What is British English

What is British English?

English is a globally spoken language and is spoken by between 1.5 billion and 2 billion people worldwide. Many people consider English to be a world language due to these figures.

It is no wonder that distinct variations of English have emerged as a result of the English language’s general use. One such variation is British English.

But what is British English exactly?

Look no further; this article is written to answer every question you might have about British English


History of British English

British English (BrE) is a word used to distinguish the British Isles’ version of the English language from other versions. It encompasses all dialects of English spoken in the British Isles, including those spoken in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. It is also commonly used outside of the British Isles and among linguists and lexicographers. British people generally refer to it as ‘Standard English’ or just ‘English’

The language was brought to the Americas by the British when they arrived by sea between the 16th and 17th centuries. Spelling had not yet been standardized at the time. The first dictionaries were required to establish the appearance of these words. The dictionary was created by scholars in London, United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, Noah Webster acted as a lexicographer in the United States. To distinguish the American version from the British, he allegedly changed the spelling of the phrases to show cultural independence from the mother country.

After the first immigrants came to America, differences in speech evolved between American English and British English. These individuals spoke in a style known as rhotic speech, which emphasizes the ‘r’ consonants in words.

Meanwhile, the upper classes in the United Kingdom softened their pronunciation of the ‘r’ sounds in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the common people. Because the affluent was considered the standard for being fashionable even back then, others began to copy their speech, which eventually became the norm in the south of England. 


Characteristics of British English

While British English is used in the United Kingdom; it is not generally accepted. This is because it indicates a greater range of usage than it actually does for some British individuals.

Most of the ‘standard’ forms, whether written or spoken, originate from southern dialects. 

British English in History and Pop Culture

As these comments demonstrate, journalists, humorists, and others have had a lot to say about British English and its place in the world of language.

Terry Eagleton (The Wall Street Journal, June 22, 2013)

“British flat dwellers do not make their homes in burst tires; and the word ‘bum’ in British English means both buttocks and vagrant. People in the United Kingdom don’t usually say ‘Thank you’, ‘Zero in’, ‘Reach out to others’, ‘Stay focused’, ‘Ask for a break’, ‘Refer to the bottom line’, or ‘Get blown away’. To British ears, the word ‘scary’, as opposed to ‘frightening’ or ‘alarming’, sounds infantile. The word ‘awesome’, which would cause planes to fall out of the sky and cars to lurch off motorways if it were prohibited in the United States, is rarely used in the United Kingdom.”


Dave Barry (Only Travel Guide You’ll Ever Need, Ballantine Books, 1991)

“Because the inhabitants of England speak English, it is a very popular foreign nation to visit. When they get to the vital part of a phrase, though, they usually use made-up words like ‘scone’ and ‘ironmonger’. As a savvy tourist, you should acquire a few British terms to prevent communication snafus, as demonstrated by the following examples:


Example 1: 

English Waiter: May I assist you?

Traveler: Please give me an inedible roll.

English Waiter: Huh?


Example 2:

English Waiter: May I assist you?

Traveler: I’d like an ironmonger.

English Waiter: Right away, Sir!



British English in Academics and Literature

As these texts illustrate, academics, linguists, and grammarians have also described British English, particularly its contrast to American English.

John Algeo (The Cambridge History of the English Language: English in North America, Cambridge University Press, 2001)

“There was no British English before English speakers began to spread across the globe. Only English was available. Comparisons are used to define terms like ‘American English’ and ‘British English’, when in fact they are related as a brother and a sister can be.”


Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes (American English: Dialects and Variation, Blackwell, 2006)

“The fact that British citizens were protesting about American vocabulary and word usages, such as the use of the word ‘bluff’ to refer to a ‘bank’ or a ‘cliff’, shows how quickly English in America diverged from British English. In reality, the term ‘Americanism’ was established in the 1780s to describe a set of terminology and phrases that came to characterize early American English but not British English.”




What are the Kinds of British English?

The truth is that, while it is referred to as Standard English, it is anything but standard. British English has a diverse range of accents and dialects, with more than 37 dialects at the latest count. Dialects can differ locally and socially, depending on where a person is from in the country.

Here is a list of a handful of the dialects and accents you will encounter on any trip to the United Kingdom. 

