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The differences between British and American English began as the U.S. asserted newfound independence, Dave Gerow writes.
Text by:Dave Gerow

here was an British university student studying in the USA. During an exam, he found that he had made a mistake, but had no eraser. He leaned over to his neighbour, an American woman, and whispered, “Do you have a rubber?” The girl burst into laughter, breaking the silence of the examination hall. “I’m sorry,” the girl explained to the teacher, “but this Brit just asked me for a condom.”

The list of differences between American and British English could fill a book. The words “mad” and “pissed” both mean “angry” in America, but are quite different in Britain; “mad” means “crazy”, and “pissed” means “drunk”. Americans wear “boots” in the snow, while the British put their groceries in the “boots” of their cars. The British live in “flats” (from the Old English flet, meaning “a dwelling”); Americans live in “apartments” (from the Italian appartamento, which literally means “a separated place”).

The differences between American and British English are a very real sore spot for many people on either side of the Atlantic. There’s an old joke about an American tourist in London who asks where the elevator is. The uppity Brit replies, “We don’t have elevators. We have lifts.” Outraged, the American responds, “I think I know what to call it. Remember, we Americans invented the elevator!” “That’s true,” the Brit replies, “but we invented the language.”

The old debate about whose English is more “correct” has been raging for centuries. It’s true, of course, that the English language originated in Britain, but it’s always been an evolving mix of various European languages, so it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what pure English might be. The most correct answer is that there simply isn’t one correct version of English. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada (particularly Newfoundland) all have idiomatic dialects of their own that have developed over time. But the U.S. is unique, because Americans undertook a conscious overhaul of the language. The quest to reinvent English, and many of the differences that still survive today, can be traced black to one massively influential American linguist: Noah Webster.

Webster has been immortalized as the namesake of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which is to American speakers what the Oxford English Dictionary is to the British: the definitive authority on all matters English. Webster was a young man when he published his first dictionary, and 70 by the time he had finally expanded it into something resembling the authoritative tome it now is. But it was an earlier work by Webster that really defined American English: The Blue Black Speller.

Published in 1783, when Webster was just 25, the speller was an assertion of America’s newly won independence. It was an attempt by Webster to unite the mishmash of immigrants who formed America under one standard language: “A national language is a national tie,” he said. It was a rejection of old British ways which, in the eyes of Webster, just didn’t make sense. Why should “colour” be spelt with an unvoiced “u”? Why shouldn’t “connexion” be spelt “connection”? (That was one of Webster’s innovations to have actually caught on in the U.K., where “connexion” is used less and less nowadays.) Why should “catalogue” be spelt with two extra vowels at the end? And for that matter, why should it be the irregular “spelt” instead of the far simpler “spelled”, which is preferred in America? After all, doesn’t every American with an interest in agriculture know that “spelt” is a type of wheat?

It was The Blue Black Speller that created these lasting discrepancies between British and American spelling. However much the more traditional members of British society may grumble, some of Webster’s changes were undeniably logical. It’s thanks to his reforms that Americans spell “organisation” with a “z”, and “theatre” with an “er”. Webster worked to distance English from its Old World origins and make it a language where the simplest spelling is the right one.

But despite his tremendous enduring influence, not all of Webster’s reforms stuck. There aren’t many literate Americans who write “headake” for “headache” or “tung” for “tongue”, and the Americanism “tonite” is increasingly rare. It would, however, have helped foreign students of English with certain problems of pronunciation; for example, Webster wanted “women” to be spelt “wimmen”, which is certainly a more sensible phonetic spelling.

As English continues spreading around our world, it’s going to run into a whole slew of new differences. Spanglish and Chinglish may be treated as jokes at the moment, but they may someday be considered legitimate English dialects, and why shouldn’t they be? It’s just as wrong for an American to say, “American English is the only correct version, period,” as it would be for a Brit to say, “British English is the final word, full stop.”




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Finding the “Proper” Accent .

There are many differences between American and British English. These differences began as the U.S asserted its independence from England, and there are enough to fill a book! For example, The words “mad” and “pissed” in American English mean “angry”. However, in British English “mad” means “crazy” and “pissed” means drunk! Americans live in “apartments” and the British live in “flats”.

Many debate about which English is more correct. The English language originated in Britain, but it has always been evolving and mixing with various European languages so it’s difficult to know what pure English might be. The best answer is that there isn’t one correct version of English! Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada all have their own distinct vocabularies, accents and different ways of speaking. However, the U.S is different because Americans changed the language on purpose to be different than the British. They reinvented English, mostly thanks to a very influential American linguist: Noah Webster.

You might recognize this name from the famous Merriam Webster Dictionary. Noah Webster’s first book, The Blue Black Speller, defined American English. The goal with this book was to unite all of the immigrants that formed America under one standard language. The idea is that language could be a way to make America its own country- separate from England. Words like the British “colour” changed to be spelled “color” and “connexion” to be spelled “connection”. This book created many of the changes in the American English that we can hear today. While some traditional British might consider these differences to be a negative or informal thing, some of these changes are undeniably logical. American English is much easier to spell because it is spelled closer to the way it sounds!

English is constantly changing as it is used more and more around the world. In 100 years it will probably be completely different. There are no “correct” versions of English, just different ones.

 

Comprehension

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Finding the “proper” English accent

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Grammar in Use

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Vocabulary

Finding the “Proper” Accent

Brit vs American words

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