British and American English

“Untranslatable” words and expressions
22 July 2019
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British and American English

Starting in the late 16th century, the English language spread around the world as a result of British colonialism and trade. Usage in each of the former colonies has diverged from that in the United Kingdom, though the essential features of the language remain. In this article, we look at the differences between American and British English, with particular focus on the issues that affect translation.

The differences are greatest in the spoken language, particularly when colloquial expressions are used. A group of Texan technicians might well have considerable difficulty understanding their Scottish colleagues’ accents and expressions, and the Scots might struggle with a Texan drawl. However, the Texans wouldn’t expect to be addressed as “y’all” in a user manual, any more than the Scots would expect to see “youse”! Technical documents tend to be written in a fairly formal register, and here the differences are minimal.

From the point of view of technical translation, the most noticeable difference is spelling. For that, blame lies largely with the early dictionary writers, notably Samuel Johnson in the UK and Noah Webster in the US, who made different decisions in their attempts to standardise spelling.

And there we have it, the first word in this article that would be spelt differently in the US. Words ending in “-ise” that derive from Greek are generally spelt “-ize” in the US. And before we know it, we have another difference: US English would have written “spelled”. Other common differences include colour/color, fibre/fiber, anaesthetic/anesthetic, aluminium/aluminum, and calliper/caliper.

There are also cases where British English distinguishes between two spellings with different meanings, whereas American English uses the same spelling for both. Examples include:

  • In British English, a “metre” is a unit of length, but a “meter” is a counter or gauge (which would be a “gage” in American English). In the US, “meter” covers both meanings.
  • British English distinguishes between metric “tonnes” and imperial “tons”, whereas both are spelled “tons” in the US.
  • The spelling “program” is universal in the US, whereas in British English it applies solely for computer programs, with “programme” for all other meanings.
  • In British English, “licence” is a noun and “license” is a verb, whereas in American English both parts of speech are spelled “license”.

Vocabulary differences abound, though the majority relate to everyday words rather than technical terms. In the US, you might bring a carry-on onto an airplane, but in the UK you would take your hand luggage onto an aeroplane. In the UK, a baby wears a nappy and may suck on a dummy, whereas in the US it wears a diaper and uses a pacifier. An American automobile has tires, fenders, a hood and a trunk, and runs on gas, whereas a British car has tyres, bumpers, a bonnet and a boot, and runs on petrol.

Punctuation conventions also vary slightly between the UK and the US, particularly at the end of a quotation. The American convention is to put full stops (known in the US as periods) inside the quotation marks in all cases, whereas in British English the punctuation appears inside the quotation marks only if it was present in the original.

Translators must be aware of all of these differences, of course, but there are some more subtle issues too. Chemical names are one example. British English traditionally used spellings such as “sulphur”, but scientists have agreed on the American spelling, “sulfur”. However, the traditional British spelling persists in non-technical usage, meaning that the translator needs to know the readership of the document.

Date formats are another important point. The British write the day first, followed by the month, whereas Americans use the opposite order. A British reader would understand “7/4/2019” to be 7 April 2019, whereas an American would interpret this date as July 4th.To avoid this ambiguity, we always spell out month names in our translations.

 

 

With all of these subtle differences to contend with, it pays to go to a professional. We have both US and UK English speakers in our extensive network of freelancers. To receive a free and customised quotation, please contact us via our contact form or by email.