Aug 152013

I threw Jay for a loop this week when I told him my khakis were in the wash. Why would I be washing my car keys, he thought. Well, for me khakis are the sort of trousers (pants) I like to wear when I’m at leisure (and that rhymes with pleasure).

So pronunciation continues to befuddle our household, but the good news is I’ve noticed he’s not trying to correct me so much. When I pronounced something differently, he used to repeat it in ‘merican, rather like you would remodel an utterance for a child.  He’s always claimed he was just doing it to check he understood me, but I’ve had my doubts. Might he secretly harbour a wish that one day I’ll learn to speak clearly?

Pronunciation has hindered transatlantic romance before and I just adore the old Gershwin song about it.

Of course some of the pronunciation differences in the song are not actually real differences, but why would anyone care? They make terrific lyrics and it’s a humdinger of a song. And isn’t it actually funnier that potatoes – potahtoes aren’t pronounced that way? So why has there always been this teensy-weensy part of me that wishes it were correct, linguistically speaking? Ah dear – how sad is that?

But no more – my pedantic qualms are over. I’ve been working on making a video about BrE and AmE pronunciation differences and in the process I’ve been discovering why Gershwin had to do it like he did. When you’re looking for patterns in the differences, stress patterns feature a lot. He couldn’t feature them – they would have thrown his song off beat. Stretching those rhymes was the way to go. Win!

So I’ll get back to work on my video and tell you all about it when it’s ready. And in the meantime, I’m wondering. We’ve spoken before about some of the misunderstandings that have arisen from vocabulary differences, but has anyone got any stories to share about confusions caused by transatlantic pronunciation differences?

 Posted by at 3:54 pm

  9 Responses to “Pants!”

  1. I once heard of a production in Texas in which they sang “You say tomato and I say termayter, you say potato and I say pertater” (rhotically, of course!)

    We Yanks do speak of khaki as a fabric, and associate it mostly with Boy Scout uniforms, but we pronounce it “cacky”. It’s that old devil called TRAP=BATH again….

    As for pronunciation problems, these aren’t personal, but I think they’re quite probable. They are worded from the British perspective.

    1) Being told the kids in your child’s school class “hang out in clicks”, meaning cliques.

    2) Telling friends to come to your party at 6.30-7 and having them show up at 6:37 exactly (I assume this is a matter of intonation, but it may have to do with American over-preciseness by British standards).

    3) Saying “I can’t be arsed” (which has no exact AmE equivalent anyway) and being misheard as “I can’t be asked”.

    4) Hearing American “epoch-making” as “epic-making”.

    Not quite a misunderstanding: Eisenhower referring to the “skedule” for some upcoming event of World War II, Montgomery saying “It’s shedule; where did you learn to call it ‘skedule’?”, and Eisenhower replying “In grammar shool.” (Montgomery was a right prat, as I believe you call it.)

  2. Ha! Oh John, these are lovely examples. Thank you so much. And yes, ‘prat’ is the word I’d use for Monty. He was of my parents’ generation rather than mine, but tales of his vanity and pettiness were passed down – along with his adoration by the ranks for staying in the thick of it being cautious with his soldiers lives.

    You’ve reminded me of a performance of ‘My Fair Lady’ in Philly. There’s that scene at the races where Eliza gets so excited she yells ‘Move your blooming arse’. Except this Liza yelled ‘Move your blooming aaasss’. My British jaw dropped – had she messed up her big line? But she brought the house down, of course.

    And then there’s pasta that seems to work the other way round in our house. Past-a for him. Pass-ta for me.

  3. Yes, foreign “a” words are often TRAP in the U.K. but PALM in the U.S. Drama is another example, as is pyjamas/pajamas (the second syllable, that is).

  4. I was just bouncing back here and I thought of a line from Coleridge’s Kubla Khan: “As though the earth in fast thick pants were breathing”. Well….

  5. […] of the US-UK pronunciation differences we’ve noticed. Obviously Fred and Ginger had already given the ultimate performance, but I thought folks might enjoy hearing some other words that are pronounced differently. So here […]

  6. Hi Vicki:
    It took me about fifty years to figure out why A.A.Milne named the donkey “Ee-Yore.” I thought, shouldn’t it be “Hee-Haw?” Then I realized it was a non-rhotic pronunciation! How silly of me!.(of course an intrusive “r” IS pronunced before a word beginning with a vowel).

    By the way, “arse” is NOT pronounced like “ass” in Britain. The “a” in “arse” is farther back in the mouth. Most Americans don’t twig to the admittedly-subtle difference.

  7. Oh I’d never thought about the possibility of a Hee-haw for Eeyore. How funny!
    /r/ and /l/ are particulary tricky for most Asian students of English, of course. I once went shopping for silk screen printing equipment in Japan and I was delighted to discover a shop where the assistant spoke some French. Great! I’d just been living in Algeria so my French was way better than my Japanese. But understanding his instructions for what we had to do was a challenge. He seemed to keep wanting to tell me the names of things. (appelé) It took me a while to twig he was saying ‘after that’ après. Of course – different language but same challenge, dang it!

  8. In James Robertson’s wonderful translation of Winnie-the-Pooh into Scots, Pooh remains Pooh, Piglet is Wee Grumphie, Owl is Hoolet (or HOOTEL as he spells it), Tigger is Teeger, and Eeyore is indeed Heehaw. See

    Here’s a bit from The Hoose at Pooh’s Neuk:

    ‘I’m Pooh,’ said Pooh. ‘I’m Teeger,’ said Teeger. ‘Oh!’ said Pooh, for he hadna ever seen a craitur like this afore. ‘Does Christopher Robin ken aboot ye?’ ‘Of coorse he does,’ said Teeger. ‘Weel,’ said Pooh, ‘it’s the howe-dumb-deid o the nicht, which is a braw time for gaun tae sleep. And the morn’s morn we’ll hae some hinny for oor breakfast. Dae Teegers like hinny?’ ‘They like awthin,’ said Teeger cheerily. ‘Weel, if they like gaun tae sleep on the flair, I’ll awa back tae ma bed,’ said Pooh, ‘and we’ll dae things in the mornin.’

  9. Ha! Oh John, that’s delightful.

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