Talky Tuesday: American vs. British getting stressed

American and British English are two very different animals despite a common source. Today, I take a look at how and why certain words are pronounced differently.

I’ve written several times about differences in American and British spelling and vocabulary, and why I think that the American version of English — accent and all — is actually the more correct one.

Naturally, I’m biased because it’s what I grew up reading, speaking, and writing, but purely objectively, a lot of British ways of phrasings just make no sense.

Take for example how they use the word “different” as a comparative. In British English, they would say something like, “She’s different to her friends.”

Different to…? This just grates on my ear because it doesn’t compute. You’re making a negative comparison — she is not like the ones you’re comparing her with. But “to” is a preposition that implies movement toward, whether figuratively or literally: “We are coming close to a decision.” “We walked to the store.”

It makes perfect sense to say, “She’s similar to her friends,” because that’s a positive comparison moving her into the group. “Different from” would make more sense, although that’s not usually what we say in the U.S.

Here, we’d say, “She’s different than her friends.” Using from would not be wrong, although it only feels correct when making a comparison to a less well-defined group: “She’s different from the others.”

Also, to me, saying “She’s different to her friends” implies that her differentness is something that only her friends notice, not that she has traits that differ greatly from those of her friends.

Oddly enough, Spanish also has the same distinction between Latin America and Spain which exactly mirrors this. In Spain, they would say, “Ella es diferente a sus amigas.” The “a” is equivalent in this use to “to.” In a lot of parts of Latin America, it would be, “Ella es diferente de sus amigas,” with “de” being the equivalent here of “from.”

Using “to” with different like this to me is just as jarring as when someone uses the phrase “based off” — and anyone who ever says that out loud should be slapped upside the head and corrected immediately.

A base is what something is built on top of, so you literally cannot base something off of something else. The only proper preposition her is “on,” as in “Based on a true story.”

But there’s another area where Americans and Brits differ greatly, and that in how they emphasize words when speaking.

Putting the emPHASis on the wrong syllAble

The very short version is that American English tends to put the emphasis on the first syllable of longer words, while British English puts it on the second. A classic example is the word “laboratory.”

In America, it comes out as LAB-or-a-tory, while in Britain (and the Commonwealth) it’s pronounced la-BOR-a-t’ry. That’s actually bonus points for this word, because American English gives a slight additional emphasis to the “tor,” not as strong as on “lab,” while British English just erases it.

As usual, this happens because a lot of these words come from French, and in their ever-imperialistic way, British English pronounces them according to the rules of English.

Meanwhile, in their very differently imperialistic way, American English pronounces these words to sound more like the French. Hey — at least we kind of acknowledge the cultures we steal from.

Ironically, the differences in British and American English happened for the opposite reason — British spelling kept the French versions — colour, valour, honour, etc. — while American English simplied — color, valor, honor etc.

Of course, the British versions aren’t pronounced at all how they’re spelt, rhyming with neither velour or hour, but sounding exactly like the American versions.

There are a rather substantial number of content creators on YouTube who are from Commonwealth countries, and so speak this flavor of English. It also gets more complicated on sites based in the UK with multiple presenters from different locations, because their pronunciations even vary from person to person and accent to accent.

One word that really stands out for me, because a number of these sites cover arts and entertainment, is the word “biopic,” which is a portmanteau for “biographical picture,” meaning a movie about a person’s life.

In the U.S., it’s pronounced “BI-o-pic,” and I think that’s how they say it in Canada, too. But in the UK, it gets mangled into “bi-OP-ic,” which, again, makes no logical sense. Also again, the American version has that slight additional stress on the last syllable.

And since we’re talking about language, the “Americans first syllable, Brits second syllable” rules doesn’t always hold either because of course it doesn’t. Here are some words that work the opposite, with British first and American second:

Adult:  AD-ult, a-DULT

Buffet: BUF-fet, buf-FET (silent T)

Cliché: CLI-ché, cli-CHÉ (hey, Britain — the French left an accent in it!)

Debris: DE-bris, de-BRIS (silent S)

Premature: PREM-a-ture, pre-ma-TURE (America held out until the third syllable)

Oddly enough, the one case where Brits get it right is the brand name Adidas, which is not pronounced “a-DI-das” but rather “a-di-DAS,” because it was named for the founder, Adolf Dassler. His nickname was “Adi,” and the last name was shortened, and once you know that, you’ll probably always pronounce it “a-di-DAS” as well.

If you’d like to see a Brit and American compare how they pronounce 100 words, you can get a look on YouTube. Here’s Part 1 and here is Part 2.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.