Why are british english and american english different?

Why Are British English and American English Different?

If English is not is your native language, you may struggle to differentiate the variances between English spoken in Australia, vs. the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, or India. Each form of English has features which set it apart from the rest, and this applies not only to the spoken language, but the written as well.

But how did these changes come about and why? Wouldn’t you assume that we’d all be speaking a closer version of British English than we currently do? Well, it all comes down to history and influence.

Read on to learn about how British, Australian, and American English came to be what they are today, and stay tuned for Part 2 next week where we’ll explore English in Canada and India!

Why Are British English and American English Different?

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British English

Technically speaking, British English is the mother of English. After all, if it weren’t for British expansion and colonization, the Americas, India, and Australia would be very different places today. So what differentiates it from the dialects used in other countries? Well, for starters British English is considered to be the most complex of the five types of English.

This particular English features grammar and spelling rules which are more difficult than those you tend to find, for example, in American English. Part of the reason for this is due to the standardization of the English language in the U.K. in the 18th century.

It was during this time that much of the British English we see today was put in place as the standard for law, government, literature, and education.

So why did Great Britain choose to establish a complex form of English? It’s important to remember that during the 18th century French was considered the lingua franca of Europe and France was perceived to be the epitome of high class and culture.

In light of this, Great Britain wanted to showcase French influence in written English (and in some ways allow for the upper classes to differentiate themselves from the lower, uneducated masses). It’s for this reason that you’ll find the widespread use of ‘s’ instead of ‘z’ (e.g. (British) accessorise vs.

(American) accessorize), which bears similarities to how these same words are written in French, and you’ll even find words spelled exactly the same as in French (e.g. (British) aeon  vs. (American) eon vs. (French) aeon).

To keep things simpler though, a general rule of thumb to guide you into British English is that the written dialect is meant to reflect the word’s etymology.

Why Are British English and American English Different?

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Australian English

Languages are always a product of culture and history, and Australian English is heavily influenced by the history of British colonization in Australia. Many times Australian English is considered to be a less ‘classy’ version of British or American English.

Great Britain’s first society on the Australian continent was a penal colony of criminals banished to etch out an existence on this distant world. Two generations later, just under 90% of colonizers living in Australia were convicts, ex-convicts, or of convict decent.

It is precisely this convict influence that led to the Australian English we all know and love today.

Convicts generally weren’t highly educated back in the day and more prone to use slang and diminutive terms to make English more rhythmic and, in their new home, easier to use. Furthermore, the varied dialects of Australia’s Aboriginal people began to come into play in the Australian use of English.

The many Aboriginal dialects tend to have one thing in common: they end each syllable with a vowel sound, giving the languages a very ‘smooth’ intonation. As English speakers began adopting and using words from Aboriginal dialects, they also started to soften the English words so that they would harmonize well.

It’s for this reason that many tend to describe the Australian accent as ‘lazy’ or ‘mellow’, because it’s much smoother sounding than its British or American counterparts.

In terms of spelling, Australian English follows the British more than it does the American, however, you can find instances of influences from both.

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Why Are British English and American English Different?

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American English

Why Don’t Americans and Brits Have the Same Accents?

For two countries whose histories are so intertwined, America and England have some pretty notable distinctions. They use a different currency. Their citizens drive on different sides of the road. And American presidents got nothing on Queen Elizabeth’s ability to accessorize.

But one of the more puzzling differences is the way people in each country talk. Americans and Brits both speak English, so why don’t they sound the same when they talk?

First, let’s go over a lesson in Linguistics 101. An accent is a varied pronunciation of a language. A dialect is a variety of a language that includes different vocabulary and grammar, in addition to pronunciation. Two important factors in the formation of a dialect are isolation from the source of the original language and exposure to other languages.

The “American English” we know and use today in an American accent first started out as an “England English” accent. According to a linguist at the Smithsonian, Americans began putting their own spin on English pronunciations just one generation after the colonists started arriving in the New World.

An entire ocean away from their former homeland, they became increasingly isolated from “England English” speakers. They also came in more contact with foreign languages, those of the Native Americans and other settlers from Sweden, Spain, France, and the Netherlands. Both factors eventually led to changes in Americans’ vocabulary and grammar, creating a new English dialect.

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(However, there is some British slang that Americans don’t realize they use.)

