A Bo'oh'o'wa'er

American English, abbreviated in ‘ AmE ’ in the dictionary, and British English, ‘ BrE ', are not the only Standard English dialects on the planet, but are indeed the most widespread due to both Countries’ colonial pasts. This is probably the reason why they are the two speaking communities that pick up on each other the most when it comes to pronunciation, accent or vocabulary differences. They’re almost as keen on bantering each other on language as the French and the Italians are on food.

Honestly I, just like you, am fed up with all the fuss about the way the Brits say ‘water’. The video up here is by probably the most iconic influencer of the genre. By ‘genre’ I mean the “American vs. British” genre, which is a subgenre of content that belongs to the your-country-vs-my-country genre. Don’t get me wrong, he’s super funny, but I guess It's just me being jaded.

The internet is so full of this content that another article on the differences between American English and British English sounds everything but necessary. However, there is always something new about language that the mainstream neglects but which is, quite often, very interesting.

This shall not be your faithful, SEO-oriented article on the major differences between American and British English vocabulary. There will be no bullet points, no lists, no vs. Will there be jokes on how funny it is that Americans say ‘sidewalk’ because it is literally a walkable path on the side of the road? Probably, I don’t know. What is surely going to be here is a wider, more general overview of the way the English language, and especially how it behaves coming and going from one corner of the Atlantic to the other. Sociolinguistics will help us build up the argument, in particular I am reading from Peter Trudgill’ Sociolinguistics (first published 1974); mine is the fourth edition (2000).

William Labov, one of the forefathers of Sociolinguistics. Copyright:

This might be the twentieth time I am citing Trudgill in an article: feel free to diss me for that, but I shall persevere. Anyway, let’s get straight to the point, shall we?

Present perfect is the trickiest grammar lesson, both to teach and to learn. Furthermore, once you understand the rules and the right occasions to use it, you start hearing native speakers screw it all up, and you start thinking: has my teacher taught me wrong? Or did my teacher teach me wrong? Mass confusion. Believe you me, I have students who have been studying English for like a decade and still can’t figure out when to use PP (Past Participle). The answer is blowing in the wind, my friend.

The problem is that North American English standardised the use of simple past for actions that have happened and that still hold consequences in the present: a situation for which standard British English requires the present perfect. Let me give you an example: A British English speaker would say “I haven’t eaten all day, I can’t wait for supper”, an American would say “I didn’t eat all day, I can’t wait for supper”.

Therefore, it is not your fault if you keep on mismatching tenses: you are only confused because they are both correct, depending on the dialect you choose to learn. Next time you have a test on present perfect, remember that you have a choice, but you must stick to it. You can’t just say “I never took the lift before”.

meme by: Winkgo

A matter of class

Another more generic and impressive fact about English dialects is their sociolects. This very cute word stands for ‘social-dialects’, and it refers to that category of language variation inside a speaking community that develops because of class. As Trudgill (All-Hail!) puts it, by referring to a study conducted by Professor Labov, different social classes have different social-class accents. As you may imagine, higher social-classes dwellers, having access to better education, conserve a more standardised language, which, evidently, varies very little on the territory. On the other side, lower social classes develop stronger regional differences, and their pronunciations and accent may change completely in the ray of ten kilometres.

But what made this study relevant to our topic is that the research uncovered a weird fact: some features of the Standard British English pronunciation, which belongs to the register common to upper classes, are instead main features of lower classes in the New York (NY) area, if not in America in general.

The pronunciation of non-prevocalic /r/, for example. Non -prevocalic /r/, as the name tells us, is the ‘r’ in words such as “water”, “star”, or “barn”. The RP (“Received Pronunciation”, a word that refers to the most élite British English pronunciation) requires these “Rs” not to be pronounced. However, Labov found out that in New York, the absence of that /r/ was a major feature in lower-class individuals.

Basically, back in the days (Labov carried out this research in the ‘70s), the Queen’s speech would have been more similar to a New York’s cashier than to the President’s.

The reasons why this feature developed thus is yet to be clarified by Linguistics (as far as I know). We could hypothesise that mass migration from England had taken part in this development, or that that non-prevocalic /r/ is from lower class, American Black people’s speech, and that it crossed the boundaries of ghettoisation and racial segregation throughout the decades. What do I know? I studied literature, not linguistics.

That’s a wrap, my dear fellas. If you imagined to find here a nice list of vocabulary differences between Americans and English, and you are disappointed, I shall/should strongly apologise to you, imagine myself being Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, on a theatre/theater stage, full of colours/colors, asking for your forgiveness, before you take the lift/elevator down, to leave and find your way home on the pavement/sidewalk, between bins/trash cans and terrorised/terrorized cats.

Cheerio.