Divided by a common language?

Having worked in the staffing industry in an international capacity for a number of years, I’ve become quite familiar with the differences in spelling and pronunciation between American English and English English (or the Queen’s English for pedants and monarchists). When I worked for a large international staffing company that was listed on both Nasdaq and the London Stock Exchange, we produced two sets of Financial Accounts each written in the local vernacular so I like to think I became quite an expert in the variations. In fact, I still have a copy of Websters’ Dictionary sitting on my bookshelf from those days as well as the Oxford English Dictionary.

Within the staffing industry, there are really only a handful of key words that you need to pay careful attention to if you want to bridge the transatlantic gap:

  • labor - labour
  • organization - organisation
  • program – programme
  • specialty – speciality
  • operating income – operating profit
  • SG&A – operating expenses

RPO is a verbal landmine. In Europe, some people use it as a broader umbrella term to capture all forms of labour procurement, both contingent and direct hire. Speak to a vendor in London about recruitment process outsourcing and you may well find you are discussing a programme to hire a temporary workforce, not just a permanent one. Our Global Lexicon usefully highlights a few of the other differences in usage among the international contingent family (see http://www.staffingindustry.com/Research-Publications/Research/Staffing-Best-Practices-Case-Studies-Operational-Issues/UK-Lexicon)

Global media means we can still understand each other pretty well even when we use different words to mean the same thing (elevator – lift, sidewalk – pavement, truck - lorry, freeway – motorway, gas – petrol, etc). What’s more difficult are the very subtle differences with regards to tenses, past participles and other grammatical idioms which sometimes mean we just sound a little awkward to each other. For instance;

  • The British athlete plays on a team, the American plays in a team but both can play for a team;
  • The British student reads biology at college, the American majors in biology but both can study biology;
  • The British politician stands for election, the American runs for office but both are incompetent.

Dining can cause a whole set of other problems. For a Brit, an eggplant would be an aubergine, a tenderloin would be a fillet, a zucchini would be a courgette, a fava bean would be a broad bean, a cookie would be a biscuit and fries would be chips (and chips are crisps). Oregano has the emphasis on the third syllable rather than the second, while basil doesn’t rhyme with hazel at all. And what equates to beer in America would be a glass of fizzy water to the English palate. At the end of the meal, remember to ask for the bill rather than the check.

The English can get quite snooty about spellings and pronunciation as we think we invented the language – and because of the perceived pervasive influence of American TV and cinema. But, the surprising truth is that US spellings and accents are quite often more closely related to original Old English than the spellings used in the UK today. As the Pilgrim Fathers carried their 17th Century dialect to a large, isolated continent (alongside their non-conformist religion and big black hats), the language remained largely unaffected by outside influences - apart from the naming of a few streets and districts in New York by earlier Dutch settlers. However, since that time, the British have been heavily influenced by the many languages within their global Empire and, more recently, by their closer relationship with continental Europe.

The 21st Century flavour (or flavor) of UK English is quite far removed from that spoken by its Elizabethan forefathers. To hear English in its more pure form, travel to Boston Massachusetts rather than Boston, Lincolnshire.

Of course, there’s no right or wrong here but I do think the US should seriously consider adopting the European pronunciation of ‘niche’ (rhymes with ‘leash’ and not ‘bitch’) as the European version sounds much more elegant – and more closely aligned to its French roots. I, for one, know I’d much prefer working in a neash sector than a nitch sector.

English remains the international language of business even though it is heavily outnumbered in terms of native speakers by Mandarin (almost three times as many people speak Mandarin than English) and has also recently been surpassed by Spanish. One of the key reasons it retains this hegemony (and is likely to in the future) is its versatility and ability to absorb hybrid forms of usage, spelling and pronunciation (not forgetting Canadian English and Australian English) without becoming unintelligible.

So, unless we all want to start learning to speak Mandarin, we should rejoice in and celebrate the differences in English spoken around the world. Churchill is credited with saying that the US and UK are “divided by a common language” but in truth we are more united by our language and all the richer for it.


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