Why is British English different from American English?
nomadicasian asked this question and got me thinking. Most people ask how American and British English are different. It's the first time I've found someone asking why.
From my own experience, the biggest differences between US and British English are not in the vocabulary: they are in how the language is used.
I went to live in the US when I was just turned 15 (I would hate to admit how long ago that was) from the North-West of England. I was excited at the thought of making new American friends, but I soon found out that most people couldn’t make out a word I said and even when they could, they misunderstood me.
A large part of the problem was my accent. Americans at that time got to hear only southern English accents in British films and TV programs, from stage posh to stage Cockney; most were so unfamiliar with northern English accents that they did not even recognize mine as British. I can recall being asked several times if I was Dutch. But the accent was not the only problem. If I wanted to engage with my new friends, I would not only have to learn a new accent - I would also need to adapt to a different way of communicating.
It's a different culture
Language reflects the culture of the speakers. The divergent ways the same language is used in two different cultures possess great potential for creating misunderstanding.
Brits like to banter
When Brits who don't know each other very well - or at all - come into contact, what you often get is a mini verbal tennis game as they toss tongue-in-cheek bantering remarks back and forth. Maybe this is a way they get past the stiff upper lip. But if you are a Brit in the US, it is important to know that Americans do not do this. Americans will take what you say literally. It is not that they do not understand irony, as some Brits will claim. Americans do understand irony, they just don't use it so much in everyday informal conversation, so they are not expecting it. Be careful what you say: they will take it seriously. Try explaining afterwards that it wasn't serious. They will look at you in non-plussed disbelief as if they have just discovered that you are deranged. "That was a joke? You said that for a joke!!"
The linguistic temperature control
The other thing you also have to remember is that Brits understate everything and Americans overstate everything. This makes Americans sound fake and gushing to Brits, and it makes Brits sound like cold fish to Americans. Let’s say a meal was quite tasty. A Brit will say, “That wasn’t bad”; an American will say, “That was just wonderful”. They are both expressing the same opinion. They both know what they mean, but they each misinterpret what the other means. It’s as if the linguistic oven is at a different setting. To communicate properly, you need to be able to adjust the thermostat.
Americans just aren't British
The English have two languages, not one. The spoken language is primarily descended from Anglo-Saxon and our written language owes an awful lot to Norman French. After the Normans invaded in 1066, their latinate language became the medium of formal written communication. However, the English people continued to speak their own language regardless.
Although it was nearly a thousand years ago, more than a trace of that linguistic division remains. We have two words for everything, an informal Anglo-Saxon word we use in speech and the "posher" latinate word which we might use in formal writing - e.g. go up - ascend; dog - canine; building - edifice; house - residence; wages - remuneration. But it isn't just the vocabulary - even when the words used are not latinate, the syntax employed in the written language is more structured and complex. The language we speak is totally different, in vocabulary, idiom and syntax, from the language we write.
Americans are on the whole very informal, friendly people, but paradoxically, college educated adults (i.e. not just philosophy professors) often sound oddly formal to British ears, like a walking talking version of Time Magazine.
As a simple example, I once heard the country singer Emmy-Lou Harris being interviewed on a radio station. Discussing events in the period of her early career, she said, "I gave birth to an infant daughter". A British woman would never say that: she would say, "I had a baby girl." I hope Emmy-Lou won't mind me using her as an example, but this is a fairly general thing.
The possible reason why
The reason for this may be that many early immigrants to the US learned to speak English from books. Even language-teaching books tend to present a more formal version of English than the British actually speak. Where English lessons were available, classes would teach "proper English" which meant basically the rules and vocabularly of the written language.
The new immigrants did not have the historical inheritance of the Brits, who learnt the modern version of the spoken Anglo-Saxon language at their mother's knee and did not really learn the Norman-influenced written version unless they got a reasonable education. Even then, though they might become extremely fluent in that version of English, they still didn't speak it at home.
Meanwhile, the spoken language in the US followed its own projectory. New idioms arose from the experience of the settlers in their new environment, or were translations of idioms from "the old country". As American versions of the spoken English language diverged more and more from the British equivalent - and crucially, from one another - the standard written language became the basis of the educated spoken, as well as written, English language in the US.
I guess this sort of thing is the reason the great George Bernard Shaw (or possibly Oscar Wilde or Bertrand Russell, or even Winston Churchill) described the US and Britain as two great nations divided by a single language. Whoever it was, he was right.