English change over time living abroad, myself included. Despite how staunch I can be with keeping my Britishness alive and well in the way I speak, even I have fallen to the forces that be and catch myself off guard on some occasions. There are some words in particular where I will hear myself using the ‘tap/flap T’. When I say the name of my local bar ‘Critical Hit’, it will often sound more like ‘cridical hi’’, which I think is just because that’s how I hear it more often than not. The tap T is one of the most common adjustments I hear with British expats here in Japan. (I’ve also noticed it a lot more on UK telly recently – Nigel Farage being a very surprising example.) Whether a teacher or not, it seems to be a natural evolution of the pronunciation. My preference for the hard T has been brought up on more than one occasion in the past by fellow Brits as if I’m the odd one. I think it can sound quite harsh to many ears and depending on the situation I would agree. Many of my close British friends here have adopted this completely but I think I’ll carry on with my T, whether I choose to pronounce it or drop it altogether!
There are cases where someone may naturally adopt the American pronunciation of a word, but there are a few rare cases that go all the way and full on employ a proper American accent (to varying degrees of success). I’ve met plenty of non-native speakers who have gone through the effort of learning an American accent, and while I think that is a shame (just because I feel they should be fine with their own accent, but hey, it’s their choice), it is more understandable than coming across a Brit that has done the same. I should make a point here by writing that I don’t want that to be confused with a Brit who has started picking up an accent and it has naturally transformed into some kind of transatlantic one, which can be quite pleasing on the ear sometimes.
I remember meeting a man in a pub who had such a strong American accent and when I asked him where he was from, he said he was from Preston. Preston? You mean that small city in Lancashire that houses the university that I went to? I remember an old flatmate in my first year there who was from Burnley (admittedly outside of Preston) who had such a strong but fantastic accent. This guy’s accent couldn’t have been any more wrong. I asked him about it and his reply was ‘my old accent sucked so I started speaking with an American accent.’ I thought that was kind of sad. If you’re going to go so far to talk in an American accent, why not just lie and say you’re from America? Accents are a part of who one is, and once it’s wilfully dropped, I feel it’s an abandonment of one’s past and feels very inorganic and just weird. That might sound a little extreme but I think there is an element of that in there and it’s hardly anything new in British society, where received pronunciation was used by many actors, newsreaders, musicians, etc. who did not want to reveal their regional accent and background in order to be successful. There’s less of that now for the better, but there are some great examples of how this can lead to wonderous results.
I often hear that when people go home, they will naturally switch back to their old accent very quickly and I think that’s a wonderful thing. My accent has been a bit lost for some time – even in the UK – and I’ve never had any comments from family or friends back home on the way that I talk. Nothing I haven’t heard since I was younger anyway, such as when my mum would say that when I spoke to a friend on the phone that I sounded ‘posher’. But I have heard a few stories of people being picked up on the way they say a word or even their choice of words in some cases and literally being told ‘you’re not from around here, are you?’ How I would hate to be asked that when I go home. The closest I’ve had is being told on more than one occasion that I don’t ‘sound British’ by some non-native English speakers, but I don’t think that’s really true.
It’s not all about pronunciation and accents. I’d say it’s very natural to adopt a similar accent to those around you and there are plenty of studies on how humans do this as a bonding mechanism and means of creating some kind of rapport by using the dominant sound around you. As many foreigners in Japan are English teachers, and Japan’s decision to opt to teach the form of English that does not share its vowel sounds, many British people (and others) do tend to pick up not only an American accent but also a lot of the vocabulary as well to varying degrees of pain. There is the added issue of making yourself known to non-native English speakers who are primarily learning American English. If you want to make yourself understood, you really do have to mix things up a bit. Personally I tend to try out my usual vocabulary first and see how that goes and if there’s any confusion, I’ll switch to the American vocab. It’s not quite as impressive as switching between languages so fluidly like many of our European friends do, but sometimes it can feel like it!
Some good examples that I hear often are:
Garbage vs rubbish
Movie vs film
Gas vs petrol
Pants vs trousers
Elevator vs lift
Apartment vs flat
Garage vs garage vs garage
That last one is of course more on pronunciation but it’s truly interesting to see how the American pronunciation is so easily adopted. When I first came to Japan I made no change to the way pronounced garage, but then unconsciously started using the American one, and then for some reason which is still completely unknown to me, I adopted a completely different pronunciation of the word which I don’t think I ever used before. It’s such a mess! Out of the list above, I’d say there are three words that I have picked up and use more so now than their British counterparts, and they are ‘elevator’, ‘apartment’ and ‘garbage’. Elevator and apartment (well, the ‘apart’ anyway) is the same word in Japanese, so those are more unavoidable than the others. Garbage, on the other hand, just comes from it being used so often at work. I’m not a binman, but we do deal with a lot rubbish.
The fear and frustration of being misunderstood is a good reason for us to choose one word or pronunciation over another. The way that most Brits would pronounce the word ‘yoghurt’ for example, would likely flummox an American who is more used to hearing people say hello to a person named Gert. And when you really compare the pronunciation (spelling aside) of this word, you can really see how an American wouldn’t have a clue what you’re saying, it’s that different. Sometimes we just have grit our teeth and say what needs to be said in order to be understood but other times I can be adamant with my pronunciation. Many Americans may not know the correct (ahem) pronunciation of ‘router’, but we get there in the end.
And there are plenty of examples that I have seen. One of the other bigger ones for me personally is the way the usage of the word ‘pissed’ has changed for many. To the Brits, ‘pissed’ unequivocally means ‘drunk’, but I hear it now being used more to mean ‘angry’ or ‘pissed off,’ which is where I think it comes from. From what I know, the meaning of ‘drunk’ comes way before the American usage of the word, but many have now started using it the American way. This has caused some minor confusion in the past with American friends but it’s those kinds of interactions that I find interesting. The same could also be said for the word ‘mad’ as well, which I also hear many British people use to mean the same, a usage that I don’t think I really heard before I came here.
As I mentioned earlier, it is impossible for me to be able write everything I want to in such a short blog post. I assume and hope that there is plenty of reading on the broader topic of differences between British and American English and the history of both, which I plan to look in to. There are so many more good examples that I could pool from my own observations alone, but I think I will cover those in future posts, including some Americanisms that I’m afraid I don’t think I’ll ever be able to accept. We didn’t even get onto chips!
To finish, I thought it would be interesting to finally get a little bit of audio involved on my site as this one was particularly about accents. I even thought that this topic would be more interesting to cover in audio form over written and maybe that is something that I will look into in the future. For now, however, I will simply read what I have written, which can be found here.
See you in the next one. Toodle-oo.