English as a universal language has several varieties but here we are concerned with the two major national varieties – British English and American English. Two varieties together account for upwards of 400 million speakers with the United States having approximately four times the population of the United Kingdom. However, English is unmistakably one language despite the differences between the national varieties and variations within them because those differences are insignificant compared with the similarities (Algeo, 2010).
Of those two varieties, British English has long enjoyed greater prestige in Western Europe and some other places around the world. Its prestige is doubtless based partly on its use as the language of the British Empire and partly on its centuries of great literary works. The prestige of British English is often assessed, however, in terms of its “purity” (a baseless notion) or its elegance and style (highly subjective but nonetheless, powerful concepts). Even those Americans who are put off by “posh accents” may be impressed by them and hence likely to suppose that standard British English is somehow “better” English than their own variety.
Yet despite the historical prestige of British, today American English has become the most important and influential dialect of the language (Algeo, 2010). Its influence is exerted through films, television, popular music, the internet and the world wide web, air travel and control among other activities where United States seems to be the dominant factor. The point here is that American English is not inferior to British English, the only thing is that the popularity of the two varieties depends on linguistic environment and situational contexts.
The truth is that British English has been extensively infiltrated by American usage especially vocabulary. Of course, there are many Americanisms in British English and examples include backwoods, beeline, belittle, blizzard, bunkum, caucus, cloudburst, prairie, swamp, and a good many others that have long been completely acclimatized.
In recent years many other Americanisms have been introduced into British usage: cafeteria, cocktail, egghead, electrocute (both in reference to the mode of capital punishment and in the extended sense ‘to kill accidentally by electric shock’), fan ‘sports devotee’, filling station, highbrow, and lowbrow. The ubiquitous OK whose root was Americanism seems to occur more frequently nowadays in England than in the land of its birth and may be found in quite formal situations such as legal documents to indicate the correctness of details therein.
The following Americanisms – forms, meanings or combinations – appear in formal utterances of eminent personalities as well as in the writings of some quite respectable authors on both sides of the Atlantic: alibi ‘excuse’, allergy ‘aversion’ (and allergic ‘averse’), angle ‘viewpoint’, blurb ‘publicity statement’, breakdown ‘analysis’, crash ‘collide’ etc.
The convenient use of noun as verb as in ‘to contact’ to mean ‘get in touch with’ originated in America and it is acceptable in British English. Of course, there is nothing un-English about such a conversion: scores of other nouns have undergone the same shift of use.
Different varieties of English can also differ phonologically in three main ways. First, other phonological systems can differ: for example, the inventory of phonemes may be different. Secondly, the realizations of the same phoneme can be different, that is, be pronounced differently. Thirdly, the distribution of phonemes can differ, that is, different phonemes may be selected for the pronunciation of a given word. To this can be added differences of stress and intonation (Barber, 1999). For example, the English North America was separated from British English rather early, and has a somewhat different system. To some extent this results from the fact that most North American speech is rhotic, that is, /r/ is pronounced before a consonant or a pause, whereas in Received Pronunciation (RP) it is not pronounced in these positions. However, it is not all North American English that is rhotic. In the USA, the speech of coastal South of Eastern New England and of New York city is to a considerable extent non-rhotic.North American England also differs from PR in the realization of many phonemes especially vowels.
In general American, differences of vowel-length play a smaller part than in Received Pronunciation (RP), and length-marks are not normally used in phonemic transcriptions. A difference in consonant realization concerns /t/ and /d/. When /t/ is intervocalic. In words like pretty and letter, Americans usually make the /t/ with a single rapid tip of the tongue and frequently also voice it, so that to British ears it sounds like /d/.
Many Americans also produce intervocalic /d/ with a single rapid tap, and if they voice their /t/, it does indeed become identical with their /d/, so that latter and ladder are homophones.
The tap realization can also be used when a sonorant consonant rather than a vowel precedes the /t/ or /d/ as in dirty (where most American pronounced the r) and kinder. It is also used when the following vowel is at the beginning of the next word, in phrases like ‘get it’.
Apart from the regular differences such as the pronunciation of /t/ after vowels in much of American English, there are several words which are pronounced differently. In each case the contrast is with mid- 20th century Received Pronunciation e.g. schedule begins with two consonants in AmE (as in skin) but with one in BrE (as in Shin). The middle vowel of tomato rhymes with car in BrE, but also with mate in AmE. The first syllable of lever rhymes with leaver in BrE, but also with that of level in AmE.
