There are many varieties of English other than British English, as you will discover if you are learning the language. Variations of the English language can be found in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Jamaica, to name but a few. However, the most well-known differences are between English in the United Kingdom and English in the United States. Some of these differences are very well-known, such as calling a pavement a sidewalk or a garden a backyard. Who hasn’t watched American films and TV series and noticed various differences between two languages. As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘England and America are two countries separated by a common language’. However, an English person can go to America or an American can go to England without any serious problems of communication. Why did these differences arise? The English language first came to America in 1607 when the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia was established. Since then, the two languages have not evolved in the same way, each being affected by different types of cultural and linguistic influences from, for example, immigrants. In one country, an old word might be kept and in the other a newer word would be used. The main differences between American and British English are to be found in spelling, grammar and vocabulary. Vocabulary I think this is the most well-known area of differences between the two languages. Apart from sidewalk and backyard, examples include truck (US) for lorry (UK), autumn becomes fall and biscuits become cookies in the US. Your purse is not for your change, it is your handbag. The change is kept in a change purse. In the UK you wouldn’t want anyone to see your pants as they are articles of underwear, in America you wouldn’t mind, as they are your trousers. Be careful what you ask for to eat, sweets are candy, crisps are chips and chips are French fries, a marrow is a squash and candyfloss is cotton candy in the US. If you want to go to the loo or toilet in America you must ask for the bathroom or restroom, whereas bathroom in Britain is where you have your bath. Some meanings of the same words are different between the two types of English. Mean in the US means angry or bad-tempered, in the UK it refers to someone who is tight-fisted and miserly. Quite in the US means ‘very’, whereas in the UK it means somewhat or fairly. Spelling This is also an area where there are differences between the two languages. For instance, words in British English that end in -our, such as colour and humour, end in -or in American English, color, humor. Favourite becomes favorite, -re becomes -er; theatre/theater, kilometre/kilometer. ‘S’ is often replaces by ‘z’, so realise becomes realize, cosy becomes cozy. The double ‘l’ in traveller changes to one ‘l’ in the US, traveler, the same for jewellery which becomes jewelry, also losing an ‘e’ in the process. Programme becomes program, dialogue becomes dialog, grey becomes gray and so on. Grammar One of the main grammatical differences between the two forms of English is the forms of the past simple verbs. There are some verbs that have a regular and irregular past form, eg burnt and burned, the irregular form being more current in Britain and the regular form more current in the US. These include: dreamt/dreamed, learnt/learned, smelt/smelled, spelt/spelled, spilt/spilled, spoilt/spoiled. There is a change in some past participles, too, the most well-known being gotten in the US for got in the UK. The use of the present perfect also varies between the two countries. In Britain it is used for an action in the recent past that has an effect on the present moment, eg. ‘I’ve lost my wallet’, meaning I lost it a short while ago and still haven’t got it. The Americans would use the past simple and say ‘I lost my wallet’. This also applies to sentences with already, just and yet. In Britain we would use the present perfect, ‘I’ve just had breakfast’, ‘I’ve already done my homework’ and ‘Have you finished your dinner yet?’, but the Americans could use these forms or the past simple, ‘I just had breakfast’, ‘I already did my homework’ and ‘Did you finish your dinner?’. In all these cases there are more examples than I have listed here. If you are writing in English it is a good idea to keep to one type of English and to try not to mix the terms and meanings so that your document is easily understandable.
False friends in English and French
Some words, both in English and in French, can be treacherous. They are so similar that it is easy to think that their meaning is the same in both languages. However, it isn’t only their pronounciation that is different. Sometimes there is a slight overlap in meaning and sometimes they can translate as something totally different. This could dramatically change the sense of your text. For example, sensible is not the same in English and in French. In English it means someone practical, matter-of-fact, intelligent, raisonnable in French; in French it refers to someone who is sensitive. The misuse of this word could give a totally different idea of someone in one language as compared to the other. Many words have the same roots, such as Latin, but, as the languages evolved, so did the meaning of these words, although many continued to be written identically. Some have slight changes in spelling, such as gentle and gentil. Gentle in English means someone with a mild and kindly nature and gentil in French means nice, kind or good. Here there is an overlap of meaning, both indicate kind but, in English, the emphasis is on mildness or softness. Other words are spelt exactly the same but mean something totally different, such as four, which is an oven in French and a number in English, or chat, which means a friendly talk in English and a cat in French. Here, the list is endless. Other words to be careful with are: grand; hazard/hasard/; mercy/merci; store; tentative; proper/propre; actually/actuellement. Then again, there are words that have two meanings and you must be sure to choose the right one for your translation. For example, in French voler means ‘to fly’ and ‘to steal’, bark in English means the noise made by dogs and the covering of a tree trunk. All these can cause a lot of confusion for language students and the only answer is to memorise the differences in meaning. Otherwise you could end up producing errors such as translating noyer as ‘drowning’ instead of ‘walnut’ to produce the phrase ‘the drowning dining table and chairs’. Although highly amusing for your English readers, if they don’t know any French they will never guess want you really want to say, which is ‘the walnut table and chairs’ (I have actually seen this in a tourist guide). This is one of the reasons for using a good translation service so you can be sure that your copy is correct if not humorous.