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Picture: Ken Lund

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

It wasn’t until we moved to Finland and I started to seriously try to learn another language, in a classroom with folks from all over the world, that I realised the significant differences between my English and the guys from the other English-speaking countries.  My English friend (origin Bristol) and I were nattering (chatting) away over lunch break when we realised the American and Australian were confused. Our use of some common British slang appeared to be incomprehensible and caused much hilarity.

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In Britain, we are used to understanding American English because we are exposed to so many US television programmes and films. We know the differences: our trousers become pants on the other side of the Atlantic, and our pants (or female knickers) are generally underpants in the US.  We have lifts in Britain and elevators in the States. UK trams are streetcars over there. Cars in the UK have bonnets and boots, but they are American hoods and trunks. It’s important to know that asking for a rubber in Britain gets you an eraser but it’s a condom in the US.

These subtle differences can lead to misunderstandings particularly for those who are not native English speakers. Even us native speakers have to think twice occasionally.  An Australian friend was visiting and asked for the toilet (AUS dunny, US bathroom), and I responded with “it’s in the utility,” meaning it was to be found in our utility room (laundry and washroom). He responded with a smile and said: “For a moment I thought you meant it’s in the car park.” An utility in Australia is a pickup truck. Then again, even in England, some would argue that lavatory is more correct than toilet.

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[alert type=white ]It’s important to know that asking for a rubber in Britain gets you an eraser but it’s a condom in the US.[/alert]

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Comparing measurements can be awkward sometimes.  The British mile and the US mile are exactly the same at 1,760 yards, that makes a kilometre 5/8ths of a mile. When traveling in Finland the distances go by so swiftly when measured in kilometres because us Brits and Americans are used to miles.  The awkwardness comes with gallons. A British gallon is 4.5 litres but an American gallon will short change you at only 3.8 liters. Luckily Britain was decimalised in 1971 which makes totting up money much easier and more folks are used to litres and kilograms because everything is sold in those measures.

However, beer is sold in pints in a British Public House (pub or bar), it’s such a convenient size for a drink.  Folks in England still talk about their own weight in stones (14 Lb) and pounds (one Lb = 0.45Kg), but Americans are entirely in solid pounds. Thus a 15-stone man is a 210-pound American (95.25 Kg).  The British weather forecast and most people talk about temperature measured in Celsius which must be frustrating for Americans used to the Fahrenheit system. At least with logical Celsius, the freezing point of water is zero and that’s 32 degrees Fahrenheit.  Positive numbers are above freezing and any minus numbers are below, which in Finland means beware of slippery roads. Minus 10 C is +14 degrees Fahrenheit and both temperature scales converge at -40. That is -40 deg C = -40 deg F, how confusing to non-native Americans.  I guess it’s what you get used to in everyday life.

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Us Brits find it a little annoying the way Americans tend to add things to words to make them longer.  In Britain, documents are lots of paper but the Yanks make it “documentation.” We have transport but in the US it is “transportation.” Why make it longer when simple is correct? However, we do have to admit that some American spellings are simpler:  British ploughs and snowploughs are simply “plows” which might be a little more logical. Which do you prefer: color or colour and favor or favour? Do you do the math or do maths — mathematics? Either way, it’s easy to spot whether the text was written in the US or UK.

[alert type=white ]Which do you prefer: color or colour and favor or favour? Do you do the math or do maths — mathematics? Either way, it’s easy to spot whether the text was written in the US or UK.[/alert]

When listening to either American or British English, it should be easy to define the country of origin.  Sometimes the accent can be misleading, for example, the British West Country accent with the lengthy R sounds may seem similar to an American accent to a non-native speaker.  Increasingly American pronunciation is creeping into British English, typically “schedule” which in the US is said as “skedule” and not the “shedule” of old England. More recently I have noticed that Brits are increasingly unable to pronounce the “th” in sixth properly and it sounds like “sickt.”  Apparently, that is the beauty of the English language, it changes with the times.

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In the UK it can be easy to spot one’s origin or class by accent.  How do you pronounce “bath?”  If the A is like the A in apple (sounds like the Finnish Ä) then you may be considered working class or from a place further North. Whereas Southerners and posh folks say “Barth,” the same vowel sounding differently.  Maybe it’s a possible reason why Brits have difficulty with Finnish vowel sounds.

In Finland, they form different words, whereas the sounds in the UK vary according to local accent and not necessarily different words.  Some parts of the UK have stronger accents and colloquial slang such that even a person from Cornwall might have difficulty understanding a Scotsman talking fast.  The Cornish have expressions like “ow bee ee mee luver?” — a common greeting.

With the domination of the American film industry, it’s a wonder that British English survives with its complicated spellings, grammar and then there are the silent letters in words. However, all the language teachers I have met do say that simple English is easy to learn, and so non-native speakers can string sentences together quickly.  They may not be grammatically correct, but the native English speaker is still able to understand the meaning. It then comes down to personal preference or the reading audience, whether you have your spell checker set to British or American English. Which do you prefer?

Editor’s note: Finland Today uses standard US English as the lingua franca despite the different backgrounds of our writers. Some exceptions were granted for this article to highlight the background of our British writer.