North American vs all other English

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by ontheleft, Nov 22, 2013.

  1. ontheleft Registered Member

    For 400 years or so, that little island off the west coast of Europe went around the world leaving it's language everywhere.

    A few months ago I watched an Australian movie about a rancher who found an Afghan woman on his property. He brought her back to health and protected her from the criminals who had lied to her and brought her to Australia to be used as a sex slave.

    It was a good movie.The problem was it took me half of the movie to understand half of what the Australians were saying. When the woman started to speak I could understand her more then them.

    The first question is why is North American English so different then other English? I've been to New Zealand, S. Africa, England and Scotland. They all have their accents but they are closer to that little island's English then North America is.

    The second question is for those that have English as a second language. Is North American English easier to understand then the others?

    I've checked "immigration Australia," thinking that might be a reason, but the little I found before 1944 wasn't much help.
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  3. exchemist Valued Senior Member

    Having lived for a while in The Hague, I wonder if American accents owe quite a lot to the Dutch who originally settled what is now New York. And I've read that the distinctive nasal twang Americans have may have originated from the Puritans that settled the NE coast. But I'm not sure you are right about the American version being further from English English than the others. It all depends on the strength of the accent and the amount of local argot vocabulary used. A strong Glaswegian or Geordie accent can be pretty incomprehensible to someone from London.
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  5. ontheleft Registered Member

    The Dutch were in N.A. about as long as they were in Australia. (No links allowed yet.}

    Don't know about Puritan nasal twangs, if they brought that over with their religion.

    Do you have a hard time understanding Canadian or US English when you watch their movies?
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  7. MacGyver1968 Fixin' Shit that Ain't Broke Valued Senior Member

    Ontheleft, just post the link as plain text, and I'll repost it as a link.
  8. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    They're hardly the first. The Romans did such a thorough job of spreading Latin that half the people in Europe speak Romance languages even though their ancestors spoke Germanic or Celtic languages; e.g., the Franks in northern France and the Gauls in southern France, respectively. The entire Eastern branch of the Germanic languages (Gothic) and the entire Continental branch of the Celtic languages (from Iberia to some of the modern Slavic nations) have been extinct for so long that we can't even reconstruct them to any extent. And we have no idea what the Etruscan language was like or whether it was related to any others.

    Look at what the Americans did to our native peoples. Very few of their languages are spoken in vernacular, some are kept alive by dedicated enthusiasts, many more exist only on recordings and written transcriptions, and an unknown number are lost. The Spanish and Portuguese did exactly the same thing to the people in their much larger part of the New World.

    But it goes back farther than that. The Aramaeans were conquered and assimilated by a series of rulers of Mesopotamia several thousand years ago, yet their language was adopted as the lingua franca of the region, spoken by myriad other tribes clear up into the 20th century. Aramaic still lives on the internet, even though all those other tongues are lost and forgotten and there have been no "Aramaic people" for millennia.

    You don't say where you live. The various versions of English are properly called "dialects" because despite their differences we can all understand each other, at worst with a couple of weeks of exposure, help and practice. (Unlike languages, which generally take at least half a year and usually much longer to actually get along.)

    In the 1950s in Chicago, I found it very difficult to understand American southerners, and the British dialects were hopeless. But then the hybrid Hollywood-Manhattan accent of the radio and TV personalities crept into every home and all the children everywhere learned to at least understand them, and eventually to talk more like them than like their parents. A few years later TV and the movies brought us Masterpiece Theater, James Bond and Monty Python, while the Brits were deluged with our much larger portfolio of programs. Then our rock'n'roll entranced their children, and a few years later the Beatles and the Stones did the same to ours. Today we not only understand each other's accents with little trouble, but we've even adopted each other's slang: we both know that our "chick" and their "bird" are the same creature, and they've even stopped saying "knock you up" for "pick you up" since it always made us giggle and blush. (In the USA it means "to impregnate.")

    The media are, first, exposing us to each other's dialects and accents (a dialect has significant differences in vocabulary and grammar, while accents differ almost exclusively in phonetics). But moreover, we have become so comfortable with each other's language (and culture) that we adopt it. My wife had an English roommate when she was young, and learned to use "hoover" as a verb. It's so cute that I picked it up too. I didn't even realize it until the repairman in a Hoover shop refused to work on my Eureka.

    The same is true, to a lesser extent, of Australian English. Everybody loves AC/DC, Crocodile Dundee and Steve Irwin (R.I.P.), and in any case Australian isn't quite as foreign to us as British. They have some impenetrable slang, but their accent isn't as strident. I suspect that for reasons only you would know, you simply haven't had as much exposure to movies, TV and music from Australia as the rest of us.

