— [http://goo.gl/EBrtcC] From a present-day standpoint, there is no doubt that AmE and BrE belong to the same language. They are varieties, it is true, but the differences should not be allowed to obscure their close similarity on many levels.

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Languages are neither monolithic nor unchanging, and the English language is not the exception to the rule. Languages perpetually grow, evolve and change, and those that do not, become obsolete (Lippi-Green, 2012, pp. 7-8; Backus, 1999, pp. 11-22). There is a large spectrum of variation between American (hereafter AmE) and British English (hereafter BrE) regarding vocabulary, spelling, grammar and pronunciation, but this paper seeks to present only an overview of the various prevalent differences of the two regional varieties. It also answers the question on whether it is more appropriate for Europeans to learn BrE or AmE, and whether it is important for learners of English to choose between the two varieties and be consistent.

Both Standard British and American English are an idealized version of the English language that occurs rarely in conversation. In a sociolinguist perspective “the idea of a spoken standardized language [is] a hypothetical construct” (Lippi-Green, 2012, pp. 57). They are the form of BrE and AmE that are used in textbooks and on broadcasting. Giles and Coupland observe that “[a] standard variety is the one that is most often associated with high socioeconomic status, power and media usage in a particular community” (1991, p. 38). Both native speakers and learners of English, where English is taught as a second or foreign language (hereafter ESL/EFL), speak dialect of English in everyday conversation (Kachru, 2006, pp. 10-11; Owens 2012, p. 31).

Thus, AmE can be understood as the form of English that is used in the United States, which comprises of the English dialects that are applied within the United States, and the English spoken abroad either as a native language or spoken by individuals using the language as ESL or EFL, influenced by a great input of AmE in today’s media. According to Svartvik and Leech (2006, p. 150), as well as David Crystal (2003, p. 60), more than two-thirds (83 per cent) of the world's native speakers of English live in the United States; “with four times as many native speakers as BrE” (Svartvik and Leech, 2006, p. 152).

On the other hand, BrE can be defined as the form of English that is used in the United Kingdom, including the English dialects that are utilized within and outside the UK; “outside,” understood as the English spoken among the former British colonies, also known as the Commonwealth English, and by individuals using it as ESL or EFL. As a matter of fact, the various differences between BrE and AmE entails those variations in terms of vocabulary (lexis), spelling, grammar and pronunciation.

— Vocabulary

It has been claimed that one of the greatest differences between BrE and AmE is the inexplicable amount of words that separate the two ‘Englishes.’ This claim, however, seems to be exaggerated. The differences “between AmE and BrE vocabulary are rarely so great as to cause serious misunderstanding” (Svartvik and Leech, 2006, p. 153). Svartvik and Leech point out that “some 4,000 words are used differently in one country from the other,” but those four thousand differences “need to be placed against the enormous size of English vocabulary [...] over 600,000 different words in the latest version of the Oxford English Dictionary, many of them, admittedly, obsolete [...]” (2006, p. 153).

A few of the different lexis well known on both sides of the Atlantic are: lift/elevator, dustbin/garbage can, biscuit/cookie, flat/apartment, sidewalk/pavement, yard/garden, rubber/eraser, trousers/pants, block of flats/apartment building.

Henry Louis Mencken, an American journalist and iconoclast, published a list of American-British differences in 1919; some of those words were bank account, hardware, living-room, to name a few (Mencken, 1919, pp. 99, 103, 106). These words are, however, totally normal in the UK today. An almost exhaustive list of words from the Harry Potter books, translated from BrE into AmE shows that the AmE words are not foreign words for Britons (Nel, 2002, pp. 262-284).

To put it short, the two versions of the English language do not differ from each other on this aspect nearly as much as do the dialectal spheres of the two varieties. The vocabulary of the two English varieties are different in some aspects, but the set of commonly used words that support communication and language learning is remarkably the same (Peyawary, 1997, pp. 115-144; Svartvik and Leech, 2006, p. 152).

— Spelling

One minor visible contrast between the two varieties is in writing words. Spelling differences between BrE and AmE are mostly standardized, but sometimes happen in individual words and phrases. Systematic differences usually entail an American simplification of spelling or an adaption to more ‘English’ spelling conventions for foreign words. “[S]pelling, [...] has changed very little since the early nineteenth century” (Svartvik and Leech, 2006, p. 67).

