Tuesday, September 6, 2011

British English vs American English: Which is best?

Following on from my last blog, where I mentioned how lots of Americans love the English accent, I thought that I would ‘stick my oar in’ on the old British English vs American English debate.  The most recent incidence of this controversy reared its ugly head a couple of months back, when Matthew Engel announced in an article on the BBC website, that he found Americanisms irritating.  This was then countered by American writer, Grant Barrett who staunchly defended American English.  A debate then ensued with British and American readers joining the (increasingly) heated debate.

I must admit that I am pretty much an anarchist on this matter and have never worried much about the influences on, or particular fate of British English.  I never really minded Americanisms appearing in Britain and I would hate there to ever be some sort of national council sitting to decide the official rules for what words can and can’t be officially used, as happens in France.  I tend to think that the whole thing should be allowed to proceed organically without any artificial “rules” being imposed.  I am also generally skeptical of anti American English opinions expressed in the UK and suspect that they are rooted in snobbery to a greater or lesser degree.

Although there has obviously been interplay between Britain and America for four hundred years or so, the American English invasion never really got going until the 20th Century when American English expressions started creeping into British English via the American Movie/Film industry.  Before that, British English ruled supreme, thanks to the British Empire.  But as the British Empire declined and the increasingly cool American movie/film stars dominated the popular imagination, all sorts of expressions slipped into the UK.  The process became even more pronounced with the American forces arriving in Britain during World War II, American music coming onto the radio, and more recently, American English expressions arriving via computer and internet technology (e-mail instead of e-post etc).

One possible reason for my own relaxed attitude to English is that I grew up speaking with a regional accent and back in the 1970s, when received English  (“BBC English”) was still seen by some as the “proper” way to talk.  In the class-ridden UK, regional accents were generally looked down upon, which I resented (that said, regional accents became increasingly more accepted by the “well-spoken” from the 1960s onwards and are now pretty much accepted).  Anyway, I think it made me more sympathetic to the attitudes towards language found in the “New World” countries, with their generally more egalitarian approach.

Language is, of course, deeply political.  The Celtic nations in the UK have attempted to bolster and/or revive their traditional languages in recent years, which are associated with a sense of independence and pride.  That makes me wonder how Americans would feel if the situation was reversed with English: if their own American English expressions were gradually disappearing and being replaced by British English equivalents?  Since I began living in the USA, I have noticed that there is a small but significant minority in the USA who feel threatened by what they perceive as an increasing Spanish language influence on their country, especially in the South of the country.  I tend to agree with my fellow British expat blogger, Rob, who argues that America has been a multilingual country pretty much from the beginning and so it is a bit late for people to start complaining.

Anyway, moving swiftly away from the social politics and back to the strictly personal, one practical problem that I have on an everyday level with regard to the British English vs American English debate is, of course, spelling.  When should I use British English spelling, and when should I use American English spelling?  This problem is especially profound when it comes to the internet, which has no national boundaries.  My solution has been to use American English when my writing is mainly aimed at Americans and British English when my writing is aimed at Brits.  And when my writing is aimed at either or both, like with this expat blog, I just spell the words however I like!


  1. I have no real problem with American English (once I understand what is being said). After all English English has regional variations which have to be learnt too.

    But I do have a resistance to American spelling. I can get very cross when my word processor tries to correct my spelling to the American variant!!
    I can get very particular about being determind to use the 'correct' spelling. :)


  2. If you look at a lot of "American" words, like closet, and of course the "er" spelling on words like 'theatre', they come from older English. The fact is that language changes more at the root, so British English is actually not how we used to speak.
    I wish everyone would just calm down about it all. After all, we're not walking around saying "thee" and "thou" any more are we?

  3. You could just move to Canada and use those random 'u's whenever you wanted. Haha, just kidding of course. We want you in the US. ANother great comparison. Interesting about the accents. I always had heard that 'dodgy' English accents were really looked upon, and I thought that was sad. Like that person could help it?! Glad to know it isn't as bad anymore.

  4. My 11 year old son recently played the part of "Mr. Bumble" in the school play here in England where we live. An American Dad said he thought my son had a great English accent and had really picked it up living over here. An English Dad said his accent was all over the place - American, southern American, Scottish, Cockney, etc etc. LOL. I love all the different accents here in England. I do think some are definately judged by how they talk though, maybe that's just Harrogate though.

  5. I don't suppose it makes a jot of difference, languages evolve naturally. Terms are borrowed from other cultures, altered and twisted. English borrows 'Schadenfreude' from German, and English borrows Americanisms like 'Rookies' . They live or die by their usage. It's a big indo-european swap shop. I think there's a snobbery though, no one bats an eyelid at French imports such as 'blancmange' or 'joie de vivre' but Americanisms, because they're the "same" language they're deemed vulgar and an insult to the Queen's English.

    I really dislike 'burglarize' though.

  6. @BDavid - That is not a fault of the American language, David, you need to alter the settings on your word processor to "Queen's English". :-)

    @expat mum - Yes, I agree, some "Americanisms" are in fact old English terms that have fallen out of usage back in Blighty. "Fall" used to be the common term for the season before Winter in the UK apparently, until relatively recently

    @Texa - For a period in the 1960s and 70s, regional accents were actually pretty cool and trendy in the UK. The accent thing is all tied in with the class system, which has loosened its hold, but not quite disappeared.