    The United States is a huge country. Its population is more than double the total of all those countries combined, and its area is many times larger than the British Isles. (Australia comes close in area but its population is less than 10% of ours.) So it stands to reason that America would have gone off in its own direction culturally, rather than being heavily influenced by the rest of the anglophone world.

    The same is true of Spanish and Portuguese. The Latin American dialects of those languages have diverged greatly from the mother tongues (especially the Carioca accent of Rio de Janeiro) because they are now the center of Iberian-language culture, not Iberia itself. Colombian Gabriel García Márquez and Brazilian Paulo Coelho are the most celebrated novelists in Spanish and Portuguese.

    We speak more slowly than the British (everyone except New Yorkers, anyway), so that automatically makes us a bit easier to understand.

    Absolutely. The "oi" in "New Joizey" is descended from the odd Dutch "uy" dipthong. In fact in my accent (born in Chicago), the long I in some words is also pronounced "uy" rather than "aye." "Writer" and "rider" are NOT homophones in my accent. The I in writer is "uy."

    Let’s not forget that English English has evolved over the centuries too. It’s a common phenomenon that small expatriate communities tend to be very conservative with their language, so after a few generations they often speak an older, more conservative dialect than the people back home.

    My ancestors came from Bohemia (we call it the Czech Republic today because it’s easier to spell and pronounce) in the late 19th century, and there was a thriving Bohemian community in the Midwest. When talkies were invented they began shooting movies in Bohemian. Somebody sent a reel to their relatives back in Prague. The people there couldn’t understand the archaic language, so they hired voice actors to dub it into modern “Czech Czech.”

    Modern British English is considerably different from the English of the 15th and 16th centuries. Linguists have done a good job of recreating it, since there are so many modern dialects that give clues to their ancestry. Several years ago a British company put on a production of one of Shakespeare’s plays, with the actors speaking the actual English that would have been used in the 16th century. The audience was very hostile. They did not enjoy hearing kings and noblemen talking in, what to them, was a modern working-class accent.

    Today’s Standard British English is, to a certain degree, an artifact created by scholars. It’s called Received Pronunciation (or “RP”) in England, because it was the accent that upper-class children were taught in their private schools. We call it “Oxford English” or “BBC English,” and although those terms are not used over there, the British understand them and accept them graciously because, after all, they are accurate. Both Oxford and the BBC spread this accent throughout the U.K., the same way TV and radio standardized American English half a century ago.

    There are four recognized dialects of English: British, American, Australia/New Zealand, and Indian. I notice that you did not mention Indian English, which all educated Indians are taught from birth, and which two people from different regions use when talking to each other. (There are many Indian languages, and they even represent two different families, Dravidian and Indo-European.) It evolved from British English, but the pronunciation is a little less exaggerated (from an American perspective), it includes more Americanisms than R.P., and it doesn’t use pitch or speed for emphasis so it sounds rather monotonic to us. They also tend to be rather casual with their choice of prepositions; I have often cited this as proof that English prepositions actually convey very little meaning.

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    (I haven't been able to find out if South African English is also identified as a distinct dialect.)

    There are more native speakers of English in India than in the entire rest of the world.

    I can’t figure out where OnTheLeft lives. If he is British, he couldn’t possibly have as much trouble understanding Australian dialect as he describes. It has much more in common with British than American English does—both phonetics and slang. The Aussies even use Cockney rhyming slang: Money-->bread and honey-->bread. Yank-->septic tank-->Seppo.

    Please open the link first on your computer and verify that it’s not unwholesome, dangerous to your computer, or a violation of the forum rules in some other way. That is, after all, the reason we don't accept links from newbies.

    --Fraggle Rocker
  9. sideshowbob Sorry, wrong number. Valued Senior Member

    I was watching a British TV show from the eighties the other day, Minder. One character, a Londoner, didn't understand an expression ("buttie") used by another character, a northerner but I (a Canadian) did understand it. I'm quite familiar with northern British English because of another British TV show, Coronation Street. By the way, there are a number of different "British" accents on Coronation Street.

    From my point of view, as a Westerner with an accent that is probably similar to Midwestern USA, American southerners and New Englanders sound more like Britons than they do like us, particularly the letter "ah".

    There's a good joke in the movie Secret Agent (1936). Ashenden, played by John Gielgud, has just met the head of the Secret Service who says, "You can call me Ah."

    Ashenden asks, "Ah exclamation?"

