How different is American English and British English?

International students who are learning English as a second language will no doubt be familiar with the differences between American English and British English. We only have to compare British and American TV shows and films to notice the difference between the two. But how different are the two? And why are they not exactly the same? We look at the linguistic differences between the two and why the same words are often spelt differently.

British English is influenced by French

Due to the complex history of England (with lots of wars and invasions etc.) it borrows heavily from other languages. One of the languages that it has been influenced by the most is French. British English therefore has a lot of French words adopted into its language. Words such as “city” “people” and “liberty” all come from France and this influence is why in British English, words such as “colour” are spelt with the inclusion of the “u.” Later, other French style spellings also became fashionable and because America had already established its own country by this point, the trend never caught on.

Shakespeare is a massive part of English language and English culture

William Shakespeare was integral in developing the English language and the vocabulary in British English. He’s credited with actually inventing a number of words that are commonly used in everyday British English.

American English deliberately changed their spellings

When America was forming its own dictionary, after they left England, they deliberately changed the spelling of their words to be different from their former rulers. So for example, they dropped the French-influenced “u” from words such as “colour” and “flavour.” They also changed words that end in “-ise” to “-ize” to make words more phonetic. As a result, American English is a lot more straightforward and simpler than British English.

American English tends to drop words that British English doesn’t

When speaking and writing, American English speakers have a tendency to drop words in sentences that British English speakers would include. For example, an American might say “I’ll write you” whilst a Briton would say “I’ll write to you.” It’s little differences such as these which can cause difficulties for non-English speakers who are learning English and are hearing both sets of languages. Neither is right or wrong but it’s important to highlight the difference.

Both have borrowed from different sources

The two types of English have evolved differently because they have each borrowed from different sources. Britain is geographically closer to France, mainland Europe and the Middle East and it is here that British English borrows some of its words for things. America is geographically closer to South America which is why some its words are derived from Spanish. For example, in British English, it is known as “coriander”, which comes from French, whereas in American English, it is known as “cilantro”, which comes from Spanish. That’s why things have completely different names in each type of English.

Which one should you learn?

Whether you choose to learn American English or British English, neither is wrong. But we advise to stick to learning one and then you can branch out once you’re fluent. How you choose which one to learn will depend on your future plans. If you plan on going to university in the USA and then wish to work there, it’s probably best to learn American English. However, if you’re going to study in the UK and then get a job there, British English would be the best option.
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