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Why is British English different from American English?

Updated on August 24, 2012

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.

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    • hush4444 profile image

      hush4444 5 years ago from Hawaii

      What a interesting hub! Or, should I say "It wasn't bad". You're right, we Americans do tend to overstate things. Melvyn Bragg wrote a great book called "The Adventure of English" which details his experience trying to change his Northern England accent to a proper BBC English one, and it echoes a lot of what you've said. Thank you for sharing your point of view.

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image
      Author

      Mazzy Bolero 5 years ago from the U.K.

      Thanks for your comments. I think Melyn Bragg should have kept his northern accent and been true to his roots. However, I know from experience that's sometimes not entirely practical.

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image
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      Mazzy Bolero 5 years ago from the U.K.

      That's a good point about "got". I was surprised they called a TV show "America's Got Talent" rather than "America Has Talent". Americans use "gotten" though and Brits don't. It's funny how people always think other people have accents but not themselves. Everyone has an accent.

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      I thought this hub was...alright hahaha! Only messing, its bloody good, especially the theory on how American English became different to British English. I'll pay more attention to how I hear Americans speak, and see if the theory stands up. Voted up and shared.

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image
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      Mazzy Bolero 5 years ago from the U.K.

      Thanks for the positive comments - they are appreciated!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

      Hi, It is funny how different it is. I can usually tell by the way something is written on here whether they are American or English. sometimes the US accent actually comes through too. I remember saying to Polly I think it was, that I can actually 'hear' her southern accent. Fascinating look into the way we speak English, nell

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image
      Author

      Mazzy Bolero 5 years ago from the U.K.

      Thanks, Nell. It's funny when US drama writers try to write for British characters and vice-versa. They tend to translate literally. For instance, in a US TV drama they had an English woman saying, "You can bet your bottom shilling..." It's just as bad the other way round. You hear it on British TV, and I want to shout at the TV, "Americans don't use that idiom, you idiot!"

    • mbyL profile image

      Slaven Cvijetic 5 years ago from Switzerland, Zurich

      This was an interesting hub! I didn't know that this can be so difficult for a Brit in America! And I wasn't even aware of those differences in stating an opinion (your meal example). Interesting Voted up and Shared!

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image
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      Mazzy Bolero 5 years ago from the U.K.

      Thanks, mbyL. It causes a lot of misunderstandings, actually.

    • Pamela N Red profile image

      Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma

      Many idioms derive from experience and the American experience is naturally very different than what the British have been exposed to.

      Like you say various immigrants bring with them their life happenings and figure of speeches and they mix together and meld into a new language.

      I enjoy the comparisons and how we speak the same language but in very different forms. Some are very amusing.

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image
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      Mazzy Bolero 4 years ago from the U.K.

      I agree, Pamela. It's interesting to try to figure out what experience some of the more imaginative idioms came from. "Bite the dust" "knock your socks off" "Cat got your tongue?" "Drive someone up the wall". Idioms can cause a lot of misunderstanding as some of them can even mean different things within the same country.

    • profile image

      coelocanth 4 years ago

      Interesting theory about there being two forms of English here in Britain and where they originate. There may be some substance to what you say, but I don't think it's as simple as that. It's far more likely that the British class system is responsible for such variations, viz: "It's not nice to say living room, say lounge instead", or "It's common to say loo, people of our sort say toilet". Both of these faintly snobbish sentences I remember my own mother saying to me.

      Nonetheless, an entertaining and enjoyable hub. Thanx.

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image
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      Mazzy Bolero 4 years ago from the U.K.

      Thanks for commenting, coelocanth. The British class system's influence on language would need a whole hub to itself - or possibly a whole book! Social class itself has changed a lot through history, and in those ancient days upper class people were Normans - and lots of them still are, actually! Language snobbery can be quite funny - the middle classes began saying toilet to distinguish themselves from the working classes who said lavatory - but the upper classes still said lavatory, so it was a bit of an own goal:) Americans usually avoid the word altogether and call it the bathroom. Sometimes they call it the john - supposedly that is after Sir John Harrington, who invented the first flush toilet. What a way to go down in history, to end up as a slang word for a toilet.

    • alphagirl profile image

      alphagirl 4 years ago from USA

      I voted awesome! I get what you are explaining because in the Asian language when translated the meaning is not quite the same! The inflection on the Sam word can have double meaning and can be confusing to the listener! I had a B rot neighbor and she would banter all the time! Sometimes not understanding her the under written tone was mistaken as an insult! But loved she her remarks' I would laugh so hard!

