If you’ve ever been confused by a request to borrow a jumper and a torch to look for something outside in the dark, then you have experienced first hand the subtle differences in British and American English.
An estimated 375 million people speak English as a first language in the world today, according to the British Council. Though English may sound similar around the world, studying the differences can reveal much about the history and culture of America and the United Kingdom (UK).
The English language was first introduced to the America’s through British colonization, which began in Virginia in the 1600s. When the United States moved towards independence in the 1770s there was a big push to create a unique cultural identity, and language became an important way to distinguish Americans from the British, according to Rice University. Today the variations in English are often referred to as American English (AE) and British English (BE).
The American Noah Webster, born in Connecticut in 1758, became a prominent leader in the effort. He created a spelling reform in his first dictionary to clear inconsistencies he saw in BE spelling and to encourage American students to learn from American books as opposed to books from England. He published the first American dictionary in 1806 titled, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, which included spelling changes for words such as “musick” and “publick.”
The spelling adaptations made originally by Webster continue to distinguish the two types of English today. There are several areas in which British and American spelling are different, but these are the main differences to be aware of:
- AE words that end in –er are often –re in BE: center/centre, fiber/fibre.
- AE words ending in –or are usually –our in BE: colour/color, flavour/flavor, labour/labor.
- Several BE verbs can be spelled with –ize or –ise, but in AE they are spelled only –ize: apologise/apologize, organize/organize.
- BE uses -yse for verbs written as –yze in AE: analyse/analyze, breathalyse/breathalyze.
- In British spelling, verbs ending in a vowel plus l, double the l when adding endings that begin with a vowel, such as travel/travelled/travelling. In AE the l is not doubled as in travel/traveled/traveling.
- BE uses the ae or oe spelling for words with double vowels such as manoeuvre and leukaemia while AE uses just the e as in leukemia, maneuver.
- BE uses the noun ending –ogue while AE uses either –og or ogue as in analogue/analog and catalog or catalogue.
Many of the spelling distinctions between AE and BE are flexible – often, either spelling is used and accepted.
Variations In Spoken Word
Considerable variation exists between spoken forms of BE due to the way different dialects developed. The various dialects of BE vary in the UK in terms of word use and accents not only from Scotland, Wales, England and Ireland, but also within those countries.
The term the “Queens English” “Oxford English” and “BBC english” refers to the accent that the dictionary pronunciation guides are based and is often referred to as Received Pronunciation for Standard English.
Similarly, there are major differences in AE dialect. The primary regional variations of AE are in the north, south, midwest and west and are often derived from the immigrant populations who settled there in the early stages of the country. After the American Civil War many dialects mixed and settled as the US expanded west to eventually blend into one primary dialect that is less distinctive compared to the east coast, where the dialect is more differentiated in places such as New York and North Carolina.
English spread to various other parts of the world as a result of trade and colonization. Different countries in the rest of the world use BE or AE depending on their historical relationship with either country. For instance, BE is the norm for countries formerly under British rule such as India and Hong Kong; American English is used in areas such as the Philippines where there was a stronger US influence, according to the Oxford Dictionary.
Same Word, Different Meaning
One story, chronicled by Winston Churchill, detailed how the term “to table” created a misunderstanding in his book The Second World War. At a meeting the British wanted to discuss an urgent matter and asked the Americans if they could “table it,” or open it up and bring it to the table for discussion. The Americans thought the British were asked for it to be put aside and it sparked a long argument before “both parties realised that they were agreed on the merits and wanted the same thing.”
There are some words with completely different definitions in BE and AE. The British would say the wait in a queue (line) for the loo (bathroom). Or the stop to get petrol (gas) for their lorry (truck). Or perhaps they turn on the hob (stove) to cook the aubergine (eggplant) and courgettes (zucchini) for dinner.
Some of the differences in language could lead to some real embarrassment. A British student might ask a fellow student to borrow a rubber (eraser) while the American would assume the student was asking for a condom. A British person wearing braces is wearing what Americans call suspenders. If someone is talking about their pants in BE they are often referring to their underwear.
The common language between England and America is something to be appreciated as a cultural and historical bond to similar roots. Learning about the distinctions and historical significance between the two languages reveals important information about both cultures.
Resources for Further Exploration
Rice University lists a chronology of the English language from pre 600 AD to current times.
The British Council has several resources including videos on the differences between American and British English.
The BBC has published several comedic articles on “Americanisms” of BE, and variations in word use.