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American English, British English or “Universal” English

Translation Solutions Ltd. provides translation services both to and from English. This article goes into the details of American English usage compared to that of British English. If you are just looking for a translation agency, you can just check out our prices or ask for a free translation quote. Otherwise, the article is just below:

Translate to English, yes, but which one?

A lot has been written about the differences between American English and British English. Without getting into that debate all over again, it remains a consideration when translating into English.

English, yes, but which one? Mark Twain's or William Shakespeare's?

Ten years ago, the answer would have been an obvious one. If you wanted a product to be marketed in the States, you would have requested American English and if your target audience was the Queen's faithful subjects, no doubt British English would have to be used.

These days, however, clients seldom specify a “regional” variant. Indeed, with the advent of the Internet, geographical considerations are no longer the order of the day, and your translations are now intended for all English speakers, native or otherwise, be they American, British, Australian, Indian, Chinese or even Russian.

Hence the need to translate into “Universal English”, “International English”, “Standard English”, or any other adjective you care to slap on the word English to highlight its unique international character. This approach is of course highly reasonable from a client's point of view.

Unfortunately, for translators, there is no such as thing as “Universal English”. You can either write “color” or “colour”, so it comes down to the translation agency to do for the best and make a decision. It is true that the differences between American English, Australian English and British English will in most cases not warrant different translations, so a choice has to be done.

To help with that choice, I decided to do a little research to determine empirically which English lingo was predominant on the net.

To this end, several equivalent words in both US English and UK English were selected to establish the number of occurrences for each in Google search results.

US vs. UK English: Global Internet search results

US English termsNumber of occurrencesUK English termsNumber of occurrences
Color 884,000,000 Colour 169,000,000
Airplane 51,400,000 Aeroplane 4,790,000
Aluminum 83,300,000 Aluminium 58,900,000
Gear-shift 1,140,000 Gear-lever 384,000
Behoove 328,000 Behove 78,000
Recognize 79,800,000 Recognise 19,800,000
Behavior 147,000,000 Behaviour 58,700,000
Paralyze 1,300,000 Paralyse 631,000
Defense 173,000,000 Defence 57,200,000
Specialty 152,000,000 Speciality 14,500,000
Mailbox 32,600,000 Postbox 1,280,000
US English 1,605,868,000 UK English 385,263,000

More terms could be used to bring further validation, but as results were consistent for all terms, it was deemed unnecessary. This approach is of course not perfect but should nevertheless bring some answers as to usages on the Internet. Emphasis was made on spelling differences rather than term usage differences to avoid ambiguity, as much as possible anyway: for instance, while the British say “pavement” as the equivalent of the US “sidewalk”, the word “pavement” is also used in US English with different meanings, which makes the comparison irrelevant.

As you can see above, US spelling and terms are consistently prevalent over their British counterparts on the Internet, with 80% of all web pages in US English against 20% in UK English.

The same words were also searched on *.uk websites only, to validate the differences observed previously.

US vs. UK English: UK websites only

US English termsNumber of occurrencesUK English terms Number of occurrences
Color 5,280,000 Colour 14,400,000
Airplane 411,000 Aeroplane 343,000
Aluminum 711,000 Aluminium 3,570,000
Gear-shift 42,400 Gear-lever 67,500
Behoove 2,410 Behove 2,490
Recognize 676,000 Recognise 3,220,000
Behavior 1,270,000 Behaviour 5,150,000
Paralyze 9,730 Paralyse 26,200
Defense 986,000 Defence 4,640,000
Specialty 1,230,000 Speciality 1,660,000
Mailbox 662,000 Postbox 57,700
US English 11,280,540 UK English 33,136,890

These numbers show that indeed UK English is predominant in UK websites, which isn't much of a surprise in itself.

Yet, US English spelling is used in over 25% of all UK Web pages!!! Mailbox, a previously US-only term is now much more common on the British net than the traditional UK “postbox”.

Sure, there may be some spelling mistakes here and there, and it is easy to get mixed up between “fulfill” (US) and “fulfil” (UK), but 25% is well beyond reasonable allowance for typos and demonstrates that US English is very much present in Albion's cyberspace.

We now know that a US English translation will probably not be out of place in the UK, even though UK English remains, of course, the dominant variant.

In the interest of fairness, a similar test had to be done within US websites (*.us) to determine the degree to which the US market accepts British spelling and terms.

US vs. UK English: US websites only

US English termsNumber of occurrences UK English termsNumber of occurrences
Color 8,770,000 Colour 671,000
Airplane 469,000 Aeroplane 12,700
Aluminum 2,060,000 Aluminium 1,390,000
Gear-shift 13,600 Gear-lever 1,300
Behoove 5,260 Behove 394
Recognize 1,590,000 Recognise 22,300
Behavior 1,550,000 Behaviour 138,000
Paralyze 7,010 Paralyse 580
Defense 2,090,000 Defence 99,600
Specialty 1,930,000 Speciality 39,700
Mailbox 293,000 Postbox 1,170
US English 18,777,870 UK English 2,376,744

This time, the conclusion is closer to expectations. If the British regularly use US spelling, the reverse is not quite true. UK spelling on US websites account for approximately 11% of the total, less than half of the 25% enjoyed by US English on UK websites. Still 11% is a pretty high number and would suggest the US market would not be too bothered by British spelling.

But what of other English speaking communities such as Australia? To answer that question, the same test was run on Australian websites (*.au) to see whether American English or UK English was prevalent.

US vs. UK English: Australian websites only

US English termsNumber of occurrencesUK English termsNumber of occurrences
Color 2,040,000 Colour 9,330,000
Airplane 149,000 Aeroplane 165,000
Aluminum 458,000 Aluminium 2,240,000
Gear-shift 29,900 Gear-lever 11,000
Behoove 678 Behove 5,550
Recognize 375,000 Recognise 2,340,000
Behavior 707,000 Behaviour 3,170,000
Paralyze 4,160 Paralyse 6,950
Defense 510,000 Defence 5,860,000
Specialty 1,440,000 Speciality 371,000
Mailbox 206,000 Postbox 5,600
US English 5,919,738 UK English 23,505,100

Given the figures above, it would appear Australia tends to favor UK English over US English, even more so than the UK, in fact. Indeed American English spelling accounts for 20% of all Australian Web pages against 25% for UK's.

That said, 20% is no small number and American spelling will most likely not shock the Australian audiences.

Conclusion

British English is dominant in the UK and in some of its old colonies (such as Australia and Canada), but overall, it makes no doubt that, if there is such a thing as an “Universal English”, that would be American English.

According to these figures, American English represents an astounding 80% of the English speaking Internet. When in doubt, you can't really go wrong with US English.

Translate in International English? Yes, sir! US English it is.

That said, British English is of course well understood throughout the English speaking world, and in some cases, using British English could help give a touch of “European chic” to some European products marketed in the US. Whereas most products benefit from the familiar “local” feel, some products thrive on a somewhat foreign, exotic perception.

This decision however belongs to marketing as this is a fine line to thread and the sophisticated “European touch” could also be tagged “poor spelling” by a less-than-discerning audience.