Differences between American and British English (vocabulary)

Differences between American and British English (vocabulary)

There is noticeable variation in the vocabularies of American English and British English. Definitive analysis is problematic,[1] but thorough research can reveal useful data and evidence of the differences. The table on this page shows evidence of regional variation between American and British English.

Change in the vocabulary (lexical change) of a dialect arises from both internal and external pressures. Of external influence, crossing of terms between American and British English is not wholly restricted one-way, but American English is the predominant worldwide influence.[2][3][4]


Analysing the differences

The analysis of variation within a language is a research area of Linguistics. The technical term for a vocabulary is a lexicon. Research into lexical variation (the variation in words used) between two dialects of the same language employs several methods, including empirical inquiry into the actual language used by an appropriate sample of speakers and statistical corpus analysis (analysis of large bodies of 'naturally occurring' data, i.e. the lexical content ('words') of books, television, newspapers, etc.).[5]

Limitations of analysis

  • Language is constantly changing: the accuracy of the data may degrade quickly after the date when the research was done.
  • The picture is further complicated by the variation (due to region, age, gender, social norms and many other factors) within the national dialects.[6]
  • Globalisation has accelerated the rate-of-change to English worldwide:[7] a list of lexical variation should not be regarded as an authority on current differences, but rather as evidence of variation by which dialects can be distinguished.
  • It is not a straightforward matter to identify items as equivalent. David Crystal identifies some of the problems of classification on the facing page to his list of American English/British English lexical variation, and states "this should be enough to suggest caution when working through an apparently simple list of equivalents".[8]


  1. ^ "[T]here are problems when comparing two or more corpora"
    Laurie Bauer, "Inferring Variation and Change from Public Corpora" in The Handbook of Language Variation and Change (Blackwell, 2004).pp 103.
    ('Corpora' in this case would be two large sets of texts and transcriptions of speech in current use, one each for American English and British English). See Bauer's essay for a thorough analysis of the problems involved.
  2. ^ Kingsley Bolton, Braj B. Kachru, World Englishes: Critical Concepts in Linguistics (Taylor & Francis, 2006). pp128
  3. ^ Aileen Bloomer, Patrick Griffiths, Andrew John Merrison, Introducing Language in Use: A Coursebook(Routledge, 2005). pp410-411.
  4. ^ David Crystal,The Language Revolution (Themes of the 21st Century), Polity Press (2004). p11.
  5. ^ A specific example of the methods advocated by one researcher,according to the preface of Words, lexemes, concepts - approaches to the lexicon (eds Wolfgang Falkner, Leonhard Lipka, Hans-Jörg Schmid):
    "[H]e concludes that the use of prototypes in lexical semantics should be based on the empirical research methods in which the notion is rooted and the data available in computerised corpora." Wolfgang Falkner, Leonhard Lipka, Hans-Jörg Schmid (eds), Words, lexemes, concepts - approaches to the lexicon: Studies in Honour of Leonhard Lipka. (Gunter Narr Verlag, 1999)
  6. ^ See "Linguistics: An Introduction" in Sources, or any introductory coursebook.
  7. ^ For an example of the effect of globalization on the British lexicon, see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1582763/Language-change-forces-dictionary-update.html
  8. ^ Crystal states one of the classification problems as
    "We have to allow for words which have at least one [shared] meaning and one or more additional meanings that are specific to either AmE or BrE: an example is caravan, which in the sense of 'group of travellers in the desert' is common to both varieties; but in the sense of 'vehicle towed by a car' it is BrE (=AmE trailer)"
    "David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language. 2nd Edition. (Cambridge University Press, 2003). pp308.


  • Andrew Radford, Martin Atkinson, David Britain, Harald Clahsen, Andrew Spencer, Linguistics: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 1999)
  • Bas Aarts, April M. S. McMahon (eds), "Part I: Methodology" in The Handbook of English Linguistics (Blackwell, 2006)
  • Elena Tognini-Bonelli, Corpus Linguistics at Work (John Benjamins, 2001)
  • J. K. Chambers, Peter Trudgill, Natalie Schilling-Estes (eds), The Handbook of Language Variation and Change (Blackwell, 2004)
  • David Crystal,The Language Revolution (Themes of the 21st Century) (Polity Press 2004)
  • David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language. 2nd Edition. (Cambridge University Press, 2003)

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