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English in America

A British Transition

With a population of over 8 million, New York City is one of the most culturally diverse, technologically efficient and linguistically varied cities in the world. However, with no official language of the United States, English remains the de facto national language, serving the city and its neighbors daily. As the majority of New York City’s inhabitants claim American English as their mother tongue, the new age of technological progression teamed with cultural and linguistic diversity have undoubtedly sculpted this variety of language into something fast-paced, upbeat and cosmopolitan — perfect for city life. So what does it take for the average Londoner to find their linguistic feet here?

Naturally, with such resourceful and to-the-point surroundings, one must adopt a similar attitude to gain the most fruitful experience – which in New York translates as: concise sentences, raw emotion and upmost honesty. In a city where time and money are of the essence, communication must be as effective and sincere as possible, leaving little room for typically British expressives, such as the incessant juggling of sentences for fear of seeming impolite. After years of writing grammatically correct text messages and paying constant attention to British etiquette, this new linguistic demeanor could take some getting used to.

Once the first rules of succinct, city-appropriate speech have been mastered, written language is fairly simple to follow as long as you remember that the person who lives next door is not your ‘neighbour’ but your ‘neighbor’ and when flying abroad you would take an ‘airplane’ and not an ‘aeroplane’ – the rest comes naturally.

As the roots of English in North America stem solely from British colonization in the 1600s, it seems almost ironic that certain words have survived in the American English lexicon and not the British. Terms derived from Chaucerian or Middle English, such as ‘faucet’ and ‘eyeglasses’ are rarely used in British English, but are widely regarded as Americanisms. Other words, deriving from Native American and Indo-European languages display multi-cultural roots in English all over the United States, although language change and modification are more concentrated in larger cities overall.

In New York City alone there are over 800 languages spoken, all of which contribute to the way in which American English is used and perceived. Therefore from a British perspective, as long as you remember that asking to go to the “toilet” instead of the “bathroom” is the height of bad manners, there is much potential for a culturally and linguistically enriching experience to be had.


Athina Kontos is writer/photographer from the UK spending the summer in New York.

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