Originally published 13 Aug 2020 on the RWS Moravia blog
There are only a few American terms that cause confusion for a British audience. Thanks to the global domination of American popular culture through music, movies and TV shows, even the most obscure sporting metaphors will be familiar to Brits, despite their inexperience with the sport from which the terms originate. So why bother converting your US English online content to British English when the original language is almost universally understood?
Whose English is it?
Despite the stereotypical image of a Brit as someone who doesn’t show excitement or emotion easily, the English language is a great source of pride for the UK. Put Brits and Americans in a room together and they’ll soon be sharing (mostly) friendly jokes around the different interpretations of what is “proper” English. British people will usually point to the earlier origins of their country and their invention of the language; Americans are likely to highlight their more “logical” spelling conventions, or perhaps the global influence of their language and cultural icons.
In a social setting, these differences can be humorous conversation starters, but in the world of commerce, they can carry negative consequences, with customers quickly identifying that a website hasn’t been tailored to their needs or tastes. No matter that the English spoken in parts of Scotland or northern England is further from “the Queen’s English” than the English spoken in Brooklyn (or even in Queens). For many British consumers, the sight of the Union Jack alongside the Stars and Stripes in a website’s language options is an important acknowledgment of their identity.
Adaptation from one to the other
Adapting British English for American audiences has been commonplace for a long time. The success of the British TV show “The Office” was largely due to the scriptwriters’ use of British slang and pop culture references; the scripts for the show were almost completely rewritten before it was deemed suitable for recreation for American viewers. The fundamental change in both the content and tone of the jokes worked well in the US, but left Brits who viewed the adaptation bewildered. On the other hand, making a British version of “Friends” or “South Park” would seem unnecessary and even absurd to those in the UK, given the overwhelming familiarity on both sides of the Atlantic with American language and pop culture references.
The same familiarity applies in the world of online behaviour. A British customer normally “ticks” a box to accept the terms and conditions in a form, but they’re unlikely to be thrown off course by being asked to “check” the box instead. The main question here is not about the different vocabulary—many of the classic differences between American and British English are becoming blurred over time, as so much online material is shared seamlessly across borders. Rather than a linguistic necessity to adapt the language for a British audience, it’s more a symbolic recognition of the differences between the two cultures, and a visible sign to the British customer that their business matters.
Where adaptation is essential
Perhaps the main exception to the British understanding of American vocabulary is on cooking and recipe websites. A typical British user will have no idea how much of an ingredient constitutes a cup; they’re also likely to search for translation tools to know whether they’re in possession of a broiler or a skillet, as these terms are unknown in the UK. These examples neatly illustrate one of the main reasons for adapting content for the British market: to optimize search engine results. If you’re selling cookware in the British market (and to other English speakers across Europe), you need to know that your customers are likely to search for frying pans, slow cookers and cling film, rather than skillets, crock pots and plastic wrap. Knowing the terms used in the UK and including them within your content and SEO activity will improve your site’s visibility to your target audience.
There are many examples of companies who have made these subtle changes so that their site feels familiar to the British customer. Amazon’s cart becomes a basket on their UK site; Google Maps in the UK refers to takeaway, petrol stations and parking rather than takeout, gas stations and parking lots. And while the landing page on eBay will look similar wherever you are, Brits will find mobile phones instead of cell phones under Electronics and references to a backyard changed to a garden in the Home & Garden menu of the UK site.
American and British English will continue to develop along their own paths, yet at the same time there will always be some areas of convergence. As new words and phrases evolve on local and national levels, the ease with which popular culture travels means that elements of both English variants become adopted as global language. Adapting your content for British customers is not translation in the traditional sense because the user already understands the original. But by taking the time to create British-English versions of your online content, you’ll improve your SEO results while at the same time creating a positive perception and improved user experience for your British audience.