Received Pronunciation (RP) 

When people think of teaching or studying British English, they generally think of the Queen’s English, which is a standard form of the language, called the Received Pronunciation (RP). It is also the pronunciation that the British Upper Class uses. Foreigners are taught using the RP model described in English dictionaries and used at the oldest universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.

It is essentially a ‘flat’ accent with stressed vowels like A (pronounced ah as in bar) and O (pronounced ohw as in blow) but most of the time diverse pronunciation between different terms, which can be confusing if you are learning English for the first time. 


Scottish

The Scottish dialect varies greatly from city to city, town to town, and in the Western Isles, it becomes increasingly like an Irish accent. In the far north, it becomes increasingly like Nordic languages.

The stronger the accent appears to become, the further away the place is, therefore, persons from the Shetland Islands can be difficult to understand at first. Glaswegian can often be challenging, even for Scots!


Geordie

Newcastle residents speak the Geordie dialect and are also known as Geordies.

One of the most distinguishing features of this dialect is that the ‘r’s at the end of words are not pronounced, but are instead pronounced as ‘ah’. As a result, a word like ‘sugar’ becomes sug-ah’. A phrase like ‘Space Centre’, for example, becomes ‘Space Cent-ah’!


Scouse

Scousers or Liverpudlians are people from Liverpool, and Scouse is their dialect, which, like Geordie, is quite strong and readily distinctive. In words, there is a lot of focus on the characters A and Y. They roll their Rs as well, making it difficult to distinguish whether they are speaking L or R.

The Liverpudlian accent has become one of the most well-known British regional dialects. It is a nasal dialect that can be difficult to imitate at first. 


Yorkshire

Yorkshire is a large county in England, and many individuals speak a Yorkshire dialect variation as a result. Yorkshire, sometimes known as ‘God’s Own County’, boasts a delightful dialect.

One of the most obvious modifications between this dialect and RP is that words ending in ‘ee‘ sound, such as ‘nasty’, are pronounced as ‘nasteh’.


Welsh

Wales, although being a separate country, has its own culture and language, which is spoken by half a million people.

When Welsh people speak English, their accent is easily recognizable; they pronounce terms like ‘Wales’ as ‘WEE-alss’, rather than ‘WAY-ells’ as the English do.


Cockney

This is one of the most well-known dialects in the United Kingdom, and it is synonymous with London. It developed as the working-class vernacular of London, particularly in the city’s poorer East End.

The Cockney accent gave birth to Rhyming Slang, and market sellers in the East End can still be heard shouting in Cockney from their stalls. There are several ‘glottal stops’ in the Cockney dialect, and the ‘th’ sound commonly converts to an ‘f’ sound.


Brummie

The term is derived from Brummagem and Bromwichham, two ancient variant names for Birmingham, the metropolitan city where this dialect is spoken. It is pretty soft and springy, and sounds lumpy.

Although there are many variations of the Brummie accent across the city (it’s the third-largest in England), people with a Brummie accent might say ‘hello’ as ‘heh-LOUW’ instead of ‘HEH-low’.


West Country

The West Country dialect is closest to the old British language of Anglo-Saxon, which was founded in Germanic languages. West Country people say ‘I be’ instead of ‘I am’, and ‘Thou bist’ instead of ‘You are’, which is extremely similar to ‘Ich bin’ (I am) and ‘Du bist’ (You are) in modern German. 


Northern English

The Northern Irish accent is both lovely and powerful. When people speak Northern Irish, the first thing you will notice is how many letters appear to be missing from words. ‘Northern Irish’, for example, would be pronounced more like ‘Nor’n Ir’sh’! 


Estuary English

This is another London-based dialect. The ‘Estuary‘ in issue is the Thames Estuary, and those who reside along its length speak this dialect. This is currently one of the most commonly spoken accents in the South. It is not as posh as RP, but it is not as ‘ordinary’ as Cockney, either.

One of the most common characteristics of this dialect is the use of multiple negations, as in ‘I ain’t never done nothing’, and the use of the non-standard such as ‘them books’ instead of ‘those books’



Differences Between British and American English

The most notable dissimilarity between British and American English is in pronunciation and spelling.

