How Do British and American English Differ?
G.B. Shaw said, ‘England and America are two countries separated by a common language.’ The common language i.e. English taken by the British to America gradually evolved differently from its root language. Hence, the language spoken in Great Britain became the British English and the language spoken in the United States became American English. It wasn’t just the variation in pronunciation, the vocabulary and spellings for few words also changed. To understand the differences, we should take a look at the roadmap of British and American English.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Kritika T. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
The History of English
The evolution of British English started in the fifth century with, primarily, three tribes entering the country - Angles, Jutes, and Saxons. The language was known as Anglo-Saxon or Old English, which was considered Germanic in nature. (1)
In 1066, the Norman influence came to the English language, wherein, the structure remained the same, however, close to 10,000 words like conceal, pork, beef, juice among others were introduced to the language. This period saw the development of Middle English. Among the many dialects that were spoken in the 12th and 13th centuries, it was the East Midland dialect that became the Standard English of today. (2)
In the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer, who was later known as the father of the English poet, wrote many books, and the language he used in his books reflected the common tongue especially The Canterbury Tales. It is said that he found English a dialect and left it a language. It is important to note as literature is a very common tool to trace the evolution of a language. The later century was known as the Dark Ages as not much change was seen in language and literature. (3)
It was during the 16th century, the Renaissance came to England, and many Greek and Latin words entered the English language. Not only this, the century saw the introduction of new words created by poets and playwrights. It is considered that almost 1,750 words and phrases were made up by William Shakespeare alone. (4) Thus, Modern English came into light.
During the Renaissance, the British started exploring different parts of the world and America was one such country. Considered to be the ‘New World’, the first wave of English settlers went to America in the 17th century. These settlers were well-read people who were searching for a new home in the New World. Since then a new language began to evolve across the Atlantic. Words that became obsolete in Britain were still being used in America like ‘gotten’ being used as the past participle of ‘get’ in American English and ‘got’ in British English. There was also a need to create new words to describe the new landscape, plants and animals encountered by the settlers.
In the 18th century, it wasn’t just the distance that created the American dialect but deliberate attempts were made to create a new language. On the political front, America was fighting for independence from Britain and Americans did not have any other common language apart from English, therefore, political thinkers and educationists changed the spellings of the words to separate it from British English. The idea to change the spellings was introduced By Benjamin Franklin in Scheme for a New Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling (1768) and later adopted by Noah Webster in the American Dictionary of the English Language (1828).
The dictionary contained close to 12,000 words and approximately 30,000 definitions. The words were spelled as per the sound for example – center became center, honor became honor, etc. The major change happened to the endings as -we were changed to –or in American English (color/color), -oe/-ae to –e (encyclopedia/encyclopedia), -ence to –ense (defence/defense), -ell to –el (counsellor/counselor), among others. Webster’s work was criticized by many literary critics for the unusual spellings, however, it sold almost 5,500 copies in its first year. (5) The book successfully managed to give American English life of its own. Since then American English has established its niche with British English. A lot of the spellings and terms given in the dictionary are still commonly used in American English.
During the 20th century, there was a rise in mass media. Several mediums through which one can express their opinion, provide news or art were developed like newspapers, cinema, radio, television and later the Internet. With the advent of these mediums, a new vocabulary evolved and stark differences could be seen between American and British English. A list of commonly used words in both the languages and how they differ is shown below.
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British English vs. American English
- Flat - Apartment
- Trousers - Pants
- Holiday - Vacation
- Football - Soccer
- Toffee - Candy
- Shop - Store
- Chemist - Drugstore
- Biscuit - Cookie
In modern times, Received Pronunciations (RP) is considered the standard form of British English, and the General American accent (GenAm) provides the standard form of American English. Both the standards display the disparities in the two languages, in terms of, pronunciation and grammar.
Pronunciation highlights the regional distinctiveness of a language especially true in American and British English. GenAm is rhotic, while RP is non-rhotic meaning the /r/ is dropped in British English when it is followed by a vowel. (6) RP has 20 phonemes of vowels and GenAm has 16. (7) A lot of vowels also sound different in both languages. For example - the back rounded open sound /ɒ/ in words like lost, shop, or want in RP is not the same in GenAm as Americans don’t round the lips and flat /a/ as per GenAm in words like fast, path, etc. Apart from phonetics, there is a general difference in the pronunciation, in terms of stress pattern and intonation. In GenAm, the intonation is usually flat and in RP, it is varied.
When it comes to grammar, British resort to formal speech using ‘shall’ and Americans favor ‘should’ or ‘will’. The verb following the collective noun is either singular or plural in British English and most singular in American English. The preposition about time and place is ‘at’ in British English, while in American English, it is mostly ‘on’ for time and ‘in’ for the place.
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As mentioned before, the root language for American English is British English, therefore, even considering the differences, as listed above, there are many more similarities since the vast majority of linguistic forms are common in the said languages. The speakers of both languages can communicate with each other easily. It could be said the differences developed sometimes due to necessity and sometimes to keep up with the changing times.
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