      One example of Asian bantering is when a parent tells their fry end their daughter is not so smart even if she is a straight aA student. The other Asian parent would comment back with , oh no! I wish my daughter were as smart as yours! Line the Brits it is similar but said in Chinese! If I said it in English it would sound like I am insulting my daughter!

      I really liked your explanation!

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image
      Author

      Mazzy Bolero 4 years ago from the U.K.

      I wish I knew an Asian language, alphagirl. Sadly, they always seemed very difficult to me. The way different tones change the meaning is very difficult for an English speaker to learn and I'm sure I would make funny - and sometimes very embarrassing - mistakes :) Intonation can lead to a lot of misunderstanding. For instance, Brits exaggerate their intonation when being polite, whereas Indians flatten it - the result is that both sound bad mannered to the other when they are trying to be polite! Thanks for your comments.

    • alphagirl profile image

      alphagirl 4 years ago from USA

      Very very funny! Like your humor!

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 4 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi :)

      Language is a fascinating topic.

      I read that some 'Americanisms' are actually 'Britishisms' that haven't changed, while, over here in the UK, they have evolved.

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image
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      Mazzy Bolero 4 years ago from the U.K.

      I think you are right, Trish M. We tend to think of all U.S. differences as innovations but they've actually hung on to a few things we've let go of. For instance they still call stockings "hose" in the States whereas that sounds Shakespearean to us. 'Gotten' is still used there, too, whereas Brits use 'got'. Thanks for commenting.

    • John MacNab profile image

      John MacNab 4 years ago from the banks of the St. Lawrence

      Excellent, nomadicasian. A well researched and well written Hub. When I moved over from Scotland to Canada 10 years ago, everyone accepted my irony as gospel, and attempting to explain became so embarrassing, that I ceased and desisted. My dog understands, at least I think that's what her leary look means

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image
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      Mazzy Bolero 4 years ago from the U.K.

      Actually, John, nomadicasian is the person who asked the question:) To be honest, I didn't research it. It's the only hub I've written so far that I've done off the top of my head. It was just something I had experienced and thought about. When I first went to the States, I got myself into one or two embarrassing situations by talking tongue-in-cheek. Since it's my natural inclination, it was difficult to learn not to do it. It was as if I couldn't relax and be myself. It's quite reassuring to know I wasn't the only one. Thanks for commenting.

    • alphagirl profile image

      alphagirl 4 years ago from USA

      Lol I had a neighbor named Trisha in north Carolina! She was Irish with a heavy English accent! It was until I got accustomed to her spoken English, did I understand the nuances! Sometimes she would chat it up and it sounded like she was either mad or insulting! We moved from nc to another state! I do miss her so! She was quite lovely!

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image
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      Mazzy Bolero 4 years ago from the U.K.

      I guess it just takes a while to get used to us, alphagirl:) I assume you meant she had an Irish accent? I think the Irish tend to banter as well. The English and Irish are not as different as Americans sometimes think. (or as the Irish sometimes think!)

    • John MacNab profile image

      John MacNab 4 years ago from the banks of the St. Lawrence

      My humble apologies Mazzy, for naming you nomadicasian instead of Mazzy Bolero. Often I remember a face but can't put a name to it. This is the first time I've known a name and still couldn't put the correct name to it.

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image
      Author

      Mazzy Bolero 4 years ago from the U.K.

      That's OK, John, that's of course not my real name anyway. It was a nickname of a kid I knew years ago. I tried six user names which were all already taken before I keyed that one in, thinking, "Surely no one can have that one!" But then you get stuck with it:) There should be a hub on choosing a username.

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 4 years ago from The English Midlands

      Yes, the English like to banter ~ and even happily insult each other. In some places more than others. Birmingham people are particularly known for it, I think :)

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image
      Author

      Mazzy Bolero 4 years ago from the U.K.

      I think most of us Brits like bantering, Trish_M. I'm a Mancunian and it's second nature there. Definitely Brummies are amongst the best. When you meet people who don't banter - perhaps middle class types from small Sussex towns - the conversation seems strangely flat. You think how boring life must be for those people:)

    • John MacNab profile image

      John MacNab 4 years ago from the banks of the St. Lawrence

      Now that's an excellent idea for a Hub - choosing a pseudonym. I thought I was being a bit of a smart-ass with my user name, until I realized that any hub written from a female point of view would be treated with scorn. I could, of course, start another Hub, but laziness is my middle name.