One language change that took place in the Early Modern English period which affected spoken language as it is spoken today, and which is reflected in spelling, was the "The Great Vowel Shift." Beginning in the twelfth century and continuing until the eighteenth century (but with its main effects in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries) the sounds of the long stressed vowels in English changed their places of articulation. The result is the numerous set of "silent letters" that learners find so maddening (Svartvik & Leech, 2006, p. 61).

Noah Webster, the most distinguished linguists of the 19th century America, wanted to simplify these and other changes. He “devoted his life to giving [AmE] an identity of its own” (Svartvik and Leech, 2006, p. 154). "Just like accent, spelling can generally show certain aspects of the way we are" (Kongsuwannakul, 2011, p. 185). Webster believed that spelling reforms would contribute to the development of a national language. In 1783 he published a book that reflected his hopes: “The American Spelling Book.” However, he soon realized that English would not become isolated from the one used in Europe.

The reforms Webster promoted, in the first dictionary published in 1828, “An American Dictionary of the English Language,” reflected the practical/pragmatical and anti-elitist spirit of the American public and “led to one of the most conspicuous areas of divergence between [AmE and BrE] – differences of spelling” (Svartvik and Leech, 2006, p. 154).

Webster proposed numerous spelling changes in his work and these were widely adopted in the United States. Some of his spelling proposals were dropping the vowel “u” in words of more than one syllable ending in -our. Thus, words ending in -our in BrE, AmE omits the u: colour/color. Words like liter, -er in AmE is often equivalent to -re in BrE: centre/center. Some words spelled -ense in AmE have -ence in BrE: defense/defence. Other words, such as spelling women and business as “wimin” and “bizness,” were not embraced (Webster, 1829, p. 112).

Most of the changes Webster proposed were undeniable improvements, “but the reforms when adopted were more timid than Webster had intended: today, the vast majority of English words are still spelled the same in [AmE and BrE]” (Svartvik and Leech,, 2006, p. 154).

— Grammar

In terms of grammar between the two varieties, BrE and AmE are much similar; there only exist minor differences. These variations are usually evident in the choice of verb forms between the two varieties (Svartvik and Leech, 2006, p. 168). AmE has a propensity to replace compound tenses with simple tenses where possible, such as, in (BrE) present perfect replaced by (AmE) past simple, exemplified by these sentences: “Have you published the tweet yet?” in BrE and “Did you publish the tweet?” in AmE. Furthermore, AmE uses the subjunctive mode in a slightly similar way as it occurs in Romances languages, such as French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian, which has not been in use in BrE.

The subjunctive in AmE: “I insist that he come to my party”, whereas in BrE would sound: “I insist that he should come to my party.” The AmE uses an older model of English which has been renewed and currently being adopted by BrE (Svartvik and Leech, 2006, pp. 167-168). If one were to embark on a comparative study of English vs Spanish, one would discover that European Spanish prefers the compound tense the same way BrE does, while transatlantic Spanish uses the simple past tense. This gives us a historical perspective of how these languages developed in the New World — the Americas –North, Central, and South America, and the Caribbean.

The prevalent differences in grammar are tendencies rather than absolutes. In other words, one will not normally find a sentence which is totally grammatical in one of the varieties and completely ungrammatical in the other.

— Pronunciation

Pronunciation is perhaps the linguistic feature most noticeable. Pronunciation is often related to issues of identity or group membership. This aspect should one consider when deciding to learn whether AmE or BrE. Pronunciation differences between BrE (hereafter RP [Received Pronunciation]) and AmE (hereafter GenAm [General American pronunciation]) is one of the mainly noticeable variations of all the four areas discussed here. As mentioned above, the two varieties have their own idealized standard forms in addition to many regional accents, which are intimately bound to people’s identity and personality. There are differences in diphthongs, in stress and in the pronunciation of certain words.

In GenAm the diphthong /oʊ/ or the single vowel /o:/ corresponds to the RP diphthong /əυ/ as it is illustrated with the word rose, RP: /rəʊz/ — GenAm: /roʊz/ (Svartvik and Leech, 2006, p. 163; Wells, 2000, p. 659).

