British vs. American English: Why Are They Different?
Many English learners can't stop wondering how British and American English could become so different. They see English as one language. So, In their opinion, people should use the same rules and words in every English-speaking country. However, in reality, American vs. British English are more siblings than identical twins. They had the same parents but the unique environment of each made them special in their own ways.
Want to finally understand the reasons why American and British English differ? Then, read this article!
British vs. American English: Which Was First
Some mysteries will always stay mysteries because humanity doesn't have answers to all questions. After hundreds of years of discussions, we still can't say which came first, the chicken or the egg. However, in the case of British vs. American English, there is no reason for discussion, which was first. History gives us a clear answer to this question.
The British variant of English occurred first. The United Kingdom as a country existed long before the US. That's the fact. However, before Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, there was no such concept as a British or American variation of English. People in Great Britain spoke just English. Period.
People broke English down into different variations after British colonists, along with other European representatives, reached the New World (the lands of North America, South America, and the Caribbean). The influence of other languages on British English was so strong that American English became a bay for a mixture of European languages where English still remained dominant.
So why is there a difference between American and British English? Because these two variants of English are spoken by people with different backgrounds.
American vs. British English: 3 Reasons Why They Differ
On the one hand, American English naturally formed and separated from British English due to historical events and the distance between the continents. On the other hand, the formation of two variations of the English language was conditioned by conscious and intentional decisions made by British and American English adapters a long time ago. Let's take a closer look at the main reasons why the differences between American and British English exist.
1. Brits discovered Received Pronunciation after the US colonization
We are about to drop an informational bomb here, so prepare yourself. If we compare US vs. UK English, we'll discover that American English is actually older than British. How come?
After British colonizers immigrated to the New World, they left their life behind and started developing what they had in the US. So naturally, Brits took their language with them, but English in Great Britain kept evolving and changing, leading to American English keeping old British language norms.
The most demonstrative example is Received Pronunciation in British English. Rhotic speech (the clear and strong pronunciation of the sound r) was a significant feature of British English before the 18th century. So, Brits brought what now is known as Received Pronunciation to the Americas. At the same time, upper-class people in the UK found a way to distinguish themselves from lower-class people. They came up with the practice of softening their r's in general and dropping them at the end of the word. Following the example of aristocracy, commoners trained their speech apparatus to become a part of the trend and get closer to the rich. As a result, dropping r's makes you sound very posh today.
2. American English borrowed many words from other languages
Every language contains borrowed words from other languages. For instance, during the 1700s, after the colonization of the Americas, there was a trend in the UK to use French-style words and spelling. So, British English kept a lot of French vocabulary. However, American English is the most prominent example of a language mashup. The New World became a rescuing land for immigrants from all over Europe. They had to set a common ground regarding their language to communicate effectively and live in peace. Because the first settlers in the US territories were Brits, English became a core language there.
Nonetheless, the cultural influence did the job, and American English gained many words from Spanish, German, Dutch, and some from other European languages. For instance, the term "kindergarten" is actually German, "cilantro" comes from Spain, and "bluff" originated from the Dutch. In addition, English US vs. English UK differs because of the loanwords from Native American languages. For example, American English is full of "raccoon," "moose," and "moccasin." Of course, Brits also know such words, but they use them rarely out of necessity, but there also are some American words that British people don't understand.
3. Americans fought for US independence through the language
The written norms of the English language were officially stated in the 18th century when the US gained its independence from Great Britain. The work on the UK English dictionary was already in progress, but the spelling wasn't standardized yet. So Americans saw their chance to distinguish themselves even more through the English language and took it.
An American lexicographer Noah Webster thought that the spelling in the American dictionary must show the US independence as a country that was not a British colony anymore. And what could possibly better fit the task than more straightforward spelling that was more similar to the pronunciation of words? As opposed to the British dictionary, Webster took the letter u from words like colour and labour to make color and labor out of them. Also, he replaced s with z in the suffix -ise in verbs. So, now, in American English, we have "memorize" instead of "memorise" and "capitalize" instead of "capitalise." There are more spelling differences between American and British English, so keep exploring.
