Food & Culture

The Hidden Differences Between American and British English

You're probably pretty familiar with the big differences between British and American English. What Americans call an elevator, Brits call a lift, and while a New Yorker would put his luggage in the trunk, a Londoner would put it in the boot. But it may surprise you to learn just how many differences there are between these two versions of the exact same language.

Dialect Diversions

When Americans and Brits try to imitate one another, they rely on a predictable set of vocabulary cues. The Americans go for words like "Cheerio!" "telly" and "chuffed." The Brits say things like "Howdy!" "dude" and "incentivize." According to Lynne Murphy, author of "The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English," the words we most identify with the "other" English, be it US or British, capture stereotypes of what we think of each other: British is flustered, adorable and silly. American is sloppily casual and full of corporate-speak. But these easy stereotypes are not only often wrong (British people don't really say "cheerio" anymore. Americans didn't invent "incentivize"), they miss the really interesting linguistic differences.

Murphy is an American linguist who has been living in England for more than 20 years and has been tracking the differences between American and British English on her blog Separated by a Common Language for more than 10 of them. She knows the ins and outs of the differences in spelling, pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar, but she still manages to find surprising new ways that the two Englishes depart from one another.

Same Word, Different Meanings

Differences are noticeable when they cause misunderstandings. When a British person says "brolly," an American might need to be told that's a term for umbrella. When an American says something is "quite pretty," offense might be taken until it's explained that American "quite" acts like "very" and not "moderately." But there are many differences that go unnoticed because they rarely cause any misunderstanding. Much of the time, both parties think they understand each other perfectly when they are, in fact, operating according to divergent, hidden assumptions in meaning.

Those assumptions do sometimes reveal themselves. Murphy tells the story of how she "spent years being put off by English people's description of my accent as 'an American twang.'" To her, a "twang" was a distinct sort of plucky sound found in a Texas or Kentucky accent, while she would describe her own American accents as "mumbly." But then she noticed English people also speak of a "Scottish twang" or "German twang" and realized that "twang" in British English can just mean 'trace of an accent' without saying anything about the specific quality of that accent.

Another surprising realization was that "frown" has different connotations. The American meaning locates the expression primarily on the downturned mouth, while the British version focuses on the knitted brow, making the American phrase "turn that frown upside down" somewhat mysterious. There are plenty of connotations and entailments like these. An American might not realize that for Brits, "rock" entails a large mineral mass, so that they would never have a "rock" in their shoe, but a "stone." For Brits, a "pan" entails a relatively flat shape and a handle, so cake is baked in a "tin" not a "pan." For Americans "soup" can be a liquidy broth with dumplings or chunks of meat in it, while for English people that would be described as a "stew." The prototypical "soup" in England is a smooth blended liquid. Murphy discovered this when she was under the weather and sent her English husband out for a curative chicken soup, and he kept coming back with versions of creamy chicken purées.

Same Words, Different Grammar

When it comes to food, there are plenty of other subtle differences in assumptions. A chicken "burger" would be assumed to be a patty of ground chicken in the US, where in the UK it might be a whole chicken breast on a bun. A British "sandwich" is assumed to be made with sliced bread while an American one might be on a baguette, bagel, or roll. But there are other food assumptions that don't depend on vocabulary differences as much as grammar ones.

For example, American "mashed potatoes" treat "potato" as a noun that must be put into the plural while British "mashed potato" treats it as an uncountable mass (like "rice") that stays in the singular. Likewise, Americans eat (countable) "scrambled eggs" while the British go for (mass) "scrambled egg."

It goes the other way too. Some things that Americans mark as singular, British marks as plural. When you forget to zip your jeans an American will let you know that your "fly is open" while an English person will tell you your "flies are undone." When you go to weigh yourself, you may step on "the scale" in the US or on "the scales" in England. The meaning is the same, but the grammatical marking is different. The US/UK difference between "math" and "maths" has often been noted, but disagreement on plural marking is much more widespread than people on either side of the pond realize. These hidden differences reveal themselves once you depart from the stereotypes and really start to listen.

For more on the fascinating ways that US and UK versions of English depart from each other in vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and meaning, as well as the surprising truth about "bumbershoot" and "poppycock," check out Lynne Murphy's "The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Arika Okrent May 31, 2018

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