British vs. American: The Battle of the Dialects

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Might you be from the UK or United States and ever wonder what the differences between American English and British English are? Well, aside from that whole accent thing and spelling, believe it or not verb usage and vocabulary vary quite a bit. As you know, with language variation, we’re here to break down some of those differences. Here’s a brief overview of some of the things you’ll find a bit different on either side of the pond.

Vocabulary

Whether you’re a Brit watching a niche American film, or an American watching a British film, chances are, there is going to be a bit of confusion at some point when the viewer is confronted with some new and interesting vocabulary. Granted, this is more likely to happen if you’re American, or if you’ve been exposed mainly to American media since most Brits know a good deal of American vocabulary through the inundation of American-based media.

What are some words that might throw you off?

Well, there’s the boot and bonnet of a car in British English or the trunk and the hood if you’re American.
What about where you live? Is it a terraced house (British) or a townhouse (American)?
Do you live in a block of flats (British) or an apartment building (American)?

Food vocabulary differences are perhaps more unknown:
(British on the left, American on the right)

– Beetroot vs beets
– Coriander vs cilantro
– Courgette vs zucchini
– Rocket vs arugula
– Aubergine vs eggplant
– Mangetout vs snow peas

And the list goes on and on!

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Pronunciation

Although we all know there’s a remarkable difference between accents, it’s a little difficult to discuss comparatively-speaking since accents vary within the two dialects, breaking down even father. However, something to be noted is that oftentimes the biggest difference is syllable emphasis.

Take the word garage for example. In American English, you’d be more likely to say, ga-RAGE (with the emphasis on the second syllable) whereas in British English, you’d be more likely to say GAR-age (with the emphasis on the first syllable). With the word “garage” though it’s more than just that: the “a” sounds are altered slightly with the American garage consisting of a much longer second “a” sound.

Generally, if the words are borrowed from French, then American English speakers stress the last syllable while British English speakers will stress the first (e.g adult, décor, salon). In many three syllable words where British speakers will stress the first syllable, American speakers will stress the last syllable (like cigarette). Often too when a word ends in “-ate”, British speakers will stress the “-ate”, while American speakers will stress the first syllable of the word (like castrate, dominate, translate).

Spelling

Often British speakers will add the letter “u” to words that American speakers took out a long time ago such as: colour, flavour, and humour. Words that end in “-re” in British English will usually be spelled “-er” instead, words like: metre, centre, theatre. American English favors “-ize” over “-ise” in words like organize vs organise, whereas British English could go either way. Endings are polarized again with “-ence” (American) and “-ense” (British) in words like defence and pretence.

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Verbs

Strangely enough these differences can be a bit more subtle. British English speakers more commonly use the past perfect tense, though this is not a hard and fast rule. American speakers might say, “I feel sick. I ate too much,” where British speakers might be more inclined to say, “I feel sick. I’ve eaten too much.”

The verbs “have” and “take” also play interesting roles in British and American English. Americans use the verb “take” as a delexical verb, where Brits use “have”. What’s a delexical verb? It’s a verb that’s popped in almost as an auxiliary verb, but it doesn’t really mean anything. Take a look at these two sentences: “I’m going to take a shower,” and “I’m going to have a shower.” Both “have” and “take” here don’t serve much purpose as you could simply say “I’m going to shower,” but it’s a distinct difference between British and American speakers, that you might not initially pick up on.

Who wins?

The pervasive question that begs to be answered at this point is: how did these differences become so prevalent? British English does something really cool where word etymology is preserved and can be traced more easily to their roots, i.e. French spelling (centre, colour, etc.), Latin, Greek, and the list goes on. Also, we can’t forget that the 4,000 miles dividing the countries and their declared independence from each other also encouraged the Americans to separate themselves, constructing their own identities.

And so, who wins? Nobody! That’s the fun. Languages and their respective dialects form out of a linguistic need for communication. Some work to preserve the past and some work to pave a way for the future. Just as with evolution, languages battle and what remains shall be considered the “fittest”.  At the end of the day though, the most important thing is communication. Where there is communication, there is understanding and cooperation, so get started today!