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image
      Author

      Mazzy Bolero 4 years ago from the U.K.

      Could a man write a hub from a female point of view? How would that work? I can see it in fiction, but it's not usually done in non-fiction. I don't think it would be treated with scorn unless it was way off course.

    • Peter Geekie profile image

      Peter Geekie 4 years ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear Mazzy

      Unfortunately there is no such thing as British English. There may be English English but there is upteen regional versions of that. There is Welsh English, Scottish English and Northern Irish English. Strangely some English spoken regionally in America is closer to Old English than is spoken in Britain today. This seems to be because some areas of America is quite insular and change comes slowly.

      I do have some problems when I visit America and Canada but quite honestly that is part of the charm of travel and the fact we can usually laugh about it.

      Kind regards Peter

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image
      Author

      Mazzy Bolero 4 years ago from the U.K.

      Hi, Peter. I agree there are lots of varieties of English within Britain, but I was looking at general differences between standard English in the two countries and thinking about how those differences might have come about. However, of course there is a plethora of regional dialects in Britain and the US which informally follow rules which are different from the standard. Looking at how regional US dialects relate to older versions of English could make a fascinating hub. If you could write it, I'd love to read it. Thanks for commenting.

    • Peter Geekie profile image

      Peter Geekie 4 years ago from Sittingbourne

      Thank you Mazzy

      I will add it to my list - perhaps you could do something similar for USA as I get caught out sometimes in Chicago and Savannah and many places in between. I won't even start with provinces of Canada.

      Kind regards Peter

    • Lokz profile image

      Lokz 4 years ago

      Great! I am Asian and we patterned our education system from the Americans, we watch their western movies and television programs then. So that years before when we hear English apart from the American accent it is strange to us. Thanks for this hub and might as well share this on my FB coz some of my people are still confused about the differences.

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image
      Author

      Mazzy Bolero 4 years ago from the U.K.

      That's interesting, Lokz. I used to teach English as a Foreign Language in England to mixed nationalities and often found that some students had been taught American English, while others in the same class had been taught British English. It could be quite confusing for them - and for me:). Thanks for your comments.

    • Sethughes profile image

      Sethughes 4 years ago

      Cool article. Fun to read!

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image
      Author

      Mazzy Bolero 4 years ago from the U.K.

      Thanks, Sethughes! Glad you liked it.

    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 4 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Neat hub! An interesting and potentially correct theory for why 'British' English sometimes seems more 'down to earth' and less over-hyped than American!

      I also teach mixed EFL classes - from ages 17-80. The mixture of Queen's English, American English (and now my own Australian English) has caused quite a few misunderstandings and laughs!

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image
      Author

      Mazzy Bolero 4 years ago from the U.K.

      Thanks for commenting nifwlseirff! Nice to hear from a fellow teacher. I had students who had been taught some bizarre grammatical rules, and I still don't know which version of English (if any) they came from. The funniest thing was a class of Spanish kids who had been taught by a man from a town near Manchester and all spoke English with broad Lancashire accents :)

    • Phil Plasma profile image

      Phil Plasma 4 years ago from Montreal, Quebec

      I've met a couple of people from northern England and yes, their accents were a little harder to understand. This is a great hub, the linguistic temperature control really rings true from my experience of dealing with both Americans and Brits. Great hub voted up and interesting.

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image
      Author

      Mazzy Bolero 4 years ago from the U.K.

      Thanks, Phil Plasma. Since living in the U.S., even though it was a long time ago, I have been able to have lots of fun pretending to be an American. It's especially fun when speaking to actual Americans and getting their real opinions of the British:)

    • Dan Barfield profile image

      Dan Barfield 4 years ago from Gloucestershire, England, UK

      Interesting, voted up. One other cause for differences between American and British verions of the language, is that America standardised quite a few spellings of words to fit the grammar system better. Everyone knows that there are a high number of exceptions to spelling rules in English. The reason we felt it important to keep the odd spellings, is because it tells the etymological history of the word. The Greek root, the latin end, the Norman influence, the Norse, the Gaelic, the German.... we are language magpies who like to know our history.

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image
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      Mazzy Bolero 4 years ago from the U.K.

      Thanks, Dan. Having taught English to foreign students, the different spelling systems can be very confusing. From their point of view, it makes English even more complicated than it was already. I try to use American spelling on Hubpages but I realize that sometimes the result is a mid-Atlantic mixture:)

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