“Two nations divided by a common language” was how George Bernard Shaw (or any number of other people to whom the quote has been attributed) described Britain and the USA. Culturally, the two countries are further apart than you might be tempted to think, but just how similar are the English spoken in Britain and American English?
While it is true that there are plenty of differences between the English spoken in the UK and that of the USA, the first thing to point out is that Brits and Americans can understand each other perfectly well.
Anecdotally, some American people find certain British dialects harder to understand whereas Brits are more used to American English (AmE as linguists write it) due to exposure through movies, music and endless reruns of How I Met Your Mother.
As a learner of English, the choice of whether to learn British English or American English is much less important than your choice of study destination. For example, if you want to combine an English course with surfing, you are better off in Santa Monica than South London. If you want to be in a city where history lives around you, then London is the better choice. And there is also Australia, Canada, India, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa, each with its own variety (sometimes varieties) of English.
What’s more, if you are a non-native speaker, your English is likely to be the English of the future… more people now speak English as a second or third language than as a mother tongue.
But there are differences between American English and British English, and here are some of them:
photo: Craig Cloutier
There are plenty of examples of words that are different in the US English and British English and it can be interesting how these differences came to exist in the first place. Some words became necessary long after the USA gained independence and no longer looked to London for guidance. Automotive vocabulary is one area where the two varieties have many different words:
|parking lot||car park|
…and there are dozens of other words which vary for the same reason.
There are another group of words that vary in the two countries for historical reasons. The American word fall predates the British autumn, which only became the favoured British English word after the American civil war, when French was highly fashionable. The USA kept the older word. The same is true with candy (sweets in Britain) and faucet (tap in Britain). Meanwhile some older English words like fortnight, meaning two weeks, have fallen out of use in the USA, but are still in common use in Britain and the Commonwealth countries.
Check out this list of vocabulary differences. You should watch out for a couple of them… aneraser (AmE) is a rubber in Britain. In the USA, rubber is a colloquial term for a condom.
Pronunciation & dialects
American English is much more homogenous than British English, meaning it is often harder to tell where in the USA someone is from just by hearing their accent. Linguists have identified somewhere between 6 and 25 American dialects, although the major divisions are between Northern, Midland and Southern dialects, which are roughly grouped together.
(very rough impression, after F.G. Cassidy, 1982)
When looking at the map, bear in mind that dialects/accents don’t have clear borders – instead you have what is called a dialect continuum, where differences accumulate gradually (particularly in rural areas).
American history is a history of migration, both from overseas and within the country, so accents constantly mixed as people moved around the country.
A couple of things make American pronunciation distinct from British, notably that most varieties of American English are “rhotic”, meaning that the r sound is nearly always pronounced anywhere in a word, which it isn’t in most British dialects. So the word butter, for example, ends with an r sound in most US varieties, with an uh sound in most British varieties (although not in Scotland, Ireland or the south-west of England).
There is greater variety of dialects in Great Britain because the language developed over a millennium and a half, from a mix of languages spoken by various settlers from elsewhere in Europe. Families stayed in the same place for generations. This meant that the language developed differently from town to town. Liverpool and Manchester, for example, have highly distinct accents despite being less than 60km apart.
You will inevitably take on some of the accent of the place in which you learn. This is a good thing! Your accent will be a part of your own story whether you learn British, American, South African, Australian or any other form of English.
There are a number of differences between British and American spelling. In America, for example, it is rare for a word to end with –re, whereas this is common is Britain. Some examples include center (centre) and meter (metre). American English also drops the u in British words like colour (color) and flavour (flavor) and an l in traveller (traveler) and reveller (reveler).
The man chiefly responsible for these differences was Noah Webster, whose name you will still find on the front of America’s most popular dictionaries. He wanted to simplify English spelling and saw the political benefits of a new country having its own language. For more on this topic, see our post on why English spelling is complicated.
Some irregular verb endings are also commonly used in British English but not in American English, for example burnt (burned in AmE), learnt (learned), smelt (smelled)… although you would be unlikely to notice the difference in conversation.
There are subtle differences between British and American grammar that have developed over the centuries, for example:
BrE: Metallica are playing in London tonight.
AmE: Metallica is playing in Boston tonight.
BrE: Our team are here to help.
AmE: Our team is here to help.
In British English, group nouns like team and squad can be singular or plural; in American English they are singular. Names of bands or teams are always plural in British English, singular in American English.
BrE: He’s finally got over her.
AmE: He’s finally gotten over her.
In American English, gotten is the past participle of the verb to get. This is one of the more distinctive elements of American English as get is such a common verb.
BrE: Monday to Friday inclusive.
AmE: Monday through Friday.
You will often hear the American version in Britain now.
BrE: The judge ordered that he should be imprisoned.
AmE: The judge ordered that he be imprisoned.
Somewhat surprisingly, corpus study shows that the subjunctive is much more common in American English than British English, although it is making a comeback in the UK too. This is interesting because it was common in Britain centuries ago but gradually fell out of use (with Brits using “should” to indicate the subjunctive, or just using indicative forms instead) until the twentieth century.
So, should you learn American English or British English?
When choosing which kind of English to learn, the most important aspects to consider are the environment in which you would like to study, your budget and how much time you have available. The linguistic differences between various types of English are really quite small, whereas the differences are huge between the destinations in which you can study!
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PS. This article was written in British English. Jolly good.