‘We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language’
- The Canterville Ghost, Oscar Wilde (1887)
‘England and America are two countries separated by the same language’
- George Bernard Shaw (1942), [attributed]
It may have come to your attention that there are some small differences between British English (BrE) and American English (AmE) so I thought I’d describe some of them. So, shall we begin?
In many ways, American English retains many features which British English has lost. For example, Americans use the rhotic “r”, that is to say they pronounce it rather than drop it like most British speakers. You can hear this difference with the word car here.
There are, of course, many more but generally they cause no problems.
Differences in vocabulary can be divided into two distinct groups.
The first would be that we use the same words yet spell them differently e.g. “colour” (BrE) and “color” (AmE), “centre” (BrE) and “center” (AmE) and also “litre” (BrE) and “liter” (AmE). These differences were first written in An American Dictionary of the English Language, or Webster’s Dictionary which was written by Noah Webster in 1828 and were not invented by him but rather “he chose already existing options […] on such grounds as simplicity, analogy or etymology”(1). It is also true that there was a degree of francophilia during 19th century Victorian era Britain leading to spelling in the French style (2).
The second group would be to use a different word to mean the same thing. For example “sweets” (BrE) and “candy” (AmE), “tap” (BrE) and “faucet” (AmE) and also “autumn” (BrE) and “fall” (AmE). Many of these words were originally used in Britain but later disappeared from common usage. “Fall” was used in 16th century English as part of the phrase “fall of the leaf” or “fall of the year” but fell out of popularity.
Whether you prefer to “take the train to the city centre” (BrE) or “ride the subway downtown” (AmE) it doesn’t really change anything. Both nations understand both versions of English and for an ESL learner it’s merely a question of style. I suppose* the only rule I would suggest is to use one style and keep to it. After all:
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
- Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
PS: As a post-script I’d like to talk about Aluminium /ˌæl·juˈmɪn·i·əm/ (BrE) or Aluminum /əˈlu·mə·nəm/(AmE). A bizarre choice, you may think, to talk about the element with the atomic number 13; unlucky even! Joking aside, this is a very controversial subject. In 1808, the British scientist Humphry Davy identified the existence of a metal which he named alumium and later aluminum (from the Old French/Latin alumen meaning “bitter salt”). Later still, editors of scientific publications changed this name to aluminium to keep consistency with other known elements ending –ium e.g. magnesium, titanium etc. It was only in 1990 that the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) adopted aluminium as the standard spelling but in 1993 accepted aluminum as a variant spelling. Their periodic table only lists aluminium yet their publications utilise both equally. So who is correct? It seems we Al are.
- Algeo, John. “The Effects of the Revolution on Language”, in A Companion to the American Revolution. John Wiley & Sons, 2008. p.599
- Peters, Pam (2004). The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 34 and 511.
- *Americans would probably use “I guess” in place of “I suppose” which is something Henry Watson Fowler wrote about in his book The King’s English, 2nd ed (1908) which can be found here. He also is the source of this wonderful quote:
“Those who are addicted to the phrase ‘to use a vulgarism’ expect to achieve the feat of being at once vulgar and superior to vulgarity.”