There are very minor differences in vocabulary and grammar.

People who speak both British and American English can communicate comfortably. Below is the comparison between British and American English for your reference. 

Spelling

British EnglishAmerican English 
anaemia anemia
diarrhoea diarrhea
programmeprogram
burntburned
dreamtdreamed
defencedefense
cancelledcanceled
marvellousmarvelous
judgementjudgment
organiseorganize
enrolenroll
cataloguecatalog
favouritefavorite
theatretheater
tyretire

Vocabulary

British EnglishAmerican English 
appetizerstarter
trouserspants
biscuitcookie
car parkparking lot
flatapartment
lorrytruck
universitycollege
crispschips
trainerssneakers
chemistdrugstore
rubbishgarbage
footballsoccer
pavementsidewalk
petrolgas
liftelevator

Grammar

Present Perfect and Past Simple Tenses

The present perfect tense is employed in British English to speak about a previous activity that is related to the present. 

In American English, the present perfect is being used in the same way, but people frequently use the past simple when they believe the action to be completed. The adjectives already, just, and yet are particularly prone to this.

British EnglishAmerican English
American English
“She isn’t hungry. She has already had lunch.”“Have you done your homework yet?”“Yes, I’ve just finished it.”“She isn’t hungry. She already had lunch.”“Did you do your homework yet?”“Yes, I just finished it.”

Verb Forms with Collective Nouns

Collective nouns (nouns referring to specific groups of people or objects such as staff, government, class, team) in British English can be preceded by a singular or plural verb as to whether the group is regarded as one idea or as many individuals. 

Collective nouns are always followed by a singular verb in American English.

Note: The noun ‘police’ is always considered plural (in both).

British EnglishAmerican English
“My family is/are coming from Thailand.”

“My son’s team is/are winning the game.”

“The staff is/are having a meeting.”

“The police are working on the case.”
“My family is coming from Thailand.”

“My son’s team is winning the game.”

“The staff is having a meeting.”

“The police are working on the case.”

Use of ‘Got’ and ‘Gotten’

The past participle tense of ‘get’ is ‘got’ in British English. 

In American English, the word ‘gotten’ is used.

Note: The phrase ‘have got’ is frequently used in both British and American English to refer to possession or necessity. Here, ‘have gotten’ is not correct.

British EnglishAmerican English
“I could have got hurt!”

“She’s got very tall.”

“He has got serious about his studies.”

“Has she got any food?”

“They have got to go now.”
“I could have gotten hurt!”

“She’s gotten very tall.”

“He has gotten serious about his studies.”

“Has she got any food?” NOT “Has she gotten any food?” 

“They have got to go now.”NOT “They have gotten to go now.”

Use of ‘Have’ and ‘Take

The verbs ‘have’ and ‘take’ are widely used in British English with nouns such as bath, shower, and wash to talk about washing, and with nouns such as break, holiday, and rest to talk about rest.

Only the verb ‘take’ (not the verb have) is used in this sense in American English.

British EnglishAmerican English
“I’m going to have/take a bath.”

“Let’s have/take a rest.”
“I’m going to take a bath.”

“Let’s take a rest.”

Use of ‘Shall’

‘Shall I…?’ and/or ‘Shall we…?’ are frequently used in British English to volunteer to do something and/or to make a recommendation.

The use of ‘shall’ is uncommon among American English speakers. ‘Should I/Can I…?’ or ‘Do you want’ and ‘Would you like…?’ are common alternatives. 

British EnglishAmerican English
“It’s raining. Shall we postpone the match?”

“Shall we go to the park at 7?”

“Shall we prepare dinner now?”
“It’s raining. Can we postpone the match?”

“How about we go to the park at 7?”

“Do you want to prepare dinner now?”


American or British English: Which One Should You Use?

While both American and British English are generally accepted worldwide, it is still quite noting that depending on the purpose of why you are using the language; one should be preferred over the other.

You must consider yourself and your situation. If you happen to be in the Americas, you should be using American English. If not, concentrate on British English because British English grammar and spelling norms are used in most English-speaking countries

The same can be said when it comes to academic writing. While both are acceptable, it is only fair and respectful if you use the kind of English they prefer.

