Frequently Asked Questions about British English

How does English sound so different in America and England?

That’s an interesting question because by any reasonable measure it shouldn’t sound too different.    At a guess, 99% of the words are in common and the grammar differs only in some small ways.   Pronunciations differ in lots of ways, but most of the differences are within the range you can find by exploring the USA or the UK.  So they ought not to sound very different.

The fact that they do says a lot about us humans.    We’re very sensitive to small consistent differences in language (some people blog about them).    We use them as markers of who is from our community and who’s from another community.

It’s easy to speculate that this human desire to find differences in language ties into kinship groups.  For most of our history as a language-using species (i.e. the last couple of hundred thousand years) we have lived in small groups (tribes) where the people in a group are all related to each other.  Everyone in the group shared the same dialect.  Because there wasn’t a lot of travel and communication from one village to another, people outside the group would typically have a different dialect or even a different language.  We can see this even today in some areas of New Guinea, where rugged and difficult terrain has kept people from travelling much, and as a result, one can find villages speaking  mutually unintelligible languages that are just a few miles apart.   So, for most of human history, people who speak the same dialect would share the same culture and even share the same kin: in a stable village of 200 people, you would be a fairly near cousin of everyone.  People speaking a different dialect would be from elsewhere, and you could not depend on them sharing the same culture and beliefs, nor could you expect any kind of kinship.

What are the important differences between the American and British English?

People have built lists.   There are hundreds of vocabulary differences.  That may sound like a lot, but it is only a small fraction of the size of a normal person’s vocabulary.   Most people use about 30,000 words regularly, so 300 words of difference is only 1% of the vocabulary.   Admittedly, many of the differences are in common words, like “lorry” for “truck”, or “crisp” for “potato chip” so the differences can be more obvious than that 1% figure might indicate.  The ones that cause the most embarrassment and amusement are the words that have different meanings.      There’s a British expression for being very thorough: “that’s a real belt-and-braces approach”, and which has an American equivalent of “belts-and-suspenders”.   But, “suspenders” (British) are “garters” (American), a slightly obsolete item of ladies’ underwear, so the Brits can perhaps be excused for laughing when an unsuspecting American uses this phrase.  I suppose it creates some odd mental images…

In the other direction, “Belts and Braces” has the same problem, but isn’t as much of a double entendre.  “Braces” make me think of large solid wooden or metal beams that hold up the roof of a mine, or perhaps diagonal beams in a skyscraper to keep it from twisting in the wind.  I have architectural and engineering thoughts when I hear the word, while the Brits all around me are thinking of clothing.

Another example is “pavement”.   In British English, a pavement is a walkway along the side of a road.  In my English, “pavement” is the black stuff that the road is made of.  And, sometimes, when the pavement (British) is made of asphalt, I find myself bemused to find that the pavement (British) I am walking on is made of pavement (American).  Yet another difficult word is “quite”: in American, “quite X” makes X stronger, while in British “quite X” makes X weaker.

Overall, it’s hard to group all those differences together and say that there is an underlying commonality between all these differences, and that this is the important kind of difference.   They are all isolated examples, except perhaps the fact that Noah Webster removed “u” from a lot of words.  Most of the other British/American differences are just random language change.

How did these differences come about?

We each teach the language to our children, but the children don’t copy us exactly.   They invent their own language and they live in a different environment from what we lived in.  Because there’s nothing that forces American and British children to make the same inventions, some differences will appear.

It’s like evolution in biology.   Small linguistic mutations accumulate: useful ones are kept, many are rejected.  Gradually, a language changes.

As an example, my daughter and her class at school (in Year 4 (British) / Third Grade (American)) suddenly started using the word “Ginourmous” for anything that was really, really big.  I don’t think they invented it, but they certainly adopted it as a real and common word.  It’s a good word and they are still using it, so it may make it into their adult vocabularies.  It certainly wasn’t in my vocabulary, even though I suppose it could have been.  This word seems to exist in both Britain and the US, perhaps because the Transformers movie came across the Atlantic.  But we shall see.   Ginourmous may die out or fizzle on one side of the Atlantic: that’s up to the kids.  If it does, it will be one more difference between American and British English.

“Ginourmous” has a stressed first vowel, a stressed and lengthened middle vowel, and an unstressed third vowel.  It is a word that is only said, so far as I can hear, with emphatic prosody.  The Merriam Webster dictionary marks its first recorded use as 1948, and it just made it into the dictionary in 2007, about the same time they started using it.

What makes the British form of English “more proper?”  Is this a concept that’s entirely psychological, or is some linguistic standing to this idea?

Nothing, from the viewpoint of language.      The only linguistically reasonable definition of “more proper” would be something like “simpler”, “more compact”, or “easier to say”.  In other words, the only reason to say that one language is better than another is if it helps you communicate better.  Those things are hard to measure, and to the extent we can measure them, all languages seem to be about equally proper.