Differences between British and American English

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The British actually introduced the language to the Americas when they reached these lands by sea between the 16th and 17th centuries. At that time, spelling had not yet been standardised. It took the writing of the first dictionaries to set in stone how these words appeared.

In the UK, the dictionary was compiled by London-based scholars. Meanwhile, in the United States, the lexicographer was a man named Noah Webster.

Allegedly, he changed how the words were spelled to make the American version different from the British as a way of showing cultural independence from its mother country.

In terms of speech, the differences between American and British English actually took place after the first settlers arrived in America. These groups of people spoke using what was called rhotic speech, where the ‘r’ sounds of words are pronounced.

Meanwhile, the higher classes in the UK wanted to distinguish the way they spoke from the common masses by softening their pronunciation of the ‘r’ sounds.

Since the elite even back then were considered the standard for being fashionable, other people began to copy their speech, until it eventually became the common way of speaking in the south of England.  

Spelling differences

British and American English have some spelling differences. The common ones are presented in the table below.

British English American English
-oe-/-ae- (e.g. anaemia, diarrhoea, encyclopaedia) -e- (e.g. anemia, diarrhea, encyclopedia)
-t (e.g. burnt, dreamt, leapt) -ed (e.g. burned, dreamed, leaped)
-ence (e.g. defence, offence, licence) -ense (defense, offense, license)
-ell- (e.g. cancelled, jeweller, marvellous) -el- (e.g. canceled, jeweler, marvelous)
-ise (e.g. appetiser, familiarise, organise) -ize (e.g. appetizer, familiarize, organize)
-l- (e.g. enrol, fulfil, skilful) -ll- (e.g. enroll, fulfill, skillfull)
-ogue (e.g. analogue, monologue, catalogue) -og (e.g. analog, monolog, catalog)
*Note that American English also recognizes words spelled with –ogue
-ou (e.g. colour, behaviour, mould) -o (e.g. color, behavior, mold)
-re (e.g. metre, fibre, centre) -er (e.g. meter, fiber, center)
-y- (e.g. tyre) -i- (e.g. tire)

Vocabulary differences

The Americans and the British also have some words that differ from each other. The table below lists some of the everyday objects that have different names, depending on what form of English you are using.

British English American English
trousers pants
flat apartment
bonnet (the front of the car) hood
boot (the back of the car) trunk
lorry truck
university college
holiday vacation
jumper sweater
crisps chips
chips French fries
trainers sneakers
fizzy drink soda
postbox mailbox
biscuit cookie
chemist drugstore
shop store
football soccer

Grammar differences

Aside from spelling and vocabulary, there are certain grammar differences between British and American English. For instance, in American English, collective nouns are considered singular (e.g. The band is playing). In contrast, collective nouns can be either singular or plural in British English, although the plural form is most often used (e.g. The band are playing).

American English

Set of dialects of the English language spoken in the United States
“U.S. English” redirects here. For the political organization, see U.S. English (organization).
For other uses, see American English (disambiguation).

American EnglishRegionUnited StatesNative speakers225 million, all varieties of English in the United States (2010 census)[1]25.

6 million L2 speakers of English in the United States (2003)Language familyIndo-European

  • Germanic

    • West Germanic
      • Ingvaeonic
        • Anglo–Frisian
          • English
            • North American English
              • American English

Early formsOld English

  • Middle English
    • 17th century British English

Writing systemLatin (English alphabet)Unified English Braille[2]Official statusOfficial language in32 US states, 5 non-state US territories[a]Language codesISO 639-3–GlottologNoneIETFen-US[3][4]This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

American English (AmE, AE, AmEng, USEng, en-US[b]), sometimes called United States English or U.S. English,[5][6] is the set of varieties of the English language native to the United States.[7] Currently, American English is the most influential form of English worldwide.[8][9][10][11]

English is the most widely spoken language in the United States and is the de facto common language used by the federal and state governments, to the extent that all laws and compulsory education presume English as the primary language. English is explicitly given official status by 32 of the 50 state governments.

[12][13] While the local courts in some divisions of the United States grant equivalent status to both English and another language—for example, English and Spanish in Puerto Rico—under federal law, English is still the official language for any matters being referred to the United States district court for the territory.

[14]

The use of English in the United States is a result of British colonization of the Americas. The first wave of English-speaking settlers arrived in North America during the 17th century, followed by further migrations in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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During the 17th century, dialects from many different regions of England existed in every American colony, allowing a process of extensive dialect mixture and leveling in which English varieties across the colonies became more homogeneous compared with varieties in England.

