Britain and American are an ocean apart, and so are British English and American English. What makes the accent of someone from London so different from that of someone from New York? Here’s your answer.
1. American English is actually older
This isn’t something you should say to a Brit, as they’re the country that gave birth to America as we know it today – but it is actually true. When people from England first settled in America, they brought with them the then-popular language, based on something called rhotic speech (when you pronounce the “r” sound in a word). Meanwhile, back in the affluent cities of the south of the UK, the people from the upper class wanted a way to distinguish themselves from everyone else, so they began to change their rhotic language to a soft “r” sound, saying words like winter as “win-tuh” instead of “win-terr“. Of course, these people were posh and everyone wanted to be like them, so this new way of speaking – what Brits now refer to as the Received Pronunciation – spread across the rest of the south of England. It also explains why many places outside the south of England still have the rhotic pronunciation as part of their regional accents. Basically, if you speak English from London, you sound more posh. Classy.
2. British English is more like French
French has influenced English in more ways than English speakers would care to admit. The first time was when William the Conqueror invaded England in the 11th century, taking Norman French with him and making it the language of the elite – used in schools, universities, courts and the upper classes. It didn’t last for long, but instead developed into Middle English, a mixture of all the linguistic influences around at the time. The second time was during the 1700s, when the use of French words and spellings in Great Britain became super fashionable. Of course, the American still went about their lives across the Atlantic and didn’t join the trend at all. This is why British English shares more linguistic similarities with French than American English, leaving many in the UK with the obsession with French loanwords such as “croissant”.
3. American English spelling was invented as a form of protest
The American and British dictionaries are worlds apart, as they were compiled by two authors with two very different linguistic perspectives: the Britain’s dictionary was compiled by scholars from London (not Oxford, for some reason), who just wanted to collect all known English words, while the America’s dictionary was made by a lexicographer called Noah Webster. Webster wanted American spelling to not only be simpler, but also different from British spelling, as a way of America saying it has escaped the shackles of British rule. He dropped the letter u from words like “colour” and “honour” – which had developed from the French influence in England – to make them “color” and “honor”. He did the same with words ending in -ise to make them -ize, because he believed that the spelling of American English should reflect the way it was said. Plus, z is a much easier letter to write.
4. American English likes to leave out words completely
Sometimes there are differences in American English that don’t matter to British English speakers – like when Americans leave out entire verbs from a sentence. When an American tells someone he is going to write a letter to them, he says “I’ll write them”. When you ask an American if he wants to go shopping, he might say “I could”. In the UK, such answers sound strange, as they would say “I’ll write to you” and “I could go”. Leaving out the verb might be because Americans want to talk faster – conversely, perhaps Britons just want to explain exactly what they’re saying. No-one’s right here, but if we were to declare a winner here it would be British English, because, frankly speaking, the American way doesn’t make sense for a low-context language like English.
5. The two varieties of English have both borrowed words from other languages
It’s obvious that British English and American English have evolved quite differently when we consider the cultural influences that affected each variety independently, and how they’ve borrowed from other languages. For some reason, this is very common with words for food: for example “coriander” in British English (derived from French) and “cilantro” in American English (derived from Spanish) or “aubergine” in British English (derived from Arabic) and “eggplant” in American English (so called because it looks like a purple egg). There are many more examples, but it’s important to remember to choose the right word in the country you’re studying or living in.