As an American, and a particularly myopic one, I am a bit confused to the language that I speak. I understand that we were once a colony of England, where English was/is spoken, but do we in the present still speak English? Or, since the language has evolved so much (on our part) can it be considered that we Americans speak American English.

I understand the root is the same (Angle/Germanic), but again, and after visiting England for periods of time, specifics in language are so different that a lot of words have entirely different meanings. Even, in some cases, syntax is different. I am just wondering if it is correct to say that I (we) still speak English?

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    @Could you give some example that you consider so different that you think it might be a different language? – vonjd Aug 18 '11 at 20:16
  • I do not mean a completely different language, as German is to Swahili, but different in that so many nouns are different. Take a car for instance, Americans say 'trunk', English say 'boot'; Americans say 'transmission' and English say 'gear-box'. There are many more, and far better examples, I am sure, but again, because the so many different words are used to express the same meaning, between culture, I was just wondering if the languages are still considered the same. – ImmigrantSun Aug 18 '11 at 20:21
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    For everyone talking about dialects and mutual intelligibility. Dutch and German -- For many these are separate languages, but it's hard to say that they aren't dialects. the ability of speakers of each to understand the other would make it seem like there is no language distinction, especially to speakers of the North German dialects like Plattdeutsch. And then consider the intelligibility of a German dialect like Plattdeutsch with a dialect like Swiss German, which have less mutual intelligibility. Keep the adage in mind: Language is a dialect with a border and a navy. – Mark T Aug 18 '11 at 21:00
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    @Mark T - ...so I guess the lack of a "Navy" is why the Swiss speak everyone else's languages. ;-) – T.E.D. Aug 18 '11 at 21:45

The language you speak is English; the dialect is American English (or rather, American English is a group of dialects, one of which you speak). Similarly, British English is also a dialect of English, even though it can be thought of as the "original" dialect.

Dialects are defined precisely because languages vary in different regions, be they small or large. Just as I would say soda to refer to a carbonated beverage, others might say pop, coke, or one of many other terms. That doesn't mean we speak different languages; it only means that we use different words to refer to a specific concept.

At the heart of these dialects (or families of dialects), the core of the language is the same, even though the vocabulary may vary slightly. I can easily read a book in British English and don't have to "switch" my brain over to process the words differently—I may just have to remember the small variations in each language from time to time.

The question you may ask, however, is what separates a dialect from a language and when the former becomes the latter. To that, there is no definitive answer—only what is commonly accepted and understood both by the speakers of the dialect/language in question and by linguists who have studied the history of how they have evolved.

Wikipedia offers some influencing factors, especially noting the politics of the regions. This is true, but you should always keep this in mind: "How hard is it to understand a speaker of Dialect/Language B?" Etymological factors definitely make understanding related languages easier, but note the differences between Spanish and French (both Romance languages)—and then look at American and British English.

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    Instead of similarity, I would speak of mutual intelligibility. – kiamlaluno Aug 18 '11 at 21:36
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    The standard joke is that "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy". :) – Marthaª Aug 18 '11 at 23:10
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    It's also worth pointing out that British English is only original in a geographic sense: American English and British English have evolved in different directions, but equal measure, since their split. Treating one dialect as an offshoot of another is only useful for history. – Jon Purdy Aug 18 '11 at 23:15
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    @Jon Purdy: I was just going to post this comment when I saw your comment below the fold. British English has surely changed as much as American or Canadian English and it's interesting to note which features of British are innovations since the split, but the corresponding American feature remains "original". – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 19 '11 at 0:37
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    @Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 - Quite. It is often said that many of the features of dialects spoken in some of the more isolated areas of the USA that are considered ignorant by mainstream English speakers are in actuality features that mainstream English used to consider "correct", but no longer does. You could say they are doing it right, and everyone else is corrupting the language. :-) – T.E.D. Aug 19 '11 at 18:02

American English and British English are considered dialects of English. These are just two of the many dialects currently in use. The definition of a dialect is:

A regional or social variety of a language distinguished by pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary, especially a variety of speech differing from the standard literary language or speech pattern of the culture in which it exists.

