Transatlantic Translations Winston Churchill once said of America


Winston Churchill once said of America and Great Britain, “We are separated by a common language.” He was right. People in these countries both claim to speak English, while insisting the other doesn’t. When you think about it, it’s surprising. Most of the British colonists that crossed the Atlantic spoke perfectly good Elizabethan English. So what happened' One explanation may be that the early Americans wanted so badly to be different from their European predecessors that they went out of their way to stake whatever claim they could on the language. America’s second president, John Adams, even said, “As the people through this extensive country will speak English, their advantages for polishing their language will be great, and vastly superior to what the people of England ever enjoyed.”

Regardless of the historical reason, the differences between the languages are staggering, but not so much that they defy at least some classification. There are three main categorical differences between American and British English: Word choice differences, spelling differences, and differences that stem from nonlinguistic sources.

Most of the best known differences between the dialects comes from different words used to identify the same things. For example, Americans refer to the storage area in the rear of a car as a “trunk” because it resembles a traditional piece of luggage in size and function. The British refer to this area as a “boot” because, when the car is anthropomorphized, the storage area is at the opposite end of the car as the proverbial brain (engine). Two definitions that each make sense, yet don’t seem to have any immediate connection to each other. It’s this kind of word choice that makes up the bulk of the difference between American and British English. There are dozens of other examples, for further reading, there is a handy translation program that can be found for free at http://esl.about.com/library/vocabulary/blbritam.htm. Spelling can be defined as a visual representation of pronunciation. Since pronunciation varies in both countries, it’s stands to reason that the rules of spelling would as well. One characteristic of British English is that more emphasis is placed on vowels. A written example of this is the vowel strong syllable -or in American English that expands to -our in British English in words like color/colour honor/honour. Other spelling differences result from history. For example, the American word “center” is spelled centre in England. This is a leftover piece of Middle English from the days of Geoffrey Chaucer when the rules of spelling hadn’t yet been codified.

It’s interesting to note that these British spelling differences are starting to be phased out of use thanks to spell checkers. Since the programs are written in the US, they don’t recognize the British spellings. It will be fascinating to see if the British spelling style survives another 20 years.

Different dialects of English are not the only differences between the US and UK. Other cultural discrepancies can result in even more linguistic issues. For example, England uses the metric system of measurement, the US does not. As a result, many British texts make no sense to Americans. If a recipe calls for 500 grams of sugar, many Americans would have no idea what that means. Add to the fact that even if the measurement unit “cup” is used, equals two different amounts of liquid. Another example is the twenty four hour clock, Americans with no military or international background wouldn’t know what a clock reading 17:00 meant. These are cultural differences that have no connection to language, yet can create a thick language barrier.

British and American English are undeniably different. However, those differences are not that serious when you think about it. The alphabet, grammar, and most of the phonics are the same. The only things worth worrying about are the distinctive British accent and difference in nouns. That makes American English and British English no different than any other two regional dialects (aside from the thousands of miles of ocean that separate them). That’s how EFL teachers should approach it. If the students have a solid foundation in the language, they should be able to adapt to any dialect with only a minimum of extra preparation.