You should also ask yourself this question: “Do I have many clients or coworkers from the United States or the United Kingdom?”

This might assist you in determining whether you need to use American or British English. You may believe that one sort of English is easier than the other, which can help you decide which one to learn. Any of these factors could be used to help you determine which type of English to use.

So, choose between British and American English, but keep in mind that the other exists. You do not have to pick one and then never use the other. Be versatile and decide which to use depending on your situation.  


Tips for Using British English in Your Writing

Do you feel ready to take on a writing job anywhere in the world now that we have gone through the maze of distinctions between British and American English?

Here are our five top recommendations for learning to write British English (or American English). 

  • Read up on the writing style you want to use.

Writers and editors’ strongest tools are frequently their brains, and a lot of repetition.

After all, it was through this method that we all acquired English in the first place. Find respectable organizations’ books, publications, and news media in the version of English you want to write. If you read a lot about a variety of topics, you will start to notice the differences on your own.


  • Be consistent. 

When writing, the most important thing is to pick one spelling/usage and stay with it. If you write ‘theatre’ once, make sure you write ‘theatre’ every time.

Although reader and editor preferences differ, inconsistency is always unprofessional. Every time you learn a new term, make a style sheet and jot down the mandatory or recommended spelling. Because these can get long, make sure to structure your style sheet, so it does not become unreadable.


  • Make full use of your spellchecker.

Spellcheck is your closest friend if you are writing in a foreign language. However, double-check the language it is checking.

If you are trying to write in British English but it is set to American, you are in for a world of trouble. Keep in mind that the default autocorrect settings for your communications platforms and cloud documents are also affected.


  • Look it up on the internet.

If you are unsure about a term, search it up instead of guessing. It is not just about knowing what is right when it comes to editing. It is also about anticipating what can go wrong. Learn to recognize signals that a term may have an American or British variant. For example, a -ise or -ize spelling.

Also, check those terms up first rather than depending on recollection. Add a new term to your stylesheet once you have learned it. Because there is some variation between dictionaries, pick one and stick with it as your reference.


  • Ask a native speaker. 

Many of us know someone who grew up or currently resides in another country or continent.

If you have a friend who is a native speaker of British English, ask them to read over your work for anything that appears to be ‘odd’.  There is no better resource than someone who has grown up speaking a dialect.



What are the Countries Using British English Spelling?

The past strength of the British Empire is largely responsible for the extensive use of British English around the world, which is mirrored in the adoption of British writing forms in various regions of the world.

Below is a list of the different countries that use the British English spelling: 

The United Kingdom 

British English (of course) is used in the United Kingdom

  • England
  • Scotland
  • Wales
  • (Northern) Ireland

Countries Under the British Commonwealth 

There is no doubt that these countries, being under the Commonwealth, are using British English as well. 

  • Canada
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Antigua and Barbuda
  • The Bahamas
  • Barbados
  • Belize
  • Grenada
  • Jamaica
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Tuvalu
  • St Christopher and Nevis

The European Union

The European Union also follows British English, especially in translation. 

  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Bulgaria
  • Croatia
  • Republic of Cyprus
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • Netherlands
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden

Countries in Africa that Used to be British Colonies

Being former colonies of the British Empire, the following countries also use British English. 

  • Nigeria
  • Kenya
  • South Africa
  • Zambia
  • Ghana

(Some) Asian Countries

While these Asian countries have an official language of their own, they use British English in official and academic settings. 

  • Bangladesh (with variations) 
  • Brunei
  • Cambodia
  • China (mainland) 
  • Hong Kong
  • India (with variations) 
  • Malaysia
  • Myanmar
  • Singapore


Why Does Learning British English Matter?

Learning British English is just like learning another language, but way easier. If you are already familiar with the English language, regardless of which variety. While there are some differences between British and American English, the main point to remember is that they are more similar. Using one instead of the other by accident will not always result in miscommunication. 

What matters most to you is that you continue to improve your English abilities and practice speaking clearly and confidently. Accept that multiple forms of English exist and that this is not a reason to be concerned or anxious. It is just the way things are.

Concentrate on clearly articulating your thoughts and feelings in English. Exert extra effort to understand the distinctions between British and American English to recognize them, and it will surely help you wherever you may be. 



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