Main differences between BrE and AmE

Hoy os traemos una breve explicación en inglés de las principales diferencias entre el inglés británico (BrE) y el inglés americano (AmE) extraída de la publicación A preliminary study of the variation between regular and irregular forms in British and American English de Vasco López, Gonzalo, nuestro profesor:

One of the basic, and classic facts, of linguistic variation is geographical dispersion. This dispersion, due to remoteness and poor communications, resulted in some clearly distinct dialects that are nowadays different languages. This occurred with the Germanic dialects that are now Dutch, English, German, etc. However, this process has not been achieved and may not ever be achieved in the dialects of English within the British Isles and in the rest of the world, probably because of the global communication of the current world.

There is no official academy ruling the use of the English language, but there is a world spread “standard English” that gives uniformity especially in neutral or formal styles of written English. Thus, a prototypical standard does not exist but there is a world-wide sense of the usage of English that has been codified in dictionaries, grammars and handbooks. What is more, this agreement seems actually to be increasing because of the effect of global communication.

Within supranational standard English it is possible to find two major varieties that contain variability within the standard: they are British (BrE) and American (AmE) English, the two widespread national standards. Both are highly predominant, not only in the number of distinctive usages, but also in the degree to which these distinctions are institutionalized. Thus, there are few grammatical differences between them and the most typical ones are known by many users of both national standards. These differences are strongest on the level of phonology, followed by those on the level of vocabulary. Spelling differences and especially grammatical differences are less significant.

One of the best known grammatical differences is that AmE has two participles for the verb get (got and gotten) and BrE just one (got). Another difference is that in BrE either a singular or a plural verb may be used with a singular collective noun whereas in AmE a singular verb is required here:

(1) The faculty is / are meeting today.

On the other hand, there are some features that are less familiar. For example, AmE may use the simple past in informal style in contexts where BrE uses the present perfect, as shown in (2):

(2) Mary just completed the task. / Mary’s just completed the task.

In addition, BrE prefers to use should where AmE generally uses the present subjunctive in constructions such as the following:

(3) I suggested him that he should take the information with him. / I suggested him that he take the information with him.

Lexical differences (for example: railway <BrE> vs. railroad <AmE>), phonological differences, which are quite numerous, and spelling differences (for example, colour <BrE> vs. color <AmE>) do not hamper communication and are well known by the speakers of both varieties.

As regards phonology, one of the basic differences between the two varieties is that AmE is a rhotic dialect while BrE is not rhotic. This means that [r] “is retained before consonants and at the end of the words, as in farm and far” (Brinton & Arnovick 2006: 397). In the case of BrE, the final [r] is pronounced when it precedes a word beginning with a vowel and also when it has no etymological validity, as in idear for idea. Moreover, [r] may be lost in rhotic dialects in certain contexts through dissimilation, as in cate[r]pillar.

In addition, AmE so-called ‘ask words’ are pronounced with [æ], like for example: staff, grass, plaster, castle, example, demand and path, among others. On the other hand, BrE has changed [æ] to [ɒ] or [a]. However, it is possible to find [æ] in BrE in identical phonetic environments: gaff, gasp, asp, mascot, passel, romance, stand… Another phonological difference is that AmE may preserve the distinction between [w] and [hw]. For BrE speakers witch and which are pronounced in the same way, while AmE speakers make a distinction here, at least older generations, because the distinction seems to be disappearing in AmE as well. In the case of words with four or more syllables, AmE preserves a secondary stress on the second to last syllable when the word ends in –ary, –ory, –ery and –boro(u)gh while BrE does not have this stress. Other well-known differences are the following: (i) in AmE a [t] or an [r] that occurs between vowels and follows a stressed syllable is voiced to [d] or a flap [ɾ] (e.g. waiting); (ii) most working- class dialects of BrE are characterized by h-dropping, in other words, the loss of [h] at the beginning of words and syllables, as in hit or happy.

Sometimes a characteristic of one variety spreads to the other: for example, BrE chips (AmE french fries) now occurs in AmE, as a recent borrowing from BrE, in the combination fish and chips. One difference between AmE and BrE is that for certain verbs there is a predilection for the use of regular forms by the American variety while British English, in a conservative position, tends to make use of irregular verb forms (BrE burn~burnt~burnt). But there is, somehow, an ongoing change in the behaviour of the use of regular and irregular variants: regular forms are increasing in British English…

Bibliografía consultada:

Biber, D., et al. (1999). Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Essex: Longman.

Brinton, L., & Arnovick, L. K. (2006) The English Language. A Linguistic History. Oxford: O.U.P., pp. 395-402.

Huddleston, R., & Pullum, G. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mindt, D. (2000). An Empirical Grammar of the English Verb System. Berlin: Cornelsen Verlag.

Quirk, R., et al. (1972). A Grammar of Contemporary English. London: Longman.

Quirk, R., et al. (1985). A Comprenhensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman

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