Conversely, the first syllable of leisure rhymes only with the vowel of let in BrE, but also rhymes with lee in AmE. Again, the word route rhymes with out for many AmE speakers; it is always like root in BrE. The word Vase rhymes only with cars in BrE, but also with vase or days in AmE. The word herb is pronounced without the initial h in AmE, but with h in BrE; however, some herb-words do have h in AmE, such as herbivore, herbicide etc. Many AmE speakers stress certain words differently from BrE speakers e.g. ballet AmE/ ballet BrE, debris AmE/ debris BrE, address AmE/ address BrE, inquiry AmE/ inquiry BrE, magazine AmE/ magazine BrE etc (Crystal, 2002).
And some words which have one main stress in BrE have two in AmE as enumerated: auditory AmE/ auditory BrE, secretary AmE/secretary BrE, laboratory AmE/ laboratory BrE etc.Some typical examples of spelling differences follow. However, the picture is complicated by the fact that some American spellings are now in use in BrE (e.g. judgment, inquire, encyclopedia) and some BrE spellings are used in the United States (e.g. enclose, judgement).
Fundamentally, British spellings often attract ‘ou’ as in colour, honour, mould, smoulder etc, while American spellings favour ‘o’ as in color, honor, labor, mold and smolder.
American English through the influence of Noah Webster sustains the practice of using –er instead of –re that the British came to favour in a number of words – for instance, calibre, centre, litre, manoeuvre, metre, theatre etc.The last of these spellings competes with theatre in America especially in proper names. All these words occurred in earlier British English with –er except for litre which did not come into English until nineteenth century.
The American use of –se in defense, offense and pretense in which the British English usually have –ce, is also attributable to the precept and practice of Webster, though he did not recommend fense for fence, which is simply an aphetic form of defense (or defence). Spellings with –se occurred in earlier English for all these words including fence (Algeo, 2010).
Verbs in British English that can be spelled with either –ize or –ise at the end are always spelled with –ize at the end in American England e.g apologize or apologise in British is simply apologize in American English; organize or organise in British English is simply organize if it is American English.
Verbs in British English that end in –yse are always spelled –yze at the end in American English as in analyse BrE/ analyse AmE; paralyse BrE/paralyze AmE etc. In British spelling, verbs ending in a vowel plus ‘I’ become double ‘I’ when adding endings that begin with a vowel. In American English, the ‘I’ is not doubled e.g. counsellor BrE/counselor AmE; travelled BrE/traveled AmE; fuelled BrE/fueled AmE etc.
There are several small points of difference in the grammar of the two varieties, though the influence of AmE and BrE is such that many of the usages which were once restricted to the former now appear in the latter. Also, some of the British English usages are found in American English, with varying preference, depending on dialect and style.
For example, twenty to five BrE is twenty of four in AmE; five past eight BrE is five after eight in AmE; in future BrE is used as in the future AmE; I burnt it BrE is I burned it in AmE; half an hour BrE is a half hour in AmE; I have just eaten BrE is I just ate in AmE, I will see you at the weekend BrE is I will see you over the weekend in AmE etc (Perrin, 2000).
In terms of vocabulary, there are many words which are used in both AmE and BrE, but with a difference of meaning. Several of the American English have come to be used freely in British English in recent years. Let’s look at some words and their uses in both British English and American English e.g. alumnus in AmE is graduate in BrE; apartment AmE is flat in BrE; cab AmE is taxi in BrE; drug store AmE is chemist in BrE; gas AmE is petrol in BrE; movie AmE is film in BrE; schedule AmE is timetable in BrE; vacation AmE is holidays in BrE; yard AmE is garden in BrE; sidewalk AmE is pavement in BrE etc (Eyisi, Okolo and Onwe, 2005).
Above all, it is not a crime to use either British English variety or American variety in speech and writing. What is important is consistence and situational contexts. In essence, the user of the language should not be switching arbitrarily between British and American usage. One other important factor for consideration is the socio-linguistic factors such as environment and situational contexts.
Apart from the two major varieties analysed here, there are still other varieties such as Canadian English, Australian English etc. Nigeria as a country gives prominence and preference to British English than the American English due to her history and cultural factors. As users of language, one needs to understand the similarities and differences between British English and American English specifically the variations in pronunciations, spellings, vocabulary and grammar of the two varieties of the language.
Algeo J. (2010) The Origins and Development of the English Language: United States, Wadsworth Cencage Learning pp 182-190
Barber C. (1999) The English Language – A historical introduction: United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press pp 243-245
Crystal D. (2002) The English Language: A Guided Tour of the Language: New York, Penguin Books
Eyisi J., C. Okolo and J. Onwe (2016) English for all Purposes: Ibadan, Spectrum Books pp 430-435
Perrin P.G (2000) Writer’s Guide and Index to English: Chicago, Scott, Foresman and Company pp 418-420