Dialects of English

24 01 2012

It has been famously observed that the British and the Americans are two nations “divided by a common language”, a phrase variously attributed to George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Oscar Wilde and others. The point of the phrase is to highlight  the differences between the two major  dialects.or regional varieties of English, namely British English (BE) and American English (AE), which tourists in both countries have amply noted. Of course, the vast bulk of the two dialects are shared, meaning that the two peoples are mutually intelligible. Mostly. As an Australian on a road trip through Florida, with an accent the locals were prone to hear as British, I coped with the “problem” of mutual comprehension by speaking as loudly and clearly and “toothily” as I could. This seemed to do the trick, at the time.

Recently I was alerted to an article on this topic. It’s called: “The 20 Biggest Differences Between British and American English” and can be found at http://www.onlinecollegecourses.com/2012/01/23/the-20-biggest-differences-between-british-and-american-english/, which is a website for online college courses in USA.

Below I have copy-and-pasted the first 10 items highlighted in the article. If you hunger for more, follow the link.

  1. That whole “u” thing

    Reading “color” versus “colour” might clue one in to whether or not the literature in question hails from the United States or one of the Commonwealth nations. The latter favors the original “u” in words like the aforementioned and “neighbour” and “flavour” and the like.

  2. Oxford comma

    One of the most blood-boilingly controversial grammatical phenomena in the English language, the Oxford (or serial, or Harvard) comma — which separates listings of three or more (in “John, Paul, George, and Ringo,” for example, it nestles itself behind Harrison) — rarely pops up in British English. American English, save for journalistic works, loves it.

  3. Punctuation’s relation to quotation marks

    When it comes to quotes, Americans usually place their punctuation marks inside before moving on to the next sentence. The exact opposite holds true for British English speakers and writers, as they prefer leaving them on the outside.

  4. Verb forms for collective nouns

    Collective nouns understandably baffle English speakers on all sides of all ponds, but there’s really just one general rule to keep in mind. While in (or writing for) Commonwealth nations, collective nouns — which include nation names — pair up with plural verbs. In the United States, use a singular conjugation.

  5. Periods after titles

    American English majors swoon over Mr. Darcy. British English majors swoon over Mr Darcy. Non-English majors have taste.

  6. Placement of the day in dates

    See, British people write out their dates like this: “13 January 2012,” “13/01/12,” or “13.01.12.” While American people write out their dates like this: “January 13, 2012,” “01/13/12,” or “01.13.12.” WACKY!

  7. -ize vs -ise

    Words that typically end in –ize in the United States and Canada are frequently rendered with –ise in every other English-speaking nation. However, because language wouldn’t be language without numerous exceptions, sometimes the non-Canadian British English speakers rock that -ize as well.

  8. Quotation marks

    Single quotation marks are most common in British English nations, though their double counterpart has started creeping into daily use as of late. By contrast, Americans default to double quotations, using the singular ones to denote quotes within quotes.

  9. Pronunciation

    Obviously, different accents mean words take on completely different pronunciations depending on their speaker’s country of origin. Uh-loo-mu-num in American English is ahl-oo-men-ee-um elsewhere, most infamously.

  10. “And” between numerical units

    British English speaks or writes out numbers including an “and” in pretty much everything past 100, barring its multiples. “2012,” for example, would be written out as “two thousand and twelve,” while Americans expunge the “and” altogether and prefer “two thousand twelve” or “twenty-twelve.”




2 responses

24 01 2012
Erika Kono

Thank you for highlighting the differences. Very helpful. I’ve started learning English in 1989, Hungary, where of course British English was the standard. I was forced to forget about my British English, as soon as I entered College in the US because every time I wrote an essay, our professor marked it wrong because of my British spelling. See your example: colour and color or an other example favourite or favorite.
At times, I felt like I am learning a new language other than English, and that it is not very beneficial to confuse me some more as a second language learner of English.
However, as time passed by I was able to live with it and when it comes to teaching in my classes I can explain my students both. I also tell them, I do not care what version they are using, as long as it is right– I am not as strict as my professor was in the USA.

26 01 2012

Thanks Erika. It’s good to be reminded of how difficult the dialectal difference can be for learners. I think we teachers forget sometimes. Funny, in your sentence 3, you display an example of what is a big difference between American Engish and language-learner English – the use of the present simple past tense with the fixed time marker. I’d say (Aust dialect) “I started learning”, because for me the present perfect simple is not for definite past time events. Of course, this is not an error that would cause any major misunderstanding. Just something to note, I guess, and watch yourself to see how pervasive it is in your language. Cheers, Ruth

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