'England and America are two countries separated by a common language.'
- George Bernard Shaw
As a Canadian writer in the UK, I'm confronted every day with different spellings to words I thought I'd known how to spell. Sometimes, though, the longer you stare at a word the more unsure you become. Words like 'judgment' -- or 'judgement' as it's spelled in the UK -- plague me for hours, days sometimes (I can be a bit obsessive).
Another one that threw me for a loop was 'artefact'. Or as we North Americans know it, 'artifact'. When I first saw it on a sign, I guffawed, thinking some nitwit had spelled it wrong. But my British companion gave me a look and said archly: 'That's how we spell it here, you silly North American.' (She didn't add the last bit in but I could practically hear it in her tone.)
And of course, it's not just the spelling. One word can have two completely different meanings, depending on where you are. Take, for example, the word 'rubber'. In Canada, it's an old-school word for 'condom'. But in the UK, it just means 'eraser'.
I started out my UK life as a teacher. Straight off the plane, I was supply teaching the next day in London's classrooms. The opportunities for misunderstandings were endless.
One day, a nine-year-old brought over a piece of art-work to show me. He was so proud of what he'd done. I cooed over it for awhile and then said: 'Put it in the bin.'
For me, a 'bin' meant the plastic tray sitting beside me. For him, though, it meant the rubbish. I watched as his big eyes filled with tears, he crumpled his drawing, and put it in -- the bin. That was a lesson I learned quickly.
It's not just the meaning of the words, it's also how we say them. Words like inevitable (in-ev-it-a-ble, in the UK); and the ever-so-strange aluminum (a-lu-min-i-um). As an English teacher at a state secondary school, I was actually prevented from giving my students spelling tests for fear my accent would throw them off. I had to sit at my desk while a British teacher read off the words for them!
I thought by moving to England, I wouldn't encounter any language issues. How wrong I was.