A Comparative Analysis of Lexical Variation in American and British English with special reference to few selected words

Debjani Sanyal, Camellia School of Engineering & Technology

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The main focus of the present paper is to find out the lexical variations of US and British English and how they constantly influence each other. In spite of several research findings question still arise like who ‘owned’ and set the ‘correct rules’ for the English language. Is it the different forces operating in the UK and the USA influencing the emerging concept of a Standard English? (David Crystal, 2003). The present study will be delving into these complex issues. The main reason for choosing this subject is that more references to immigration in the US and its influence onto the development of language made me explore the main issues.

[Keywords: American and British English, lexical variations, early American English, Dialects, Linguistic Nationalism,  Spelling Reform, interlingual false friends]


British and American English are the reference norms for English as spoken, written and taught all over the world. Although most dialects of English used in the former British Empire outside North America and Australia are to various extents, based on British English, most of the countries concerned have developed their own unique dialects, particularly with respect to pronunciation, idioms and vocabulary. Chief among other English dialects are Canadian English, Australian English, which rank third and fourth in the number of native speakers (Kerry Maxwell and Lindsay Clan field)[i]. The main focus of the present study is to find out the lexical variations of US and British English and how they constantly influence each other.

Much research has already been done on US and British English Spelling differences, differences in grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, accents etc. by numerous authors starting from Noah Webster in the 18th century to authors of the present decade like D. Barton who in an article “Potentially confusing and embarrassing Differences between American and British English”[ii] commented:

“I realize that perhaps a lifetime of watching American Television and a half hour speech are not adequate preparation for appreciating and coping with the differences between American and British speech”.

Whereas Noah Webster in the 18th century had reflected:

“No great change should be made at once, nor should any change be made which violates established principles, creates great inconvenience, or obliterates the radicals of the language. But gradual changes to accommodate the written and spoken language especially when they purify words from corruptions, improve the regular analogies of a language and illustrate, etymology, are not only proper, but indispensable.”

A brief history of inflow of immigrants and early American English.

Beginning with the English settlement of Jamestown in 1607 and the landing of the Puritans in Massachusetts in 1620, the English language is established in America along with Dutch, German, French and other tongues. The greatest linguistic influence results from this first period of immigration and the establishment of the settlements of the original thirteen colonies. New England was first settled by English speakers between 1620-1640. After the puritans settle in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1620, a second settlement centre is established in 1635 in the Lower Connecticut River Valley (on the western side of the river). Even today, the Connecticut River is an important regional dialect boundary, separating the rless dialect of Boston from the more r-ful liabects in western New England. Religious dissenters from the Massachusetts Bay Colony found the Rhode Island Colony in 1638, and the Narragansett Bay area forms another distinctive dialect subregion.iii

The inflow of immigrants from other areas too was then a continuous process with Dutch settling in New York in 1614, (but the colony was seized by British in 1664) figuratively around 10,000 Dutch settlers were living there; Welsh, Scots-Irish, Germans and a mix of English settling in Pennsylvania, and more of Scots-Irish immigrants settling extensively in the Appalachians. Among the South Atlantic States, it was Virginia which attracted a variety of social outcasts-criminals, royalists, indentured servants and the Puritans from England; religious and political refugees from France (Huguenots/ Calvinists) and inland, Scots-Irish and Germans. (Frederick Jackson Turner: 1997)


The two settlements one in Virginia, to the South and the other to the North in present day New England had different linguistic consequences. The southern colonists came mainly from England’s ‘West country’ and Somerset and Gloucestershire and brought with them its characteristic accent, with its ‘Zummer zet’ voicing of s sounds and the r strongly pronounced after vowels. Echoes of this accent is still heard in speech communities of some of the isolated valleys and islands in the area, such as Tengier Island in Chesapeake Bay. These are called ‘Tidewater accents’ and have changed with time though but not too rapidly as accents elsewhere in the country due to isolation of the speakers.iv

By contrast, many of the Plymonth colonists came from countries in the east of England – in particular, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Essex, Kent and London and with some from the Midlands, and few from further afield. The eastern accents were rather different notably, (lacking an r after vowels, as in present day Received Pronunciation (RP) – and they proved to be the dominant influence in this area. The tendency of not pronouncing the r is still a feature of the speech of people from New England.

