Language Differences – Why Are British English and American English Different?


“America and England are two nations divided by a common language.”
Winston Churchill

Why Do Britons and Americans Spell Words Differently?

The first question is why are British and American spellings different for certain words?

Noah Webster

The first answer is to blame Noah Webster, of Webster’s Dictionary fame. He believed it was important for America, a new and revolutionary nation, to assert its cultural independence from Britain through language. He wrote the first American spelling, grammar, and reading schoolbooks and the first American dictionary. He was also an ardent advocate of spelling reform and thought words should be spelled more like they sound.

Many years before he published his well-known American Dictionary of the English Language, he published a much smaller, more radical dictionary he called a Compendious Dictionary that included spellings such as w-i-m-m-e-n for “women” and t-u-n-g for “tongue.” That dictionary was skewered and he dialed down the spelling reform in his final masterpiece. Yet still, Noah Webster, his affection for spelling reform, and the success of his final dictionary in 1828 are the reasons Americans spell words such as “favor” without a “u” (1), “theater” with an “-er” instead of an “-re” at the end, “sulfur” with an “f” and not a “ph” in the middle, and “aluminium” as “aluminum (2).”

A Separated Population

There are some word differences we can’t lay at Webster’s feet. For example, “while” and “whilst” mean the same thing, but as far as we can tell, nobody really knows why “whilst” survived in Britain but withered in America. According to World Wide Words (3), “whilst” is considered more formal than “while,” even in Britain. So if I had to guess, I’d say “whilst” probably fell out of favour in America because we are a less formal nation, and geographic separation of the two populations also let the language change differently in the two countries, but really, we are just making things up at this point. If anyone has a better answer, please post it in the comments.

Why Do Britons and Americans Use Single and Double Quotation Marks Differently?

On to a difference where I at least have a hint of an answer.

In America, they use double quotation marks to enclose a quotation, and single quotation marks if they need to enclose another quotation inside the first quotation. In British English, it’s the opposite. Single quotation marks are used for everyday purposes such as enclosing a stand-alone quotation (4, 5).

In 1908, an influential British style guide called The King’s English, stated that “The prevailing [metho is to use double marks for most purposes, and single ones for quotations within quotations.” So to spell it out for you, the author, Fowler, was saying that at the time the British did it the same way we do it now in America. But Fowler went on to advocate for single quotations marks, saying it is more logical to use them for regular quotations, and to reserve double quotation marks for quotations within quotations (6). He didn’t explain why he thought it was more logical; he just said it was. Given that the British method now follows Fowler’s stated preference, we presume that Fowler is the reason the British now use single quotation marks where Americans primarily use double quotation marks–that he was influential enough to make that change happen.

Typesetters Quotations Versus Logical Quotations

There’s another difference in how Americans and Britons treat quotation marks. In the U.S. they put periods and commas inside quotation marks, and in Britain we usually put periods and commas outside quotation marks.

The reason for this difference begins with the introduction of movable type. Before typesetting, nobody paid too much attention to where they put periods and commas relative to quotation marks, but periods and commas became a problem with the advent of typesetting because they were so tiny. Printers found that the periods and commas were more stable when they were placed inside closing quotation marks, so that’s the way they started doing it (7, 8).

Again, our British friend Fowler seems to have made the difference in his book The King’s English. (9) Typesetting technology had advanced to the point where it wasn’t necessary to shield periods and commas anymore, and he argued for what he considered a more logical system of letting the context of the sentence determine where the period and comma should go. The British seem to have taken his suggestion to heart and Americans seem to have ignored it.

Because of these origins, it is sometimes said the British use logical quotations and Americans use typesetters quotations.

Pronunciation Differences

Finally, you may be wondering why there are pronunciation differences between British and American speakers of English (not to mention Canadians, Australians, and others).  The general idea is that regional and national pride and changing ideas about what sounded like “proper” speech, at least to some degree, played a role in changing the British sounding speech of the American colonists to what we hear today in America. It’s far too complex to cover here, so I’ll refer you to a PBS show called “Do You Speak American?” which talks about regional dialects too (10).

Accents vary greatly between regions of the US even within states or cities. For example, in the south a toboggan is a winter hat, but in the north it is a sled. Imagine the fun of asking a southerner to go down a hill on their toboggan.

Below is a list of some common American terms and phrases that you may encounter and their British translations.

Food

American British
French Fries Chips
Potato Chips Crisps
Eggplant Aubergine
Zucchini Courgette
Pickle Gherkin
Sausage Bangers
Silverware Cutlery
Take Out or To Go* Take Away
Dessert Pudding
Or-ay-gah-no Oregano

* Take out or To Go boxes, also known as “doggie bags”, are very common in the US. At almost any kind of restaurant, you can ask for a box to take home the food you did not eat.

Clothing

American British
Pants Trousers
Sweater, Sweatshirt Jumper
Overalls Dungarees
Sneakers Trainers
Underwear Pants
Costume Party Fancy Dress

Around the House

American British
Apartment Flat
Bathroom/Restroom Toilet*, WC, Loo
Trash, Garbage Rubbish, Litter
Elevator Lift
First Floor (etc.) Ground Floor (etc.)
Al-oo-min-um Aluminium

*Toilet carries a crude connotation and is not commonly used in the US.

Miscellaneous

American British
January 2, 2011 2 January 2011
1/2/2011 2/1/2011
Soccer Football
Football American football
Bucks Quid
Sick (adj.) Ill
Flashlight Torch
Gas Petrol
Thanks Cheers
Hot Fit, attractive
Eraser Rubber
Zip Code Postal Code
Sidewalk Pavement

Greeting

One of the common greetings in the UK is to say to someone, “Hey, you alright?” or “Hey, you ok?” These terms are not socially used in America and can be perceived as asking whether there is something wrong with their health or suggesting that there is an obvious reason why they may not be ok. Instead try “What’s going on?” or a simple “How are you?”

Conversation Style

Americans have the tendency to exaggerate much more than the British, using numerous superlatives and vivid descriptions even in an average situation. Many Americans also tend to be highly positive and downplay negative things. This may be confusing because, in an effort to be polite, an American may not tell you directly their opinions.

Body Language

Beyond vocabulary differences are differences in body language. Body language contributes to conversation and interaction as much as verbal communication. Generally speaking, Americans prefer a greater amount of personal space during conversation; one arm’s length is a good estimate. They tend to shake hands (firmly) with people they meet. That said, some Americans can be more touchy-feely than Brits and may be inclined to hug you as a greeting (maybe before you feel close enough to them to merit hugging!)

It is common for Americans to maintain direct eye contact with the speaker and to smile during the conversation, as this is indicative of attentiveness and an interest in the conversation. Many also “speak with their hands,” expressing themselves through a wide range of gestures.

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