← Back to Sep 2013

Editor's Corner: English, Communication and Confusion

links image
Vincent Valentine, MD
Editor-in-Chief, ISHLT Links Newsletter
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

When examining our performances as healthcare providers we follow the premise that there is little success without failure. We don't intentionally fail, but we do make mistakes. When there is a problem or a consequence we must act and doing nothing at times may be a prudent part of the act. We improve ourselves through morbidity and mortality conferences and with quality assessment and performance improvement plans. We also heed the advice of our great American and communicator, Benjamin Franklin, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound a cure." When we learn to write we make mistakes with our pencils. To correct these mistakes in the United States we use an eraser. In England they use a rubber. However, in the U.S. some of us use a rubber to prevent our mistakes.

When examining the various Englishes across the globe, one begins to wonder whether it's worth it. What's the point? It's the same language. Given that communication may be the single most common problem that leads to any confrontation that has ever existed between individuals or peoples, and if the two contenders or groups or individuals speak the same English, one would think communication should be less of a problem and perhaps less confusion. Far from the truth, don't you think? There is inter- and intra- regional variation, differing dialects and slangs that are very likely going to add to the confusion. To get to the meat of the matter, if you will, the following comparisons show some of the common differences in American English and British English. There is elevator for lift, apartment for flat, cash point for ATM, petrol for gas, take out for take away, wrench for spanner, and rookie for newcomer. I refer you to the internet for more: Englishclub.com and fionalake.com.au.

Is there a reason for these differences? Time and space will not allow me to recapitulate history and colonization in its entirety but to summarize I will start with this rhetorical question and provide you a recipe. Is there just one English or are there several Englishes? Put great distances of bodies of water between different English worlds and mix the incessant changes of all languages added to the various British, American, and Australian dialects, sprinkled with time and interminable exposure to new languages and new circumstances without ignoring the sensibilities that came with arriving to a new place and establishing a new country, guarantee the development of American English, Canadian English and Australian English, not to mention South African English, New Zealand English and Indian English just to name a few others.

Because of my American English tendencies or biases and because I have to start somewhere, allow me to propose that British English seems educated or fancy and maybe a bit haughty, high-browed or supercilious to some people, aka "The Queen's English," and Australian English can be seen as cool or adventurous. Why? Media, the movies, motion pictures, cine and flicks may have been responsible for such distinctions maybe, or just maybe a lame example. Disney pictures, from the 1930's to today, have some tendencies but have greatly influenced us. The Jungle Book, great movie, is set in the jungles of India with a British English speaking villain, Shere Khan the tiger, voiced by George Sanders, specifically chosen by Walt Disney himself because of his heavy English accent and bass voice. But of course the four vultures (cool rockers) in this great Disney movie produced in 1967 clearly represent a parody of the Beatles and the British invasion bursting into the American scene. There is the British speaking villain, Edgar (the butler did it), voiced by Roddy Maude-Moxby in The Aristocats and there is another British speaking villain, Scar, voiced by Jeremy Irons, found in The Lion King. Crocodile Dundee splashed onto the American scene and single-handedly defined Australian English as cool along with the subtleties from other movies on how cool and adventurous a faraway land can be. I have to point out the strong reference to Australia in Disney's Finding Nemo. For more on this check out this link, if you dare have the time on other influences in children's animated films. Who is shaping our languages and biases today, at least in America?

Admittedly, Australian English is fun, but understand there are loans from aboriginal languages being spoken in Australia, including boomerang, dingo (which is a wild dog), kangaroo, koala, wallaby and wombat. In America, some women may have been had at "hello." In Australia, a sheila might have been had at "g'day". The well-known Australian good day (g'day) should be part of our lexicon in the ISHLT thanks to our many colleagues from down under, especially our incumbent President of the ISHLT. There is the widely spread outback from this cool and exciting group who were laughing when the Americans were going to root for their teams during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. I certainly enjoy when I hear words like chunder (vomit) from down under, grizzle (to complain) and the earbashing from one who never seems to stop talking. How about the expression for being confused, when you are up a gum tree, and the slang expression of being a shingle short when someone is "not playing with a full deck."

To bring us back to Britain, a biscuit is a generic term for something sweet or not sweet, but is always crispy. In America, biscuits are not sweet and are not crispy. If it is sweet and crispy, it's a cookie. If it's not sweet but crispy, it's a cracker. All of these edibles are roughly the same size.

Finally, if you want to get nothing out of this dissertation on raising our awareness of the nuances of the various Englishes to improve communication, let me share with you that in both British English and American English there is zero, nothing, and null. In Britain there is nil, naught, nought and nowt and in the U.S. there is zilch and zip. How about nix derived from the German word 'nichts' meaning nothing, and one must always remember diddly-squat. There is love in tennis and duck in cricket for no score, zero or nothing. My final anecdote "oh" also stands for zero in American English in reference to numbers. My grandmother's street address, no not part of any of my passwords, was 2905, twenty-nine oh five. And of course we have James Bond 007, double-oh seven, not double naught seven, unless perhaps you're Allan from Australia.

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.


McArthur, "English World-Wide in the Twentieth Century."
Trudgill and Hannah, International English.

Share via:

links image    links image    links image    links image