Watch Your Language: Your English Might Not Speak To Europeans

In my last post here I gave some tips on which events you could go and visit in Europe. One of the sentences I used was “The SES circus opens its tents in London.” After that post I got an e-mail from someone asking whether I meant that in a positive or a negative way. A “circus” in the US apparently isn’t always a positive thing. Over here in Europe it is. When a circus is in town everybody is happy. It’s a show which travels around and makes people happy, hence the analogy I chose.

The e-mail got me thinking, however, about the differences between Europe and the US and what I have been writing about here during the past one and a half years. There are more of these differences in language which make it hard for Europeans and US-based SEOs to work in each others areas.

Let’s take a closer look at three languages which you have to be careful with.

English: UK English Vs. US English

The first and most obvious one is the difference between UK English and US English. When you take a good look at both of them in some cases they can seem like two completely different languages.

The simplest examples of the differences you need to keep in mind in the two languages is that some words are written with different letters. In the UK for example it is “optimising” while in the US its called “optimizing.” There are other textual differences to keep in mind that go beyond using different letters in the same words. Did you know that what you call a “bathroom” in the US is mostly called a “loo” or “toilet” in the UK? Or an ATM is a “cashpoint?” It can even get complicated. A “bandaid” in the US is a “plaster” in the UK, where plaster in the US is what you use to patch walls with (or in slang, “plastered” means really, really drunk).

In general you can say that UK English usually is a bit more “formal” and feels more like a “written” language where US English is more of a “speaking” language. You can actually hear people saying it when you read it.

Keep in mind that if you are optimizing (or optimising?) for Europeans and you are still using the English language that most Europeans are taught the “standard English” version, which means the British one.

Spanish: Castellano Vs. Mexican Spanish

In Spain they speak Spanish. Well, actually, what they speak is “Castellano,” which in English (both versions) is “Castilian.” The language is as old as Spain itself but has recently gotten its first “big” changes. Where the Spanish alphabet used to have letters like “ch” and “ñ” those letters have now been removed.

The Spanish conquered the world in the 16th and 17th centuries, taking their language everywhere, but especially to South and Latin America. There they still speak Spanish in many countries like Argentina, Peru and Mexico. And even within other countries Spanish is spoken as a primary language by a large number of people—in the US alone there are over 35 million native Spanish speakers.

Wikipedia even states that global internet usage statistics for 2007 show Spanish as the third most commonly used language on the Internet. But not the entire world speaks the same kind of Spanish.

Again, there is the difference in “sound.” The accents are different, which you won’t notice that quickly online (unless you are watching video of course). Sometimes the differences are grammatical; sometimes they’re more in the words themselves. In Latin America for example they use “tuteo” when addressing someone, while in Spain that will be “tuyo.” You even have to be careful to watch your language. “Coger” in Spain simply means “to take,” where in Latin America it means “to have sex.”

The second-person plural pronouns can also differ. In Latin America there is one form of the second-person plural for daily use: “ustedes.” In Spain there are two: “ustedes” and “vosotros,” which is more familiar.

So as you can see, Spanish is popular all over the world, but there are still many differences depending on the region.

Dutch: Dutch Vs. Flemish

In the northwest of Europe there are two countries, the Netherlands and Belgium, which several hundreds of years ago were one country. In that country they spoke one language: Dutch. In Holland they still do (except for the dialects of course). In Belgium they speak several languages: French, German and Dutch. And here’s where the issues come in: Belgian Dutch is in many cases completely different than Dutch Dutch. The language even has a different name: Flemish.

Both languages are similar, and without a doubt speakers of the two will understand each other, but there are many differences. There is the difference in how it sounds (Flemish is a lot “softer”) but that is not something which will bother you if you are building websites.

More important are the differences in expressions. There are typical Dutch expressions and typical Flemish expressions. They may mean the same thing, but in written text they mean something completely different. Its much like the “circus” example in English: an expression in one country might mean something completely different in another.

There are also textual differences between the two. Some Dutch even say that Flemish is the “bad spelling” of Dutch. It’s not, its just different.

Key takeaways for SEO

  • Be sure to watch out for different meanings of sayings.
  • Always check with a resident of a country if you are using the right “version” of a word or phrase.
  • Remember who you are targeting—they want their native language, not a copy.
  • Don’t try to copy and paste a site to a different language—have a professional translator do the job.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Multinational Search


About The Author: is a Web/search strategist, international search specialist, trainer, and well-respected blogger. Bas is well informed about what's going on in the world of Internet and search marketing worldwide and especially Europe. Bas is the owner of and also posts regularly on his personal blog.

