Friday, November 14, 2008

I am an unabashed Anglophile who greatly admires dear old Blighty, but there is the occasional word that does puzzle me while I am attempting to understand British English. So I'm here to ask for help from my fellow Anglophiles (or anyone willing to offer a suggestion) to explain these linguistic oddities of British English to me.

1. The pronunciation of the past tense of eat

I listen to a lot of audio books, many of which are read by British narrators. There seems to be no pattern as to why sometimes they read a sentence as, "We ate (pronounced "eight") dinner at five" and other times they say, "We ate (pronounced "et") dinner at five." Why the disparity? Is it a regional thing? In the U.S., someone who said "et" would not be considered to be very bright (think Ernest T. Bass), so it's always jarring to hear a very refined, lovely British voice say "et." Makes my skin crawl just thinking about it!

2. The extra syllable in disoriented

Where does it come from??? Why do Americans say "oriented" and "disoriented" and our British cousins add the extra syllable to say "orientated" and "disorientated"? I know Americans can be lazy at times (well, I certainly can), but surely we haven't started a campaign to shorten words to save energy?

3. Where do they get that "f"?

Of course, one of the most puzzling British-isms has to be where in the world they get the letter "f" when they pronounce "lieutenant." The Oxford English Dictionary speculates that at some point in history, people misread the "u" as a "v", resulting in the current pronunciation. Still, if that were the case, you'd think the mistake would have been noted and corrected by now, wouldn't you? (Of course, this also begs the question of where both American and British speakers find the "r" in "colonel", but that is an issue for another post . . .)

4. Why is there no article with hospital?

It's also somewhat jarring to the American ear to hear British speakers leave out the article when speaking about hospitals, as in "She was taken to hospital." I was trying to think if we have anything similar in the U.S., and the only thing I can come up with is "school" ("We went to school"). Both situations deal with a noun that is referring to a large building, containing many people engaged in vigorous activity, but why this should allow the speaker to drop the article is not clear. Well, not to me, at any rate.

Those are the most puzzling ones at the moment, although I'm sure I'll have more to add as time goes by.

On another note, last night I was watching the second season of Waking the Dead (nearly finished, so it will be gherkinized soon), with the subtitles turned on so I didn't miss anything (that darned dishwasher is so LOUD), when the characters started talking about a "quango." Because of the subtitles, I was able to note this down as the correct spelling. Today, I pulled up the handy Oxford English Dictionary my library subscribes to and got this definition:

quango, n. Chiefly Brit. Originally: an ostensibly non-governmental organization which in practice carries out work for the government. Now chiefly: an administrative body which has a recognized role within the processes of national government, but which is constituted in a way which affords it some independence from government, even though it may receive state funding or support and senior appointments to it may be made by government ministers.

Um, yeah, so that's what a quango is.


Joy said...

Oh yeah. This is fun! Being Filipino, I grew up learning American English. Now that I live in England, married to a Brit, he now knows what I mean when I say pants, trunk, cart, etc. I prefer American English over British :D

Re 'ate' - you probably hear 'et' when it's a Northerner speaking.

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Lisanne624 said...

Thanks for the clarification of "et" Joy! I'm sure you're right, but it is a bit startling when you hear it for the first time!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Joy that there are regional differences in pronunciation.

Another question would be why do we drop the "h" in herb? Europeans pronounce the "h" and frankly so do I. Webster's says it is correct either way.

How about his one? Why is the "c" dropped from Leicester and pronounced "Lester?" The same could be said for Gloucester (Gloster). And Worcester is pronounced "Worrester." And how did the "burgh" in Edinburgh become "bra" or "boro" hence the pronunciation "Edinbra" or "Edinboro" whichever you fancy at the moment. My Scottish ex pronounces it Edinbra.

Personally I think it fits right in with the Brits penchant for finding humour in irony. Just another one of those idiosyncrasies I love about Britain.

Gail Is This Mutton? said...

It tends to be "posh" people who say "eight" rather than "et" I'm afraid.

Another one to mull over is Marylebone....("Mar-le-bone").

And the surname "Beauchamp," which is usually pronounced Beecham.

MikeH said...

When you start looking into the differences between UK and US English, you are mining a very deep pit, indeed. After six years here, I consider myself bilingual, but just last night I asked someone if I could use their "church key" and they had no idea what I was talking about.

(I admit, "church key" is most likely a colloquial US term -- it means "bottle opener")

If you're interested in this subject, you should have a look at Lynn's blog - Separated By a Common Language:

Lisanne624 said...

Thanks for all the other language differences everyone pointed out. I guess the charm of visiting a new country is figuring out how we are alike and how we are different! Thanks also for the tips on great new blogs to visit. Just what I need! :)

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