British, Australian and North American English. What’s the difference?

As an Australian born English teacher I am often asked by my students to teach them about Australian English and slang. This document  explains the main features of Australian English (AusA) and compares to British English (BrE) and North American English (NAmE).

The differences between all three varieties of English can be found in four main categories:

  1. Vocabulary
  2. Pronunciation differences
  3. Spelling differences
  4. Grammar differences

Australian English

Australian English is closer to British English but it still has many unique characteristics and differences.  But first, a brief history of English in Australia.

The British Government established a convict settlement in Sydney in 1788.  English was therefore the language of the colony and got adapted by the convicts and free settlers, by twisting meanings of existing words and borrowing new words.

Convicts were also transported from Ireland after the 1798 Irish rebellion. Many Irish migrants arrived after the Irish famine in 1840 and their language has had an influence. The word sheila is an Irish girl’s name adapted to mean a woman.

Words from the native Aboriginal languages have been incorporated into Australian English to name things native to this continent:

  • Animals: kangaroo, koala, wallaby, wombat, dingo
  • Plants: mallee, jarrah, coolibah.
  • Birds: kookaburra, currawong, budgerigar
  • Fish: barramundi, wobbegong, yabby
  • Environment: billabong (waterhole), bombora (treacherous current over a submerged rock), willywilly (suddent twisting gust of wind).
  • Tools and instruments: boomerang, didgeridoo.

The growth of the goldfields in the 1850s brought an influx of people from all over the world, including UK, Ireland, Europe, North America and Asia.  Many British and American slang and colloquial expressions came into existence, e.g.  Fossick (dig through a heap of dirt for any leftover gold).

Digger is a word brought from American and originally meant miner but took on the meaning of mateship during World War 1.  The movie Gallipoli shows mateship in action.

During World War 1 soldiers contributed some slang – a furphy (‘rumour’) is the name of a water cart manufactured by John Furphy and would be a place where rumors could spread.

During the Great Depression a battler was someone struggling against all odds, often surviving on susso (‘sustenance payments’).  Nowadays you will hear the expression little Aussie battler.

Americanisation of Australian English began after  World War 2  through tourism, the media and military activity.  American words are being absorbed into Australian English and co-exist with the more British words for example:  cookie and biscuit. Men can be referred to as dudes instead of guys.

Australian English is often quite informal and speaking informally is very important in Australia.  For Australians,  being informal  increases the desirable attributes of mateship, equality, solidarity and colonial escapism from the class-ridden society of England.

A characteristic of information Australian English is to shorten words (Diminutives).  Often the ending of ‘o’ is used (bottle-o for bottle shop, compo for compentation, rego for registration) or ‘ie’ (breakie for breakfast)

  •                 Chocolate            chockie
  •                 Biscuit                  bicky                I am eating a chockie bickie
  •                 Breakfast             brekkie             Have you eaten brekkie?
  •                 Woolworths       Woollies
  •                 Football                Footy               I’m going to the footy tonight.

About 5,000 diminutives have been identified.  You can find a good selection on Wikipedia and this list.

Vocabulary

Many items have different names in England, Australia and North America and this can lead to confusion. Here is a selection of words.

 

British English Australian English American English
House 1st floor 1st floor 2nd floor
cooker stove / cooking range / cooktop stove
curtains curtains drapes
flat unit  / apartment apartment
Ground Floor Ground Floor 1st Floor
wardrobe wardrobe closet
Transport lorry truck truck
motorway highway highway
petrol petrol gasoline / gas
petrol station service station gas station
taxi taxi cab
Cities city centre city centre / CBD downtown
high street main street
pavement footpath sidewalk
phone box phone box phone booth
underground subway subway
Cars tyre tyre tire
number plate number plate license plate
bonnet hood hood
boot boot trunk
windscreen windscreen windshield
Food biscuit biscuit cookie
candy floss candy floss / fairy floss cotton candy
crisps potato chips / chips chips
ice lolly icy pole popsicle
lemonade lemonade Sprite  / 7-UP
maize corn corn
off-licence bottle shop liquor store
potato chips hot chips French Fries
soft drink soft drinks soda pop / pop
sweets sweets / lollies candy
take-away take-away take-out
take-away (adj) take-away (adj) to go
tin can can
treacle molasses
zucchini zucchini courgette
Dining Out the bill the bill the check
entrée entrée starter
main course main course appetiser
Clothes nappy nappy diaper
dungarees overalls overalls
trousers pants / slacks pants
trainers trainers sneakers
zip zip zipper
jumper / pullover jumper / sweater / pullover sweater
waistcoat waistcoat vest
braces suspenders
Emotion / Feeling pissed off (angry) pissed
pissed pissed drunk
Buildings lift lift elevator
escalater moving footway
tap tap faucet
Miscellaneous Autumn Autumn Fall
chemist chemist / pharmacy drugstore
CV resume resume
film film / movie movie
football soccer soccer
garden garden yard
holiday holiday vacation
mobile phone mobile phone cell phone
pocket money pocket money allowance
post mail post
queue queue line
rubber eraser eraser
rubbish rubbish / garbage trash
rubbish bin rubbish bin / wasterpaper bin trash can
Sellotape sticky tape Scotch tape
timetable timetable schedule
torch torch flashlight

 

Pronunciation differences

Australian accent

Surprisingly, there are minimal regional differences in pronunciation so a person from Western Australia will speak the same as someone from New South Wales. This is a huge contrast to America where each state has different accents. Think of the big differences between Californian, Texan, and New York .