    "No. Ah as in rhododendron."
  10. Trooper Secular Sanity Valued Senior Member

    I suspect that he can be a smart-arse like the British but tends to use humorless Greeklish during his attempts.

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    That’s Fraggle, the pretentious pacifist that I was telling you about.

    Low on gumption at the joint, eh?
  11. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    Oh man... There are local accents in Scotland that are almost totally incomprehensible to me. It's as if somebody filled their mouth with rocks, and then tried to speak Estonian. They think that it's English they are speaking, but I (a Californian) don't have a clue what they are saying. That's the thing, despite Britain being small geographically, it's by far the oldest English speaking country and local dialects have been brewing for many centuries.

    I guess that the American colonies were Britain's 'first empire', so to speak. They were originally settled in the early 1600's and declared their independence as the United States in the late 1700's. The Canadians hung with Britain, but their language was doubtless strongly influenced by their larger southern neighbor.

    Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were basically 19'th century productions. Or at least the English speaking part of South Africa was. The Afrikaaners date back to the 1600's as well, and their language is already so different from Dutch that it's considered a separate language. Interestingly, South African English sounds like a Germanified version of British English to my ear, which is probably what it is.

    There are interesting versions of English in India, Asia and Africa. Indian English has really taken off and is developing its own sound, literature and unique vocabulary. There's even a local (sort-of) English in tiny Singapore.

    And there's Ireland, of course...
  12. ontheleft Registered Member


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    I'll have you know, young lady, that those who speak Greeklish find my "attempts" side-splitting hilarious.

    The joint and I have evolved in different directions and the separation was friendly, no drama involved.

    Going to find that movie and watch it again with all these comments in mind, see if it's better.
  13. ontheleft Registered Member

    The name of the movie is The Unfinished Sky, available on Netflix. The male lead said two words in the first five minutes, neither of which I understood. Not a good beginning.

    The pretentious one said that Australians? talk fast. That might be true but what I noticed is that they don't pronounce all the letters in a word. The hardest time understanding was when they were talking to each other.

    Took a class in Communication one time. The book said that 80% of it is nonverbal. That's true in a dark ally or walking through a dessert village but you gots! to hear the words in a movie.
  14. Trooper Secular Sanity Valued Senior Member

    I had a little trouble understanding the police officer but I enjoyed it. Ήtan mia kali tainia, eyxaristoyme!

    It's a remake of "The Polish Bride". I think that Monic Hendrickx stars in both of them.
  15. C C Consular Corps - "the backbone of diplomacy" Valued Senior Member

    It's actually the reverse of how Hollywood depicts the divergence of NA and UK English -- wherein Americans and Canadians are presented as those who mutated most dramatically from how the language was uttered in the 18th century. The non-rhotic speech that's now common throughout parts of the UK ("it's been a hahd wintuh") didn't begin appearing among the upper class of England till the late 1700s. The nouveau rich of that era desired to distinguish themselves from people of low birth by concocting a posh dialect, or thereby conceal that as being their own recent origin ground [according to John Algeo, The Cambridge History of the English Language]. Specialists in the 18th century refined that fashionable articulation further and spread it as standard across the isles. (Peoples in Scotland and Ireland largely retained their prior rhotic accents, though.) Because certain New England areas kept strong connections to / influence from the British elite after the Revolutionary War, there was a whiff of the UK alterations acquired there that still linger.

    In addition, Americans clung to several traditional vowel and consonant pronunciations longer than the European "Motherland" did, before subtle changes inevitably emerged.

    I recollect a television reviewer who lamented about how ridiculous it was to hear characters in an Arthurian-type fantasy speaking with the pronunciations of American actors. As if he truly believed that it would be less anachronistic if contemporary British actors replaced them, or the former tried to vocally mimic the latter, or that any such criticism was relevant in light of modern English being used at all.
  16. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

    Many people to whom English is a second language are simply more familiar with North American English - simply because more films, tv shows, music and other media products are available in it. So for those speakers North American English is likely to be easier to understand.
  17. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

    This is an issue of language change, see causes of language change.

    For comparison, also the German Wiki article which is different than the English one -

    Google "language change" and "models of language change" for more.
  18. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    For reasons I have not studied, the non-rhotic accent was also common in the Southern states. I have an 85-year-old friend in Virginia who talks that way. But it has been dying out for a couple of generations and I've never heard any younger people use it.

