British vs. American English: Colour/Color Them Different

As all major languages do, English comprises a diverse family of speakers across a wide variety of geographical and ethnic boundaries. There is a world of difference between the English spoken in Oxford, Boston, Nashville, Toronto, Delhi, and Sydney. While most of the countries that stayed in the old British Commonwealth (like Canada and Australia) have generally retained the UK spellings of words, two centuries ago the United States declared not only its political but its linguistic independence.

English can be a difficult language to learn even today, but it must have been even more confusing back in the 1700s. Standardized spellings hardly existed for anything: if you read Shakespeare, for instance, in the original text, you’ll see some truly wild spelling of familiar words. Indeed, he even used variants of his own name such as "Shakspere" and "Shakspeare" in his own will! So you can see that later on, when colonists in the New World were setting up their own civilization, they felt very free to establish their own language as well.

The publication of Noah Webster’s A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language in 1806 first codified a distinctly American language. It included many novel technical terms, reflecting the already famous “Yankee ingenuity,” as well as some of the more noteworthy alternate spellings we still associate today with American English. For example:

British: centre
American: center

British: defence
American: defense

British: traveller
American: traveler

British: pretence
American: pretense

British: analyse
American: analyze

British: gaol
American: jail

British: honour
American: honor

(This also goes for colour/color, favour/favor, flavour/flavor, harbour/harbor, labour/labor, neighbour/neighbor, rumour/rumor!)

Webster published his later, more comprehensive work American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828. By that time the two variants of English were well on their way to permanence, and with both nations establishing themselves as world powers in commerce, things became awfully confusing for the various peoples for whom English (any kind of English!) was a second language.

And even for Americans who go to England, or for Brits who come to America, it can be like learning a whole new tongue. As the Irish playwright and wit George Bernard Shaw put it, the United States and the United Kingdom, regardless of the unity emphasized in both of their names, are truly “two countries separated by a common language.”

Stephanie Brooks is a freelance writer and blogger who mostly enjoys covering all things education, including at top10onlineuniversities.org, but also regarding traditional brick-and-mortar institutions. When she's not writing, she can be found at the gym working out to Zumba and cooking healthy recipes at home. She welcomes your feedback.
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