The English language arrived in North America in 1607, when the English set foot ashore and established a permanent settlement in Jamestown, Virginia. A rich variety of English dialects made their way across colonial America and cross-pollinated each other. The result was a more homogenous language than the English spoken in the United Kingdom.


Even when many non-English-speakers arrived in America from Europe and Africa in the late 17th century, English retained its dominant position. At the end of the 18th century, the language started to resemble what we today call “American English”. But what happened, and why did English change so much when it crossed the Atlantic?


First and foremost, it’s important to remember that both British English and American English consist of many different regional dialects. So saying “British English” or “American English” is already a gross generalisation. What Swedes consider “typically British English” is actually Received Pronunciation (RP) or BBC English. Typically American English, on the other hand, is the General American (GenAm) accent that is also sometimes referred to as the “newscaster accent”.


Rrr ... right?

A major difference between British and American English is rhotacism. American English is rhotic: the r in words like work and hard is pronounced. British English, on the other hand, is non-rhotic, so the r often remains unspoken – hard sounds like hahd.


Both in the United Kingdom and in the British colonies in America, English was and remained rhotic until some time after the American Revolution.


In the south of England, the upper and middles classes began to adopt a non-rhotic way of speaking around the early 19th century, after the Industrial Revolution, to distinguish themselves and emphasise their social status. The posh dialect was then standardised as Received Pronunciation and taught to those who wanted to speak a modern, high-class English. RP was considered neutral and easy to understand, so it eventually came to be spoken all across England.


Soon, the people living in American coastal cities like Boston, Richmond and Charleston also picked up non-rhotic English as a status marker. The dialect spread all the way to the south of America


But something else happened in New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Chicago in the early 20th century. The English upper classes had no cultural or linguistic influence there, which is why people still spoke rhotic English. After the Industrial Revolution, RP lost its prestige and eventually disappeared from America. Instead, the dialect that was spoken in the Manufaturing Belt (an industrial region between Boston and Washington) spread across the continent; known as General American, it became as common in America as RP was in the United Kingdom at the time.


We hereby dub thee... groundhog

It is not just pronunciation that sets British and American English apart, however. When the English arrived in North America in 1607, they came across flora and fauna they’d never seen before. This forced them to invent new words and borrow words from the Native Americans – like opossum and raccoon. They also adopted words from immigrants from countries like Germany (kindergarten), Spain (rodeo) and France (barbecue). Groundhog was a neologism, as the rodent did not exist in England.


Words that had gone out of style and were no longer used in the United Kingdom kept being used in the British colonies in America. Examples include bureau, gotten and fall (in the sense of autumn).


Correct spelling is key

These days when we differentiate between British and American English in the translation sector, we mainly refer to differences in vocabulary and spelling. The letter u is one way in which British spelling differs from its American counterpart, for example: Brits include it in words like flavour and colour, while Americans don’t (flavor, color).  If it’s British English you want to write, you have to use the suffix -ise instead of -ize: think organise/organize. If you’re inviting a Brit to see a play, you’ll invite them to the theatre, while an American would expect to join you at the theater.


We have Noah Webster to thank for these and many other altered spelling rules. This lexicographer standardised American English in the early 19th century by compiling and publishing the “American Dictionary of the English Language”


It depends on whom you’re asking...

To sum things up, everything depends on whom you’re speaking with. If an American and a Brit would tell you about the time they ordered a vegetable dish to start off a meal abroad, you’d be treated to two different versions of the tale.


One would tell you he ordered a zucchini and eggplant dish as an appitezer while on vacation, while the other would say he had been on holiday and ordered a courgette and aubergine dish as a starter.


Which version of English would you like to communicate in – British or American English?