Differentiating Between English Variants
Any language that’s spoken in more than one localised area contains multiple variants. Chinese isn’t even considered a language of its own, with the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese – for example – being so great that they need to be learned separately.
In other cases, like English, there are different variants spoken all over the world that have rules concerning spelling and word choice, and determine how to communicate. In this post, we’re going to look at just a few of them: American English, British English, Australian English, and Canadian English.
What’s in a language variant?
It may seem like a small matter at first, but being aware of which variant your audience uses can affect the way you write and how much they understand. Each English variant is different, even though they share a common root. Targeting your English to specific regions makes things clearer and easier to understand.
The type of English spoken in the United States, known as American English, is the most common English variant, with approximately 250 million speakers. Some key points worth remembering when addressing an American readership, whether in your informational texts or marketing materials, include:
- American English is a less formal variant than British English
- Words are regularly shortened, such as ‘math’ instead of ‘mathematics’, and ‘admin’ instead of ‘administration’
- American English doesn’t include the letter ‘u’ in certain words where ‘ou’ is used in British English; the removal of the U comes from Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, in which Webster attempted to simplify the language and make its usage more consistent
- American English as a variant is more action-orientated than British English; Americans take a shower, Brits have a shower
- American English has borrowed from many other languages, as a consequence of its immigrant population.
When it comes to translations, it is common to consider British English as a single variant. This can be misleading, especially if one considers the many local dialects used in the UK. Some key points to remember:
- British English uses different spelling to American English; together with the inclusion of the letter ‘u’ in words such as ‘colour’, British English elects to use the letter ‘s’ instead of ‘z’ for verbs: analyse versus analyze, criticise versus criticize, etc.
- British English makes use of the suffix -t for the past participle of irregular verbs, where American English uses -ed: burnt versus burned, smelt versus smelled, etc.
As well as the above, there are definite word choice differences between American and British English. Americans wait in lines, while British people wait in queues, for example.
At first glance, Canadian English may seem to be quite close to American English. The reality is that it shares features of both American and British English. While it is true that it is more akin to American English, Canadian English uses spellings and word choices from each of the major two variants.
Like Canadian English, Australian English borrows features of both American English and British English. Having said that, there are two things worth noting:
- Pronunciation in Australian English is very different to that used in other countries
- Australian English contains a unique vocabulary to other English variants, from everyday words like ‘barbie’ for ‘barbecue’ to ‘outback’ for the desert area occupying much of the landmass of the continent.
Where do we go from here?
While these differences seem small at first, but depending on the scope of the translation, work on accommodating these differences can increase exponentially, and an error in the variant can even mean needing to repeat the translation from scratch. Get in touch and let us help you set your “destination”, so you can be sure your message is understood as you intended in the right variant of English.