Separated by a Common Language

June 2011

Students sometimes ask me what the difference between British English and American English is?

There are many differences but remember that these are small and unimportant. After all, English is English. British and American have much more in common than they have that separates them.

Convergence vs Divergence
The fact that we have so much more mass media now means that the convergence will only become greater.


The biggest differences occur at the colloquial level. In formal and academic writing the two varieties are almost indistinguishable.

Pecker means nose
A perfectly innocent phrase in Britain.


Let’s look at the aspects. The biggest differences are in:

1. Vocabulary – torch (UK) vs flashlight (US)

2. Phonology – the rhotic r, e.g.

Rhotic


The smallest differences are in:

3. Grammar and Style e.g. the use of shall

4. Spelling and Punctuation – ‘ize’

In some ways British is more traditional. In other ways American English uses grammar, vocabulary, and sounds which British people would have used centuries ago.

Richard
Despite the differences, the fundamental idiom and phrasal verbs of the language are the same in Britain and America.


The fifth dimension overlapping all of these points, encompasses sociolinguistic usage and is observable in the trait of British speakers to use indirect (including polite) forms and a heavier emphasis on rhetorical tropes notably irony and sarcasm, as well as a tendency to use more elaborate, polysyllabic vocabulary. This can have the effect of certain British speakers enjoying a prestige or pompous quality when speaking among Americans. On the other side of the coin, Americans can appear pithy and down to earth when speaking among Brits. These differences are fairly subtle and hardly recognisable to someone unfamiliar with transatlantic cultural nuances.

Cosmopolitanism
The old Shanghai municipal flag — the only instance of British and American ensigns being featured together on the same standard. Globalisation and ease of travel mean even more linguistic convergence in the future.