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A guide to discovering the United States
in the USA, 2. American English
Francisco - an English-speaking city with a Spanish name
Are American English and British English
the same language?
The simple answer to this often-asked
question is a single word. YES
By most standards of linguistic
measurement, British English and American English are one and the same
language. There is just one single way in which they may
often seem to be different languages, and that is in matters of
phonetics, or accent.
Generally speaking, anyone familiar with
the English language will be able to distinguish an American accent.
American English speakers and British English speakers pronounce some
things differently... but this does not mean that they speak two
different languages. Indeed, the pronunciation of American English is
no more different from standard British English than are many regional
accents within the United Kingdom, such as Scottish accents or
"Geordie" or Liverpudlian.
And within the USA too, there are
different regional accents. A person born and bred in Texas or Alabama
does not speak the same way as someone from New York or rural Maine.
Accents relate only to spoken
this is where differences between British English (BrEn) and American
English (AmEn) are most perceptible. Accent affects every
word or phrase a speaker utters, so it is percepitble all the time The
three other ways in which we can compare languages relate primarily to written
and will only apply to certain words or expressions. They are
differences in lexis
In all of these fields, and particularly in terms of grammar, American
English and British English have very few differences. This explains
why American English speakers and British English speakers
can communicate with each other without any difficulty, why movies do
not need to be dubbed from American English into British English , and
nobody needs an American-English dictionary, even if a few words are
There are only a handful of common words
which have different meanings in American English.
The classic example is the
, which in
the UK is the part beside a city street which is reserved for
pedestrians (people walking on foot), and in the USA is the roadway
itself, where cars drive.
On the other hand, there are quite a few
common American terms that either are very rare, or do not exist in
BrEn. The common American word fawcet
- the device on a washbasin or sink which allows you to turn on the
water - is unknown in Britain, where it is called a tap
Here are some other common differences: trousers
(BrEn) = pants
(BrEn) = drugstore
(BrEn) = french fries
(BrEn) = truck
(BrEn) = fender
(of a car) (BrEn) = trunk
(BrEn) = gas
and some other transport vocabulary that emerged during the late 19th
early 20th centuries.
Generally speaking, there are few
lexical differences between British and American varieties of English,
and there are even less that are likely to cause confusion.
Most words are spelled the same way in Britain and in the USA. There
are very few differences, and even where differences occur, many
readers will neither have thought about the differences, nor notice
when a writer inadvertently uses the "wrong" spelling for a word.
Indeed, there are some words for which the American spelling is so
ubiquitous worldwide, that it has become an alternative spelling in
British English . The classic example is the word written color
in AmEn, which in BrEn is
traditionally written as colour
Indeed, AmEn (thanks to a decision by
Websters dictionary back in 1828) uses the ending -or
for a raft of words in which
BrEn uses the ending -our
color, humor, honor, neighbor, behavior
and so on. This is perhaps the most commonly recognized difference
between the two spelling systems.
One often perceived difference is the
way in which words ending in -ise
in BrEn are spelt with -ize
in the USA - the obvious example here being the word recognize
itself, which is British
English is usually written recognise
However, while the -ize
ending is standard in the USA, both endings may be acceptable in
British English, depending on the word and the "authority" deferred to.
are concerned, there is a
degree of uniformity in the USA, but a degree of confusion in British
American spelling, when it differs from
BrEn spelling, tends to be more phonetic, doing away with unpronounced
letters. So Americans write program
while BrEn uses programme
and Americans write Catalog
where BrEn has catalogue
One other, but less often noticed
difference between AmEn and BrEn is the non-doubling of final
consonants before suffixes added to two-syllable verbs stressed on the
first syllable. So American write traveler
, and canceled
, where BrEn requires traveller
AmEn has also adopted a more phonetic
spelling for words which, in English, end in -re
such as litre, metre
, which in AmEn are liter, meter
Most other words... maybe 99% of all
words.... are spelled (or spelt) the same way in BrEn and AmEn, and
even whern there are national preferences, such as spelled
(required in AmEn) rather than spelt
alternative spellings in BrEn), few people will notice, let alone
complain about, the use of the other spelling.
While prescriptive spell-checker tools
in word-processing software may be helping to push British English and
American English spellings apart, the new international distribution of
texts in all varieties of English, which was impossible before the age
of the Internet, has helped acceptance of varying spellings, where they
of American English only differs from the grammar of British English in
a few minor cases. There are no significant differences, and none that
could cause confusion under normal circumstances. The most significant
of these small differences are:
- Use of the present perfect tense, as in "I've never smoked cannabis."
An American speaker would not normally use a present perfect
tense in this situation, but would say "I
never smoked cannabis"
- Shall. The
modal auxiliary verb shall
is not much used in American English. In
this way AmEn has just preempted BrEn, where use of shall is also
falling out of fashion.
- Questions. "Do
you have...?" is more normal in American English than "Have you got?"
And that's it.
British English and American English are
very much one and the same
language, with just a few differences in pronunciation, spelling,
words and grammar. Apart from a few pronunciation issues, which people
from outside the USA may need to adjust to, there is very little to
distinguish the standard varieties of English used on one side of the
from those used on the other.
But if you think that you hear a Texan
asking you for a pin
it's more likely that he or she is really asking for something to write
Return to Part 1: English
and other languages in the USA
For more background to the USA.....
Book / ebook
Background to modern America
people, places and
that have played a significant role in the shaping of modern
America. A C1-level Advanced English reader for speakers of other
languages, and anyone wanting to learn some of the background
today's USA. Twenty-two texts, with vocabulary guides and