Considering the plethora of dialects, idioms, figures of speech and regional accents in both British english
(BrE) and American english
(AmE) it is a wonder that we manage to understand each other at all. But of course we usually do, and quite well. One of the principle reasons for this is that we are close relatives within the same linguistic family. We have a common grammar, similar pronunciation of most words, a shared literary heritage and participate in multitudinous social, economic and cultural interchanges.
When we do come upon differences that cause confusion, and even embarrassment, these are often the consequence of the different meanings that specific nouns have. An example is the word cookie. A cookie in AmE would mean a biscuit in BrE, which in turn would refer to a scone-like confection in the US. A particularly telling incident of the misunderstanding of an expression that is common on both sides of the water was related by Winston Churchill. During the Second World War, english
officials didn’t realize that when their US counterparts wanted to table an issue they meant to delay it. As far as the english
were concerned, the verb to table meant to open up the issue for discussion. Fortunately, contretemps such as these are a rarity and there actually are only a few words that have completely different meanings, country to country. Often these can be shown to have entered the respective vocabularies between 1800 and 1950. It was during this era that the united states
and Britain were quite separated and many new words, especially relating to industrial products, were created independently.
Verb tenses are another area with differing usages. For example, BrE speakers often use the present perfect to express something happening in the recent past, “I have found my wallet.” The AmE speaker would more likely use the past simple, “I found my wallet.” Got seems to present more of a challenge in AmE than BrE, with the American preferring to state, “I have a new bicycle.” whereas the speaker of BrE would say, “I have got a new bicycle.” The got somehow sounds inappropriate to the AmE speaker, too near to gut, perhaps. An interesting transitivity case is the verb protest which is intransitive in BrE and transitive in AmE. The english
person would say, “The children
protested against having to go bed,” the American, “The children
protested going to bed.”
As far as verbal auxiliaries, shall and shan’t are used very infrequently in the US, much more often in england
, and shan’t is replaced in the States by won’t or am not going to.
Prepositions have their own interesting twists. In AmE you play on a team, in BrE one plays in a team. An American legislator is from a State, the ‘Senator from Montana
’, whereas the British MPs are for their constituencies, the ‘MP for Chelmsford’. The word ‘heat’ when it refers to an animal’s mating status takes ‘on’ in england
and ‘in’ in the US.
Spelling rules are in some ways the least confusing of english
language variances. BrE often retains the french
spelling of words, where AmE spells the words closer to the way they are pronounced, even going so far as to drop unneeded letters. Examples would include the dropping of the ‘u’ in –our ending nouns. Colour in england
becomes color in the States, flavor - flavor, honour - honor, labour – labor, etc. The –re ending on certain words, centre, theatre in BrE becomes center, and theater in AmE. The BrE –ise ending is changed to –ize, realise to realize. The dropped letter tendency occurs in catalogue and programme – catalog and program.
An interesting element regarding the assumed distance separating BrE and AmE is that the written form of the language has actually functioned for many years to reduce misunderstanding. The more literate on both sides of the Atlantic have found the obstacles presented by speech – the idioms, regional dialects and vocabulary - much less challenging and more easily dealt with when they appear within the written form. The contexts often make the meaning clear.
In regard to the competitive sense that the phrase BrE vs. AmE indicates, it would seem at the present time that the numbers back the AmE case for preeminence. The population of the united states
is well over 315 million (england
is approximately 55 million) and with American global dominance in international commerce, science, technology and pop culture, the lingua franca of the 21st Century would seem to be tipping toward American english
Sources: Comparison of American and British english
Differences Between American and British english
, Beare, About.com
List of words having different meanings in British and American
Differences in American and British english
Grammar, Maxwell &