Millions across the globe speak English. Millions more learn the language of both Shakespeare and Donald Trump.
Yet, behind this apparently monolithic or, at least coherent, term lies a more nuanced reality. In England alone there are still more than 37 dialects. And many more have been trampled and erased by the passage of time.
So, when we refer to the English language, we are actually encompassing a vast spectrum of pronunciation, vocabulary and syntax from the Queen’s English to Globlish, the glottalization of the Geordie dialect to the America’s Northern Cities vowel shift.
But before I get further side-tracked by fascinating linguistic nuances, I’ll get to the point of this article:
As an English copywriter in France, I’m often asked to write content in American English, which is – rightly or wrongly – considered by many to be more “international”. I always agree, making sure I add z to words like mobilise and formalise.
But how different are British and American English really?
To find how, let’s travel back in time. In the late 16th century when British explorers and settlers arrived in the United States, they brought their luggage and language with them.
With no standardisation, the language evolved naturally. Spellings were often simplified and some of the British idiosyncrasies ironed out – like getting rid of the extra “u” in words like colour that derived their French counterparts (couleur).
This culminated in 1828 with the publication of An American Dictionary of the English Language that set commonly used American spelling in stone, so to speak. As a lexicographer and fearless spelling reformer, Noah Webster put previously vague spelling rules on paper with the hope of standardising American speech that differed from one state to the next. And, so American English we know today was born.
Since then, more differences have wiggled their way in – either naturally or as a conscious way of asserting the country’s independence.
Now that we’ve set the context, let’s take a closer look at 3 key areas to see just what separates American and British English.
Spelling is simple
As previously outlined, American English spelling has often been simplified to be closer to the spoken word (and wriggle free from French influences and British idiosyncrasies). Here are some of the most common variations:
- UE = catalogue // catalog
- RE = Metre // meter
- OU = Colour // color
- S = optimise // optimize
Complexity rating: this requires some vigilance, as these differences sneak their way in. The good news? They are small and don’t affect understanding in anyway.
A war of words
In the US, lorry becomes truck, trainers transform into sneakers and car bonnets are referred to as hoods. Although this can cause momentary confusion, especially with pants and trousers, context inevitably clears things up.
This also has an impact on popular idioms “like putting a spanner in the works” vs. “throwing a monkey wrench”. Is the skeleton in the cupboard or closet?
The number of words that change are, however, limited.
Complexity rating: no real cause for concern, especially as we’re already familiar with much of this vocab through US films and series.
Griping about grammar
Harder to spot at a glance, grammar differences do make a difference. Once again, divergences are partly about getting rid of irregularities and partly just a question of usage over time in two different continents.
- In the past tense, endings are made regular in American English e.g. dreamt becomes dreamed, learnt becomes learned
- Collective nouns are usually singular in the UK, but plural in the US e.g. the team is playing tonight / the team are playing tonight
- Some more formal structures aren’t used in American English e.g. “Shall we go?” becomes “will or should we go?”
- Brits are also much fonder of tag questions (Victoria’s coming, isn’t she?)
- Some prepositions also switch = in British English, ‘at’ is a preposition for time and place. In American English, ‘on’ is used instead of the former and ‘in’ for the latter
Complexity rating: this is probably the trickiest part of nailing American English and requires some careful thought. Any errors may surprise an American audience but, overall, they won’t stop you getting your message across.
The English language balance sheet
Having scrutinised the differences between British and American English, we can safely say that the two have a lot in common. Minor lexical, orthographical and grammatical variation has been woven into everyday language over the centuries. This is hardly surprising given the countries are separated by thousands of miles and have very different cultures.
Even within Britain and the United States, language varies from region to region and dialects persist particularly in spoken language. For foreigner learning English, the biggest challenge is without doubt pronunciation. But that’s a whole other story for another day!
Before you go, here are a few more Brit vs. Yankee insights from VOA!
Have we forgotten something important?
Do you disagree with my conclusions?
I’d love to hear from you!