English, as its name suggests, originated in England, from a melting-pot of languages brought here by all the different races who invaded our country throughout history. Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Romans and Normans all came across the sea with their own languages, and left a lasting imprint on the way the native Britons spoke. Later, as the country developed its navigational and seafaring abilities, English itself was exported around the world, for better or worse, by all kinds of explorers, missionaries, traders, conquerors and settlers. As a result, English is now widely spoken in many corners of the globe, but particularly in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and many former colonies in Asia and Africa. Although these places all share a common language, though, variations have gradually developed in the way it is used, brought about by cultural and geographical factors, as well as usage over a long period of time.
Probably the two main variants of English in our modern world are UK and US English. Although British and American people generally have little difficulty understanding each other, there are some specific differences in usage, and it is often clear, even from accent-free written English, whether a person is Britain or American.
First of all, there are certain differences in spelling rules. Computer spellcheckers are usually equipped with both variants and will change colour to color, grey to gray, prioritise to prioritize, or vice versa, depending on the variant selected. There are also particular words which differ from one region to the other. For example, British people go on holiday, whereas Americans would take a vacation; here in Britain, we would eat biscuits, while Americans enjoy cookies, and in Britain, you might use a lift, but Americans go up in elevators. The list is very long. Then there are other words used in both variants, but which have different meanings. As a result asking for vests, pants and suspenders in a clothing shop/store, will get you quite different items, depending which side of the Atlantic you are on, so be careful what you ask for! The internet is awash with lists of equivalent US and UK vocabulary and spellings, so if you are interested, a simple search should bring up plenty of useful resources.
However, the difference between UK and US English goes much deeper than changing a few spellings and switching flats to apartments and rubbish to trash. American and British people also use subtly different patterns of speech with varying emphasis and syntax. For example, when speaking, Americans sometimes form questions by making a statement followed by ‘right’, whereas British speakers would be more likely to follow traditional grammatical patterns. Prepositions are often used differently, and the formation and meaning of idioms can vary, too. Here are a couple of examples:
US ‘You’re joking, right?’
UK ‘Are you joking?’ or ‘You’re joking, aren’t you?’
US ‘I get up at seven Monday through Friday, but later on weekends.’
UK ‘I get up at seven from Monday to Friday, but later at the weekends.’
Although US and UK English are perhaps the most widely discussed, there are plenty of other variants, too, with a range of similarities and differences, making the English language incredibly rich in nuance and cultural flavour. In some fields, though, there is an increasing trend towards an international version of English. Particularly popular in the world of business and the global internet community, this style of English favours plainer expressions with fewer idioms, so that it can be more easily understood by people in any part of the world. In certain situations, this is a good thing, as it aids and promotes communication between the parties concerned, making business and other cross-cultural relationships more effective. In literature, though, it is not necessarily such a great idea, as it robs the writing of an extra dimension which could make it more interesting. Expressions and idioms specific to a regional setting add character to a text, and creative use of language makes it more interesting and compelling, whereas plain, easy-to-understand language may leave it dull, lacklustre, and not particularly exciting to read.
Identifying variants can be difficult, especially for someone who has not lived for a long time in an English-speaking country. For a writer, experimenting with different versions can be problematic unless the writer is familiar with the regional nuances. As a British native, for example, I can recognise American patterns of speech, but am reluctant to write anything which claims to be American English, as an American person would probably spot plenty of flaws I wasn’t aware of!
In the twenty-first century, the increasing influence of TV, internet and global travel is gradually blurring the boundaries between regional variants. Nevertheless, they do still exist, and an author wishing to make use of them must be aware of the effects they produce. A Victorian Englishman would not use ‘gonna’, for example, while a streetwise youth in downtown New York would be unlikely to refer to his friends as ‘chap’ or ‘fellow’. As a general rule, the best results are produced when writers use the version they are most familiar with. If fantasy or science-fiction are your speciality, though, you could consider experimenting with a whole new variant – a new language for a new world!