The curious case of American vs British English

by Jobbatical May 17, 2016

The pick-and-choose approach to language in a globalizing world

One language to unite the world. Except not really. Image: Shutterstock

A world divided by a common language

We’ve all probably heard some version of the ubiquitous saying about Americans and the British being two peoples divided by a common language. While the sentiment certainly still rings true today, it’s not just a matter of Americans and the British anymore, and hasn’t been for quite some time.

As the closest thing we currently have to a global language, English belongs to the world. Naturally, everyone’s got their own ideas on how it should be used. English is already a varied language within its so-called inner circle countries (Kiwinglish, anyone?), not to mention the countless varieties found outside of them (try Nigerian Pidgin English on for size). The picture doesn’t get much less colorful even if we narrow our choices down to the two biggest players—what we so simplistically call British English is an umbrella term for numerous regional dialects, and the same goes for its American cousin.

As if such a large number of variations (and variations within variations) weren’t confusing enough already, there’s that strange middle ground where sometimes even Americans can be found queuing, or an Englishman suddenly gets a craving for cookies instead of biscuits. Basically, total chaos and rampant lawlessness.

As far as most Americans are concerned, these are biscuits. The British might disagree. Image: Shutterstock

Choose an English and stick with it

For an individual, the matter of which variant of a lingua franca to use is usually simple enough—your personal brand of English is your own responsibility. If you were taught to –ise rather than –ize, there is no conceivable reason why anyone would stop you. Keep –ising with your head held high, if that’s what you’re into.

But say you’re a startup with global ambitions and an increasingly international user base. Should you write your content in American or British English? In the year 2016 the answer probably lies somewhere between both, neither, and who cares — depending on where your main markets are, who does your writing, and whether or not you’re based in a country that spells color with an extra vowel.

(Of course, there’s so much more to the difference between the two “main” Englishes than an extra vowel here and there. If I had a nickel for every time I witnessed unintentional hilarity caused by the word pants, I’d have several nickels*.)

How do you go about setting consistent language rules for yourself in a world where borders are becoming more fuzzy by the minute and even (gasp!) The Guardian is spelling some words (gasp!) the American way?

A typical startup team is likely to be a mix of, say, British, American, Australian, Canadian (and so on and so forth—you get the gist) English speakers and writers. Throw in a handful of non-native English users of varying levels of competence, and you have nearly as many Englishes as you have people. For the sake of clarity, you will need to make some choices: Will you be part of a globalising world, or a globalizing one?

A seemingly trivial question perhaps, but one that needs answering if you want to relate to a global market. Are American audiences going to feel mildly to moderately alienated if you use Britishisms? Perhaps. Are British audiences going to grumble about Americanisms? Quite possibly. Is a truly global audience going to care either way? Ideally, no.

There are plenty of people out there who treat language rules as if they weren’t quite arbitrary and ever-changing. These people would have you believe that the only thing standing between humanity and total annihilation is a carelessly split infinitive or saying chips when you clearly mean crisps.

Again with the food-related examples. These are chips. OR ARE THEY? Image: Shutterstock

Yet language has always been, and will always be, in a beautiful and unstoppable state of flux. The average modern speaker wouldn’t know what to make of the Old English phrase “Ūre ġedæġhwāmlīcan hlāf syle ūs tō dæġ.” What we have here is not the result of a tragic accident with a printing press, but a line from the Lord’s Prayer. Go on, guess which of those words means “daily”.

Despite attempts to nail down “official” rules for some form of unified, universally accepted and intelligible Global English, the many Englishes of the world are diverging here and converging there, never static.

Better yet, make your own English

I—an Estonian-born non-native English speaker—was taught at school to spell color with an extra vowel, and I almost invariably do—except at work. Our team at Jobbatical is wonderfully international (ten nationalities and counting), which allows us to see the English language from a number of perspectives and use it in different ways. As the team grows and more opinions and punctuation habits are added to the mix, we’ve made the decision to use American spelling in our content (except for the times that we don’t — it’s complicated). The reasoning behind this decision boils down to one simple observation:

The English of the mainstream internet seems to be mainly American.

In a nutshell: Everyone’s doing it. It’s relatable, and therefore the obvious and easy choice.

Yet English is evolving at such a speed that when we say we use “American English,” the truth is that—in a way—we actually do just mean spelling color with the lowest possible number of vowels. When it comes to vocabulary and grammar in a more general sense, drawing meaningful lines between different versions of the language is becoming increasingly difficult and, one could argue, unnecessary. Words, not just people, are crossing borders in this new open world of ours. Much like the human race and the world in general, language must evolve, and there is no stopping the change. Might as well roll with it.

*In American English, the word pants refers to the article of clothing also known as trousers, whereas on the British Isles pants are underwear. Surely you can see how that’s funny.

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