Differences in British and American English. A Corpus-based Case Study

Term Paper, 2011

17 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Main Body
2.1 Theoretical background
2.2. Data and methods
2.3 Results
2.4 Discussion

3. Conclusion

4. Works cited

5. Appendix

1. Introduction

Considering the "inevitability of change" (Aitchison 2001: 3), Ferdinand de Saussure once stated: "Time changes all things: there is no reason why language should escape this universal law" (Saussure 1915/1959: 77).

In reference to the English language, Trask (1994: 1) noted: "English […] has been changing throughout its history and is still changing today". In doing so, there is a great number of factors playing an important role for ongoing changes in a language such as sociolinguistic causes of chance which are illustrated in Aitchison (2001) in a very coherent and detailed way.

"Geographical separation" (Trask 1994: 2) will be the central keyword, as I will investigate differences and varieties in British and American English use of language. Surprisingly, in comparing Australia and New Zealand, where "equally big differences in language [...] from their mother country" (Davies 2007: v) could be expected, it turns out that this is not the case. Although differences in slang expressions can be recognized, spelling and word usage, actually, are alike the original British form so that these differences seem trivial in contrast to the variety of English used in the United States (cf. Davies 2007: v).

Therefore, I have decided to focus my attention on specific distinctive attributes of the American variety of English and, based on foregoing research in this field, to create a questionnaire whereby central hypotheses are to be checked and verified, at best.

Hence, this paper comprises a brief summary of previous knowledge on this matter, so to speak the theoretical background of my work.

Moreover, not only regional factors play a role but also the interviewee's social background when it comes to certain features of language such as word use. Thus, it is highly exciting to see what assessments will be done in the course of this paper.

2. Main Body

2.1 Theoretical background

The foregoing research required a detailed consideration of the so-called Brown family of corpora, which consists of the British corpora LOB11 (1961) and F-LOB22 (1991) and the American corpora Brown (1961) and Frown (1992) (cf. Kehoe 2006: 186). These corpora illustrate, inter alia, frequency changes in British and American English between 1961 and 1991-2 (cf. Aijmer 2004: 63) and point out constant, increasing or declining differences between the two varieties of English. In consideration of the length of the paper, the questionnaire is grounded on a few central hypotheses, which will be outlined in the following: The first topic of the questionnaire deals with phonetic reduction and coalescence (cf. Leech 2009: 105) of the so-called semi-modals gotta (for have got to), gonna (for be going to) and wanna (for want to), whose frequency in usage, as for "non-standard spellings representing reduced pronunciation" (Leech 2009: 105), combined with different age groups, is clearly illustrated in Figure 1 in the appendix by Krug (2000: 175).

The "almost perfectly consistent progression" (Leech 2009: 105 f.) of the diagram could be easily summed up by the assumption that the likeliness of grammaticalized reduced forms increases by a simultaneous decline in age of the speaker, whereby this phenomenon applies rather to the spoken corpora than the written corpora (cf. Leech 2009: 106).

The next topic in the questionnaire is the expression no way, which is classified as an "Americanism" (Leech 2009: 258). Thus it can be assumed that this "emphatic negative" (Leech 2009: 258) form ought to be used frequently in American speech. In respect of the worldwide use of typical American expressions, it may happen that they are accepted as linguistic forms, yet diverge from their original function in different "sociolinguistic environment[s]" (Leech 2009: 258). The relevant aspect of no way as for my part, however, is the question of frequency in speech and if there is any relation to social factors.

Subsequent to the 'Americanism' no way there is "another case of possible American influence" (Leech 2009: 255), the so-called 'do-support'. It occurs alongside of sentences where "have [is] used as a finite main verb with the characteristics of have as an auxiliary" (Leech 2009: 255). The sentence He hadn't a chance would be He didn't have a chance instead (cf. Leech 2009: 255). Although the British construction with have is on the decline and British English is about to catch up the American form, the use of do + have in American English still is undisputedly on the lead (cf. Leech 2009: 256).

As for linguistic and other determinants of change (Leech 2009: 236), there are, inter alia, two types of negation, that are differently used in the respective countries concerning their frequency. The so-called not-negation, on the one hand, displays an increase in frequency in American English (+8.3%) and a modest decline in British English (-0.4%) whereas no-negation, on the other hand, declines in both varieties of English almost equally, by -14.7% in American and by -17.9% in British English from the early 1960s to the early 1990s (cf. Leech 2009: 241 f.).

The ensuing topic concentrates on the usage of expanded predicates in British and American English, in this case on the two predicates have and take. The absolute frequency of constructions is constantly higher in the British variety of English than in the American when looking at individual light verbs in the expanded predicates. The latter, on the contrary, is the dominant light verb in American speech whose supremacy can be shown by the use of have and take followed by a + noun such as have or take a shower (cf. Leech 2009: 176 f.). In this context, the BNCdemog for spoken British English and the LCSAE for spoken American English provided a chart that clearly displays the variable use of have and take followed by a + noun. In this chart 98.5% of all British speakers used the 'have a + noun variant', in contrast to 83.9% of all American speakers preferring the 'take a + noun variant' (cf. Leech 2009: 177).

The subjunctive mood is the next topic the questionnaire focuses on. Although the subjunctive, in contrast to other European languages and apart from formulaic (or 'optative') expressions such as "God bless you. Long live the King." (Tottie 2002: 163), seems to be almost disappeared in present-day English, there is one construction still being on the increase, namely the so-called mandative subjunctive (cf. Tottie 2002: 163). It is used in that-clauses "after an expression [...] of demand, recommendation, proposal [or] intention" (Greenbaum/Quirk 1990: 44). At present American speakers tend to use the mandative subjunctive more often than British speakers, nevertheless, it is about to catch up in Britain. The contemporary British alternative, however, is the insertion of putative should in a that-clause (cf. Greenbaum/Quirk 1990: 44).

Besides the two forms of the present subjunctive (formulaic and mandative), there is also the past subjunctive (were-subjunctive) used in clauses with hypothetical meaning (cf. Greenbaum/Quirk 1990: 44). It also can be seen that were is the strongly preferred form in American English (73.4% in Brown; 73.7% in Frown), whereas the usage of were used to be high in LOB (63.3%) yet later in F-LOB had sunk to almost equal percental usage of was (were: 51.9%) (cf. Leech 2009: 64). As the were-subjunctive is on the decline, American English seems to be the more "conservative variety" (Leech 2009: 67) with its "hypercorrect usage[s]" (Leech 2009: 62) of the subjunctive.


1 LOB: Lancaster-Oslo/Bergen corpus

2 F-LOB: Freiburg-Lancaster-Oslo/Bergen corpus

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Differences in British and American English. A Corpus-based Case Study
University of Bayreuth
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Englisch, Linguistik, Sprachwissenschaft, American, British, English, Linguistics, corpus
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Christian Roßmeier (Author), 2011, Differences in British and American English. A Corpus-based Case Study, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/462625


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