So, you could say – perhaps correctly – that Mandarin (Chinese) is better language for counting than English because all the Mandarin digits have only one syllable, while English has the two-syllable digit “seven”.   Near the other end of the scale, Tzotzil has seven multisyllabic digits.  But numbers are only a small fraction of what we say, and counting syllables is a slightly crude measurement of complexity.  Overall, Hawaiian has more syllables per word than most languages (e.g. see “eleven” in Hawaiian) , but it has simpler and fewer different syllables.  With fewer syllables, they ought to be a bit easier to distinguish, so one could say them a bit faster under noisy conditions and still be understood.   Simpler syllables may make it possible to speak a bit faster.  So, a lot of these language-to-languages differences cancel out and there do not seem to be clear winners.

Quite possibly, all languages may be limited by the basic physiology of the human articulators and the auditory system.  It could be that all languages have evolved to make the optimum use of the physiology that we have.   Maybe.   That’s a subject for future research.

Many people are tempted to ask “does American or British follow the rules better?”  But, that just leads to the question “which set of rules?”  The choice of rules is a social thing.   British English probably has many adherents because 100 years ago, the sun never set on the British Empire.   Or, perhaps because 50 years ago, the BBC did such a good job of broadcasting.

Which form of English is more taught throughout the world?

Roughly speaking, American and British English are taught equally often.  So British English does pretty well for a language from a small island.

Why?    I suppose it’s a balance of power, prestige, and what the people around you speak (or are learning).

Overall, what form of English is more pleasant to the ears?

To many Americans, oddly enough, the answer is British English.   But, really, it’s a matter of taste and associations.   If you live in America, Britain is a distant, exotic place  and the accent has a tinge of mystery and is that much more interesting.    On the other hand, if you live in England and you have to deal with the traffic on the M25, British English doesn’t seem nearly as exotic.

Are the differences between British English and American English heavily studied? Why or why not?

Yes they are.   For several reasons: For one, it’s a good example of language evolution in action.   For another, it’s a very accessible example of two dialects — there are obvious differences, but the two forms of English are mutually intelligible so it’s easy to make connections.  For a third, if you travel back and forth, you’ll occasionally sound pretty silly if you don’t know the differences.  Finally, there are commercial applications in speech recognition systems  (e.g. automated systems to buy train tickets.), and it is easy to make a case that your research is important if you are studying a commercially important difference.

Are you British? Working in England as a linguist, have you noticed a sort of American fascination with the British accent? If yes, could you give me an example of when this has happened?  Some of the British citizens I’ve interviewed said Americans listen more to what they have to say because of their accent, or mimic their wording/slang/intonation after.  Has anything like that ever happened to you?

I’m originally American, though I’ve been her for a while.  I actually did have (and still have) a bit of a fascination with British English, probably because I watched lots of BBC when I was a kid.  (A lot of the programs used to leak over to the US via the Public Broadcasting Service.)   There is a fair bit of American fascination with England.  I’m told that there were more Americans watching Diana’s funeral than Brits, for instance.

Living in any culture for an extended period of time, people do end up picking up the language and mannerisms more.  Do you feel like that is more exaggerated for the British accent?  Why or why not?

There is a real research question here.    We don’t understand why people can learn 95% of a language in a few years but that last 5% is so hard.  For instance, someone coming from Germany will be very fluent but accented after a few years of residence.  They have learned all the vocabulary, all the grammar, enough of the language to communicate reliably and smoothly, but the last little bit of accent is very hard to get rid of.    Americans can hang around in Britain for decades and still sound American.

I have worked at a British accent a bit, because I got tired of people assuming I was a tourist.  During my first year or two here at Oxford, it was almost invariable that when I went into a shop to buy something, the clerk would ask “How long are you visiting for?” or “How long are you staying for?” or some similar question.   But acquiring an accent is tricky, because I don’t want to sound like an American who is trying to sound British.   So, the best I can do, while still sounding natural, is to sound Canadian.

What are your thoughts on Americans who fake British accents (i.e. Madonna). In the linguistics world, is it considered offensive?

Offensive?   No.  It can have a bad connotation in the UK, perhaps because language is tied closely to social class.   Faking an accent can be thought of as “pretending to be better than you ought to be.”

I don’t think Americans worry about Brits who fake an American accent.  That’s probably related to the fact that Americans have never had the strong language=class tie.     Americans tend to have the money=class connection instead.  And, of course, America has been more of a land of immigrants, so people speaking with not-quite-American accents are fairly common.

Recently, the situation may have reversed, since immigration within Europe has been expanding rapidly.   About 10% of all UK citizens live abroad, and about 10% of the population of the British Isles was born elsewhere.  So, it’s getting very common to hear English that’s not British English around here, and indeed other languages.  But I expect it will take at least a decade or two before people here get used to the idea of geographical and linguistic mobility.