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American English vs British English

Mary Ravenna | 07th June 2017

We examined the differences between American and British English and why localisation is important even when adapting from English to English.

Anyone who works in the field of translation knows that even if a translation is perfectly translated from a grammatical perspective, it would still be incomplete without the process of localisation. It is quite easy to understand how delicate it is to adapt an advertising campaign produced in France for the Japanese public. It may be tricky to export the same concept even for countries that share the same language like the United Kingdom and the United States.

Although technically these two countries speak the same language, there are several, widely documented, differences. Some of these differences don’t compromise the ability of the other to understand, such as punctuation, spelling and some grammatical variations. On the other hand, some terms, especially if they are homonyms, can result in a weird misunderstanding. Try telling a British person that your dinner party dress code is causal, just pants and a t-shirt, and you’ll get an astonished “beg your pardon?”

In fact, more than a thousand words have different meanings or usage in British and American English. Skipping the localisation process can therefore be risky; not only might it not sound right it could feel ‘foreign’. The Guardian, for example, had its journalists accused of “ugly Americanism” by some of its readers.                   

Is it enough to double-check spelling and terminology relevance then? Not quite. Language goes beyond grammar, spelling and vocabulary; it goes deep into the culture. In order to sell any type of product or service, it’s essential to increase cultural relevance through examples, references and metaphors –  in other words, going back to the brief and localising the idea behind it. Read more about transcreation (linked).

References that work very well in the UK might not make any sense in the States, regardless of the appropriate use of terminology. Let’s look at an example. The Super Bowl is certainly one of the biggest events in the States and brands create amazing campaigns specifically for this game that resonate 100% with those living in the “land of the free” for whom American football is a way of life. However, in the British Isles, it is likely to be a failure because the Super Bowl is not very popular, and the FIFA Cup for example would work so much better.

Furthermore, it is important to understand which tone of voice and style works in each individual market. The British market tends to respond better to adverts that are more subtle in terms of product exposure and building customer trust is key. The United States, however, respond well to “hard-selling”, i.e. a more direct approach. It’s clear that the two attitudes are conflicting and the wrong choice of tone might result in the target public finding it aggressive/not impactful enough.

So, what are the possible implications? Both the identification of a different variation of their language and the incapability to understand references can lead to the immediate alienation of the audience. Thus, the image of the brand itself is called into question, whereas a company that adapts content for the target country will look more invested in the local culture.

Understanding localisation is therefore fundamental in today’s economy, where we must overcome national borders, but it’s far more important not to be deceived into the lazy assumption that everyone speaks the same English, or that language variations don’t convey cultural differences. The image, and even the revenue, of the company will benefit from attention to detail and knowledge of cultural characteristics that, in spite of globalisation, make every country unique.