Rumble box: American English vs British English

Rumble box: American English vs British English

In this week's Rumble Box, Leon Lee and Karly Cox are engaged in an argument about American English vs British English suggested by reader Joyce Chan Ler-sze.

American English

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America ..." Oh, excuse me while I do my part as a patriotic American and pay my respects to the red, white and blue. After living in New York for more than 15 years, it's safe to say I have an obvious preference for American English; so when I came back to Hong Kong I was in for a shock as I had to switch to That Other English.

I mean, I'm not so naive as to not know that British English existed, but I always thought of it as that funny English, where they have different (and unnecessary terms) for things like elevator (lift), gasoline (petrol) and cookie (biscuit). And I never understood (I still don't) why things aren't spelled the way they are pronounced like in the US. Theatre? I would say that as "the-a-tra", not "thee-at-er". Colour? "Co-l-ower". I mean, you wouldn't ask how many "hers" were left when you meant how many "hours" were left, right?

And yes, while some might find the British accent intelligent or sexy, it can be quite difficult to understand with its unique intonations and mumbling. The American accent is more levelled and less sharp. We don't sound like stuck-up aristocrats who look down on the common people. We're the language of the people.

Although American English is unfortunately derived from British English, today it is more commonly used and heard around the world as it's found on the web, movies and music. With more and more people watching American movies and listening to American music, the spread will continue. The only places that still use British English are those that were in the British Empire - and how many of those are left?

"... with liberty and justice for all."

Leon Lee


British English

The language of freedom, tradition, the Queen and afternoon tea, British English is the real deal. The sound of stiff upper lips, "mustn't grumble"s, bowler hats and steaming cuppas. Speakers of British English sounds "proper" - compared to our American cousins, in particular, who seem to drawl every word. Do they ever come up for air?

Leon, I know you're quite a quiet young thing, but sometimes I feel like your side of our conversations consist of one, long, drawn-out word, that lasts a paragraph. Compare that to my crisp, clipped consonants, and perfectly enunciated vowels, and it's like comparing chalk and cheese. Or perhaps sloppy gumbo and a perfectly bronzed, neatly sliced joint of roast beef.

I know that it's much cooler to speak in slang, be down with da kidz, and know the word on the street (literally; I mean understand street slang), but there are times when only proper, formal English will do. And that, my lad, is where British English trumps you lot (or, as you might say, "y'all").

Of course, we also have informal chat. Britain may be teeny compared to your hulking great nation, but we have a LOT of accents. It's not just a broad quartering - English, (Northern) Irish, Scottish and Welsh; every region has very distinct accents, and with those, unique jargon. And some of these words - to pick out of the air one you queried this week, "kip", or perhaps "dodgy" - tend to slip into the vernacular of even those of us who tend to speak BBC English.

Rule Britannia, I say!

Karly Cox

We hope you enjoyed the rumble. If you have an idea for a fun topic, e-mail us at yp@scmp.com with "Rumble Box" in the subject line and we could be wrangling your topic idea next week


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