Sweater, zucchini, elevator; there are lots of words which most Brits will understand if speaking to an American, but when it comes to putting on a pair of suspenders or telling someone about your new pants, you really need to know what you’re talking about.
The result of British colonization of the Americas, the English language has been spoken in the United States since the 17th century when English-speaking settlers first arrived, and has since evolved into American English which draws influences from other languages such as those spoken in West Africa, German, Dutch, Irish, Spanish and the Native American population.
American English today comprises a wide variety of dialects, and some very distinctive accents can be found which alter the pronunciation of words drastically (for example in New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore). These areas are all on the East Coast and are naturally closer geographically to England, so their accent naturally tends to try and imitate the British more closely. In contrast to this, the interior of the country was settled by people from across other regions of the US and has developed a much more generic sounding form of English known as ‘General America
It has been said that America and Britain are “two nations divided by a common language”, and this is seen most clearly in lots of everyday words that are regularly used by both nations.
For example, Brits go on holiday, yet Americans go on vacation; Brits eat biscuits, whilst Americans eat cookies; Brits walk on a footpath, however Americans walk on the sidewalk. With the advent of the Internet and easily accessed TV and film, the lines between the two styles of English have blurred in recent years, meaning that regardless of where you’re from, you’ll be very likely to understand that crisps and potato chips are the same thing, likewise for chips and French fries.
In addition to these more obvious differences, there are hundreds of minor alterations found between American English and British English such as the occasional dropping of the letter “u” in American words like neighbour, favour, honour and colour. This is thanks to lexicographer Noah Webster (yes, that Webster) who was frustrated by the inconsistencies in English spelling and wanted to spell words the way they sounded. It was for this reason that Webster started an effort to reform English spelling in the late 1700s, which was further boosted by the fact that America wanted to also show its independence from England at this time.
Aside from altered meanings, simple spelling variations and completely different words, there are also some very subtle variances between the UK and US dialects. Even the way the two form their sentences can differ in a variety of ways. To start, Brits and Americans tend to prefer different prepositions when speaking:
British English: What do you study at school?
American English: What do you study in school?
British: I’ll see you at the weekend.
American Englis: I’ll see you on the weekend.
Brits also tend to use the word ‘got’ more than their American counterparts, who favour ‘have’:
British: I’ve got a dog.
American: I have a dog.
British English: Have you got any brothers?
American English: Do you have any brothers?
These are just a few of the differences that can be seen throughout both languages, and many Brits may look down on American English and see it as a corruption of their beloved language. However, there are a number of words which originated in Early Modern English or Middle English which haven’t survived in the UK, but are alive and well in the United States. Terms such as fall (autumn), faucet (tap), diaper (nappy) and candy (sweets) are frequently regarded as Americanisms, but have deep roots in Middle English. These words were taken to North America by those British colonies who immigrated to the US and took the English language with them, and they have somehow endured.
Considering the fact that our language is constantly evolving, it’s only natural that both Americans and Brits put their own spin on the words they use every day. Luckily the popularity and sheer reach of modern technology such as the internet means that no matter what way we say things, the message is understood clearly regardless of which side of the Atlantic you’re on. So irrespective of whether you take the lift or the elevator, the most important thing is that we’re all going in the same direction.