I have had a few students come to me and explicitly state a preference for learning British English over American English. In my experience, the desire to know one over the other depends mostly on where a student is, or wishes to be, living and/or a requirement from their job to deal with companies in one country more often than the other. In some cases it comes down to geography, but even then, most of the time it is due to which country they are required to deal with the most at work.
Being a native British English speaker, all of my resources (in terms of language and spelling), lessons, blog posts and so on, are in British English.
This blog post will briefly outline the differences between British and American English. It will also give those wishing to concentrate their learning on British English, some TV shows and films which may assist in their listening and comprehension.
So, what is the difference? Surely they’re both English, right?
The main difference between the two forms of English is vocabulary. Many words, although existing in both, have completely different meanings in each. For example;
American English: One’s trousers
British English: One’s underwear
A mistake here, could already be sending a conversation off track.. No one wants to walk into a business meeting in London, and accidentally compliment their new boss on their choice of underwear… Not to mention the fact that British English also uses ‘pants’ to express a dissatisfaction in an item or experience – “that movie was pants, what a waste of time and money”.
It becomes very easy to see how learning one when you require the other, can lead to some interesting (and potentially embarrassing) conversations!
Here is a short list of other examples:
American English: A device for holding up one’s trousers
British English: A device for holding up lady’s stockings
American English: A type of firework
British English: An informal term for a sausage
American English: A level, smooth, single leveled structure
British English: A self contained housing unit, often in blocks of multiple dwellings
American English: A room for relaxation in a public place
British English: A room for relaxation and entertainment, within one’s own home
American English: A person leaping from a building as an act of suicide
British English: A warm item of clothing, worn during winter
American English: A wafer thin slice of potato, baked or fried, eaten as a snack
British English: A long, rectangular piece of deep-fried potato, eaten as part of a meal
On a further note r.e. chips – I unexpectedly found the perfect example of this while watching a British TV show. During the show, a wedding for a British couple was arranged in America. The groom requested the classic British dish ‘fish and chips’ to be served at their wedding reception. However, being American, the restaurant proceed to serve fried fish with salt & vinegar flavoured crisps on the side!
Okay, so some words mean different things – that’s it, right?
Well, no. Unfortunately not. On top of the fact that some things have entirely different words attributed to them across the two forms of English, some words are the same! They are even spelled the same! But they are pronounced in an entirely different way… For example:
ADVERTISEMENT: A notice in a public medium, to promote a product or service
British English pronunciation: Ad-vert-is-ment
American English pronunciation: Ad-ver-tise-ment
HERB: A plant with leaves, herbs or seeds which are used to flavour food
British English pronunciation: H-er-b
American English pronunciation: err-b
BROCHURE: A small book or magazine containing promotional images and information
British English pronunciation: Bro-sher
American English pronunciation: Bro-shure
But wait, sometimes the word is the same in terms of meaning and pronunciation!
…However, the spelling is different! For example:
British English: COLOUR
American English: COLOR
British English: FLAVOUR
American English: FLAVOR
British English: HUMOUR
American English: HUMOR
British English: TRAVELLED
American English: TRAVELED
British English: ORGANISE
American English: ORGANIZE
British English: ANALYSE
American English: ANALYZE
British English: CATALOGUE
American English: CATALOG
British English: CENTRE
American English: CENTER
And many more!… Theses differences are mainly due to the 20th Century American dictionary pioneer, Noah Webster, who wanted to ensure an American independence from England. Webster created the first American dictionary, simplifying many spellings and altering the spellings of other words. Some of his changes, such as dropping the ‘b’ from thumb and spelling women as ‘wimmen’, didn’t stick, but many did. Whereas, British English kept the spellings which it had absorbed from other languages, such as French and German.
Okay, so there’s some different meanings, some different pronunciations, some different spellings, that MUST be all?
Nope! In some cases, the words for a certain thing in the two forms of English are just completely different! For example, it took me a long time to discover that when a chef on an American cookery show referred to ‘cilantro’, they were referring to what in England we call ‘coriander’…
A few further examples are:
British English: Aubergine
American English: Eggplant
British English: Cot
American English: Crib
British English: Courgette
American English: Zucchini
British English: A (baby’s) dummy
American English: A pacifier
British English: Football
American English: Soccer
You get the idea! And even some of the American English words in these situations, such as pacifier, are also used in British English – they just have a different meaning. In British English, a pacifier is a person or thing which pacifies a certain thing or person – so we’d say, ”pass them their dummy, that will pacify them for now”.
So you have…
- Words, which are in both British and American English, but mean an entirely different object in each.
- Words which are in both forms of English, are spelled the same, mean the same objects, but are pronounced in entirely different ways.
- Objects which exist in both cultures, but have completely different names.
Hopefully, this has elaborated some of the differences between the two forms of the English language!
Still want to concentrate on British English?
If you’re still interested in improving your British English, then I recommend the following TV shows and films – they have mainly British casts and the actors have neutral accents. (Please check that the age rating is suitable for those watching, before settling down to watch any of my recommendations!)
- Jeeves and Wooster (comedy)
- Black Adder (comedy)
- The Paradise (drama)
- Goodnight Sweetheart (comedy-drama)
- Open All Hours (comedy)
- Time Team (history/documentary)
- Midsummer Murders (detective drama)
- Victorian Farm (history/documentary)
- Edwardian Farm (history/documentary)
- Tudor Farm (history/documentary)
- Lucy Worsley shows, any (history/documentary)
- Brian Cox shows, any (astronomy/documentary)
- The Kings Speech (historical drama)
- Love Actually (Christmas-themed romantic comedy)
- Brief Encounter (romantic drama)
- Hot Fuzz (parody/mystery)
- Shaun of the Dead (comedy horror)
- The Hogfather (fantasy thriller)
- Great Expectations (romantic drama)
- The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (comedy drama)
- Carry On, any (comedy)
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