The key about whether two "ways of speaking" are dialects is whether they are mutually intelligible. That is, by definition:

mutual intelligibility is recognized as a relationship between languages in which speakers of different but related languages can readily understand each other without intentional study or extraordinary effort.

Despite the vocabulary differences between British and American English, a speaker of one dialect could relatively easily understand a speaker of the other. If you read any Jane Austen, you don't need to translate the grammar (though some words may be unfamiliar). Yes, there are differences in terminology (say fanny in the UK and you'll get some embarrassed giggles) but for the most part they are the same.

Note that there are regional dialects of both American and British English which could introduce syntactic patterns which are not always mutually recognized. However, they are still part of the same language. In America, we still speak English--it just isn't the same dialect as is spoken elsewhere. If you'd like to read more about the dialects of English, you might be interested in the images of this question.


I would say (assuming you are writing in your native language), that you do indeed speak the English Language. Consider languages as like species: If two individuals can have productive intercourse using their own, then they are of the same language.

Now, there are of course multiple dialects (slightly different styles) in any language, as I'm sure you've noticed in listening to Canadians, Brits, or Aussies speak. Same goes for Southerners, New Yorkers, or New Englanders (if you aren't one of those. If you are, you probably don't notice it).

Wikipedia has a relatively complete list of dialects. If you peruse over that a bit, I suspect you may be able to pinpoint which dialect you speak. There's a good chance you speak more than one.


The difference between American English and British English is a lot smaller than the difference between different British English dialects.

American dialects are much more similar to each other, probably because most of the country was populated in a relatively short time by a homogeneous group of people. A lot of the different terms came from later immigrants, or are simply different technical terms that became popular.

By comparison a Newcastle accent had a 1000 years to develop independently of how somebody in Kent might be speaking

  • +1. Note that linguists will tell you that this phenomenon applies to just about any language. Barring any better evidence, they can generally figure out where a language arose by finding an area where there are the most different (and divergent) dialects in the smallest area. – T.E.D. Aug 19 '11 at 17:48

Most of the answers here are talking about the distinction between language and dialect. Most would say it is quite clear that the actual words used in each region is not particularly different enough to define separate languages.

The reason that you, on your travels across the big pond, found English speakers unintelligible is not a matter of language or dialect but rather of accent.

Accents vary considerably across the English speaking world. Even within small areas there can be radically different accents. A person from New Orleans will sound distinctly different to someone from New York. Even within one city, a youth on the streets in a poor district of New York will talk noticeably different form the bankers on Wall Street.

These accents can be strong enough that when first heard, you may find it difficult to make out the words correctly, giving the illusion that you are hearing a different language.

  • You raise a very interesting point about accents. I found the further north I went in the UK, the more trouble I had understanding people. – ImmigrantSun Aug 20 '11 at 4:30
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    @ImmigrantSun: I have exactly the same problem, and I live here :) – TimLymington May 2 '12 at 22:06

There are many varieties of English around the world (American, British, Indian, South African etc). I don't see any reason why the word English is necessary in most cases. I would say that I (you/we) speak American.

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    The problem with this is that (United States of) Americans do not speak a language that is unintelligable by other English speakers, so it is not a seperate language, and they do not all speak the same dialect, so it can't really count as a dialect either. The best you can say is that there is a (very large) set of dialects that are considered "American English". For instance, I grew up speaking AmE at home, but AAVE with a lot of my friends. My parents can't understand AAVE any better than Cokney. So saying that both my parents and my friends speak "American" is less than useful. – T.E.D. Aug 18 '11 at 21:41
  • That's a good point. – Mark T Aug 19 '11 at 2:52
  • What is "AAVE"? – oosterwal Aug 19 '11 at 14:54
  • African American Vernacular English. Often incorrectly termed 'ebonix/ebonics'. It also has many dialect groups. – Mark T Aug 19 '11 at 16:28
  • ..and immortalized (in a very cartoonish way) as "Jive" in the movie Airplane. It may not be the best representation of AAVE, but it is a great representation of the difficulty many other Americans have in understanding AAVE. – T.E.D. Aug 19 '11 at 17:54

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