    Since most of the initial migration to the Southwest was from the South, the Southwestern "cowboy" accent is a weak version of the Southern accent. This is where a few lingering slang words like "hoss" for "horse" came from. I've suggested that this might also be how a few odd pronunciations like "warsh" for "wash" arose. Although literacy was common in the Northeast, it didn't start to spread widely through the South and Southwest until the late 19th century. Written language (invented in the Bronze Age when business transactions became complicated and required recording) is one of humanity's most important, powerful and beloved technologies, and most people seem to understand that intuitively. So when their community is introduced to writing, they take to it enthusiastically.

    When people discovered that the word they had been pronouncing "hoss" was really "horse," they corrected themselves. I think that for a while they overextended that correction and decided that "wash" must also really be "warsh."

    As I've noted before, expatriate communities typically hang onto more conservative versions of their language, as the people back in the motherland continue to evolve theirs. I noted the Czech-language film made by the large Bohemian community in America in the early 20th century, which was proudly shipped to Prague, where the people couldn't understand the archaic language and it had to be dubbed in modern European Czech.

    King Arthur is an icon for the original Brythonic people who attempted to protect Britain against the Anglo-Saxon invaders, who would rename it Angle-Land and eventually "England."

    Therefore a real Arthur would surely have spoken a now-extinct Celtic language closely related to modern Welsh and Cornish--not the Germanic language of the enemy! So to put any dialect of Old High German in his mouth is more than anachronistic: it's garbled history!

    Languages evolve. That's one of the inarguable facts in linguistics. They evolve at different speeds in different eras, but they all evolve. Modern Greek, for example, is so similar to the Ancient Greek of Homer and Aristotle that Greek students can read their original texts with only a little trouble. On the other hand, modern French is so different from Classical Latin that Caesar and Sartre could not possibly understand each other.

    Nonetheless, Latin, Greek, Proto-Germanic, Proto-Celtic, Sanskrit, Anatolian, Tocharian, Old Slavonic, Old Persian, etc., all evolved from Proto-Indo-European. Every one of them is so different from the ancestral language that even 2,000 years ago their speakers could not have understood it, much less today. (Of course Anatolian and Tocharian died out so there are no speakers of languages descended from them.)
  19. ontheleft Registered Member

    That's one of the dumbest things I've heard. I've been in the Southwest for a year and have yet to see that example of your idiocy. It's as stupid as saying that anyone who joins the military has a blood lust.

    Your personality belongs in a fern bar drinking white wine and running your mouth about things you don't know about.
  20. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I may be wrong about "warsh," and I made it clear in my post that it was just a suggestion. I lived in the Southwest in the 1950s. The cowboy accent was still quite common. Obviously it has changed by now, since the cowboys are far outnumbered by Eastern immigrants. I haven't heard an Arizonan talk that way in an interview in decades.

    As for the military, the day is obviously near when they will all be overgrown adolescents, thinking it's a big videogame, controlling their drones with joysticks from a safe haven thousands of miles away, their consciences too undeveloped to process the information that those are real flesh-and-blood men, women and children down there.
  21. C C Consular Corps - "the backbone of diplomacy" Valued Senior Member

    Indeed. But cinema and storybooks routinely depict and displace the characters culturally as if they were residents of a Renaissance Fair(LOL) or some later medieval period, so I felt he could be excused there. In this instance, however, the derivative feudal fantasy this critic was reviewing wasn't necessarily set in this world -- as if he still thought anything even extracted from or remotely mimicking part of the history/myths of the Isles should by rote feature everybody talking like Patrick Stewart, Shirley Manson, or whatever applicable contemporary accents / dialects from England, Scotland, Wales, etc.

    British television at least had a reason for it in shows like Merlin, but it would be the same reason that North American actors would have for conveniently speaking in their current style / language for, let's say, The Chronicles of Amber if converted to the screen: To be understood, using their own broadly categorized regional lingo and that of the audience (at least in such a North American neck of the Anglophone world / viewership). Especially when portraying past aspects of this world in quasi-parallel world fantasies, how the characters should speak seems altogether irrelevant.
  22. C C Consular Corps - "the backbone of diplomacy" Valued Senior Member

    Heh. FR has the proper background and has also lived enough decades and in enough places to lecture and reasonably / justifiably venture anything he wants concerning language. (I thought he was even Mod of this sub-forum previously, but maybe my memory is playing tricks on me again.)

    At one time I was a tad surprised to learn that Ken Curtis, who played Festus on Gunsmoke, acquired the dialect and colloquialisms he used for that character from growing up in Colorado and encountering the speech of various inmates in the jailhouse below where his family lived (decades before the '50s / '60s). Though doubtless many of those vagrants, drunks, and malefactors came from elsewhere than that state or Bent County.
  23. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

    Does Fraggle have an actual degree in linguistics?

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