Friday, February 23

Speaking English

From the email files, before I was blogging. June 2006

Recently, I received an email from a friend asking me about our language acquisition and whether or not the kids were picking up a Dutch accent.

It’s a funny thing here, actually.

Though they are readily picking up the Dutch language, the accent which has a stronger influence on everyone's speech is the British we are surrounded by.
I am fascinated by the whole development of our language and wonder about the evolution of the American accent, since it is so far removed from the English which is spoken in the UK. (I have some working theories, but nothing soundly researched or tested.) That being said however, we have found many moments where the phrase “Divided by a common language” is a dead-on explanation.

It seems that the English that everyone speaks and teaches here on the continent, is the British English, so we have had to make some adjustments in order to best be understood.
This includes both in vocabulary and in spellings.

Imagine 12-year old Ian's surprise the first day of school when a classmate asked him "Have you got a rubber?" And of course the innocuous request for an "eraser" was a total shock to my son, for whom "rubber" means something else entirely!

So now we refer to our "trousers" rather than our "pants" which in Britain means underwear.

And we are careful to watch while in the "car park" for automobiles which are zipping by. We do not wish to be run over by a "tyre" so we hop onto the "kerb" for safety.

To go to the beach we need a “swimming costume” and when the weather cools down we will wear our "jumpers". (This whole idea of jumpers tickles my husband something fierce and he gets a good giggle every time he hears it.)

I have a running conversation with my proper British friends to double check meanings when we discover yet another alternate meaning to words we thought we understood. For instance recently we discovered that a 'fanny' is not at all what we supposed it was. So we no longer refer to our bottom with that moniker and save ourselves embarrassment or offense to those who understand that word in the British way. This includes losing the term "fanny pack" and we have picked up the alternate "bum bag" from our cousins across the pond instead.

It can get rather confusing at times and the misunderstanding can run both ways; as in I get a little jumpy when I hear a Brit inquire "can I bum a fag?" The request for a cigarette just doesn't sound right.

We added toddler confusion to the vocabulary equation when I asked Andrew to pick up his toys one evening and place them in the bin. For me, the meaning of bin was quite clearly the plastic box-like container where we store his toys. For him, the meaning of bin was quite clearly the trash can and he looked at me with wide inquiring eyes when I requested that he pick up his Buzz Lightyear and 'put him in the bin'. I didn't understand his confusion until later in the night when I saw that he had obediently taken Buzz to the trash can in the kitchen. Ah, me. I remember now to call the plastic container the toy box and we all now take our "rubbish" to the "bin".

All for all, I suppose the upshot is that we have picked up a lovely new vocabulary here and when we do 'freak out' or find it 'tricky' at least we give our British friends something to write home about.

We'll just continue to keep it cool man. We're keeping it cool.


  1. So... I needed to run an experiment on your blog. I see that you have a do-follow logo on your site, and I wondered why it didn't work. Then I realized that I always comment with my blogger ID, which sends you to my blogger PROFILE, not my actual blog. So, I'm running an experiment.

    I thought, well, I don't want to leave some lame comment on her blog that everyone will read, so I'd better leave it deep within the archives.

    And then I found this post, and adored it. I can see you posted it before you were "Super Jenn in Holland" because of the lack of comments. But the post itself is fantastic, and I wish everyone were digging through your archives to leave experimental comments so that they'd run into it too.

    I had a British accent as a kid--still do on some things (like the Lord's Prayer that I had to recite in Assembly in school every day in London, but have never needed to recite since. I can only do it with a British accent and my husband thinks it's hilarious. He makes me do it at parties... yeah, that's about as exciting as it gets around here).

    And now, this experimental comment has become longer than the original post, so I shall stop.

    Love you and your blog and its archives dearly, dear Jenn. I'm going to have to do this more often...



  2. I experienced some of the same while living in Syria with Brits and Aussies. We had the car's "boot" and "bonnet". The "lift" to get to your "flat." The different ways of saying "vitamin."

    You might be interested in a post I made about The First 10 Words ( you learn when immersed in a new culture. I'd love to hear what it was like for you in Holland.

    Hope you're having a blast with your family!

  3. I only had one year's exposure to British English, and it took my American teachers nearly eight more years to work all my British spellings out of my system. I still think "favour" looks nicer than "favor."

    Poor Andrew, so resigned to getting rid of Buzz!

    What a wonderful post... now I know that it's your archives I need to visit when I'm looking for something to read.

  4. haha, I remember Australian and South-African exchange students going through the same kind of confusion when going on an exchange in Canada or USA.

    The first thing I had to learn on day 1 of my arrival in Canada was pronounce the "I can't " with a North-American accent, not the British. I though the "a" with a fairly open mouth sounded most horrible, but my host dad made me say it over and over again. Now I can't ~sounds more or less like kent~ pronounce it differently anymore. The British can't ~sound more like kont~ sounds so posh to me. My boyfriend works in London a couple of days a week after spending a couple of years in Edinburgh...he has a cute accent though which I don't share with him.

    hmm I currently work a lot with UK consultants...I wonder if I ever blur out confusing North-American expressions for them or whether I am picking up their British English again... has anyone noticed on my blog so far whether I tend to either one??? I probably make a nice mixture of it all :p.

  5. The um fanny thing was quite interesting! I hadn't heard that variant before!