You can also trace the chillax and straightforward manner of speech not only in American spelling but in how Americans build sentences in spoken English. For instance, they don't see a problem in dropping a preposition "to" in a sentence, "I'll text to you later today," or a verb, "go" in a sentence, "I could go to the movies." British people would never do that. They don't tend to simplify their speech and speak faster. That is why Americans often make jokes about Brits who speak too correctly. On the contrary, British people think of the American way of speaking not in the best way.
UK English vs. US English: Which One To Learn
Which variation of English to choose - American or British is your personal business. However, you should keep in mind that British English is more academic, proper, and cold, while American English is more spread, straightforward and cheerful. If you take a quick look at British slang common phrases, that might help you decide how you want to sound. If you feel like the slang Lizzo and Cardi B use is more of your cup of tea, then the decision is evident.
Regardless of your choice, the tutoring program at Promova, the one-stop language learning platform, can help you to improve your English and make you feel confident while speaking. We offer individual lessons with certified English tutors who can teach you American or British English. Our teachers are professionals with several years of experience. Be sure that they will enlighten you in the world of British or American English. So sign in now and get the first trial lesson for free! And remember that you don't even need to choose British vs. American English. Promova can cover all your learning needs with the mobile app, various tutoring programs, free Conversation Club, educational blog, and fun social media.
So why is American English different from British English? Let's sum it up:
- American English saved the features of the old British English.
- It borrowed many words from other languages, including the Native American languages.
- Americans wanted to distinguish their variation of English from the British to emphasize their independence.
All of that led to the fact that there are different British and American English words. Moreover, the accent of both language variations is the polar opposite. And the spelling differs in many cases, so you better keep the preferred autocorrection on your gadgets.
Is British English better than American?
When choosing a variant of the English language to stick to, people usually divide themselves into two parties - British and American English adapters. But nobody can give logical arguments to prove that one variant of English is better than the other. The choice you make is just a matter of personal preference. English learners can give only subjective opinions and share personal thoughts about why British or American English is superior. Both parties always have convincing arguments, so you can agree with both of them at some point. Whether you'll give your vote to British or American English depends on several factors, including the variant of English you've learned at school, the entertainment content you consume, the books and news you read, and the people you communicate with. Either way, your choice will be correct because there is no good or bad in the battle of US English vs. UK English.
Why don't Americans have a British accent?
It may seem illogical that Americans and Brits have different accents because it was British people who brought the English language to the American continent. However, historically there is a very logical explanation. In fact, at the beginning of the colonization of Northern America, British immigrants tried to keep their "England English" accent and norms of the language. But living along with people from other European countries with different cultures and languages in the New World resulted in evolving and shifting British English. People didn't try to resist the changes in the English language. According to a linguist at the Smithsonian, Americans started changing British English pronunciations just one generation after the colonists began coming to the territory of the future United States of America. The difference in pronunciation between those who lived in the UK and the New World was so drastic that people had to give a new accent its own name - American.
Which English variant is the most used in the world, American or British?
A larger proportion of people in the world use American English. This is because Hollywood movies and American TV culture popularized the US vs. UK English. However, in most schools abroad, kids learn the British variant of English because it is seen as more academic and correct. Eventually, most English learners make a choice in favor of American English because it seems easier to perceive by ear and more practical since most of the population already speaks it.
Can Americans and Brits understand each other?
Of course, they can! They speak the same language, even though the two variations of English distinguish. The difference between American and British English is often exaggerated. However, not mentioning that Brits and Americans do have a slight language barrier would be unfair. The accents and differences in pronunciation usually are not a problem. The misunderstanding may occur in the use of words. Some words and phrases can exist in both variants of English but have different meanings, some can be spelled differently, and some may not be used by Brits or Americans. On average, most Brits and Americans find a common language effortlessly.