    @Jana - Sometimes when I am socialising here in the US, I notice American friends speaking in a peculiar voice which mixes what sounds like Australian and some sort of weird Irish. Then I realize that they are attempting to take the p*ss out of my accent! ;-) (I used to work and play badminton in Harrogate at one time!)

    @rob - I always find it disconcerting when I go to Holland and Dutch people speak English to me in an American accent. That tells me all I need to know about which is the biggest influence! :-)

  7. the irony is that I have moved about 150 miles out side of Englandshire and therefore have to translate Scots for my partner who does not yet see a reason for learning to speak Scots (but that's early days..) ultimately we northern Europeans (apart from the Celts and fins)all speak some kind variant of proto Germanic language.when I was a 12 year old and moved to England I had to learn a different vocabulary and grammatical structure to the closest language to Scots ie English and that was as someone who had watched terrestrial TV and listened to the radio in oxford and queens and american English .Come on American English and English English are pretty much the same language with a few alternative spellings here and there.I have found it both enriching and intriguing to discover the similarity between Scots and Norse and Scots and German,dutch and Flemish as an adult.and then we can expand towards the commonality between Germanic and other Indo European language groups.perhaps the Americans and the English one as a super power the other as a former super power would do well to just accept that as long as the explanation of words doesn't take to long then we are more or less involved in communication within a common language.I would also take issue with the idea that speaking ones mother tongue would be about pride or independence.it could also be that the welsh Gaelic and Scots speakers want to express themselves in there own language and have no political agenda other than the language of the hearth so to speak.It would also be slightly more than political if we were asked to speak Russian or Spanish It would mean an alienation from ones parents extended family etc.perhaps rob needs to learn Dutch! the problem with you yanks is that you all speak the Germanic language that Shakespeare wrote in.

  8. @Roddy - Well, English has a variety of big influences: Latin, Norman French, Nordic, etc. it is only "Germanic" in the the sense that it is Northern European and the Angles and Saxons came over the Channel and swore a lot! ;-)

    Rob is an Englishman married to an Italian American, not sure how Dutch would help? ;-)

    One could argue all day about whether the belief that you have the right to speak your mother tongue or not is a political belief, or not. I think that David Mitchell said everything that is worth saying on this issue in his soapbox series! ;-)

  9. The connection between politics and language is a really fascinating topic. Orwell wrote an essay about it that I read every semester with my composition classes. Thanks for another great read, Paul!

  10. My mother tongue is French and I've been living, having a great time between Australia, Asia and England for the last 5 years. I've recently arrived in F**!*!! northern America where obviously people get a very low level of education. I was shocked last night to hear that people here, actually believe they speak much better English than Britons themselves.!! You guys (Americans,Canadians) are just a bunch of uneducated morons, some of you have by far the most annoying, revolting way to speak and write this beautiful language and yet you've got the nerve to criticise the rest of the English world... After all you guys are just a flock of poor people in debt controlled by huge companies. Please, do yourselves a favor, get a social system and go back to school :-)

  11. I must say that I like the language of the King James Version of the Bible and that of Will Shakesphere. I feel we Virginians in many ways are closer to their language than the British are. It is true that we speak a Germanic language just as the English do. As a BA in Deutsch, I can see the close relationship between both languages. Remember, England may be the mother country of the US; however, Germany is the mother of us both.
    Charles E. Miller, Jr., BA,Old Dominion University; MA, Liberty University

  12. Dear Xavier,

    You French are a bunch of idots who cannot fight your way out of a paper bag. If it weren't for the Americans and British, there would be no France today; on the contrary, you would be a part of Germany! If you were so intelligent, you would not insult people. Isn't there enough hatred in the world?
    Charles E. Miller, Jr. BA, MA

  13. I do hope Xavier reads what I wrote. He needs a lesson in old Southern manners and friendliness. Perhaps Xavier is still unhappy about Waterloo! The Duke of Wellington, an Englishman, defeated the French.

  14. I also wish to add something else to my lecture on English and French history. Does Xavier realize that there was a time when the Kings of England ruled much of France? Xavier, do you remember King Henry II, Richard I, John and other English kings who ruled your lovely France? Do not be so proud of the French? Was not Calais repopulated by Englishmen? Are their descendants still there today? Even King James I referred to himself as King of Great Britain, France and Ireland. Charles E. Miller, Jr., BA, MA

  15. Well, I generally don't delete or censor any comments on here (unless it is blatant advertising spam, or some sort of personal attack), but for what it's worth, I think Xavier's word choice and tone were 'unhelpful' (English understatement!). :-)

    (But then, labelling the French: "a bunch of idiots" probably wasn't the best response either?)

    I personally think that there are many American writers who have made fabulous contributions to English literature: Twain, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Whitman, etc. There are a great many Americans who have a love of the English language.

    However, regarding another of Xavier's points in his rant, I do think that standards of education can seem very patchy in the US, and there appears to be a subculture in the US who pretty much celebrate ignorance - these people are in a definite minority, however.