We may share the same language, but there is nothing common about hearing from speakers from the United States or the United Kingdom. From adding z to words spelled in the same way, but with completely different pronunciation – there is a real ocean of linguistic differences (in addition to a real physical ocean) between the two main English-speaking countries in the world. But don’t be afraid! If you are learning English in London and want to know what makes your accent different from that of your friend studying English in New York, here’s what you need to know.
1. AMERICAN ENGLISH IS ACTUALLY OLDER
This is not something to say to a Briton, because we are the country that gave birth to America as we know it today – but it is a very authentic fact. When the first settlers set sail from England for America, they brought with them the common language of the time, based on what is called rhoticity (pronunciation of the sound r in a word). Meanwhile, in the wealthy cities of the southern United Kingdom, the new upper classes, who were looking for a way to distinguish themselves from the others, began to change their rhoticity for a softer sound, pronouncing words like winter “win-tuh” instead of “win-ter” Of course, these people were so chic that everyone wanted to imitate them, so that this new way of speaking – which the British now call Received Pronunciation (the standard pronunciation) – extended to the south of England. This also explains why many regions outside southern England have kept their rotic accents. Basically, if you speak English from London, you will look more chic. You won! You won!
2. BRITISH ENGLISH IS MORE SIMILAR TO FRENCH
French has influenced English much more than Anglophones want to admit. It all began in the 11th century, when William the Conqueror invaded England (click here to learn more about the history of English) bringing with him Norman French, which quickly became the sustained language – used in schools, courts, universities and by the upper classes. It did not really take root, but instead evolved into Middle English, which was then a mixture of all the linguistic influences of the time. The second contribution occurred during the 18th century, when the trend to use words with style and spelling borrowed from French spread to the United Kingdom. Of course, the Americans, who were already living on the other side of the Atlantic, did not participate at all in this trend. This is why British English has more linguistic similarities with French than American English and this also explains our obsession with croissants. Or maybe I’m the only one who loves them?
3. THE AMERICAN SPELLING WAS INVENTED IN PROTEST
American and British dictionaries are very different, because they were written by two very different authors with two very different points of view on the language: the United Kingdom dictionary was written by scholars from London (and not Oxford, for whatever reason) who simply wanted to list all known words in English, while the American dictionary was created by a lexicographer named Noah Webster. Webster wanted American spelling to be not only simpler, but also different from the spelling of the United Kingdom, so that America could assert its independence and distinguish itself from the old British rules. He abandoned the letter “u” of words like colour and honour – which came from the French influence in England – to transform them into colour and honour instead. He did the same with the words ending in “ise”, which he transformed into “ize”, because he thought that the American spelling should reflect their pronunciation. In addition, the “z” was a much more original letter, which confirmed his choice.
4. AMERICAN ENGLISH LIKES TO CUT THE WORDS COMPLETELY OFF
Sometimes there are differences in American English that make no sense to speakers of British English – for example, when Americans cut entire verbs in a sentence. When an American declares to someone that he will write a letter to them, he says: “I’ll write you”. If you ask an American if he wants to go shopping, he might say, “I could. In the United Kingdom, these answers seem really strange, given that we say “I’ll write to you” and “I could go”. Cutting the verb could be explained by the fact that Americans want to express themselves more quickly – or, perhaps, because the British like to be accurate and precise in their words. No one is right or wrong, but if there is only one winner, it would be British English, because, frankly, the American way makes no sense. Not that I’m biased.
5. BOTH TYPES OF ENGLISH HAVE BORROWED WORDS FROM DIFFERENT LANGUAGES
It is clear that British English and American English have evolved differently, considering the cultural influences that have affected each of them and the way they have borrowed words from these languages. For some reason, this very often relates to culinary vocabulary. Examples include coriander in British English (derived from French) and cilantro in American English (derived from Spanish) and aubergine in British English (derived from Arabic) and eggplant in American English (so called for its similarity to a purple egg). There are many other examples, but the most important thing to remember is to use the vocabulary of the country in which you are studying.