CAN you differentiate between British English and American English in terms of spelling, pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary? It is quite tricky especially if you never studied the Queen’s language in depth. I therefore want to take you through a short journey of the history of American English and the differences between British English and American English.
The use of English in the United States was a result of British colonization. The first wave of English-speaking settlers arrived in North America during the 17th century, followed by further migrations in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since then, American English has been largely influenced by the languages of West Africa through slavery, the Native American (Red Indians) population, and European immigrants of different nationalities with their different languages. Here are some of the differences between the two versions of the English language.
Most Americans pronounce either and neither with the vowel of teeth and beneath. We hear Americans say gotten for got, mad for angry, raw meat for underdone, and they also use the word fall for the season autumn. Words like bluff, foothill, notch, gap and divide were all new words formed as a result of the new British experiences and so they needed to have new words for new objects.
It is very important to acknowledge the contribution that Red Indians or Native Americans have made to the English language. Red Indians introduced some of these words: moose, raccoon, skunk, opossum, chipmunk, porgy and terrapin.
Words like congressional and presidential came into English from the American political and administrative system. The shaping of American English is also owed to some other sources of words and concepts. The French who arrived in the Americas through immigration contributed some of the words used in American English today. Portage, caribou, bureau, etc. are all French words that became part of the American English vocabulary. The use of words from another language is what we call borrowing, in language analysis. From the German language we also have words like noodle, smearcase, and pretzel and so on.
In American English spelling, traveler and wagon both have one consonant while British English doubles the consonants as in traveller and waggon. Do you use an elevator or a lift when moving between floors of large buildings? All these words mean the same thing but don’t you think it’s important for you to know which English you are using. A lift is used in the UK while elevator is used in the USA.
Americans spell fiber, center, and theater - for the British, the spelling of the same words is fibre, centre and theatre. The difference here is that words ending in–tre in British English are spelt –ter in American English. Words that end in –our in British English are usually spelt with–or in American English, for example color for colour.
Words which end in –oque are usually spelt –og as in dialog for dialogue. In British English many verbs can be spelt with either –ize or –ise, but in American English only the spelling with –ize is possible.
Realise and realize are both accepted in British English but in American English, only realize is accepted. Another interesting difference in spelling between the two versions of English is that verbs that end in l and are not stressed on the final syllable; the l is not doubled in the –ing form and the past participle in American English.
What about defence and defense or offence and offense? The s in these words indicates that they are American English words.
Did you know that the words that follow are pronounced differently? Not, lot, hot and top are pronounced with [o] like in the word more in British English, while in American English they are pronounced with [a] like in father. Finally, many irregular verbs can be formed with –ed or –t in British English in the past simple and past participle. For example ‘They burned/burnt the documents’, while in American English only –ed is used, example ‘They burned the documents’. Isn’t the Queen’s language just fascinating? As you write your essays, assignments, reports, letters etc., in English, be clear in your mind which English you are required to use, British English or American English.
Fannes Namhunya is a Master of Arts student in English in the Department of Language and Literature Studies, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Namibia (Unam).