There are a few exceptions – Victorians say castle as “cassel” but in NSW we say “car-sel”.

The main difference in pronunciations is that people from the country (rural) usually speak slower and broader than the urban speakers.

Australia has three recognized accents:

  1. About 10 percent of Australians speak like ex-prime minister Bob Hawke with what is known as a broad Australian accent. This accent is usually used by men.
  2. 80 percent of the population speak like Nicole Kidman with a general Australian accent.
  3. 10 percent speak like ex Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser with British received pronunciation or cultivated English. This accent is used by both men and women, although the source I checked claims more women speak like this.

 

Compared to American accent

The letter “r”. In American English the letter r is pronounced much stronger than in British or Australian accent. For example shirt – Australians wont say the “r” but Americans accentuate the “r” with a more rounded sound.

Syllable stress can be different for example the word adult .  Australians will emphasise the first syllable but the Americans emphasise the last syllable.

Most consonants are pronounced differently.

The letter r.   In the middle position it is dropped in British English but American keeps the sound. For example   birth, turn, learn , work.

The letter t.     Americans tend to drop at the end of the word   What, Cut.      When t is in the middle it can sound like d.  This happens when the t  between two vowels or between r and a vowel     party, Saturday, waiter, matter, butter, water.   Sometimes “t” is dropped after “n” in the middle of a word.   centre  interview  internet.

Common words with different pronunciation:     The letter z,   new, adult, brochure, garage, address, laboratory, route, advertisement, controversy, patent, apricot, vase, hurricane, enquiry, leisure, either, neither.

This is just an overview of the differences and more detailed phonetic studies can be found online.

Spelling differences

Some words have different spelling airplane (NAmE),  aeroplane (BrA) and many words follow a pattern of spelling differences.

Words ending in –our get changed to an or ending in NAmE:   colour, flavor and honour

Words ending in –re (BrE) get changed to –er ending:    theatre -> theater,

Words ending in –ise (BrE) get changed to –ize  (NAmE): prioritise, prioritize

Words ending in –ue sometimes lose the ue ending.  catalogue (BrE) and catalog (NAmE)

Grammar differences

The past participle of to get  in NAmE is gotten whereas Australia uses got.  You have gotten fat instead of You have got fat.

American tend to use adjectives as adverbs.   I’m doing great instead of I am doing well.

 

Spelling Differences List

A aerofoil aerofoil airfoil
aeroplane aeroplane airplane
ageing ageing aging
aluminium aluminium aluminum
apologise apologise apologize
arbour arbour arbor
ardour ardour ardor
armour armour armor
B behaviour behaviour behavior
belabour belabour belabor
C calibre calibre caliber
catalogue catalogue catalog
centre centre center
cheque cheque check
chequer chequer checker
clamour clamour clamor
colour colour color
D defence defence defense
deflexion deflexion deflection
dolour dolour dolor
draught draught draft
E enamour enamour enamor
endeavour endeavour endeavor
F favour favour favor
favourite favourite favorite
fervour fervour fervor
fibre fibre fiber
flavour flavour flavor
fount fount font
furore furore furor
G gramme gramme gram
H harbour harbour harbor
honour honour honor
humour humour humor
I inflexion inflexion inflection
J jemmy jemmy jimmy
K kerb kerb curb
labour labour labor
licence licence license
liquorice liquorice licorice
litre litre liter
lustre lustre luster
M manoeuvre manoeuvre maneuver
maths maths math
medallist medallist medalist
metre metre meter
millilitre millilitre milliliter
millimetre millimetre millimeter
misdemeanour misdemeanour misdemeanor
mitre mitre miter
mould mould mold
moulder moulder molder
moulding moulding molding
mouldy mouldy moldy
moult moult molt
neighbour neighbour neighbor
N nitre nitre niter
O odour odour odor
offence offence offense
P paralyse paralyse paralyze
parlour parlour parlor
pedlar pedlar peddler
potter potter putter
practise practise practice
pretence pretence pretense
programme programme program
pyjamas pyjamas pajamas
rancour rancour rancor
reflexion reflexion reflection
rumour rumour rumor
S sabre sabre saber
sceptre sceptre scepter
sepulchre sepulchre sepulcher
succour succour succor
T tyre tyre tire
V vapour vapour vapor
vigour vigour vigor
vocalise vocalise vocalize
W whirr whirr whir

Author: Charles

I live in Sydney, Australia and my interests include music, playing piano and ukulele, cooking, English language, public speaking, Indonesian language and culture, Asian culture (especially Japan and Korea), cinema, personal development, productivity and making friends with people from around the world.

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