Why isn’t there a separate British English version of Windows?


My friend ::Wendy:: asks why there is an American English version of Windows but not a British English version.

I am not the expert on this subject (Michael Kaplan might be a bit closer), but I can speculate on the reasons for this. This is all conjecture, so who knows how accurate it is. (Actually, most of what I write is conjecture; I just don't bother calling it out each time it happens.)

Let's look at it this way: You have the time and money to translate the American English version of Windows into 20 other languages. Do you spend one of those slots to translate it into a language that is mutually intelligible with American English? If you have to choose between a language which is already mutually intelligible with one you already covered or a language without which an entire audience would be unable to use Windows, which are you going to pick? In concrete terms: Which is more important, that people who prefer British English don't have to suffer through the indignity of reading American English, or that people in Thailand be able to use Windows at all?

Okay, maybe if you're one of those indignitized (indignitised?) British English speakers, then you don't mind that an entire country of over 60 million people lose access to Windows so you can see your words spelled correctly. (But then again, you'd still have to take a back seat to Indian English, since they outnumber you by a huge margin.)

Mind you, the English language isn't the only one with this problem. There are dozens of variations on the Spanish language, but Windows chooses just one of them as its "Spanish language edition" and people who prefer some other variation will just have to suffer through a translation into a nearby (but not perfect) dialect.

Who knows, maybe a group of Anglophiles will be inspired to form a committee to standardise terminology in order to develop a LIP for British English.

My premise destroyed: Then again, Windows is available in both European Portuguese and its upstart offspring Brazilian Portuguese, which as far as I'm aware are for the most part mutually inteliligible. So who knows what the criteria are.

Bonus: Aha, it looks like Michael blogged about this after all.

Comments (62)
  1. nathan_works says:

    Ahh but what about those Francophiles in soviet Canada ? They seem rabid enough to demand such a special quebecois edition.. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have laws requiring it..

  2. Marcelo says:

    About the brazilian portuguese version… there are some differences beyond spell. For example, brazilian used to say "file" as "arquivo" but portuguese say "ficheiro".

  3. porter says:

    Apple distributed a British version of the classic Mac OS as a matter of course. For instance "Trash" became "Wastebasket".

    Similarly we note that Australian and New Zealand English are not the same as US.

  4. asf says:

    English is not my native language, but I prefer the english version. Also, would it not be possible to translate to the british version with a simple string replace; color to colour etc?

  5. Euro says:

    @Marcelo: > brazilian used to say "file" as "arquivo" but portuguese say "ficheiro".

    There are similar differences between Latin-American Spanish and European Spanish. Computer books published in Spain refer to a "Fichero", while Latin-American books use the term "Archivo" (which caused no end of confusion to me eons ago, as I was trying to understand what the "archive" flag meant).

    Also, in Latin-America you talk about "Computadora" or "Computador" (gender varies) — probably derived from the U.S.-English word "Computer". Spain-published books refer instead to an "Ordenador" ("sorter"), which I think might have originated from the French  (European? spelling?) word "Ordeneur".

    There are many other differences. You get used to it.

  6. Adrian says:

    I worked on finance software, and we build a few British versions based on the US product.

    It was far from a simple re-do on the spelling.  "Check" in the US can translate into "check" or "cheque" depending on the intent.  "Stocks" become "shares", so what do you call "shares"?

    But the real problems were feature-related.  Taxes work very differently.  Printing on A4 with a dot-matrix or daisy wheel printer was problematic (A4 isn’t a multiple of 6-lines per inch, and the drivers were buggy when it came to form heights).  Our British version was used as the basis of the Canadian version.  In Canada, mortgage interest is compounded differently than it is in the US.  These were the real challenges to localization.  Spelling and dialog layout is tedious, but not particularly difficult.

  7. Eric says:

    Thanks God somebody at Microsoft decided to use what seems more like Mexican Spanish over Spaniard Spanish when translating Windows. I’d like to think that’s because in the rest of America Spaniard Spanish is rarely used and a more "American" Spanish is used instead.

    @Euro: Ordenador comes from the French word "ordenateur".

  8. lgm says:

    The Traditional Chinese version (used in Taiwan) and the Hong Kong SAR version (used in, yes, Hong Kong) are also mutually intelligible, save for some Hong Kong specific characters.

  9. Euro says:

    @Eric > "ordenateur" <.

    Thank you. I couldn’t remember the right spelling.

  10. Alexandre Grigoriev says:

    @Eric, Euro:

    You’re both wrong. French word for "computer" is spelled as "ordinateur".

  11. J says:

    asf:

    It’s not as simple as search and replace as someone mentioned earlier.  I was going to type up some examples for you, but then I found the wikipedia already has quite an extensive article on the other differences besides spelling:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_and_British_English_differences

  12. acq says:

    Why shouldn’t the user have the chance to provide his own texts? If MSFT would “open” the format of the messages I’m sure users would change them to match their taste.

