Why do I speak American?

“Je parle américain” means “I speak American.” It’s a catchy title for the blog of an American expat in France, but why do I say that? After all, I speak English, right?

The fact of the matter is that, while we Americans might say we speak English, as far as the French are concerned, we speak something else. When I enrolled in French courses here in France, I always listed “anglais” as my native language, of course, but I had already learned by then that many French think of my native language as something other than English. I can still remember the first time someone in France asked me how we say something in “American.” I chuckled at the time, thinking it was an odd thing to ask … until I quickly realized that it was a serious question and no joke was intended. After all, when kids in France learn English at school, they learn the Queen’s English, and what comes of out my mouth when I speak is certainly not that!

Of course, the differences between what we speak in America and what they speak in Britain are far greater than just our accents. Accent is, after all, just the way you pronounce the same words: “You say tomato; I say tomato …” Well, it doesn’t make much sense when you read it, but you understand. The bigger question is one of word usage, when your vocabulary, idioms, and even grammar are different. That’s a question of dialect. We do have our own dialects in America, as they do in Britain, but the differences are much more pronounced (no pun intended) between those on our side of the Pond and those on their side. I’m no linguist, of course, but I have a theory that it’s this trans-Atlantic rift between our dialects more so than our different accents that generates the most confusion between Americans and Englishmen. After all, even someone who speaks with an Ozark accent can understand someone speaking with a Boston accent if they’re using the same words for things. In contrast, even an American and an Englishman speaking to each other with only a slight difference in accent can end up quite confused when using the same words while picturing completely different things. (There is a reason they publish “dictionaries” of semantic differences between words in American English and British English. Just think of these few examples: aerial, flat, loft, plaster, fringe, bum, fag, chips, biscuits, diversion, chemist, skip, rubber, torch, pitch, boot, knock up, pissed, silencer, dummy. Chances are that their British meanings aren’t at all what you first think of.)

It’s the same thing for the French and the version of their language that’s spoken in Canada. Aside from linguists, no one in France refers to it as français canadien. They call it québécois, and with good reason: it’s full of vocabulary and idiomatic expressions that are virtually unknown in France, not to mention grammatical structures and meanings that harken back to the 17th and 18th centuries. That’s why French Canadian television shows are sometimes subtitled in French when they’re broadcast here (not just for the accent, but to translate “foreign” words and expressions, too). I don’t know about you, but when watching British films, I sometimes wish I had the same luxury.

So, when the French say that I speak “American,” it really does make sense. It’s not a judgment. It’s just a recognition that we Americans speak a version of English that’s distinctive enough that it’s not just a question of accent anymore, but a question of something much closer to … language. Unlike the French, though, I don’t think the British are quite ready to cut us off entirely and say that we speak “American”—not yet. But if we continue to act as if we “could care less” about the language, the Queen might just change her mind:

P.S.: If you’re interested, here are the British meanings of the words I listed above—not exactly what we’re saying when we speak American:

    • aerial = antenna
    • flat = apartment
    • loft = attic
    • plaster = band-aid
    • fringe = bangs
    • bum = butt
    • fag = cigarette
    • chips = fries
    • biscuits = cookies
    • diversion = detour
    • chemist = pharmacist
    • skip = dumpster
    • rubber = eraser
    • torch = flashlight
    • pitch = sports field
    • boot = trunk
    • knock up = wake up
    • pissed = drunk
    • silencer = car muffler
    • dummy = pacifier

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

10 thoughts on “Why do I speak American?

  1. This was amazingly good. You could use this in your ESL teaching!! You’re getting all inspired, I can see. David liked this too.
    Really enjoyed the video you posted – how right on target he is and funny.

    While I’m commenting, my new “theme page” has taken off your link and I don’t know how to get it back on my page. I needed a theme that had several of my posts on the page – kind of like yours? And now I’ve lost my links for people to see!! Can you help?

  2. Thanks so much! I am getting into this. I can’t wait to start learning to teach! It’s funny, though, I think I might end up with a fake British accent by the time March is finished. I think ALL the instructors in my program are British, and I suspect that half of the students will be as well!

    As for the links, I think it depends a great deal on the specific theme, BUT … on your “dashboard” when you click in the upper left corner of the WordPress bar on the name of your blog, there should be something in the left menu bar on the next page that says “Links.” If you click on that, you should be able to see the links that are there and add or remove as you want. Now, if my link and your others are still listed there, it may be that you no longer have the “widget” for links installed with the new theme. So … go to “widgets” on the dropdown menu when you hover over your blog title on the WordPress menu bar, or if you’re looking at the left menu bar on the dashboard, it’s on the popup menu when you hover over “Appearance” near the bottom. That should open up a screen where you can add the “links” widget back to your blog. 🙂

    Hope that helps! By the way, you should definitely find me and friend me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/samiam1972

  3. Great post! Indeed, the differences are much greater than people think, but for the language-savvy person, they are fun to learn! I learn Quebecois words almost every day (“traversier” instead of “le ferry”), but also Acadian French (spoken in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) such as “calorifère” for “chaudière”.
    It is very true that we learn British English in France, but kids nowadays LOVE learning American slang, since that is what they hear on American Television and in movies… c’est plus cool, tu vois…
    I completely agree that American English vs. British English are separate dialects of the language, rather than just accent differences! Cheers!

  4. Yup, I know it all too well. As an American living in Ireland married to an Englishman I have found it has almost never been our accents that caused a problem in communication. And the Irish use of English? Well, that’s a different story altogether! I’ve been here for ten years so I find it all easy now, but it took a while. To complicate things, I am just now starting the TEFL course here and the Irish-English is complicating things a bit. We are planning a move to France next – whoa is me. 🙂 Great blog.

    1. Thanks so much for the compliment, Katherine. I’m always happy to hear that it’s entertaining folks far and wide. Best of luck with the TEFL, too! I’m sure it will go well. I’m actually going to be doing the CELTA certification in March so I can finally find a job teaching Engl … uh … Ameri … uh … English here! Go us! 🙂

  5. As always, you say it very well, Michael — I would only add that the vast majority of people in England don’t speak the Queen’s English that is taught in French schools, either; they certainly don’t speak _American_ English — absolutely right — but they also don’t speak the Queen’s English.

  6. I think this is much fun. As a Canadian, I suppose I speak a mixture of English and American. (Politically correct, or what?) I can talk about a tractor-trailer or an articulated lorry.

    1. Indeed, you Canadians have the best of both worlds! By the way, I have a Canadian uncle to whom I will forever be grateful for teaching me the word “crumpet” before I ever set foot on English soil!

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