It is something that most – if not all – of us non-native English speakers have struggled with at some point in our lives: the differences between British and American English. Whether we are trying to use the right words ordering our food during our holiday abroad in the US or UK, or typing an email and trying to remember if we’re supposed to write “centre” or “center”, “analyse” or “analyze”, “colour” or “color”.
While these differences may seem obvious for native speakers, for us non-natives, they are sometimes downright confusing. Luckily for us, there are plenty of websites out there explaining the differences in spelling. However, the differences between both languages are not limited to spelling – if only it were that easy.
What’s in a word?
There are a multitude of words that have an entirely different meaning in both countries. An example we are probably all familiar with is “chips”: while Americans eat them out of a bag, in England chips are served warm and typically eaten with fish (and vinegar, but let’s not get into that). An Englishman would “stop for petrol on the motorway” rather than “stop for gas on the highway” and an American would never “pop out for a fag” (meaning a cigarette). In the US, you would raise some eyebrows asking for “aubergines” and “courgettes”, but “eggplants” and “zucchinis” are perfectly normal there.
Some of these differences have a very simple explanation: while British English has been influenced to some extent by the French language, the same is true for American English and the Spanish language. For this reason, the British say “coriander” – which is derived from French – and Americans use the Spanish “cilantro”, due to the influence of Mexican cuisine.
“It was decided almost two hundred years ago that English should be the language spoken in the United States. It is not known, however, why this decision has not been carried out.” – George Mikes, British journalist
Could you repeat that?
To make matters even more challenging, American pronunciation is in some cases very different from English. I am not referring to the pronunciation of words like “scone”, “water” or “Worcestershire” (good luck with that last one), but to words that have a different emphasis in both languages. How about the word “advertisement”, for example? While in America the emphasis is on the first syllable (advertisement), in the UK it is pronounced advertisement, making it sound like another word altogether. And have you ever noticed the difference between adult (US) and adult (UK), or brochure (US) and brochure (UK)? The list is endless.
And this is how we handle it
At Translators International we are very much aware of how crucial these differences are when translating, especially when it comes to marketing texts. It is not a matter of simply changing words like “cancelled” to “canceled” and “prioritise” to “prioritize” if you want to change a UK English text into a US English one. If you only change the spelling and forget to take into account all of the other differences, it might result in some serious confusion – after all, you do not want to end up with an ad promising Americans they get free “braces” whenever they purchase a pair of “trousers”!