It’s Vague Across the Pond: European vs. American English

Ethan Hammond is a mobility coach born in America, now living in the UK. He came on the 3rd episode of ConverSapiens to discuss mobility issues, but first we talked about some of his observations about the differences in American and European English. In this excerpt from the show, we discuss English vagueness… or is it American specificity? Who knows?


Did anything blow your mind when you moved to England, as far as differences in their English and American English?

Yeah. I think most Americans don’t have any clue whatsoever as to how many accents there are here in the UK. England alone is approximately the size of Alabama, they have about 10 times the population here, and the native accent changes about every 20 miles. You basically have southern accents and northern accents, and they’re pretty distinct, though they’re similar in their own ways. But someone from Hampshire, which is the county I live in, sounds quite different from a native person from London, and they will sound vastly different, completely different from someone who was born and raised in Yorkshire, which is about five hours north of here. If you drive for just a couple of hours, the way people speak changes completely. I think Americans mostly think of famous actors like Michael Caine, or Dick Van Dyke from Mary Poppins, which is going to be a much more cockney accent, or the weird little British girl and Family Guy. I think that’s what most Americans think of when they think of a UK accent, and they don’t realize just how many accents there are. There’s over 50 distinct English accents, nevermind, the Welsh, Irish, Northern Irish and Scottish accents. 

Have you ever run into anyone that was difficult for you to understand because their accent was so different?

Yeah, I still get that. But when I first moved here, it was a good three months before my ears were trained enough that I didn’t have to ask every single person I spoke with to repeat every single sentence they said. I must have sounded very rude! Given, where I live is very Metropolitan, so we have a massive Polish population and there’s a massive Middle Eastern population here as well, so you get a lot of those accents too. 

Well, cheerio! Cheerio to you!

Some people do actually say that, which I’m quite happy about. It’s not common though. Or calling people gov… I love calling people gov because they don’t actually say that. That’s not a term they use here. I was so disappointed when I found that out…. You’re ruining my stereotypes!

Guvna! If I moved over there, the first time someone said cheerio to me, I would legitimately have to contain myself. 

Oh, I didn’t contain myself. I’ve got a buddy from Ireland and he actually does say cheerio to say goodbye and I busted out laughing when I first heard it. I’m like, dude, that is awesome! That’s the first time I heard it and I had lived here for over a year, but never actually had someone say cheerio to me.

There is a very strange sort of thing that happens here…. I’ve been meaning to document this better, but in my opinion, from what I’ve observed so far, there’s a bit more of a tendency to rely on context here, when you’re talking to an English person. I think Americans tend to be a little bit more direct in what they’re saying, in terms of the words that they use. I think this is really strange. There’s a tendency for Brits to use words that an American would consider to be a bit vague, whereas they use it here to refer to something very specific. 

Do you have an example?

I have a few examples. I think some American southerners say this too, but a stove over here is referred to as the “cooker.” So in order to differentiate it from all the other utensils in the kitchen that accomplish the task of cooking… it’s called a cooker! It’s a very general word, but it specifically refers to the stove. The oven is not the cooker. The kettle is not the cooker. Even though they all cook, technically, they aren’t the cooker.

Also, all vehicles that you drive over here, unless it’s like a very big vehicle, like a moving van or an 18-wheeler, they’re all cars. You don’t say SUV or hatchback or truck. A “truck” would be like an 18 Wheeler. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Honda Civic, which we would call a car, that’s a car. If it’s a Grand Cherokee, which we would call a jeep, over here it’s a car. A Ford F 150: we would call that a truck… over here it’s a car! 

Yeah, that would definitely be different! 

Yeah. So if you want to specifically refer to those, it’s a little bit odd here. You have to know the exact make and model.

It’s funny you say that. I was just talking to Duncan last week and that’s one of his main observations about Japanese culture. It can be very indirect and it’s certainly more context based. I wonder sometimes if it’s an issue of other places being too indirect, or if we, as Americans, are actually just way, way too upfront! It seems that’s a common comparison point from a lot of cultures to ours. 

Yeah, I had a funny incident. So I’ve had a part time job working as a barista, which is awesome. Being a barista is awesome. I love making coffee. A coworker brought in basically a bucket full of gummies. Gummy bears and things like that. Now, when I just said that just then, you understood what I was talking about when I said gummy, right? You can picture that sort of texture?

Yes!

Well, I mentioned to one of my colleagues, I’m like, “Hey, Jason brought in and a whole bunch of gummies.” They were like, “What??” I’m like, gummies! you know, like, gummy bears… Haribo… that kind of thing? They said, “Oh, you mean a sweet!” My wife just happened to pick me up from work that day, So I asked her, would you like some gummies from the bucket this guy brought in. She says “what??” So I show her… Gummies. She says, “ Oh you mean sweets.”

No! Sweet is so vague!

Yeah, a sweet could be chocolate, that can mean plain sugar, that can be a lollipop, that could be a popsickle… It could be anything! It’s so vague. But they just refer to it all as a “sweet.” They don’t have a specific designation for a gummy for example. I just think this is so weird. It kind of makes it difficult to communicate at times.

I would imagine because a sweet could be a little Debbie cake, it could be a brownie, it could be any kind of candy! I sometimes wonder if, when you look at linguistic phenomena like that, if it’s reflective of the way people actually think, and if there are differences in the underlying psychology as well.

There are commonalities, if that’s even a word, based on your region and the way you speak right? With England… imagine a country the size of Alabama that’s been invaded by Vikings, by the Danes, by the Engels, by the Saxons, by the French. You have all of these linguistic influences from all over,so get a mix of how people think, naturally. Given that America is a big melting pot of cultures, linguistically it’s based mostly off German and Latin and a little bit of Greek. I just don’t think that we have as much variety in our language, if that makes sense.

Yeah, could be! There was some research done on that in Africa. You may have heard of this before, and I’m probably gonna botch it. But there was a tribe that had no distinction between blue and green in their language, so researchers put those people in front of a computer screen that showed them squares that were blue or green. It would be fairly close, but it would be such that people who have those distinctions would easily say, oh this is green and that one’s blue. For the people of that tribe, they really couldn’t tell the difference. It could be either one for them.

That’s interesting. I imagine that would be biological. 

Yeah, I don’t know. The problem with stuff like that is if you wanted to prove that there was a linguistic connection with the way you actually see the world in that way, it wouldn’t be too hard to construe the experiment such that it gave you those results, which is why I’m sometimes critical of that sort of thing. But it’s at least interesting to think about that. These people grow up without the distinction, so you give them the distinction. You run them through a quick crash course and teach them this one we call blue and English, that one we call green, and then they can’t actually make that distinction, even after supposedly learning it, because supposedly, their perception doesn’t even include it. It makes you think.


Hear the full discussion along with Ethan’s commentary on the top five most common mobility issues plaguing the western world on the ConverSapiens podcast, available right here, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, & more!

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