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Evolution of English: Difference Between American and British English

English is the most widely spoken language around the world, with over 1.1 billion speakers, but the English language didn’t come out of nowhere! The English language evolved in Britain as a result of early invasions of the island, firstly from a tribe of Germanic invaders called the Angles about 1500 years ago, and later invasions from the Saxons and the Jutes,  two tribes out of Germany and modern day Denmark.

As a result of the Anglo-Saxon invasions, Latin, that was spoken in Britain until that time (thanks to the earlier occupation by the Romans), was gradually replaced by Old English, which is the direct ancestor of modern English. Old English is extremely difficult to understand and only modern scholars are able to make much sense of it! The best example of Old English in its written form is Beowulf, an epic poem written over 1,000 years ago, telling the story of a great king who took on and defeated monsters. Good luck if you’re planning on reading it in its original form! But helpfully, the great poet Seamus Heaney wrote a fabulous translation of the story shortly before his death in 2013.

Modern English began its transition across the world thanks to the influence of the British Empire, which, at its peak, was the largest empire in history, holding dominion over a quarter of the world’s population and land mass.

Prior to the American War of Independence in 1783, the United States was just another colony administered by Britain. The British introduced the English language to the Americas when they reached the lands by sea in the 16th century. At that time, English spelling hadn’t been standardized. In America, Noah Webster published his first dictionary in 1806, meanwhile English scholars were producing early English dictionaries. It’s alleged that Webster changed the spelling of many words to make the American version different to the British as a way of demonstrating the independence and freedom it had gained from the mother country.

As the nations separated, so too did some of the language and spellings. Here are some examples of both:


British: Colour               US: Color

British: Flavour             US: Flavor

British: Labour              US: Labor

British: Neighbour       US: Neighbor

So, it’s pretty clear from the above that British spellings ending in ‘our’ lose the ‘u’ in American spellings. Similarly, words ending in ‘ize’ in American English end in ‘ise’ in British spellings:

British: Apologise         US: Apologize

British: Criticise            US: Critisize

British: Fraternise        US: Fraternize

British: Patronise         US: Patronize

And the Brits invariably use to ‘LL’s in words that Americans use only one:

British: Travelled          US: Traveled

Another difference is nouns in British ending ‘ce’ where American endings are ‘se’:

British: Defence            US: Defense

British: Offence            US: Offense

British: Pretence          US: Pretense

But it’s vocabulary differences where things get even more interesting. Here are a handful of examples:

British: Trousers           US: Pants

British: Pavement        US: Sidewalk

British: Petrol                US: Gas

British: Bonnet             US: Hood

British: Lorry                 US: Truck

British: Holiday             US: Vacation

British: Flat                    US: Apartment

British: Jumper             US: Sweater

British: Chips                 US: Fries

British: Crisps                US: Chips

British: Chemist            US: Drugstore

The famous British writer George Bernard Shaw observed that ‘The British and the Americans are two great peoples divided by a common language’ and we can see some truth emerging in that comment! However, although the British and American English have to some extent gone their separate ways, they remain pretty much the same for the large part and it would be a rare situation where Americans and Brits wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other in a way that’s understood by both!

At ICLS, we offer English classes for learners across the globe, including a number of English classes in washington dc, as well as business english and english pronunciation classes both in-person and online.

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