Differences between British and American English

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Learn all the rules regarding pronunciation, vocabulary, spelling, and grammar that differ between British English and American English.

All the Differences between British and American English

George Bernard Shaw, Irish writer and linguist, Nobel Prize laureate for literature in 1925, used to say: "England and America are two countries separated by the language".
As a matter of fact, although the idiom is officially the same, the differences are many. More than you think.
Between British English and American English, there are differences of:

  • pronunciation
  • vocabulary
  • spelling
  • grammar

History of the English language

English derives from the ancient Germanic languages, as demonstrated by the many English words that are similar in spelling to the German ones. Sometimes, they are the same words, such as wind, winter, finger. These terms have the same meaning in both languages, but are pronounced differently.​

During Renaissance times, Latin became the language of science, and several of its words entered the vocabulary of many other idioms, including English. Over time, Latin vocable such as exit, agenda, fact, alibi, media, sponsor became part of the standard English language, while other modern English terms, such as describe, perfect, or computer, derive directly from the ancient Roman language.

As a result of the invasion of England in 1066 by the Normans led by William the Conqueror, the French language left its permanent mark on the English lexicon. This is demonstrated by the countless French words still used daily in English, such as restaurant, heritage, parents, queue, route, commerce, omelette. Other English words, such as energy, variety, or soup derive directly from French, even if they have a different spelling: énergie, varieté, soupe.

Great Britain has a very cumbersome colonial past. Over the centuries, its powerful naval fleet landed in North America, Australia, India, Africa, and Asia. It conquered those territories and subjugated their populations upon its arrival by imposing its language. Although almost all the colonies became independent, English remained an undisputed legacy. However, the language has evolved, enriching itself with local terms and adapting to its surroundings.

This is why, in the United States, English has experienced many variations from the original idiom over the centuries. The most striking difference is the way it is pronounced.

Pronunciation: differences between British English and American English

The British accent is considered worldwide the most prestigious form of spoken English. It is referred to as Received Pronunciation, the pronunciation taught at school that corresponds to the English the Royals speak. 
American English, on the other hand, is the variant of British that developed in the United States of America.
Here are the major pronunciation differences between British English and American English:

Same word, different pronunciation

In British and American, most of the words are precisely the same, are spelt the same way and have the same meaning, yet their pronunciation has evolved differently in the two places, and we never knew why. 
Click and listen to the same words with two different pronunciations:

BRITISH ENGLISH AMERICAN ENGLISH
Blackberry Blackberry
Caribbean Caribbean
Cyclamen Cyclamen
Dynasty Dynasty
Direction Direction
Fragile Fragile
Hegemony Hegemony
Leisure Leisure
Lieutenant Lieutenant
Privacy Privacy
Schedule Schedule
Template Template
Tomato Tomato
Z Z

Same word, different stress

Among the differences between British and American English, the stress has a big role. Sometimes it can happen that the stress falls on different syllables within the same word. For example, the term address: in British English, the stress falls on the first A, and it is pronounced AH-drehs; in American English, the stress shifts to the vowel E, and it is pronounced ah-DREHS (the stress is indicated by the capital letters).
The following chart provides the two pronunciations of the same word. As we said: same word, different stress.

BRITISH ENGLISH AMERICAN ENGLISH
Address Address
Adult Adult
Advertisement Advertisement
Dictionary Dictionary
Interesting Interesting
Magazine Magazine
Mercenary Mercenary
Necessary Necessary
Preliminary Preliminary
Vineyard Vineyard

Same letter, different pronunciation

The most significant differences between British English and American English concern how certain letters are pronounced. Some letters have a different pronunciation in the two states.

Pronunciation of the letter R 

The pronunciation of the consonant R immediately reveals whether you are from London or New York. Now let's see why:

British English

The English language formally taught at school in the UK is a non-rhotic language, an expression indicating that the letter R very often is not pronounced at all when it is placed in certain parts of a word.

