You say…, I say… – A look at the American Vernacular

Americans do not speak English. Well, not proper English anyway – it’s a bastardised version (i.e. it is a unique, distorted version of British English). I once was told a story about an American woman who was at an overseas ATM wanting to withdraw some money. When the teller prompted for the language to use, she complained that there was no button for American – someone nearby told her to use the English option – this hadn’t occurred to her (I am not sure if she was blonde, or if this happens regularly)!

Anyway, as I have mentioned before, although we speak the same language, we have encountered all sorts of issues with being understood in America. Sometimes the word is the same, but pronounced differently, sometimes the word is completely different to what we would use and sometimes it’s just the spelling that is different.

Now, we can thank one Noah Webster (founder of the American dictionary) for all the variations in spelling between British English and American English. In 1801 he started work on his American dictionary because Americans were using words that just weren’t in English dictionaries – for example – ‘skunk’, ‘squash’, ‘chowder’. Webster also believed that English spelling rules were too complex and sought to simplify them; thus changing the spelling of ‘colour’ to ‘color’, ‘metre’ to ‘meter’ and ‘plough’ to ‘plow’. There are plenty of other examples, like ‘masque’ to ‘mask’, ‘gaol’ to ‘jail’ and ‘tyre’ to ‘tire’. However, he thankfully didn’t succeed in the following: ‘cloak’ to ‘cloke’, ‘women’ to ‘wimmen’, ‘tongue’ to ‘tung’ and ‘ache’ to ‘ake’.

Changing the spelling is mostly ok, since it generally hasn’t changed how the word is pronounced. However, when the word is spelt the same, but pronounced differently, that sometimes causes a bit of a smile or a “what the…” reaction. Now it is also true that there is differences between the states with what things are called as well as how words are pronounced (particularly between Northern & Southern states – and New Yorkers seem to have a dialect all their own); I have just listed a few words that we have found differences with here:

English word: How Texans pronounce it: How Aussie pronounce it:
Pecan Pe-kahn Pea-can
Bowie Boo-ey Bow-ie
Caramel Car-ml Car-a-mel
Herb ‘erb Herb
Vehicle Ver-here-cal Veer-cal
Coupon Qu-pon Coop-on
Second Sec-nt Sec-ond
Golf Goff Golf

Words that start with an “h” seem to render the “h” silent as in herb = ‘erb, hotel = ‘otel, etc, but if it’s in the middle of a word, for example, as in “vehicle”, then the “h” is almost stressed.

Then there are the instances when the word for an object is different and when we ask for something using the word we know – we can get a completely blank stare or the “huh?” response. So, here are a few notable differences we have found:

What Aussies would say: What Americans would say:
Petrol Gas
Service station (or Servo) Gas station
Serviette Napkin
Cutlery Flatware or silverware
Garbage Trash
Toilet Bathroom or restroom
Tap Faucet
Runners (or joggers) Tennis shoes
Footpath Sidewalk
Take-away Carry-out
Bench-top Counter-top
Entrée Appetiser
Main Entrée
Thongs Flip-flops
Biscuit* Cookie
Arnotts biscuits - delicious!

Arnotts biscuits – delicious!

*A note on the humble biscuit. Now, in Australia (& Britain & New Zealand too), a biscuit is a sweet, delicious thing (similar, but not the same as an American cookie) and is often dunked into your tea or coffee. My favourites are probably all made by Arnotts; check out their website to understand more about this iconic Aussie company and their products.

Biscuits in America are a bread-like item and more like a scone than anything else and are often served with a main meal and with gravy.

But some of the most interesting sayings – I have at times almost needed to ask what they were talking about, or indeed have felt the need to correct their grammar. The word “drug” is used instead of “dragged” and a bedroom suite (Aussies would pronounce that as ‘sweet’ and refers to a bedroom setting made up of bed, bedside tables, dressing table and drawers) is referred to as a bedroom suit – when I first heard this one I thought it might be something akin to your birthday suit, but worn in the bedroom!

Not all are bad though, and some of my favourite (not favorite) Texan sayings include: “Y’all” and “Do what now?” – meaning could you please repeat what you just said.

The development of language and dialect is interesting and I am not saying Aussies are perfect either – we have a terrible habit of abbreviating just about everything wherever possible – see the “servo” example above (and maybe that’s something to look at in a future blog).

Please share your views and thoughts in the comment section below: 🙂

3 thoughts on “You say…, I say… – A look at the American Vernacular

  1. In Paris, you speak French. In the U.S. you speak American. In Texas, well heaven knows what they speak down there, I’ve spent most of the last five or six years flying down there and I still can’t work it out. Some of the more colourful examples are best left to another forum!


  2. I like to think that in Texas, we speak directly (to the point) but I’m afraid that that is not the case. More often than not, Texans can take a while to get to a point. And if we don’t have a word for what we mean handy, we just make up a new one. I do that myself, often.

    When women speak to women, language can be a whole other thing. In Texas, and in the South in general, what sounds sweetly spoken will often hide a pointier (pointy-er) sentiment.

    And just so you know, I understand Catherine nearly all the time. I suspect the reverse may not always be true :-).


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