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  • http://mauricewalshe mauricewalshe

    actually “ize” vs is valid British English – the Oxford English Dictionary does allow ize as a variant spelling.

    Also for some product copy you have to watch American Imperial vs Imperial Imperial units – I came across this in using car makers press releases. MPG in particular will need recalculating. Ps to BHP is almost a 121 mapping but you can convert from Pferdestärke to BHP if you want to be exact (Wolfram Alpha is your friend in this case)

  • adamryp

    In America, a circus is usually a positive thing. However, when you use the word circus to refer to something other than an actual circus, it often means something like “a bunch of idiots running around in strange costumes being stupid”.

  • adamryp

    Here’s a definition for the slang usage:

    Something suggestive of a circus, as in frenetic activity or noisy disorder.

  • Bas van den Beld

    Thats what I understood Adam, but as a European I didn’t mean that, hence my thoughts on the differences in languages :)

  • Blas Giffuni

    Great post, however I don’t feel that calling Mexican Spanish to serve all LatAm countries is compelling, as a matter of fact Mexican Spanish is way different and often times bad interpreted by other countries like Colombia.

    Also the Coger example I think has a many variations as pop corn which is a really interesting case, pop corn = Palomitas de maíz, maíz pira, cotufas, etc.

  •, Antonio De Mitri

    Great post, interesting point of view. Yet some further aspects are missing. E.g.:
    - Denglish, i.e. this horrible mixture between German (“Deutsch”) and English, reflecting the German’s obsession to fill every sentence with alleged English technical terms which so often are mere rubbish (e.g.: Public Viewing for soccer matches which are broadcasted on large screens on public squares, or “handy” which means the mobile phone). So this is really a challenge for every English native speaker.
    - Western German German, Eastern German German (yes, they have separated remarkably after 40 years of division), Austrian German, Swiss German. Their vernacular sometimes seems to consist of 3 different languages.

  • Guy F

    “Watch your language” indeed. Solid advice from a “writer” who doesn’t even know the difference between its and it’s.

  • Miles Carter

    As someone from the UK who has also lived in Canada for a year, I have to disagree with this comparison of UK and US English.

    “Did you know that what you call a “bathroom” in the US is mostly called a “loo” or “toilet” in the UK?”

    Just not true. I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone use the word ‘loo’. This is a myth that’s not been true for years – many born pre 1950 will regularly say loo, otherwise, no.

    The UK equivalent of saying “I need to go to the bathroom” is usually something like “I need to pay a visit” or “I need to spend a penny”, or in common parlance, ‘gotta take a slash’. Americans call it a toilet too, just not when talking about needing to use it.

    “or in slang, “plastered” means really, really drunk”

    This is common slang in the UK, meaning exactly the same thing and is definitely not unique to US English – I believe this slang may actually originate from the UK. The UK also has a rich variety of other slang words which mean the same thing.

    “Pissed” would be a better example as this means both angry and drunk in the UK but only angry in the US

    “UK English usually is a bit more “formal” and feels more like a “written” language where US English is more of a “speaking” language”

    This is what I disagree with most strongly. I just don’t know what you can base this idea on. Both UK and US English have a massive scale of formality to informality, and I think that UK has a richer slang/idiom and is frequently used at less formal levels than US English, both in written and spoken language – see the writings of people like Charlie Brooker in the Guardian, for example.

    Like calling the toilet the ‘bathroom’ – this seems laughably formal/prudish to an English person. Along the same lines, in every day conversation ‘toilet paper’ will usually be called ‘bog roll’ in the UK, with ‘bog’ being a much more common slang word for toilet than ‘loo’. I think it’s true that there’s a bigger difference between spoken and written British English though.

    When living in Canada, I found very much that I had to stop contracting words and ‘speak properly’ to be understood, and not because of my accent. North Americans pronounce things more clearly as a rule and don’t run words and sentences together in the same way is common in Britain. Like in much of the north of the UK people would say informally “y’wan’ow’?” “Do you want anything?” which is completely incomprehensible to Americans.

  • Jenni B

    ‘in every day conversation ‘toilet paper’ will usually be called ‘bog roll’ in the UK’

    Not really. Many examples you cite are region differences, not nation-wide ones.

  • Bas van den Beld

    Hi all,

    thank you for your responses. I’m sure everyone of you has valid points when it comes to what is right English or not. With your comments you actually under scribe what I’m trying to say: there are differences within the same language. Whether it’s English or other languages which Antonio rightfully points out.

    You can argue about my examples and whether they are right or wrong but that only confirms there are differences you need to sort out. And true, that even goes within one country.

    As for Guy: good to see you are thoroughly reading my articles :)


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