Divided by their common language?


“England and America are two countries divided by their common language”. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, this famous saying is attributed in this and other forms, to George Bernard Shaw, but not found in any of his published writings. I have also heard of it being attributed to Oscar Wilde. It may well be a corruption of the following lines from a short story written by him entitled The Canterville Ghost. “We really have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language”. However, regardless of its origins, it does highlight the fact that there are differences in words, phrases and spelling, between American and British English.

image source wikimedia commons

Having many Americans in my congregation, I try to be careful with the words I use when preaching. I try not to say ‘fortnight’ but to say instead, ‘two weeks’. To remember that a ‘mobile phone’ is a ‘cell phone’, though that one is less of a problem as it is a ‘mobil’ in Czech. And that ‘football’ to Americans is ‘American Football’, not what I know as ‘football’, which is, of course, ‘soccer’.

Like most British people, I’ve seen enough American films and TV programmes (not ‘programs’!) to understand most American vocabulary. But this past week I’ve learnt a new American phrase and also been enlightened as to how my written English could easily be misunderstood by an American reader.

Ironically, I learned my new American phrase whilst attending my Czech languages class. Our Czech teacher wanted us to practice the correct Czech words for numbers between one and twenty by playing a version of ‘tic-tac-toe’ with the neighbouring student. Fortunately, mine was a young American called Anna. When I looked blank, Anna explained to me how to play ‘tic-tac-toe’. It only took a short while for me to realise that the game was ‘noughts and crosses’. Of course, Anna had never heard of ‘noughts and crosses’!

At today’s Church Council meeting, I asked for the approval of the Council of the wording of a letter that will go out to the congregation next Sunday. The Council fully agreed with the thrust of what I had written regarding the somewhat difficult financial situation we are facing, but Mark, an American Council member, asked me to change two things. I had referred to ‘one-off costs’ that had occurred in 2008. “Americans won’t understand that,” said Mark. So it has been changed to ‘non recurring costs’. And I had used the abbreviation ‘A/c’ for account as in ‘bank account’. “Americans will think that is air conditioning,” said Mark. So it is now ‘account’ in full, to ensure there is no confusion.

However, it does work both ways. Another American member of the congregation, who is a TEFL teacher, tells me that she has learned more British English the last two years she has been teaching in Prague than in the previous fifty or so years of her life!

4 comments to Divided by their common language?

  • Bloody good post.When I was in high we had a German exchange student stay with us. He was taught “english” english in school, so we had to speak slowly.
    .-= Marcus@ac repair´s last blog ..AC Repair St. Pete – Guide to Air Conditioner Repairs =-.

  • Oh yes, we are all taught english-english. You’re from the south of the US? So you have to speak very clearly.. 😉 But on the other hand: listen to the guys from Austria – hard to understand as well…

  • Ricky

    Hi Nikki und Michi,

    I assume your comment was in response to the comment left by Marcus. His business is based in Florida but only he can tell you how much of a ‘southern drawl’ he has!

    Assuming you both speak Hochdeutsch, I do appreciate the problems you have understanding Österreichisch!

  • Dream Dictionary

    I know that the british speak so much better – but it sounds so weird to us yanks! lol!