Other features of the language of 17th century England has their correlates in modern American speech, such as the short, ‘flat’ a vowel in such words as dance, where RP developed the ‘long’ a. British English also came to pronounce such words as not with lip– rounding, where as in the USA the earlier unrounded vowel (found as nat in Chaucer, for example) remained. Americans generally pronounce either and neither with [i] vowel (as in ‘bean’), while in England the pronunciation has followed the pattern of the vowel shift to the dipthong [ai], as in “fight”. Several older words or meanings became part of the US standard, such as mad ‘angry’ and fall ‘autumn’, as well as many dialect words; scallion ‘spring onion’, for example originally from northern England, is commonly used throughout the USA. A phrase such as I guess, which is often condemned as an Americanism by British purists, can in fact be traced back to Middle English.

General American used to be thought of as most of the Western half of the country and refers to a dialect characterized by the retention of r, “flat a” and an unrounded vowel in hot. This is a kind of “idealized” dialect (broadcast English) generally thought of as “Standard”. (Mc David, R. I., 1980)

From the above discussion on dialects it is evident that new shiploads of immigrants in the 17th century brought an increasing variety of linguistic backgrounds. And people speaking very different kinds of English thus found themselves living alongside each other, as the ‘middle’ Atlantic areas (New York, in particular) became the focus of settlement. As a consequence, the sharp divisions between regional dialects gradually began to blur.

In the 18th century, there was a vast wave of immigration from Northern Inland. By the time independence was declared (1776), no less than one in seven of the colonial population was Scots-Irish. By the time of the first census, in 1790, the population of the country was around 4 million, most of them living along the Atlantic coast. Again, a century later, after opening up of the west, the population numbered over 50 millions, spreading throughout the continent. The accent which emerged can now be heard all over the so called Sunbelt (from Virginia to Southern California), and is the accent most commonly associated with present day American speech.v (Leonard, I. & Parmet, R. 1971)

US history is one of immigration though, the American identity is doomed to change in case immigration control (Migration Control Policy), most importantly the border control are neglected as hypothecated by many scholars. Yet there are arguments in support of free migration in the US, the idea behind that is “assimilating new wave of immigrants will lead to greater prosperity for the nation” and historical success lends such a support. (Frederick Jackson Turner: 1997)

Now, ‘immigration control policy’ and  arguments in favour or against the issue is yet another significant area of research and has a keen relation with American English accents and dialects but the present study focuses on a discussion on ‘American Identity’ and the independent  American English, free from British influence of the immigrants, and the comparison between the

Linguistic Nationalism

As perception of the country (US) as a nation seperate from England grew, so too did the perception of language differences. In January 1774, an anonymous writer (Possibly John Adams) issued a proposal in the Royal American Magazine for a national academy (Crystal David, 2003). In this context some relevant lines from his proposal which talks of perfecting the English language in America (18th century English) are highlighted:

“The English language has been greatly improved in Britain within a century, but its highest perfection….. is perhaps reserved for this land of light and freedom…. I beg leave to propose a plan for perfecting the English language in America, thro’ every future period of its existence should be formed, consisting of members in each university and seminary, who shall be stiled Fellows of the American Society of Language … And that the society annually publish some observations upon the language… enrich and refine it, until perfection stops their progress and ends their labour.”

A few years later (September 5, 1780) John Adams wrote to the president of congress from Amsterdam proposing that Congress establish an “American Academy for correcting, improving and ascertaining the English language.”vii

As a result of this inner strife for gaining American identity, the word Americanism has come into existence since after the Revolution to refer disparagingly to words or usages of supposed American origin. John Witherspoon, first president of Princeton University (then known as the college of New Jersey), coined the term:

“By Americanism, I understand an use of the phrases or terms, or a construction of sentences, even among persons of rank and education, different from the use of the same terms or phrases, or the construction of similar sentences in great Britain.” He makes it clear that British term and usages are not worse in themselves, but simply to adhere to what is American and not of English growth, this identity is required.viii

Among the usages identified by Witherspoon as “Americanisms” are the use of either to refer to “one or the other of two”, notify to mean “inform”; fellow countryman, which he regarded a redundancy; mad, as “a metaphor for angry”.