    [“Who knows, maybe a group of Anglophiles will be inspired to form a committee to standardise terminology in order to develop a LIP for British English.” -Raymond]
  13. someone else says:

    @acq

    I guess you don’t have children. Or if you do, they don’t share your computer.

    You could already have much fun with tech support if someone renamed your “My Computer” to “Bill”.

  14. Random User 29517 says:

    acq:

    Odd. I vaguely remember Microaoft providing a number of localization/globalization tools and resources for Windows that are "open", after a fashion. Granted, I have not had a need for such things, so I have not done much research in that area.

  15. Aaargh! says:

    I always wondered Why windows isn’t multilingual by default (I know there is a ML version that’s not available to home users). I am Dutch but using a Dutch version of the OS is quite annoying to me. My parents however prefer the dutch version, so when I have to do tech support I have to find stuff in the dutch translation. I usually end up wondering where the control panel is gone before I realize it’s not called that. Also, stuff that’s sorted by alphabet is in a different place.

    On almost every other OS I’ve used I had the option to choose the language on a per-account basis. Also, apps usually follow the accounts language setting.

    MS software, like office, doesn’t follow this even on OS X where this is the norm. There is still a separate version for each language.

    Why ?    

    [You can install the Dutch UI on top of an English system. The hard part is (as you noted) finding the installer. Once you’ve managed to get the Dutch UI installed, you can select a preferred language on an account-by-account basis. -Raymond]
  16. Keithius says:

    Bottom line: internationalization is HARD. Hey, nobody said it’d be easy!

  17. DWalker says:

    @acq: Letting the user provide his own texts?  You mean, I could customize my error messages, so that instead of "File not found" it says "Have a nice day", and instead of "Disk full" it says "Tomorrow is a holiday"…

    I could replace "Yes" with "No", and "No" with "Maybe"…

    Yes, that sounds very useful.

  18. Andy says:

    If such a version of Windows was ever made I hope the (American English) phrase "British English" would be correctly translated to "English" ;-)

  19. Rob says:

    Reverse the argument, if MS produced only a British English version, how miffed would US folks be?

  20. Andre N says:

    About the two Portuguese versions, this bit from Michael’s post (http://blogs.msdn.com/michkap/archive/2006/03/01/541074.aspx) nails it: "I think it has more to do with what markets will tolerate"

    I am Portuguese (from Portugal ;)) and I don’t know many people who would willfully use software in Brazilian. Most people hate it that Google News mixes Brazilian and Portuguese news even when it’s global news – the two languages really are different in syntax, grammar, and writing style. Now imagine how much worse it would be in the case of a whole application or operating system…

    Many people would prefer Brazilian over English, but they wouldn’t like it one bit. Just like most people who can read English the minimum of fluency don’t use software in Portuguese…

    But then again, maybe that’s also the case with other languages/dialects, and this provides no insight whatsoever :)

  21. ::Wendy:: says:

    unfortunately I can’t spell or constructed well punctuated sentences in any version of English.  I’m considering taking-up texting fulltime.  Period. Full stop.

  22. Another Brit says:

    I can see that there’s a good economic argument for only having one English version.  We all know what a "color" is, even if that isn’t how we spell the word ourselves.

    What annoys me is that so many things use specific rather than neutral language names.  For example, it seems like every time I install a program that has multiple UI language options, I’m forced to select "English (United States)" from the list, even though there aren’t any other Englishes on offer.  Not that I think I can blame Microsoft for that.  :)

  23. mh says:

    To be honest it’s never bothered me.  I can understand the interface, the words and spellings are just fine, and an effort seems to have been made to avoid words that don’t cross-over (non-OS example: faucet), so thank you.

    Another reason why simple search and replace won’t work: the text will become wider (all those "u"s!) and dialogs may have to be redesigned.

  24. Aaargh! says:

    > You can install the Dutch UI on top of an English system. The hard part is (as you noted) finding the installer.

    Is it even available for consumers ? IIRC it was an enterprise-only thing.

    [I don’t know. That’s why I called it the hard part. -Raymond]
  25. configurator says:

    Oh my, I can see it now. Trying to do tech support on a machine; there’s a problem with the colors. I open Control Panel and type in the search box ‘Color’ – to find nothing. No Color Management here – it’s Colour Management. But I don’t know that. I guess I’d be stuck on such a machine for at least a couple of hours before I realize what’s wrong.

    Luckily, I don’t do tech support any more.

    And there’s no en-UK version of Windows.

  26. configurator says:

    By the way, when I was doing tech support, if a client had a localized machine, I would pass the call to my colleague, since our crap software required some changes to the computer’s resolution, fonts, etc. to work properly, and I couldn’t navigate the localized Control Panel – even though it was my native tongue.

  27. Leonardo Brondani Schenkel says:

    @Andre N: Is it customary in Portugal to call Brazilian Portuguese as "Brazilian" like it’s another language?

  28. Cheong says:

    I think for similar reason, Microsoft no longer offer "Traditional Chinese – Taiwan" version of software and offer "Traditional Chinese – HKSAR" instead because HKSCS is a superset of Traditional Chinese character to those in Big5 where people in Taiwan use. And the UI terms people got used to in both places are similar.

