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Divided by a common language - a light hearted look at linguistic differences across the Atlantic

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by Val Boyko, Coach and Intercultural Specialist

The Irish writer George Bernard Shaw once said: 'England and America are two countries divided by a common language' Most English speaking people don't realize how great the differences are between British English and American English. I certainly didn't until I moved to the US over 10 years ago. That was when I was surprised to discover that we do speak a different language. Did you know that there are over 4000 words in everyday use in the United States that are not in British English? That's a lot! Words like bleachers, busboy, podiatrist, odometer, valance and, one of my favorites, rutabaga were all completely foreign to me.

When I read the quote from George Bernard Shaw I started to wonder about how these differences had come about, and what impact they have on communications between the British and Americans today. Are we still two countries divided by a common language?

How the Divide Came About

We all know that there were settlers in the New World who came from parts of Britain. What is easy to forget is that in those days they were cut off from the folk they left behind and had no VERBAL contact. Their language became isolated and so the division of the language began. Words that have survived from this era - like 'gotten' may actually be more proper, although they sound grammatically wrong to British ears!

Over the years other nationalities settled in America, bringing their languages with them. English was the dominant language but there were also German, Dutch, Spanish and French colonies, as well as Jews speaking Yiddish and other minorities adding to the mix. New words and phrases started to be incorporated into everyday speech. For example - Did you know 'coleslaw' and 'waffle' come from Dutch? 'Coyote' from Spanish? To 'nix' something is German? A 'tush' is Yiddish? And yes, 'entrepreneur' is a French word Mr. President!

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