Spelling Reform

It is at this point of time Noah Webster brought forth his contribution Dissertations on the, English Language in 1789, where he proposed  institution of an ‘American standard’. To him ‘it was partly a matter-of honour’ as an independent nation… to have a system of our own, in language as well as govt; it was partly a matter of common sense, because in England ‘the taste of her writers is already corrupted and her language on the decline’; and it was partly a matter of practicality, England being at ‘too great a distance to be our model’. This national or ‘federal’ language was inevitable, because the exploration of the new continent would bring many new words into the language, which Britain, would not share; but it also needed fostering. Spelling reform, he concluded, would be a major step in that direction.ix

Although Webster went through a period in which he advocated radical reform, the position he finally adopted was a fairly moderate one. In the Preface to his first lexicographical venture, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806), he writes :

“No great change should be made at once, nor should any change be made which violates established principles, creates great inconvenience, or obliterates the radicals of the language. But gradual changes to accommodate the   written   to   the   spoken   language….. are   not   only   proper,   but indispensable.”

Webster’s Dictionary received a mixed reception especially in matters of spelling and usage; but the work was crucial in giving to US English an identity and status comparable to that given to the British English Lexicon by Dr. Johnson.x

Justification of the need for the present sutdy vis-a-vis analysis of the existing hypothesis

Coming back to speech after a discussion on ‘spelling reform’ one question that automatically comes up at this point is

When did Americans stop ‘talking British’?(Metcalf, A. 2000)

The split-off point is the mid 18th century. Research says American English started going its own course around the time of the Revolutionary War. Here also, exceptions are found. As people of New York and the coastal South had maintained contact with the “Old World”, and hence adopted some later British innovations.

Again, if the split-off point is the mid 18th century, i.e., when US achieved independence (1776), the questions arise:

     Who ‘owned’ and set the ‘correct rules’ for the English Language?

     Is it the different forces operating in the UK and the USA
influencing the emerging concept of a Standard English?

The differences are perhaps first officially promoted in the spelling conventions proposed by Noah Webster in The American Spelling Book (1786) and subsequently adopted in his later work, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). These publications achieved enormous success and were the major steps towards scholarly acceptance that British English and American English were becoming distinct entities.(Pro English: 2008)

If we move away from the formal written English in the direction of the informal spoken language, the differences between regional varieties dramatically increase. Though in the case of American and British English the variation is considerable, no accurate estimate is there for the number of points of contrast. There are two chief reasons behind this:

  • Recent decades have seen a major increase in the amount of influence the two models have had on each other, especially American on British. The influence of US films and television had led to a considerable passive understanding of much American English vocabulary in Britain, and some of this has turned into active use, especially among younger people. The reverse pattern is less obvious. British films and TV programmes are seen sufficiently often in the USA to mean that a growth in awareness of UK vocabulary should not be discounted. What were originally fairly clear patterns of lexical differentiation have been obscured by borrowing on a world wide scale.
  • Much research has already been done on regional dialect of both countries and much is yet to be done. Several findings are bringing to light huge amount of lexical distinctiveness. xi  Few examples of these distinctions are as follows :

Br E                                                     Am E

pillar box                                            mail box

post                                                     mail

lead / li:d/    –                                     leash

rubbish                                               garbage

 autumn                                               fall

aerial                                                   antenna

bank note                                           bill

barrister                                             lawyer

  bill (restaurant)                                check

 biscuit                                                 cookie

bonnet (car)                                       hood

  chips                                                   french fries

 cooker                                                 stove

crossroads                                          intersection

curtains                                              drapes

dustibin                                              garbage can

engine                                                 motor

film                                                     movie

flat                                                       apartment

football                                               soccer

garden                                                 yard

handbag                                              purse

 holiday                                               vacation

jumper                                                sweater

lift                                                       elevator

to let                                                   to rent

 lorry                                                    truck

metro, underground tube                subway

 nappy                                                  diaper

   pavement                                           sidewalk

petrol                                                  gas, gasoline

post                                                     mail

post code                                            zip code

queue                                                  line

railway                                                railroad

solicitor                                              attorney


                        Br E                                                     Am E

                        colour                                                 color

                        favourite                                             favorite

                        honour                                                honor

                        vigour                                                 vigor

                        analyse                                               analyze

                        criticise                                               criticize

                        memorise                                           memorize

                        enrolment                                          enrollment

                        fulfil                                                    fulfill

                        skilful                                                 skillful

                        centre                                                  center

                        metre                                                  meter

                        theatre                                                theater

                        analogue                                             analog

                        catalogue                                            catalog

                        dialogue                                             dialog

                        jewellery                                             jewelry

                        draught                                               draft

                        pyjamas                                              pajamas

                        plough                                                plow

                        programme                                        program


A number of English idioms that have essentially the same meaning show lexical differences between the British and the American version, for instance:

