Four Linguistic Differences between American and British English

When carrying out any localization project into a target language, it is important to ensure that the content is translated and culturally adapted to the intended market. Global languages have developed in different ways over time as they have spread around the world, depending on which part of the world or which country they are spoken in. English is a prime example of a language that has evolved into dialects and distinct language versions.

English is spoken in many countries and there are many differences in the English language, linguistically and otherwise. Countries with a large number of native English speakers include the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand. English is also widely spoken in South Africa and used in other African countries such as Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana. In countries such as India, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea, English is listed as an official language and is used in an educational and sometimes a political context, although it may not be the most widely spoken language. English is the third most widely spoken language in the world after Chinese and Spanish, with approximately 335 million speakers.

The country with the most native English speakers is the United States, with at least 231 million. People learning English as a foreign language often learn American (US) English version, making it a great deal more widely spoken than its British counterpart (UK English), which is the second most commonly spoken variation with around 60 million speakers.

“American English” includes all English dialects used in the United States, and “British English” includes all English dialects used in the United Kingdom. British English is commonly thought of by outsiders as the “Queen’s English” or Received Pronunciation, in its’ spoken form, although this is only used by about two percent of the population. The rest of the population use their own regional dialects, of which there are a great variety.

Welocalize translates thousands of words into American and British English every year. This requires translators with knowledge of the key differences between the two language variations. These linguistic differences exist in vocabulary, spelling, grammar and numerical and measurement. Here are four noted linguistic differences:

ONE: Vocabulary

This is one of the most noticeable differences between UK English and US English. There are thousands of variations that intersect businesses of all types, from retail and fashion to manufacturing. An American would walk to work on the sidewalk, whereas a Brit would use the pavement. The American would then reach their office on the top floor using an elevator, and a Brit would use thelift. A long journey by road in the US would probably involve a drive along the freeway while in the UK, the motorway would allow fast road connections between major cities.

The list could go on; however, these examples are many, and only a native speaker would have knowledge of all of them. To ensure a quality localization project, an expert from the specific target country should always be used to translate content and provide linguistic review.

TWO: Spelling

Along with vocabulary, spelling is another noticeable difference between these two forms of English. There are five main differences between American and British spelling. These are listed below:

British (UK) versus American (US) spelling examples:

  • UK: our (flavour) versus US: or (flavor)
  • UK: re (centre) versus US: er (center)
  • UK: ogue (dialogue) versus US: og (dialog)
  • UK: ence (defence) versus US: ense (defense)
  • UK: ise (localise) versus US: ize (localize)

In some cases, American English does not include double consonants at the end of a word, especially in the case of the letter ‘L’. An example of this can be seen with a word such as ‘fuel’. When the letters -ed, -ing or -er are added to these words, British English would add another ‘l’ to the end of the word (fuelled, fuelling), whereas American English would not (fueled, fueling).

THREE: Grammatical Differences

There are a few grammatical difference. Firstly, collective nouns, which are used when referring to a group. American English always refers to collective nouns as singular entities. For example, “The team is successful.” In British English, collective nouns can be either singular or plural. “They are a successful team,” or “It is a successful team,” would both be acceptable.

A similar situation can be seen with past tense verbs. Americans would be more likely to use the ending -ed, as in ‘learned’, whereas a British English speakers would be more likely to use –t, as in ‘learnt’. Although Brits tend to see the American version as false, either spelling would be acceptable and understandable to both speakers.

The use of prepositions differs between these two forms of English. Here are a few examples.

British (UK) versus American (US) grammar examples:

  • UK: At the weekend versus US: On the weekend
  • UK: At the front/back versus US: In the front/back
  • UK: At school versus US: In school
  • UK: Get on (with somebody) versus US: Get along (with somebody)

FOUR: Numerical Considerations and Measurement

In British English “and” is inserted between the tens and units when spelling out numbers, (one hundred and ninety one). In American English, the “and” is not used (one hundred ninety one). When writing or pronouncing dates in British English, the day normally precedes the month, such as 25 December. In American English the month always precedes the day, December 25. The 24 hour clock is used primarily in Europe; however, is rarely used in the United States.

These are some of the key linguistic differences. There also exists many cultural and demographic differences that must be taken into consideration when developing localization programs. This is definitely especially important for global digital marketing activities and software localization and testing programs. Although target audiences may be united by “one language,” their language habits and traits will vary a lot, depending on which country they are based in. Relying on experts, in-country, will establish a basis of nuances and adaptation standards for all content types, from social to technical. The subtleties can define success and failure in localization and engaging with your target market.

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