I recently listened to the episode of the World in Words podcast called “When an American says ‘sure’ to a Brit, does it mean yes or no?”. Based on the title alone, I assumed that the podcast would highlight the differences between American and British English. I was right, but not in the way I expected. I expected the podcast to highlight differences primarily in diction and spelling, as these are the ones most people know of and think about. What I did not expect, however, was differences in connotations of words and expressions that mean the same thing. That sounds confusing; let me explain: although ‘I reckon’ simply means ‘I guess’ in British English, and it has the same meaning in American English; however, in American English, when someone says “I reckon”, there are underlying connotations of Southern American English. This connotation, in turn, associates whoever uses this expression with all the preconceptions one might about those who use Southern American English. In essence, the difference lies in who uses the expression, not how the expression is used. Another example mentioned in the podcast was “middle class”. The dictionary definitions of “middle class” are more or less the same in British English and American English, but the way people use it different. Speakers of British English are far more reticent to term themselves as “middle class”. To put it simply, it’s bragging. On the other hand, speakers of American English would not want to bear the embarrassment of being less than middle class. I would wager that these differences in connotation are largely cultural. Although I can’t say a whole lot about the “I reckon expression”, I can say something about “middle class”. American politicians, especially in recent years, have made it appealing to be called middle class. The American connotation of middle class could also stem from the notion that there is more social mobility in the US than there is Europe, otherwise known as the American Dreams. What do you think about these differences? Are these mainly cultural, or is time the culprit?
Hi, I'm Om, the author of Lingua Franca.