                        Br E                                                     Am E

                        touchwood                                         knock on wood

                        throw a spanner                                throw a (monkey) wrench

                        sweep under the carpet                    sweep under the rug

                        not touch something with               not touch something with

                        a bargepole                                        a ten-foot pole

                        skeleton in the cupboard                 skeleton in the closet

                        a home from home                           a home away from home

                        blow one’s trumpet                          blow one’s horn

In some cases the “ American” variant is also used in Br E, or vice versa.

The existence of interlingual false friends

The main cause for the differences between both varieties of English can be explained through the theories of language change. The English language has ‘landed’ in America with the first British settlers and from that moment onwards the language had the need to adapt to its new environment and respond to the new people’s needs. Changes began to be perceived from the very beginning of the American history which marked a different evolution of both varieties. Thus, the language of immigrants and the geographical distance between Britain and America also determined the evolution of the language. Hence, American English preserved some words (gotten) that died out in Britain, and Americans coined new words for new inventions and social changes (for instance, in the automobile industry.) The separate sociocultural development and history of both countries have undoubtedly given way to the different meanings of these intra lingual false friends.


The American and British varieties have influenced each other over the years, especially now that we are in the era of the Internet and in the era of globalisation. English became an influential language, not primarily because of the number of people who spoke it, rather because of the power of the British Empire, which controlled large parts of the world. Conversely, since today the British Empire no longer exists, the significance of the English language comes from global influences. Nowadays, the fact that English plays a major role in business, science, politics and economics ensures its continued presence in the world.

Furthermore, the phenomenon of  “soft globalization” expresses the dominance of English (particularly US English) culture, through the standard use of consumer items such as blue jeans and Coca Cola.

English being spoken by so many, leads to unification of the people and allows world wide communication. As a result, this common language fosters exchange and therefore globalization (Kim Bauer, Anna Spiess, Tabea Stossel, Nora Wetzel – ‘People and the English language’). In fact, British English has adopted many American uses into everyday language and, some British terms are used in America. This can be justified by the influence of TV programmes, the Hollywood industry and the information and communication technologies. For this reason, it may be seen that interlingual false friendsxii may not exist for long. It is likely that the meanings of these words will one day merge, turning them into equivalent terms as a result of the different processes of semantic and language change. In the first quarter of the 21st century, there is evidence that these words have different meanings in both varieties. The mutual influence of both varieties on each other, and particularly, the ‘Americanisation’ of British English is not restricted to the lexical component of the language; in fact, the influence of American English also affects English syntax to lesser extent, as is the case of modal auxiliaries (Leech 2003), and these interlingual false friends are not exclusive of different varieties of English. They can also be perceived in different varieties of Spanish, such as Latin-American Spanish and Iberian Spanish (e.g. concha or coger have completely different meanings in both varieties of the language).

It is necessary to bear in mind that the existence of these semantic differences has implications in language teaching and learning. Teachers and students must know that there are particular items which have different meanings in both varieties and that they must be careful and act in accordance with the context of situation and with the variety of English that they are using and / or learning.

Implications for teaching

The two varieties of English most widely found in print  and taught around the world are British and American. Hence it is important for teachers to be aware of the major differences between the two. While lexical differences are easily noticed, a knowledge of grammatical and phonological differences can be useful not only for teachers to be aware of, but also to be able to deal with while they teach.

While writing for international exams, or writing English in general, it is important for a teacher to instruct students that they stick to any one variety (UK spelling or grammar /US spelling or grammar) through a whole piece of writing.