A key difference between British and American speech is the flapping rule. This rule is widely applicable. In GenAm when t occurs between vowels, it is pronounced more lightly than in RP and tends to sound like a quick /d/. The flapping rule is a full-fledged, legitimate rule of AmE. In phonetics, this sound is called a "flap," or a ‘voiced tap,’ as in the words computer, water, better, put it on: /kɒm' pju: t̬ᵊr/ /'wɔ: t̬ᵊr/ /'bet̬ ᵊr/ /'pʊt̬ ɪt ɑːn/ (Svartvik and Leech, 2006, p. 164; Wells, 2000, pp. 162, 840, 78, 618, 533).

Another evident difference is in vowels; two examples will illustrate this aspect. In the example "pot," RP: /pɒt/ — GenAm: /pɑːt/, in the word "pot" there is an open back vowel, "o". The open back vowel in RP is a strong short vowel, short pronunciation /ɒ/, while the open back vowel in GA is a strong long vowel /ɑː/. The RP strong short vowel /ɒ/ does not exist in GA, which consistently uses the strong long vowel /ɑː/ in all instances where this sound occurs (Ladefoged, 2011. pp. 89-91; Wells, 2000, pp. 596).

Another aspect between BrE and AmE pronunciation is the yod-dropping, although there is evidence that GenAm is replacing RP in this area as well (Glain, 2012, pp. 21-22). This difference is illustrated with the word: “new.” RP: /njuː/ — GenAm: /nuː/. The pronunciation differences between RP and GenAm is that in RP "new" is pronounced in a stressed syllable. In GenAm there is the elision of "e" /j/ before [uː]. The dropping of /j/ is considered standard in AmE after "n" [n] /n/ because the AmE rule is that one drops the [j] after alveolar consonants [t], [d], [n], [l] (Wells, 2000, p. 510).

One more significant difference regarding pronunciation between the two varieties, except Scottish English, is namely, the rhotic r. The following word will be used as example: “park.” RP: /pɑːk/ — GenAm: /pɑːrk/. English pronunciation in RP or GenAm are either non-rhotic or rhotic. A rhotic accent or pronunciation (GenAm) is one where [r] can be heard in all the places where there is the following sequences: rV, VrV, and Vr, where "V" is any vowels, and a non-rhotic accent (RP) can only have rV and VrV.

So in a non-rhotic accent, RP, this phoneme [r] only occurs if the next sound is a vowel. It is limited to prevocalic positions - this means that there is no [r] at the end of a word, as in "car", or before a consonant, as in "park" as shown above. While in a rhotic accent, GenAm, the [r] is heard in "park" because [r] does not need a following vowel, /r/ /pɑːrk/ as shown above (Roach, 2009, p. 70; Wells, 2000, p. 557; Svartvik and Leech, 2006, pp. 163-164).

— Choosing Between the Two Varieties and be consistent

English is spoken every day also as a second language in education, science, diplomacy, business, entertainment and on the Internet. Modern English is sometimes described as the world lingua franca, meaning a common language. It is considered by many to become the world’s first universal language (Crystal, 2003, Preface, p. X). When learning ESL/EFL, it is important for individuals to understand the prevalent differences between BrE and AmE.

If the learners are Norwegian children and adolescents, it is still true as this is required by the Norwegian English subject curriculum. English is a compulsory subject in Norwegian schools in both primary and lower and upper-secondary-school classes. As part of the school subject, students (pupils, in BrE) are introduced to culture, history and literature areas of the English-speaking world, with focus on Great Britain and the United States, and other English-speaking countries (KUF1994, 1996, p. 4).

One of the greatest aspects of the Norwegian English subject curriculum is that it does not impose English varieties, but rather encourages diversity. Students get familiar with different dialects, starting during the second year of primary school.

Written in British English, the English subject curriculum requires children be acquainted with "the day-to-day life of children in English-speaking countries" and "participate in and experience children’s culture from English-speaking countries." As they advance learning, they should "give some examples of English-speaking countries," [...] "narrate about people, places and events in English-speaking countries," [...] "discuss and elaborate on different types of English literature, [...] on culture and social conditions, [...] on the way people live and how they socialise in Great Britain, USA and other English-speaking countries" (LK06, 2013, pp. 6-11).

