American and British English are not that different from each other. They are about as different as Bahasa Malaysia is from Bahasa Indonesia. Speakers of each language can understand each other, with a little bit of accommodation on each side.
The differences between American and British English are perhaps most apparent in their pronunciations. For example, when there is an “r” within a word like “burn”, the Americans would pronounce the “r” while the British generally don’t – except for the Scots. Also, the “a” in many words like “pass”, “dance”, “chance” is pronounced like the “a” in “that” (indicated phonetically as /ae/) by Americans, while the British would use a long “a” sound as in “calm” (indicated phonetically as /a:/ – the colon denoting that the vowel is long.)
However, how many of us Malaysians who were partly educated in Britain or America really speak like the natives of those countries? Most of us will have a Malaysian accent, with a trace of British or American flavour in it. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, as long as we can be clearly understood by other speakers of English, and don’t sound strained through trying too hard – and failing!
Let us look at how a few words of different origins are used or pronounced in British English, American English and in Malaysia. Since the Academy Awards were recently presented in Los Angeles and telecast live here, let us take the word “movie”. The word is of US origin, is an abbreviation for “moving picture” and has been in use since 1912.
The equivalent in British English is “film”. In 1950s Malaya, English-speaking people would say they were going to “see a film in a cinema”, or less formally, they were going to “the pictures”. I never heard anyone mention the word “movie” then. Nowadays, “movie” seems to be the preferred word, especially among the young. Even the British Daily Telegraph uses it interchangeably with “film”. For example, in its online edition of Feb 29, in the section called “Film”, the phrase “Movie reviews and previews” is written before “film news”. So, the word has not only gained currency in Malaysia: it has also sneaked into British English.
On the other hand, there is the word “fall”, in the US sense of “autumn”. It is not a US coinage, even in that sense. It was first used in British English in 1545 in its full form, “fall of the leaf”.
Although “fall” meaning “autumn” is only used in some dialects of British English now, the poet G.M. Hopkins used “Spring and Fall” as the title of one of his poems (published 1918) and the Scottish essayist and historian, Thomas Carlyle, used it in that sense in his biography of the Scottish author John Sterling: His first child … was born there … in the fall of that year 1831 (OED).
The word “momentarily” gave me a fright during my first visit to the US. It has different meanings in American English and British English. In the former, it means “very soon” or “in a moment”, while in British English it means “for a very short time”. Imagine my alarm, while travelling from one city in the US to another by plane, when I heard this announcement: “We will be landing momentarily in Atlanta.”
Since Atlanta was my destination, I thought I really had to hurry off the plane in the short time it would be on the runway! And what about my luggage? Then I calmed down, thinking, it must mean something a little different here; and it does!
To come to pronunciation, let’s take the word “vase”. It is usually pronounced /veis/ in the US and /va:z/ in British English and in Malaysia.
Many years ago, I was watching the film Plenty, with great admiration for Meryl Streep’s faultless English accent. Then she said “veis”! Well, her English accent was almost faultless.
The word “route” has an alternative pronunciation in the US: it sounds like “rout”. So don’t be surprised if while on a visit there, your bus driver says what sounds like: “We have a little change of ‘rout’ today.”