An American English coursebook will be different from British English coursebook with respect to grammar, spelling, phrases / idioms etc. An American student may find it odd to have ‘at the weekend’ written in a lesson, as s/he is used to hearing ‘on the weekend’ in America. The teacher’s duty here is to accept either of these expressions from his/her student and point out the difference.  An important point to make is that different doesn’t mean wrong. Students must be told that no language or regional variety of language is inherently better or worse than another. They are just different. Students are often biased in their English usage. While it may be true for that particular individual, there is no evidence to suggest that one variety is easier to learn or understand than the other.


i.     Maxwell Kerry and Clanfield Lindsay, Article on “Differences in British and American English Grammar”, 2000. Retrieved from

ii.     Borton D; Article on “Potentially Confusing and Embarrassing Difference between American and British English.” Retrieved from

iii.     Tujijeziki anglescima (2009). “How has immigration into The United States influenced the Language?”   Retrieved from

iv.     “Immigration to the United States”, Wikipedia. Retrieved from –

v.     The accent of West Virginia, North Carolina, most of Kentucky and Tennesse is characterized by – post – vocalic r is retained in this variety; the dipthong in “right” and “bye” is often pronounced more like the vowel in “father”. South Carolina, Virginia and Piedmont have an accent characterized by loss of r finally and before consonants; the unrounded vowel (as in “father”) in “top” and “hot”, flat in “grass”, “dance” and “path”. Final consonant cluster reduction occurs in words like “last”  and “kept”   (i.e., these are pronounced something like “lass” and “kep”.

vi.     Bryan Caplan, “The Efficient, Egalitarian, Libertarian, Utilitarian Way to Double World GDP” August 20, 2011, EconLog.

vii.     The American (English) language. Retrieved from

viii.     Alan A Metcalf, How we talk: American regional English today (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2000.

ix.     “Minority Ethnic English”, <>

x.     Retrieved from

xi.     “How accents influence the immigration debate”, Washington Post. Retrieved from…/how-accents-influence-the -immigration-debate Much research has been done on regional dialect of both UK & US and much is yet to be done. Several findings are bringing to light huge amount of lexical distinctiveness. Few examples of these distinctions are discussed above already.

xii.     Interlingual false friends:  The metaphorical phrase false friends is frequently used in the field of linguistics in order to indicate the existence of some lexical items in two languages which are similar in form but different in meaning. (Hill 1982; Prado 2001; Dominguez & Nerlich  2002; Shlesinger and Malkiel 2005). They are called false friends because they appear to be easy to grasp, learn and understand at first sight but unfortunately for non-native speakers, the words’ formal appearance is not really indicative of their true meaning.

E.g. – German ‘gift’ means ‘poison

English ‘gift’ means ‘present

English ‘rope’ means ‘string

Spanish ‘ropa’ means ‘clothing

 Works Cited:

Algeo John. “British-American Lexical Differences: A typology of interdialectal variation”. English Across Cultures, Cultures Across English: A Reader in Cross-cultural Communication. Ed.

Ofelia García and Ricardo Otheguy. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1989.

Bauer, L. Watching English change. Harlow: Longman, 1994.

Benson, Morton, Evelyn Benson and Robert F. Ilson. Lexicographic Description of English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1986.

Bodnar, J. The Transplanted. A History of Immigrants in Urban America. Indiana University Press, 1985.

Crystal David, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, 2nd Ed. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Domínguez, Chamizo, Pedro José and Nerlich, Brigitte. “False Friends: Their Origin and Semantics in Some Selected Languages”. Journal of Pragmatics. 34:1833-1849, 2002.

Frederick, Jackson Turner.  The Frontier in A history. Univ. of Virginia, Sept 1997, Web. Dec 6, 2012.

Graddol David. English Next. British Council, 2007. <>

Hansel, Jan. How has immigration into the United States influenced the language?. Univerzitetna knjižnica Maribor, 2009. <>

Hill, Robert A Dictionary of False Friends, London: Macmillan Press, 1982.

Jarrahi, Elaheh.The Concept Of Melting Pot As An American Identity”. SparkNET, 2007. <>

Leonard, I., & Parmet, R. American Nativism, 1830-1860. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1971.

Mc David, R.I. Varieties of American English: Essays (Language Science and National Development). Stamford University Press, 1980.

ProEnglish Action. “English in the 50 States.” Arlington, VA. ProEnglish Action. 2010. <>

Rickford, John R. “How Linguists Approach the Study of Language and Dialect”.  Ms. January

2002, for students in Ling 73, AAVE, Stanford. <>

Trawick-Smith, Ben. “When did Americans Stop “Talking British?””  Dialogue Blog, 2011. <>

Webster’s New World Dictionary. Ed. in Chief David B. Guralink, Amerind Pub. Co. Pvt. Ltd, 1968.

Debjani Sanyal is Assistant Professor, Camellia School of Engineering & Technology, Barasat, Kolkata-700124. India.

[Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, Vol. V, No. 3, 2013, URL of the Issue:]

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