One key tool students will use when learning English is "listen to and understand variations of English from different authentic situations." “Variations of English” and “authentic situations” are the keywords here. As exemplified above, there is no formal English pronunciation requirement as a school subject, but the teaching of English is still to a large extent based on BrE. Although, other varieties, especially AmE has become more popular during the last years.

Among Scandinavian learners, RP is considered the most prestigious model of pronunciation, while GenAm is associated with informality, but this trend is changing. (Ladegaard, 2006, pp. 93-94; Coupland and Bishop, 2007, pp. 82-83). Even though speakers of AmE have been considered moderately prestigious and not very socially attractive, it has been argued that GenAm is replacing the dominance previously held by RP, and attribute this attitude shift to American global hegemony (Bayard et al, 2001, pp. 41-44).

Teachers’ predominant attitudes towards different English varieties are undeniable reflected in their teaching but learners should be allowed to use whatever English variety they see fit, be it BrE, AmE, Australian, Jamaican, South African English (SAE), or a mixture, also known in modern times as Internet English, or put it more elegant: "The English Language in the Digital Age" (Ananiadou et al., 2011, pp. 13-14) and if they want to use it consistently, they should not forget that dialects evolve; “consistence” is not equated with “a fixed language.”

Because of its adaptability, English has evolved into an incredibly versatile and reinvigorating language. Learners, through their interactions with different speakers in society, or when coming into contact with people from different geographical places, encounter new words, expressions and pronunciations, which they integrate into their own speech.

— Is it more appropriate for Europeans to learn British or American English?

Both BrE and AmE bear their own advantages in regard to how, as well as where one intends to use the language. Being from Europe, it seems obvious that BrE should be more appropriate for Europeans to learn, but as we have seen, even Britain has been adapting Americanisms since the beginning of the twentieth century.

Today, the American culture or Americanization, everywhere, is undeniable. Clearly, “[w]orld English is influenced by AmE not only through educational channels, but through other channels of communication, such as TV networks, movies, the internet and popular culture disseminated through the new digital media” (Svartvik and Leech, 2006, p. 152).

On deciding whether to learn BrE or AmE, Europeans should bear in mind that pronunciation or accents are intimately bound to one's identity and personality. Therefore, it should be their choice how they wish to present themselves to others when speaking English. Furthermore, Europeans' preference for a particular English-speaking culture would be associated with the preference for the English variety of that culture.

Non-native English speakers' attachment to their native language reflects the paramount role it plays regarding their identity and it might explain why some speakers are reluctant to adopt native speaker English accents (Jenkins, 2005, pp. 537-539, 541; Levis, 2005, pp. 373-375).

— Conclusion

There are some fundamental differences among the two types of varieties, BrE and AmE, however, ‘[t]wo nations divided by a common language’ is ultimately a myth. For the last century, AmE has greatly influenced BrE. “[S]ince 1923 the pull of American has become so powerful that it has begun to drag English with it, and in consequence some of the differences once visible have tended to disappear” (Mencken, 1936, p. vi).

When examining the main standardized varieties of AmE and BrE, we conclude that both varieties are very similar in grammar; the way in which words of both varieties are spelt, show close resemblance; in vocabulary, there exist differences in some areas, but these distinctions in words do not lead to significant misunderstandings; in pronunciation they are clearly different, especially when we assess all dialectal varieties on both sides of the Atlantic.

On the whole, BrE and AmE are mutually intelligible (Svartvik & Leech, 2006, p. 157). Certainly, English has been codified in books such as dictionaries “accepted as authoritative [...] and the teaching of English reading and writing in schools,” explaining how it should be used in practice and how it works (Svartvik and Leech, 2006, p. 67) but any attempt to fix the language has been futile.

Differences between British and American English - Official Website - BenjaminMadeira


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• [1] Trudgill, Peter (1999 [2011]). Standard English: what it isn’t. In Tony Bex & Richard J. Watts eds. Standard English: the widening debate. London: Routledge, 1999, 117-128.

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