In British English, the letter R is not pronounced if:

  • it is the last letter in a word (barber, car)
  • it is placed after a vowel, and it is followed by a consonant (girl, perfume)

But if the R is not pronounced, how can Americans identify the words they hear in the UK? They need to get used to it: the disappearance of the R automatically lengthens the sound of the vowel that precedes it.
For example, the pronunciation of car becomes caah, perfume will sound a lot like pehh-fum (listen carefully to the pronunciations provided in the following table, and you will soon get used to these sounds).

In British English, the letter R is pronounced if:

  • it is the first letter of a word (relative, revolution)
  • it is followed by another vowel (appearance, stereotypes)

In any case, the British R is never as strong as the American one.

American English

The English language spoken in the United States is a rhotic language, meaning that the letter R is always pronounced, regardless of its position in the word. In the chart, you will find words containing the letter R as they are pronounced in Great Britain and in the United States.

BRITISH ENGLISH AMERICAN ENGLISH
Barber Barber
Car Car
Girl Girl
Perfume Perfume
Relative Relative
Revolution Revolution
Appearance Appearance
Stereotypes Stereotypes


Pronunciation of the letter T

In the UK, the letter T is pronounced as a regular T, regardless of its position in a word. This happens whether someone is informally chatting or making an official speech.

In the United States, however, the letter T undergoes a curious transformation when spoken informally in these two cases:

  • The letter T takes on a sound between R and D, as is the case with the words beautiful, bottle or pretty.
  • The letter T preceded by the letter N tends to disappear, transforming itself into another letter N, as it happens with the words twenty or international.
BRITISH ENGLISH AMERICAN ENGLISH
Beautiful Beautiful
Bottle Bottle
Pretty Pretty
Twenty Twenty
International International

Pronunciation of the letter U

In some cases, the letter U can change its sound depending on whether a Briton or an American pronounces it.

British English

  • The letter U is always pronounced as in the alphabet /juː/

American English

  • The letter U is pronounced /juː/ in the alphabet, but in some words is pronounced /uː/

Click and listen to the words in this chart, and you will hear the difference in the pronunciation of the letter U.

BRITISH ENGLISH AMERICAN ENGLISH
Introduce Introduce
Nuclear Nuclear
Dune Dune
Tulip Tulip

Pronunciation of the letters EW

The letters EW in words such as new or knew (past tense of the verb to know) behave like the letter U above: in British English they are pronounced /juː/, while in American English /uː/

BRITISH ENGLISH AMERICAN ENGLISH
News News
Knew Knew

Lexicon: different word, same meaning

A Londoner may sometimes experience some difficulties when conversing with a New Yorker because some words he will hear may sound unfamiliar. Here are the words that differ between British English and American English:

GREAT BRITAIN UNITED STATES 
Boot (car) Trunk
Flat Apartment
Football Soccer
Lift Elevator
Lorry Truck
Nappy Diaper
Pavement Sidewalk - Curb
Rubbish Garbage
Tap Faucet
Underground - Tube Subway
Windscreen Windshield

Spelling: one word, two ways of writing it

Occasionally, there are also differences in spelling between British English and American English, meaning that the same word, with the same meaning and pronunciation, can be written in two different ways. Here are some examples:

Words containing or ending with the letters OUR

BRITISH ENGLISH AMERICAN ENGLISH
Colour Color
Favourite Favorite

Words ending in TRE

BRITISH ENGLISH AMERICAN ENGLISH
Metre Meter
Theatre Theater

Words containing or ending in ISE or YSE

British words such as analyse or organise, in American English are written analyze and organize.
But heir pronunciation is the same:
Analyze and Organize (click and listen).

Verbs ending with the consonant L

Verbs ending with the letter L such as Travel, in British English, the past form is Travelled, in American English is Traveled.

Grammar: differences between British English and American English

The differences in grammar between British English and American English are minimal and mainly affect verbs.
British English has often preserved the legacy of Old English and has retained some irregular verb forms, such as burnt or learnt. In American English, the same verbs have changed from irregular to regular, and their past has become burned and learned. Here is a table showing the differences in verbs:

BRITISH ENGLISH AMERICAN ENGLISH
Burn - Burnt Burn - Burned
Dream - Dreamt Dream - Dreamed
Get - Got Get - GotGotten
Learn - Learnt  Learn - Learned
Weave - Wove - Woven Weave - Weaved
16 November 2023
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