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British English versus American English, is one better than the other? (Part 1)

In this blog entry I will cover: consistency, vocabulary, English as a living language (Part1) and, teaching implications and classroom problems in (Part 2).

The English spoken in the USA is different from the English spoken in the UK not only in pronunciation but also in vocabulary and in some cases, word meaning as well. Luckily the basis for both English flavors, the alphabet, is the same except for the letter Zed or Zee.

George Bernard Shaw probably got it right when he quipped:

“The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.”

So which one is best? From a partisan viewpoint the answer is a foregone conclusion. Brits will say that Americans don’t speak proper English and vice versa. There’s nothing worse than national pride when it comes to language.

Forgetting the fact that there are people in both countries who sometimes cannot understand what their fellow countrymen from other regions are saying; are there any pointers to indicate that one flavor is better than the other?

Consistency

Let’s start with consistency. Is one flavor more consistent than the other?

My first focus would be spelling. In certain respects American English spelling is more consistent with the way that we say words. The classics would be color versus color, center versus centre, words ending with “iz” versus “is” constructions, etc.

British English is much older than American English and these differences are mainly the fault of the French who invaded England in 1066. At the time the English were not impressed but the French did bring a little extra in the way of culture and cooking and a lot in the way of enriching the English language. The estimated number of new words added to English by the French is about 10,000. With these new words came the French spelling, the “re”, “ou”, “is”, etc. constructs.

English came to North America via the first British settlements that eventually, via George Washington, became the United States. During the 1700’s English was still an open language and even the British did not have formal standards for spelling. In the 1750’s Samuel Johnson established what was adopted as a standard British English dictionary and about 60 years later Noah Webster established what was adopted as the standard American English dictionary. As America was keen to distance itself from Britain and Webster wanted to rationalize certain forms of spelling, the Americans adopted what some Brits refer to as “wrong spelling”.

Both sides could claim the same.

Both languages have spelling standards so in this respect they are both consistent.

Pronunciation is not so obvious when it comes to consistency. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Americans will pronounce the “ato” sound in tomato and potato the same way. Brits don’t
  • Brits will pronounce the “ine” sound in machine and iodine the same way. Americans don’t.

These are two simple examples but they both highlight pronunciation differences that are not consistent with spelling. However, all Americans/Brits will pronounce words within their flavor of English in a similar way. There will be regional differences but even with the regional accent, the sound produced will be understandable.

Vocabulary

Now we get into the fun area.

In the main, British English and American English are very similar, even with differences in spelling. In today’s world, American spelling is probably winning thanks to Microsoft’s spell checker.

There are vocabulary differences and some can cause embarrassing situations if you only know one flavor. Knickers, suspenders and fanny come to mind. In the US, men wear suspenders, in the UK women wear suspenders. There’s a whole world of fun in some of these differences. Brits can knock their friends up in the morning but this could be considered inappropriate in the USA. I’ll leave you to research knickers and fanny.

There are also more mundane differences as well like: lift (UK) vs. elevator (USA) / lorry (UK) vs. truck (USA) / solicitor (UK) vs. lawyer (USA) / petrol (UK) vs. gas or gasoline (USA) / trainers (UK) vs. sneakers (USA) / drawing pin (UK) vs. thumb tack (USA) and quite a few others.

Despite the fact that there are different meanings for the same word and that there are some genuine differences in vocabulary, again both languages are consistent within their own rules.

English is a living language

Both the British and Americans continually add new words as things change. When new words are added, they fit the constructs and can be classified within the general English language system: noun, verb, etc.

The two key dictionaries from either side of the Atlantic are Merriam-Webster (USA) and Oxford (UK). Both dictionaries accept the differences between British and American English and make references to both in their word definitions.

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