Is British English better than American English?

Is British English better than American English?

Note: the following notes accompany podcast no.29 in the podcast series Purland on ELT:

Is British English better than American English?

Introduction: Make no mistake – British English (BrE) and American English (AmE) are two different languages!

  • George Bernard Shaw said: ‘England and America are two countries separated by a common language’. I say: ‘England and America are two countries separated by two different languages.’
  • The differences are deep-rooted not superficial.
  • It’s not just a few words that mean the same, e.g. pavement/sidewalk.
  • I can’t teach American English; I would need some training. I would feel like a non-native teacher teaching English.
  • For me AmE is a deviation from Standard English.
  • English native speakers learn AmE almost from birth due to the prevalence of US culture in our media.
  • English native speakers can feel like BrE is the original and the best, and that AmE is a version; they have an adjective (‘American’ English), while we don’t (English)! This is a false and unnecessarily jingoistic argument.
  • American English has more native speakers, but British English has more speakers worldwide: there are 231 million English speakers in the United States, yet only 60 million in the UK. Approximately 330 to 360 million people speak English as their first language in 6 countries: USA, UK, Canada, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand. Estimates that include second language speakers vary greatly, from 470 million to more than 1 billion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English-speaking_world
  • However, Indian English is based on BrE, with 125 million speakers: http://www.immihelp.com/newcomer/indian-english-american-english-language-dictionary.html English is one of the two official languages of the Union Government of India.
  • Where is English spoken around the world? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_English-speaking_population

 

So what are the differences?

  1. The vocabulary is different:
  • Words with equivalents, e.g. pavement/sidewalk, lift/elevator, rubbish/garbage, jam/jelly, motorway/freeway, etc. Learn lists. (See worksheets 1 & 2)
  • Some old English words were retained in AmE, but lost in BrE, e.g. fall (autumn is from French ‘automne’), faucet, diaper, candy, etc.
  • AmE has different idioms = a whole different vocabulary: I know what they mean, but I would not use them:
    1. What the heck…?
    2. Sit tight. I’ll be right back.
    3. Let me fix you a drink.
    4. We cool?
    5. Pardon me? (Sorry?)
  • See also this list of idioms where words are different: http://www.lostinthepond.com/2013/02/british-english-vs-american-english_4388.html#.WU6ZVHHTXDc
  • AmE has different slang words (e.g. dude) and swear words: see Urban Dictionary.
  • AmE has the tendency to use nouns as verbs, e.g. to vacation.
  • AmE vocab is more influential – worldwide TV/cinema/music influence.
  • However, AmE gave world English many new words from a new continent, including Native Americans, that we wouldn’t have had in English without AmE, e.g. moose, raccoon, corn, barbecue, squash: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_English

 

  1. The spelling has been reformed:
  • Noah Webster’s dictionary: ‘The first large American dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language, known as Webster’s Dictionary, was written by Noah Webster in 1828, codifying several of these spellings.’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_English
  • The removal of ‘unnecessary’ vowel letters (see pp.2.20-2.21 of Talk a Lot Foundation Course).
  • It makes more sense than the British spelling system, which really needs reform.

 

  1. The grammar is different:
  • The general disappearance of perfect tenses, e.g. I just got home = I’ve just got home / I just got home when the phone rang = I had just got home when the phone rang (two different times) I bin = I have been.
  • The disappearance of function words, especially auxiliary verbs (c.f. lack of perfect tenses; more use of elision); e.g. no prepositions before days: We met Saturday for a drink.
  • The rejection of question tags; use of right? or OK? instead = more direct language.
  • Other grammatical differences: e.g. I’m lovin’ it! (use of state verbs).

 

  1. The punctuation is different:
  • The tendency to use double speech “ ” marks instead of single ‘ ’.
  • The Oxford comma (a comma after the final item in a list) is more often used than in BrE.

 

  1. But above all… the pronunciation is different:
  • More use of elision, e.g. Whaddaya want? This can be harder for non-native speakers to understand than BrE, because the words are not individually pronounced.
  • More use of contractions: absence of t: godda, wodda, wanna; absence of schwa: shoulda, woulda, coulda, kinda
  • Short vowel sounds instead of long, e.g. cot = caught
  • Different vowel sounds substituted e.g. a  for  o: Dag  =  Dog
  • Less use of schwa sound – more strong vowels pronounced in weak syllables; AmE native speakers can be just as confused as other nationalities by our reliance on uh  sounds! Without schwa sounds AmE can sound overpronounced = patronising:

I bought a banana at the supermarket yesterday. = I ba da ba na na

  • Use of rolled r  sound, which is not in BrE Standard Pronunciation.
  • Less use of glottal stops: I got the hot dog you wanted.
  • More use of d  than  t  sound, e.g. the word ‘bottle’: Ba dl  (AmE) but  Bo_ uhl (BrE).
  • In AmE word and sentence stress is lighter and less dinstinct. It plays less of a role in providing the meaning in a sentence, compared to BrE.
  • In AmE the y  sound can be missing in words like Tuesday, tube, attitude, stupid, duty, esp. words with tu-
  • There are fewer distinct accents than in BrE, e.g. New York, Texas, Chicago, Florida, California. AmE pronunciation is more homogenised.

 

Conclusion:

People can get angry defending their language! Which one is ‘correct’ = you are asking the wrong question! We can know and use both – it depends where you are and what you are doing:

  • On a Cambridge certificate course like FCE or CAE both are acceptable! http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/learning-english/parents-and-children/information-for-parents/tips-and-advice/005-british-and-american-english/ ‘How does all of this affect a learner of English who is thinking of taking a Cambridge English exam? As an examiner, I can reassure you that both British and American English are equally acceptable in the Writing and Speaking tests. We recognise (recognize in American English!) that classes are taking place around the world in many varieties of English, from American English to Zimbabwean English, but what is important above all is that an exam candidate can show us their ability to communicate effectively in English. It is a language that is used globally and our examinations reflect that diversity.’
  • For a teacher, using an AmE word or phrase can stick out like a sore thumb on a BrE course and look like an error in a spoken class or written assignment.
  • It is so important to know what you are signing up for/investing in: ask the language school or teacher what kind of English you will use – BrE or AmE – and tell them which is important to you and why.
  • There are specific course books for AmE. In many cases there is a BrE version and an AmE version. How different are they?
  • English native speakers may not see the problem because we take it for granted that we understand both languages very well; but don’t waste your time learning one or the other, if you don’t need to!
  • Don’t be offended or upset if your teacher picks you up on use of AmE in a BrE class or school (or vice versa); you are learning the language you need in that place or for a specific purpose, e.g. if you are studying for IELTS test to get into a British university – use BrE!
  • AmE does not stop me enjoying my favourite American authors like John Irving and F. Scott Fitzgerald, nor my favourite British authors like E. M. Forster and Charlotte Brontë. It doesn’t spoil my enjoyment of American films or music. It is important that I know and appreciate both languages.
  • Interesting Daily Mail article: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2329939/TOM-UTLEY-Listen-folks-British-snob-confession-make-Americans-speak-better-English–brainer.html#ixzz4kwLHyFbI It concludes: ‘Long may our two versions of it [English] continue to feed off each other.’

In this podcast I look at the many differences between British English and American English, including vocabulary, spelling, grammar, punctuation, and pronunciation – and ask the controversial question: which English is better?

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