U.S. English vs. British English – What’s the Difference, Anyway?

“Two countries divided by a common language” … so said, allegedly, the great George Bernard Shaw. But is it true? San Francisco based freelance writer Laura Buckler shares her take on this evergreen debate, this time from an American’s point of view (rather than mine!) Here’s Laura…

US vs British English

The Brits are not the only ones to blame for changing the English language.

I spent a month in London. They mocked my English. In fact, a few people said I wasn’t speaking English at all. They said I spoke “American.”

Hey: I’m not angry. It was actually funny to see them laughing at my accent just as we laugh at Brits over here. We think their “posh” pronunciation is exaggerated, and they think our laid-back style lacks class.

But what’s the difference, anyway? Isn’t this supposed to be the same language? Apparently, there are subtle and not-so-subtle differences that we need to clarify.

Why Did These Differences Occur?

At the beginning, there was only one language. The Brits started colonizing the Americas in 1607, and they brought the language along.

However get this: during the beginnings of the 18th century, the British aristocracy wanted to separate itself from the “plain people,” so they started adopting French-influenced spellings. French sounded more aristocratic. This language has a long history in England, dating back in medieval times. Then during the 18th century, people started preferring it again.

But hey: the Brits are not the only ones to blame for changing the English language. We Americans made important differences, too. There was this guy called Noah Webster – a textbook pioneer, editor, author, political writer, and lexicographer. Most of all, he was a reformer of the English language.

He believed that American students should learn from American instead of British textbooks, so he published A Grammatical Institute of the English Language – a book that taught children how to read and spell. Later on, he realized that the Americans spoke differently than the Brits, so he identified and categorized those differences. His American Dictionary of the English Language made those differences formal.

One of Webster’s goals was to simplify the spelling and bring it closer to the way we speak. He got rid of some of the French influences, and people liked that.

So there we have it – the same language with subtle, but important differences that make us mock each other.

It’s an interesting issue, to say the least, and it’s fun to explore it. But it also led to many complications. American students in England, for example, usually have a huge problem with essay writing, and the same thing happens to British students who come to the USA.

Major Differences between U.S. and British English

So let’s get to the specifics. What are the main differences between these two… languages?

  1. Spelling Differences
  • We use -ize and -yze, the British use -ise and -yse

The Brits have something against the Z. I don’t know why, but they won’t write organize or analyze. They will write organise or analyse.

  • The British like adding U where we don’t expect it

Neighbour, colour, favourite. That’s how the Brits would spell these words. Americans, on the other hand, simplify the spelling by ditching the u, so you’ll see neighbor, color and favorite instead.

  • Americans use -er, the British use -re

Although these words sound the same, you’ll see them written differently: center vs. centre or theater vs. theatre.

  • Double l in British English

If you see traveller, modelling or cancelling in a blog post, you know it’s by a British author, or at least by someone who wants to sound British. In America, we like to simplify things. Why use the double l when the word is perfectly readable without it? So we have traveler, exceling, modeling and canceling instead.

Those were the major differences in spelling. I cannot fit them all into a single blog post, and I’ll be honest with you: I don’t know them all. But let’s make an honorable mention to airplane (in U.S. English) vs. aeroplane (in British English).

  1. Vocabulary Differences

There are plenty of these, but I’ll list the ones that seemed notable to me. (NB: you’ll find several hundred more of these in my little book, “English to English…” on all the Amazons. Sz.)

American English British English
Attorney Barrister
Apartment Flat
Apartment building Block of flats
Bar Pub
Cookie Biscuit
Crazy Mad
Corn Maze
Diaper Nappy
Elevator Lift
French fries Chips
Gas Petrol
Garbage/Trash Rubbish
Highway Main road/Motorway
Motorcycle Motorbike
Mail Post
Round-trip Return
Sedan (car) Saloon
Schedule Timetable
Subway Underground/tube
Undershirt Vest
Vest Waistcoat

 

  1. The Same Word Meaning a Different Thing
  • If you say rubber in the USA, it usually means condom. In the UK, the word stands for the rubber that erases pencil marks from paper.
  • When we say Randy in America, we’re addressing someone named Randall. In the UK, randy means horny.
  • Pissed means angry in our world. In great Britain, it means drunk.

Same, Same, But Different

What strikes people the most is the pronunciation. First of all, the Brits take their time with vowels. I mean; they really take their time and it sounds like they are dragging out the bar or shoe. The melody of the language is also quite different, so you can instantly recognize an American or a Brit speaking.

The final point is that language is a live matter. It moves and changes with the flow. If you separate a language on two continents, you can’t expect it to evolve in the same direction.

American versus British English

Laura Buckler

What experiences can you share of the differences between US and UK English?

Let us know your thoughts!

To be able to fill someone with encouragement is not easy, yet Laura Buckler makes it seem as she was born with that specialty. With a growing career of freelance writing and creating articles full of burning desire to make someone’s day, she can be followed on Twitter right now.

 

 

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