British vs. American: The Origins of English Dialects

Friday, June 93 min read

A dialect is a regional variety of a language. It features not only distinct pronunciations and accents but also a divergence in vocabulary and grammar, meaning that the same language will sound quite different in various dialects. English is a prime example of the vast differences displayed between dialects — it is the most-studied language in the world, with around 1.5 billion people speaking 150 dialects. And while mass media can bring down borders in some ways and expose people to all varieties of languages, research shows that English dialects are actually diverging more than ever before, with new ones evolving and emerging around the world.

The Birth of the English Language

Old English dates back to the fifth century in Britain, and it’s part of the Germanic language family (as opposed to the Romance language family, which includes French, Italian, and Spanish). It looks very different from modern English and changed even more thanks to the addition of the French and Latin words that the Normans brought to England during their 11th-century conquest. This transformed the language into Middle English, which continued to evolve until the 16th century, at which point the printing press was invented. Once printing technology was widespread, language and spelling became more standardized, resulting in the earliest modern English dialect: British English.

British English: The First Modern English Dialect

As the oldest modern English dialect still spoken today, British English remains hugely influential — around 70 million people use it currently. British colonization spread English around the globe beginning in the 16th century, and for this reason, all English dialects, including Jamaican, Canadian, Australian, and South African, are descendants of British English.

Key characteristics of British English:

  • “R” is pronounced only when it is followed by a vowel (“bright” vs. “start”)
  • Groups of people take a plural verb form (“The team are taking a time-out”)
  • The letter “z” is called “zed”
  • “U” is paired with “o” in the spelling of many words (“colour” and “flavour”)
  • “T” is used to create some past-tense words (“learnt” and “dreamt”)

American English: The Most Widespread English Dialect

Today, more people study and speak American English than any other English dialect — around 350 million people can speak it, and around 250 million use it as their first language. American English took shape during the colonization of what is now the East Coast of the United States in the 17th century. It retained many words and grammar rules from British English but also adopted words and pronunciations from languages all over the world as new settlers moved to the continent. Many German, Yiddish, Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, and Indigenous American words entered the American English lexicon because of this “melting pot” of languages.

In the U.S. alone, there are more than 30 distinct American English dialects, also known as “accents.” This is why someone who speaks Californian American English uses different pronunciations, slang, and grammar than someone who speaks Cajun (in Louisiana) or New England English. Other common American English dialects include Southern, Midwestern, Pacific Northwestern, Hawaiian, and various East Coast accents, including the notorious Boston American accent (“Tell yah fath-uh to go pahk the cah”), in which the “r” is dropped in most words.

Key characteristics of American English:

  • American English is less formal than British English (“Can I…” vs. “Might I…”)
  • A “t” sound in the middle of a word sounds more like “d” (“wadder” vs. “water”)
  • Simple past tense is commonly used (“I ate dinner” vs. “I have just eaten dinner”)
  • The “r” sound is usually pronounced (“car” and “start”)
  • Many loanwords are adopted from other languages

While both come from the same origin in Old English, British English and American English dialects have diverged enough to merit plenty of linguistic attention. Here are just a few related topics:

Why Do Brits Use ‘Ou’ and Americans Just Use ‘O’ in Words?
8 Words Americans Pronounce Differently
9 British Slang Words You Should Be Using
15 Americanisms You Won't Find Anywhere Else
14 Words English Stole (Borrowed) From Other Languages
14 British Words That Don’t Match Up to the American Versions
British Slang Terms To Listen for Across the Pond
How To Speak English — In Great Britain

Featured image credit: tupungato/ iStock

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