Linguistics

Americanisms in British English

Matt Norton

Matt Norton explores some of the differences between British and American English and whether Americanisms have become pervasive in British English.

The influence of American English (AmE) on British English (BrE) has been discussed at length in the media and online, and some have even said that it is lowering the standard of BrE. How can we find out what new Americanisms are being used in BrE and the extent of their use? And, what does this mean for ELT teaching?

What are Americanisms?

Usually this term refers to words from AmE which appear to be popular in Britain. These words might be replacing British words, e.g. AmE movie which competes with film in BrE. Also, this means marked words (words that stand out) which sound American though may not be widely used in BrE, such as burglarize (BrE: to burgle).

It is hard to tell exactly how many current BrE words are Americanisms, but we can look for evidence by examining large collections of texts – corpora. It is not always easy to verify if a supposed Americanism is really from AmE. Some, like okay, are well known as originating in the US, but others may not actually be from America, e.g. gotten can sound markedly like AmE, but is also a UK dialect form, e.g. in Yorkshire: “Can I get a coffee?” rather than “Can/may I have a coffee?”. This is assumed to be an Americanism, but this is hard to prove. In spelling, many British people think the -ize or -ise difference is a US vs. UK one, but -ize has been used in the UK for a long time alongside -ise.

Looking for evidence of Americanisms

We took a list of frequently mentioned Americanisms and searched for them in a corpus of contemporary spoken English (from 2014). We compared their frequency with older spoken conversations (from 1990s) to see which had changed. The comparison is slightly complicated: the new data is entirely made up of everyday conversations, whereas the old version also has more formal conversations. The results fall into four categories:

  1. Words with big increases. E.g. was like, guy, I’m good.
  2. Words with small increases. E.g. closet, right now or season (TV). It will be interesting to see more results, once we have more spoken data.
  3. Words with only a few uses and it’s not clear there is an increase. E.g. going forward or touch base and these may be used when talking about AmE or ironically.
  4. Words with no uses because they are specific or highly marked, such as normalcy or physicality.

 

Can I get is quite popular in both old and new texts, and may be changing its usage more towards ordering (“can I get a coffee?”) and less towards fetching (“can I get that for you?”). However, this would need more data to investigate further and confirm the trend. Movie has increased but doesn’t appear to be replacing film, which remains frequent. Least worst is ungrammatical and does not appear in our data, though it appears in BrE in Google Ngram Viewer (a tool used for finding word popularity over time).

In the other direction, there is also online discussion about Britishisms which have been going from BrE to AmE. Examples include trendy (fashionable), bonkers (crazy) and cheeky (impudent in an amusing way). We did see these words used in our recent collection of American English..

What should we teach?

Of course this depends on where you’re teaching English, and the expectations of your students and employer. Three points to think about are:

  1. Awareness: Talk to your students about differences between varieties of English (both British, American and other world and regional varieties). You could perhaps point out that some AmE words are highly marked, e.g. sidewalk and trash, and so if you’re teaching British English it might be better to use pavement and rubbish (and vice versa).
  2. Register: was like (e.g. and he was like “stop!”) is very popular in Britain, but is quite informal (has a low register), so this may not be appropriate in some contexts.
  3. Consistency: in case differences between American and British English are perceived as errors (compare, for example, accommodations and accommodation; -ize or -ise.). It is therefore best to choose one variety of English to teach/use and stick to it, as best you can.

 

How do you deal with this in the language classroom? Let us know in the comments below!


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