When considering a new language to learn, you may encounter the additional dilemma of which ‘subtype’ to choose; a beginner of Spanish may prefer the Latino subtype over its Iberian counterpart, just as another may deem British English more useful than American. So, in what ways does learning a particular subtype over another advantage a language speaker, if at all? And which subtype of English would you be better suited to learning? Here, we’ll discuss various aspects of both types of English, helping you decide which you would prefer to learn.
To some extent, the strained relationship between British and American English was established through the bloody history of rebellion against the British and the resulting independence America now claims. Paralleling the American Revolution in the 1700s, the English language was brutally ripped apart, with the Atlantic Ocean separating the two halves and forcing individual development of the language on both sides. Almost two and a half centuries later, we observe two subtypes with corresponding elements but with enough to define themselves as distinctive.
While the phrase “lost in translation” is typically applied to a misinterpretation of meaning from one language to another, the difficulties encountered by a lad from North Yorkshire and a guy from Auburn, Alabama negotiating British and American English may easily be described as such. Consider the use of vocabulary in these sentences:
- Don’t put the aubergines on the hob yet.
- Lift up your bonnet.
- Don’t put the eggplant on the stove yet.
- Lift up your hood.
The first example comes from my own experience of negotiating British and American English: I had a friend from New York over for dinner and he was helping me cook. I had cut up aubergines, placed them in the frying pan to be cooked once I had finished chopping up the other vegetables. I saw that he had picked up the pan to heat it, and told him not to put the aubergines on the hob yet; he looked at me as though I’d just reprimanded him in Dutch. While I was already familiar with the terms ‘eggplant’ and ‘stove’, they did not form part of my typical vocabulary; it is fairly common that speakers of British English may understand certain American words even if they don’t use them, while vice versa this is generally not the case.
The second describes a different aspect of being lost in translation: double meaning of words. In British English, a ‘bonnet’ refers to the metal cover on the engine of a motor vehicle; the corresponding noun in American English is ‘hood’, however in British English ‘hood’ refers to a covering for the head and neck, with an opening for the face, typically as part of a piece of clothing. Therefore while an American may not understand what their bonnet is, a Brit would respond to ‘Lift up your hood’ by uncovering their head rather than opening the cover of their car engine.
Even when the words themselves are the same and their meaning is not confused, their individual spellings may differ; the most common example of this is the replacement of ‘s’ with ‘z’ in certain American words, though there are other occasions where spellings vary:
British → American
Standardise → Standardize
Neutralise → Neutralize
Colour → Color
Harbour → Harbor
Aeroplane → Airplane
Aesthetic → Esthetic
While these linguistic differences exist, it is impossible to decide whether one subtype of English is more advantageous than its counterpart. It seems that each person choosing between British and American should consider which countries they may want to explore in the future far more than the linguistic separation of the two subtypes. For example, if you plan to live or work in the United States, it would make sense to learn American English, however if you live in Europe having learned British English and decide to immigrate to the US, it will not disadvantage you. At the end of the day, it is a case of personal preference rather than scientific advantage – regardless of whether you master British or American English, your life and future will benefit from your decision. Good luck!
English Teacher, Iberlingva