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British and American English differences: a historical overview

By Janaina de Aquino


The text that follows was extracted from a special webpage about learning and teaching second language. Since it was not possible to track its author, the text’s reference can be checked in the end of this paper. It outlines the main differences between American and British English language based on a historical overview.

Language experts say that spoken English was almost the same in the American colonies and Britain. Americans began to change the sound of their speech after the Revolutionary War in 1776. They wanted to separate themselves from the British in language as they had separated themselves from the British government. Some American leaders proposed major changes in the language. His reforms were rejected, but his ideas influenced others. One was Noah Webster. He thought Americans should learn from American books. He published his first spelling book in 1783. It established rules for speaking and spelling the words used in American English. Webster believed that British English spelling rules were too complex. So he worked to establish an American version of
the English language. For example, he spelled the word "center" "c-e-n-t-e-r" instead of the British spelling, "c-e-n-t-r-e." He spelled the word "honor" "h-o-n-o-r" instead of "h-o-n-o-u-r" as it is spelled in Britain. Noah Webster said every part of a word should be spoken. That is why Americans say "sec-re-ta-ry" instead of "sec-re-t’ry" as the British do. Webster’s rule for saying every part of a word made American English easier for immigrants to learn. For example, they learned to say "waist-coat" the way it is spelled instead of the British "wes-kit". The different languages of the immigrants who came to the United States also helped make American English different from British English. Many foreign words and expressions became part of English as Americans speak it. Sometimes Americans and British people do not understand each other because of different word meanings. For example, a "jumper" in Britain is a sweater. In the United States, it is a kind of a dress. The British word "brolly" is an "umbrella" in America. A "wastebasket" in America is a "dustbin" in Britain. French fried potatoes in the United States are called "chips" in Britain. All these differences led British writer George Bernard Shaw to joke that Britain and America are two countries separated by the same language.
The article above is worthy of note as it provides a very brief and concise view of lexical and semantic differences between American and English speakers through historical factors. Nonetheless, despite the strong focus given on British and American English, words have different meaning, spelling and even grammar features in other English speaking countries such as Australia and India.

Following British colonization, John C. Wells explains that these countries have an accent that is a result of both interference with their native language and a characteristic of English as second language rather than as foreign language. Accent development can also involve “independent cultural traditions”, in which Indians learn English from other Indians, for example. All these considerations are important since they draw attention to historical factors that influence directly over a L2 learner’s accent.

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