Why is American English different to British English? By English with Stephen

Reasons for English: American English

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode that looks at why American English is different from British English.

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Hello and welcome to English with Stephen. My name’s Stephen Greene and today we are going to talk about some of the reasons why British and American English are different.

I am not going to talk about which one is better. That is a judgement call for you to make. (But it is British English, of course).

Also, the variety you learn will usually not be for you to decide. Instead, your teacher or educational authority will probably make that decision for you. And in terms of accents, well I recently recorded an episode all about accents, so go check that out if you are interested.

In this episode, we will be talking about the reasons why American English is different to British English and, in so doing, examine some of those differences.

All of that, after this.

I’d just like to remind you all that you can find a transcript for this episode on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com. Transcripts can be a powerful tool for language learners as you can use them to check vocabulary, confirm pronunciation and mimic what the speaker is saying. As well as the transcripts, you can leave comments, find past podcast episodes, get links to social media. So, if you haven’t already, head on over to EnglishwithStephen.com for all this and more.

Before we look at the differences between American and British English, it is perhaps worth pointing out that the similarities are far more common. Standard American English and Received Pronunciation have far more in common than they have differences. A speaker of one standard English will have no problems understanding a speaker of the other standard.

I should also point out that there are many different types of English all over the world. There is Irish, Australian and South African English, plus the English used by people who are English learners in places such as, say, Japan, Brazil and Mozambique. If you want to be an efficient user of English you need to expose yourself to a whole variety of Englishes, not just the two big traditional ones.

Having said all of that, let’s move on to look at just why American English is different to British English.

The most obvious reason for changes in language to occur is geographical distance, and this is definitely a huge issue with the USA and Britain. Today, assuming there are no pandemic restrictions, you can travel from London to New York in about 8 hours. And, of course, the internet and modern technology mean that communications between the two countries are almost instantaneous.

For most of the histories of these two countries, though, it took a long time for messages to spread from one place to another. Very few people actually got the chance to travel between the two countries, and so different grammar, vocabulary and pronunciations all got the chance to thrive.

There is a common misconception that British English is the real English, and American English has changed to some sort of modern ugly stepchild. While this might sometimes be true, it is by no means always the case. There are many examples of words that have changed in the UK but remained the same in the USA. For example, Shakespeare used the word “fall”, while modern British English prefers “autumn”.

And languages do not exist in a vacuum. When Europeans arrived in North America, they found it already populated by Native Americans. It is true that most of the Europeans did all they could to exterminate the indigenous peoples, but there was still a lot of contact, especially in the early days.

The new arrivals found new types of food and geography that they just didn’t have words for. “Teepee”, “squash” and “skunk” are all examples of words that the colonisers had to borrow from the local people.

And, of course, the USA was not just colonised by the English. Early on, there were Scots and Irish settlers, who had their own words and phrases. There were also lots of other immigrants from other areas of Europe, such as Germany, Holland, Italy, Poland, and Russia, who also brought their own languages, all of which fed into this new variety of English. This is not to mention cultures from China, Japan and Africa who all brought their own flavour and added it to the mix.

The things we have looked at so far are all kind of natural things that happen when a language is isolated from other speakers and gets input from people who speak different languages. However, for American English, there was also an element of design.

Founded in the 17th and 18th centuries, the 13 colonies of the USA declared their independence from the UK in 1776.  Almost as soon as the project of independence was won, there was a need to build an “American” identity. You see, the 13 colonies never really shared any common identity, apart from all being British colonies. They had different economies, different needs and different problems.

In a previous episode, we saw how the English aristocracy stopped speaking French and concentrated on the English language in order to help create a unified English identity. This shows that language is a great unifier and is important to building a national identity.

Well, the newly independent Americans knew this as well.

Noah Webster was born in Connecticut in 1758. He studied law at Yale University and went on to become an influential writer and thinker in Revolutionary America. For our purposes, Webster is famous for writing the first American English dictionary in 1828.

Webster was influenced by two things. First, he was 100% dedicated to the idea of the United States of America and creating a culture and identity for this new country. Second, he looked at English spelling and considered it absurd, a language in desperate need of simplifying and popularising.

In his first dictionary, he proposed new spellings that would be more logical than the previous British spellings. Words like “colour” would lose the “u” that still persists in British English to this day. Likewise, words that in Britain end in “re”, like “theatre”, changed to end in “er”. There were other simplifications as well which you can easily find through a Google search or I will post a link on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com.

However, Webster wanted to go much, much further and introduce changes that would revolutionise the spelling of English. He was working on a second edition of his dictionary when he died in 1843.

My own view is that these changes are probably justified, but I still use the British spelling because, well I am British. The changes that have taken root in American English are just enough to create a friendly rivalry between the two systems, but not enough to stop British people from reading American English, and vice versa.

Upon Webster’s death, the rights to his dictionary were taken over by George and Charles Merriam. Even today, the most important American English dictionary is the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

So, in the 1800s, we had a country that was developing its own language thanks to geographical distance, incorporating existing local languages, immigration, and a political will to create a national identity through its language. During the 1800s, we get lots more changes in the two languages due to technological innovations.

In the USA, they are called “movies” and in the UK they used to be called “pictures” but are now just films. Americans get their TV and radio through an “antenna” whereas the BBC is received through “aerials”. In the USA you got the rise of the “automobile” while the “car” took over the UK. In fact, nearly all of the names for parts of the car are different between the USA and the UK.

Even when the word is the same, or almost the same, there are differences. For example, in the UK we use “aluminium” while in the USA it is “aluminum”. Americans fly in airplanes and Brits fly in aeroplanes (although in both countries “planes” seems to be more common recently). And don’t even get me started on the American use of “football”!

As we go through the 20th century and modern communication makes the isolation between the two counties less and less, there is less time for words to take root only in the one place. Nowadays, if there is a new word or phrase coined in California, it is all over Tik Tok within days and British kids, as well as kids from all over the world, will be exposed to it pretty quickly.

Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister during World War 2, once said that “The USA and Britain are two countries separated by the same language.” While this is a cool quote, I think I would have to disagree. For me, the thing to remember about British and American English is that, while there are some differences, the vast majority of the two varieties are basically the same.

That’s all from me for today. I hope you have enjoyed this episode. If you have any questions, please leave them on my site EnglishwithStephen.com

Speak to you later!

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