Many Americans who love tea would turn up their noses at the idea of adding milk to it. Brits, on the other hand, are known for lacing their strong tea with milk. With or without milk, tea is tea. It’s served one way in Britain and another way in the United States, but everyone can recognize it for what it is. The language that Americans and Brits share is a bit like that—spoken differently in the two locations, but understandable by both groups of speakers.
According to the Legends of America website, inhabitants of the New World first noticed that their English was different about one hundred years after settling Jamestown. Little wonder, for colonists didn’t have the ease of communication and transportation available today. They couldn’t hop on a plane to visit relatives, nor could they video chat with their grandparents back home. The settlers were interacting with Native Americans as well as with immigrants from Germany, France, and other countries. The Americans coined original words to describe their new environment. For example, what would they call that furry little creature that was always trying to dig holes in the garden? They had never seen groundhogs in Great Britain. Meanwhile, words came and went out of fashion in Britain, and the Americans were none the wiser. What are the major differences between British English and American English?
Along with groundhogs and woodchucks, other living things earned uniquely American monikers. One of them was the ladybug, the red and black ladybird beetle of the United Kingdom. The Americans based rappel, the act of descending from a height using a rope, on the French word for recall. Across the pond, the German language inspired abseiling, the British word for the same action. Uniquely American foods, such as s’mores, don’t have British equivalents because they are still relatively unknown. Perhaps that would change if they sampled them; s’mores are delicious!
Put on your anorak. Check the pillar box, and see if my business partner sent over the hire purchase. Would the average American understand these commands? Probably not! Here’s the translation: Put on your jacket. Check the mailbox, and see if my business partner sent over the installment plan.
Other words exist in both languages, but they mean different things. For example, if you requested a caretaker in England, you might be introduced to someone holding a broom and dustpan. There, a caretaker is a person who cleans and maintains a building. To Americans, a caretaker is someone who takes care of someone, such as a child or sick person, or who looks after a property while the owner is away. Other Briticisms are famous. Have you learned what a lift is? Would you go for a ride in a lorry?
One man is responsible for many of the spelling differences that exist between American and British English. His name was Noah Webster. Yes, the same Webster of Webster’s Dictionary. He decided that Americans should be independent, not only politically, but also lexically. That’s why you’ll notice an extra U in some British words like colour, armour, and humour. American English tends to end words with -ize rather than the British -ise. The -er ending of words like theater and center is reversed in British English words. Other words are almost unrecognizable as cognates, such as curb and kerb.
In British English, you have to use the present perfect for recent actions that affect the present.
I’ve broken your vase. Will you forgive me?
American English accepts the present perfect as correct, but it also offers a second possibility—the simple past.
I broke your vase. Will you forgive me?
American English is tolerant of present perfect, but it’s not as understanding of Britain’s past participles. In the following sentences, Americans would use gotten as the past participle of the verb to get, leaned in the place of leant, and spoiled instead of spoilt.
You have got much better at breaking things!
It’s because you’ve leant too hard against the furniture.
Now it’s spoilt!
Even with the Ts in place of the -ed endings, an American could understand the meaning of these sentences without a problem. And despite both groups’ accents and idiosyncratic expressions, Brits and Americans have little problem communicating with each other in English. If you visit London, you may be invited to join the natives for an afternoon tea. If you don’t “fancy” milk in your drink, you can let them know. Aren’t you grateful for that?