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British vs American English

The difference between British and American English

English and American English are very likely the two most considered variants of the English language.

Despite sharing the same linguistic roots, these two variants differ in a number of ways including pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar and spelling. This essay will explore the main differences between English and American English.

Unfairly enough, we limit our perception of the English language very much to these varieties. Needless to say, there are loads of other places around the world where English is spoken as a native language. Among these the most relevant places are, of course, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and many others.

You will find mother tongue variants of English all over the world. They all have their own standard and distinct varieties and many of these territories keep having other native languages. Mainly in Africa, India and a number of other Asian countries as well as overseas territiories English has turned into a second (or third) native speakers’ language for millions of people.

I will take these up in another occasion. In this blog I will focus on the main differences between British and American English. You may also find other blogs on some of the related aspects already, for example the English speaking countries in the world.

BRITISH ENGLISH

One of the most obvious differences between British and American English lies in the accent variants.

British English consists of a variety of distinctive features and local accents and dialects vary a lot. These may even change at a distance of only a few miles. Therefore it is only fair to say that there is no such thing like the British accent.

Concerning British English, you may have heard (of) some of them, possibly Cockney, the distinctive London accent, or Brummy from Birmingham, Scouse from Liverpool or Geordie from Newcastle. All these and many others are extremely different to each other and have little in common with Southern English Standard – as I prefer to call it.

The local accents you may find in Scotland, Wales or (Northern) Ireland have a number of features in common that distinguish them from the others but even there you will find a number of different language varieties. The Scottish accent spoken in the Highlands is quite different to the one of the East coast in Aberdeen (Doric) which again sounds different to the one spoken in Glasgow (Glaswegian).

British English standard is locally based on the South-East of England. It is widely called received pronunciation (RP) and is largely a standard reference that has evolved from the upper social classes as the «educated» form of speaking English. For this reason, it is often referred to as BBC, Oxford or the Queen’s English. Even though, the queen was famous for her unique way of speaking.

British English is generally associated with being «posh» and «academic» and not only US-Americans perceive it as sounding pretentious. Americans are often somehow amused by it as well and perceive British English as curious. Nevertheless, there are so countless local accents and dialects in the United Kingdom that differ a lot from this overall impression. It is mainly the upper class «received pronunciation» («RP») taught at the elite schools of Eton and similar institutions that evoke this sensation, often referred to «the stiff upper lip» but bear in mind: Even Southern British Standard does not necessarily sound this way.

AMERICAN ENGLISH

American English also has a wide variety of accents ranging from the distinctive southern drawl to the flat accents of the Midwest and West Coast and the numerous origins of the settlers has had a consierable impact on the local varieties.

Even though you may find differences in the different local accents in the USA – for example between Texas and the New England states – American accents are generally much more homogenous than British accents. This is due to the fact that Britain is the homeland of the English language where it grew and developed in its distinctive ways.

In this essay I am not going to explore the local American accents and dialects in further detail. I will very likely do this in another occasion.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BRITISH AND AMERICAN ENGLISH

I imagine you have noticed that American English sounds entirely different to British English.

This is mainly due to the difference in pronunciation of the «r» and «a»- sounds.

Whereas the «r» is pronounced as a rolled r at the back of the tongue, the British «r» tends to be guttural and almost mute.

As an example, compare the British standard pronunciation of beer with the American one!

The «a» is often pronounced as an «a:» – meaning a long «aaa» – in British English whereas in American English it is pronounced as ae, as in «da:nce» (British) versus «dae:nce» (American).

These and a number of other differences make British English Standard sound somehow more «academic» and «educated» than the American counterpart.

DIFFERENT WORDS

One of the most striking differences between English and American English lies in the vocabulary. Both variants obviously share a common ground but there are also many differences in vocabulary that can cause confusion for speakers of one variety when encountering the other. For example, in American English, the word «apartment» is the common word for «piso» whereas Brits would commonly use the word «flat». Similarly, «un camión» in American English is «a truck» whereas in British English it is usually called » a lorry».

Why is American English so different in vocabulary?

This has a lot to do with the USA and its melting pot identity. As the American settlers came originally from many different countries, they got to establish a lot of the proper words of their own native languages that were subsequently taken over by groups of other origins. For this reason, American English is full of words of German and Italian origin, for example «kindergarten» for «nursery school», «gesundheit» for «bless you». And whereas the British word for calabacín is of French origin = «courgette», Americans have taken over the Italian word for it which is «zucchini».

Apart from that, the English rooted words that are often used in American English are often outdated in British English or may have acquired a different meaning, for example purse in American English for wallet in British English.

In general, due to American films and TV series Brits are very familiar with a lot of the American words . It is rather the case that Americans tend to be much less familiar with the British vocabulary.

