Weird History
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Why The Heck We Have Big Differences In American Vs. British English

Updated June 28, 2021 12.3k views12 items

"We really have everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language."

Oscar Wilde's characteristically pithy quote from The Canterville Ghost (1877) reflects a perception felt on both sides of the Atlantic. But where do all these perceived differences actually come from? Why do Americans prefer to end words with -ize rather than -ise? Why are Brits so particular about using the letter "u" and why do they so hate the word soccer?

All of these questions and more will be covered in this list, explaining the origins and reasons behind those differences in the versions of the English language spoken in the United States and in the United Kingdom. 

  • The Emergence Of An American Accent Happened Quickly

    British colonization of the Americas began in earnest in the 17th century, and it wasn't long before a distinctive way of speaking the King's English began to emerge. Exposure to the languages of other settlers, natives, and isolation from the home country meant that an American brand of English emerged quickly, perhaps as soon as a single generation

    One of the major distinguishing features of standard American English vs. standard British English is rhotacism (pronunciation of the letter "r"), which means that in a funny way, standard American English is more traditionally English than the English spoken by the British aristocracy. 

  • Photo: The Patriot / Sony Pictures Releasing

    Received Pronunciation Might Actually Originate In The US

    The stereotypical "posh" British accent, Received Pronunciation is a relatively recent phenomenon. It's generally believed to have been developed by the British aristocracy during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century to distinguish elites from the working class. The key characteristic of RP is the nonrhotic manner of speaking - words like card sound more like cahd, star more like stah.

    It was traditionally held that the distinctive Boston accent came from English settlers emulating the aristocracy of their homeland, but researchers suggest that the accent predates the Industrial Revolution and actually originates from Boston

  • Samuel Johnson's Dictionary Was A Crucial Milestone In The Standardization Of The English Language 

    In 1755, with the help of a staff of dedicated researchers, Samuel Johnson undertook the mammoth task to bring some semblance of order to the English language. If you look at any document or literature that predates the Johnson dictionary, you'll likely be struck by the chaotic spelling. Johnson and his team tried to fix the language's ad hoc nature, and while he couldn't ever "fix" an ever-changing living thing, he could make it more accessible. 

    Eight years and 40,000 words later, the Dictionary of the English Language was published and a major milestone in the standardization of the English language was reached. The work represented one of the first examples of English that would be recognizable to the modern reader and was the foundation for every major work in English that followed. 

  • Photo: Morse Pinx, Kellogg Sc / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Following the American Revolution, the work of developing a distinct and uniquely American identity began in earnest. Language was an obvious way to achieve this, so Noah Webster began the work of codifying the American take on the English language in the early 19th century. In 1806, he published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, the first American dictionary. But this was only the beginning. 

    After years of dedicated work, Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language came out in 1828, a truly groundbreaking work that set the standards for modern American English. As well as the creation of American vocabulary, Webster was committed to spelling reform and worked to iron out the inconsistencies in British English spelling to make it easier for learners of English, young and old alike, to grasp.