[15][16] English thus predominated in the colonies even by the end of the 17th century's first massive immigration of non-English speakers from Europe and Africa, and firsthand descriptions of a fairly uniform American English became common after the mid-18th century.

[17] Since then, American English has developed into some new varieties, including regional dialects that, in some cases, show minor influences in the last two centuries from successive waves of immigrant speakers of diverse languages,[18] primarily European languages.[10]

American English varieties include many patterns of pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and particularly spelling that are unified nationwide but distinct from other English dialects around the world.

[19] Any American or Canadian accent perceived as free of noticeably local, ethnic, or cultural markers is popularly called “General” or “Standard” American, a fairly uniform accent continuum native to certain regions of the U.S.

and associated nationally with broadcast mass media and highly educated speech. However, historical and present linguistic evidence does not support the notion of there being one single “mainstream” American accent.

[20][21] The sound of American English continues to evolve, with some local accents disappearing, but several larger regional accents having emerged in the 20th century.[22]

Phonology

For all phonemes of American English, see General American § Phonology.
For the phonologies of regional American dialects, see North American English regional phonology.

Compared with English as spoken in the United Kingdom, North American English[23] is more homogeneous and any phonologically unremarkable North American accent is known as “General American”.

This section mostly refers to such General American features.

Conservative phonology

Studies on historical usage of English in both the United States and the United Kingdom suggest that spoken American English did not simply deviate away from period British English, but is conservative in some ways, preserving certain features contemporary British English has since lost.[24]

Full rhoticity (or R-fulness) is typical of American accents, pronouncing the phoneme /r/ (corresponding to the letter ⟨r⟩) in all environments, including after vowels, such as in pearl, car, and court.

[25][26] Non-rhotic American accents, those that do not pronounce ⟨r⟩ except before a vowel, such as some Eastern New England, New York, a specific few (often older) Southern, and African American vernacular accents, are often quickly noticed by General American listeners and perceived to sound especially ethnic, regional, or “old-fashioned”.[25][27][28]

Rhoticity is common in most American accents (yet nowadays rare in England), because, during the 17th-century British colonization, nearly all dialects of English were rhotic, and most North American English simply remained that way.

[29] This preservation of rhoticity in North America was also supported by continuing waves of rhotic-accented Scotch-Irish immigrants, most intensely during the 18th century (and moderately during the following two centuries), when the Scotch-Irish eventually made up one-seventh of the colonial population.

Scotch-Irish settlers spread from Delaware and Pennsylvania throughout the larger Mid-Atlantic region, the inland regions of both the South and North and throughout the West, all American dialect areas that consistently resisted upper-class non-rhotic influences and that consequently remain rhotic today.

[30] The pronunciation of ⟨r⟩ is a postalveolar approximant [ɹ̠] (listen) or retroflex approximant [ɻ] (listen),[31] though a unique “bunched tongue” variant of the approximant r sound is also associated with the United States, and perhaps mostly in the Midwest and the South.[32]

For those American accents that have not undergone the cot–caught merger (the lexical sets LOT and THOUGHT), they have instead retained a LOT–CLOTH split: a 17th-century split in which certain words (labeled as the CLOTH lexical set) separated away from the LOT set.

This split, which has now reversed in most British English, simultaneously shifts this relatively recent CLOTH set into a merger with the THOUGHT (caught) set.

Having taken place prior to the unrounding of the cot vowel, this results in lengthening and perhaps raising, merging the more recently separated vowel into the THOUGHT vowel in the following environments: before many instances of /f/, /θ/, and particularly /s/ (as in Austria, cloth, cost, loss, off, often, etc.), a few instances before /ŋ/ (as in strong, long, wrong), and variably by region or speaker in gone, on, and certain other words.[33]

The standard accent of southern England, Received Pronunciation (RP), has evolved in other ways too, compared to which General American English has remained relatively more conservative, for example, regarding today's RP features of a trap–bath split and the fronting of /oʊ/, neither of which is typical of General American accents. Moreover, American dialects do not participate in H-dropping, an innovative feature that now characterizes perhaps a majority of the regional dialects of England.

Innovative phonology

On the other hand, General American is more innovative than the dialects of England, or English elsewhere in the world, in a number of its own ways:

What are the differences between American English and British English?

Do you favor American English or favour British English?