DIFFERENT SPELLING

There are also differences in spelling that may cause confusion between both standards.

One of the most well-known differences in spelling is the use of «ou» in British English and «o» in American English. For example, «colour» in British English turns into «color» in American English, accordingly, «favourite» into «favorite.»

Another area of difference in spelling is the use of «s» and «z» in words such as «realize» and «analyse.» In British English, these words are generally written with an «s» whereas in American English, they are spelled with a «z.» Similarly, the English word «programme» turns into the American homonym «program».

Another difference in spelling between English and American English is the use of double versus single consonants. In British English, double consonants are often used to indicate a short vowel sound whereas in American English the same vowel sound is reflected by a single consonant. The word «travelled» is spelled with «double -l» in British English, in American English is gets reduced to one «l» = «traveled.»

In line with these and other aspects, you can consider American English in many ways as a simplifed version of British English. American spelling tends to correspond more with pronunciation. Accordingly, the British suffix -re in words like theatre and centre has transformed into -er in American English: theater, center.

Despite these differences the two varieties of English are largely mutually intelligible. Speakers of one variety can generally understand speakers of the other. However, there are a number of differences that can cause confusion and misunderstandings.

DIFFERENT WORD ASSOCIATIONS

For example, Brits and Americans associate something different when they hear the word «muffin». Whereas in British English «a muffin» is a kind of bread roll, in American English it is a kind of cake similar to a cupcake. Similarly, in American English, the word «pants» refers to an item of clothing that covers the legs whereas in British English, they are taken for granted as underwear.

These differences can cause serious misunderstandings at times. When a British business person wants «to table» something, he/she is thinking of bringing a matter forward. He/she is thinking of putting the issue on the table. For his/her American counterpart «to table» something means the complete opposite. Tabling something in American English has got the meaning of postponing it for. For an American tabling is understood as taking something off the table.

DIFFERENT USE OF THE TENSES (GRAMMAR)

Another difference between both has to do with the use of grammar. Europeans ana Americans have a slightly different perception of time. You can observe the same difference between Spanish and Latin American Spanish. Whereas a Latin American would rather ask: «¿Ya lo hiciste?», Spanish people tend to use the perfect form in the same situation and ask: «¿Ya lo has hecho?». The same applies to American and British English:

British English American English

He has just come home. He just came home.

It seems that Europeans rather perceive these actions in relation to a result produced in the present meaning that the activity is done as a result. In comparison, life in America moves fast and activities are rather immediately perceived as finished once they occur.

Other grammar differences may have to do with a slightly different usage of the gerund form and prepositions.

Whereas British people would rather say: «I like playing football», Americans would prefer the formulation:»I like to play football».

A Brit would say: I got to know her at school. An American would use «in» instead of «at». A Brit lives in Hillbury Road and an American lives on Hillbury Road.

In conclusion, we can say that British and American English differ in a number of ways. These include pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and spelling. Even though these differences can cause confusion and misunderstandings at times, both are just two different varieties of the same language.

As the famous writer George Bernard Shaw put it once: «Great Britain and America are two nations divided by the same language».

As follows, I will provide you with a list of some of the most common word differences between British and American English.

LIST OF COMMON BRITISH AND AND AMERICAN WORD DIFFERENCES

British American British American
city centredowntownpavementsidewalk
undergroundsubwayflatapartment
biscuitcookiesweetscandy
chipsFrench friescrispschips
aubergineeggplantcourgettezucchini
boottrunkcoffincasket
tapfaucetwardrobecloset
nursery (school) kindergartensecondary schoolhigh school
university/collegecollegegardenback yard
supermarketgrocery storechemists/ pharmacydrugstore
rubbererasercondomrubber
fag/cigarette endcigarette buttgayfag (despective)
hooker = front row rugby playerhooker = prostitutetrainerssneakers
billchecktillcashier
barcounterpubbar
horseridinghorseback ridingpaper basketwastepaper basket
trouserspantsjumpersweater
mobile phonecell phoneliftelevator
petrolgasmotorwayhighway
waste/rubbishgarbagefull stopperiod
car parkparking lotpostboxmailbox
vestundershirtwaistcoatvest
footballsoccertrolleycart
pushcair/pramstrollerholidayvacation
bonnethooddustbingarbage can

And, of course, there are many more. a complete list is basically impossible for being just too many.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog that has given you some insight in the mayor differences between both variants of the English language. And bear in mind: In case you use a British word in America or the other way round, any misunderstanding will be (probably) solved soon.

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El centro de idiomas Hanno Franz ( “TipTop languages” ) fue fundado en el año 1995 por Hanno Franz, un profesor alemán que se dedica desde entonces a la enseñanza de idiomas especializándose en el inglés, el alemán y el español para extranjeros.

 

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