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The type of English you learn depends not only on personal preference, but also on the resources available in your country. With this in mind, we wanted to find out which form of English learners would opt for if they were given a free choice.

American English was the overall preference of our 6,000 global survey participants, landing 58% of the vote. However, British English was more popular than its American counterpart in India, Poland, Turkey, Germany and Russia.

Surprisingly, more of our younger respondents (aged 25 and under) selected British English as their preference.

So why do Americans speak a different version of English, and what are the key differences?

Despite its popularity, American English is still relatively new. The English language was introduced to America by the first English settlers in the 17th century.

For a while the language of the colonists was very similar to that of the land they left behind.

Over time, words borrowed from the Native American tribes (such asraccoon) began to enter the vocabulary, and the languages of other immigrants –such as Dutch, German and French– influenced the spoken and written English in the new world across the Atlantic.

When the British first colonised America, spelling was not widely standardised.  In fact, some American spellings were once commonly used in Britain, and vice versa. In 1806, thirty years after the Declaration of Independence, Noah Webster published the first dictionary of American English.

Webster wanted to develop the cultural independence of the newly-formed United States, so he championed simplified spellings of English words, such as color (adapted from colour) and center, which replaced centre.

The spellings in Webster’s hugely influential dictionary fast became the American standard and have been in use ever since.

Today, each form of English has evolved its own distinct vocabulary, pronunciation, spelling, grammar and idioms. In the US you would take the elevator to reach the top of a tall building, while in the UK you use the lift if you want to avoid the stairs. British infants wear nappies, but American parents use diapers on their babies.

In America, words tend to be spelled more phonetically; for example, organize is spelled as organise in British English. Also, some words -such as advertisement, leisure and herb– share the same spelling but are pronounced differently on either side of the Atlantic. For more information, our infographic details some of the key differences.

As if that wasn’t confusing enough, you will often hear American words (such as movie) in everyday conversations among British people. “Britishisms” (such as “chat up” to refer to flirtatious conversation) are also finding their way into the American English.

The differences in British and American spelling

English was introduced to what is modern day America in the 17th century by the British settlers. Since then the language has evolved and has been influenced by the many waves of immigration to the USA.

The spelling of British English words were cemented by Samuel Johnson in what is considered to be one of the most famous dictionaries in the world. It took Johnson, and six helpers, just over eight years to curate the 40,000 words that appeared in ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’, which was publihsed in 1755.

  • Similarly in America ‘A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language’ was first printed in 1806 and popularised the American English spellings that were being used instead of the British English spellings of words, such as color instead of colour.
  • The author was Noah Webster who followed up the original dictionary in 1828 with his ‘An American Dictionary of the English Language’ which had over 70,000 words.
  • Here are some of the main differences in the spellings.
  • British English words ending in ‘our’ usually end in ‘or’ in American English:
BRITISH
US
colour color
flavour flavor
humour humor
labour labor
neighbour neighbor

Verbs in British English that can be spelled with either ‘ize’ or ‘ise’ at the end are always spelled with ‘ize’ at the end in American English:

BRITISH
US
apologize or apologise Apologize
organize or organise Organize
recognize or recognise Recognize

Verbs in British English that end in ‘yse’ are always spelled ‘yze’ in American English:

BRITISH
US
analyse analyze
breathalyse breathalyze
paralyse paralyze

In British spelling ‘L’ is doubled in verbs ending in a vowel plus ‘L’. In American English, the ‘L’ is not doubled:

BRITISH
US
travel travel
travelled traveled
travelling traveling
traveller traveler

British English words that are spelled with the double vowels ae or oe tend to be just spelled with an e in American English: Although there are exceptions to the rule.  For example archaeology is spelt in the same way as British English but archeology would be acceptable in America but is incorrect in the UK.

BRITISH
US
leukaemia leukemia
manoeuvre maneuver
oestrogen estrogen
paediatric pediatric

Some nouns that end with ‘ence’ in British English are spelled ‘ense in American English:’

BRITISH
US
defence defense
licence license
offence offense
pretence pretense

Some nouns that end with ‘ogue’ in British English end with either ‘og’ or ‘ogue in American English:

BRITISH
US
analogue analog or analogue
catalogue catalog or catalogue
dialogue dialog or dialogue

There are also differences in the words that we use to find out the differences in words and their meanings read our article on the ‘Is British English and American English the same language’.

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