  29. ChrisMcB says:

    @Aaargh

    I don’t know all the different flavors of Windows. But wikipedia claims it is available for Windows Vista Enterprise and as an Ultimate Extra to Windows Vista Ultimate users. You can also get language packs for  XP.

    just look for the MUI.

  30. Jen says:

    @Aaargh! (and @Raymond)

    Installing user interface languages is available to consumers in Ultimate Edition; if you have Ultimate installed, you can get language packs via Windows Update.

    See http://windowshelp.microsoft.com/Windows/en-US/help/35a1b021-d96c-49a5-8d8f-5e9d64ab5ecc1033.mspx (or http://windowshelp.microsoft.com/Windows/nl-NL/help/35a1b021-d96c-49a5-8d8f-5e9d64ab5ecc1043.mspx for the Dutch version of the topic ^_~)

  31. Felipe says:

    I think one important reason for having two Portuguese versions, besides the languages themselves being almost intelligible, is that while the day-to-day language looks the same, most technical software terms (like File, Screen, mouse, and lots others) are very different in pt-BR and pt-PT. So Brazilians and Portugueses can communicate easily, but software written in one language are barely usable in another.

    Also, there are some cultural misfortunes on the languages that some slang words in pt-BR are usual words with other meanings in pt-PT (and vice-versa), so people are more reluctant to use the other variation (I don’t think this happens in the various English variations).

    As a data point though, Brazilian Portuguese is not a new market, as I’m pretty sure to have used win98 in pt-BR and probably further to win95.

  32. Bhrgunatha Deva says:

    As a British English speaker I’d prefer it if you called me indignant.

  33. Worf says:

    @Cheong: The thinking might work that way, but I suspect the reality is more political.

    I18n isn’t just translating strings – that’s easy. It’s more about politics, local customs, culture, etc. That’s what makes i18n hard. Three pixels angered a country, and with Taiwan, its status is vague because of politics. Sometimes a convenient excuse happens, sometimes not.

    A Bing competitor has a button on their web page marked "I’m feeling lucky". It’s trivial to translate it. But it’s more difficult to translate that properly – there is a lot of meaning in those 3 words, translating that into local sensibilities isn’t easy.

  34. Lukas Beeler says:

    Aah, language. There’s a reason i prefer to use the US-English products. While Microsoft’s translations have gotten better and better, there are still some serious offenders out there regarding localized software that’s barely usuable.

    I think the best one i’ve had in a while was on a German Exchange 2007 – where i could look at the "Bundesland" of a connector :)

  35. Neil says:

    The text width problem bit me when I wanted to correct the spelling of "Network Neighborhood" and ended up with "Network Neighbour…" – my horizontal icon spacing is now 45 pixels.

    Fortunately for my sanity, Netscape 6/7, Mozilla 1.x and Firefox all have British versions.

  36. Theo Carr-Brion says:

    The most annoying thing is we have to pay twice as much (last time I looked, about two years ago) for Windows in Britain and still do not get a proper British version.

  37. Yuri Khan says:

    I am now forced to do development under a localized (ru-RU) version of Windows.

    The main problem with this is that all standard error messages come out translated so I cannot easily google for them. (Of course I pass the en-US LCID to FormatMessage where I get to, but there are many places where I don’t.)

    I am also of the opinion there ought to be an en-US-x-hackish LIP where files belong in directories, not folders.

  38. Ged says:

    It’s just English and it’s used by the vast majority of the English speaking world.

    Americans choose to do things differently, so they have an American English. For the rest of us, it’s just plain old English….

  39. McDowell says:

    I’m not sure it is fair to say that British English is under-served. Microsoft provides regional support for time-zones, currency and date formats, and dictionaries.

    Improvements in process, technology and standards have reduced the risk and cost of internationalization/translation, but they are still there. Like any engineering effort, it can introduce bugs. Having worked alongside native speakers as they mutter about the quality of the text coming back from translation vendors, functional issues aren’t the only problems (though the risk is probably marginal in this case).

    Enough is done and I wouldn’t pay extra for spelling. Still, I’d bet a quid that if a big deployment of Windows hung on the provision of extra "U"s, a British LIP would be forthcoming.

  40. Leo Davidson says:

    @DWalker59:

    << I could replace "Yes" with "No", and "No" with "Maybe"…

    Yes, that sounds very useful. >>

    Err, what silly reasoning.

    You can do stupid things with almost anything. Following your logic through, we shouldn’t be able to write our own software for Windows because it might delete a required file.

    There may be very valid reasons not to allow users to edit the strings but the possibility that someone will swap "Yes" and "No" on their own machine is not one of them.

  41. mcphee says:

    I love how you say "Indian English" speakers would drastically outnumber en-GB speakers – much like the US, India was a colony of Great Britain, and much like Australia or New Zealand their english will be derived from en-GB.

  42. John C says:

    @Nathan_works

    Although there are many differences between the French spoken in Quebec and France (mostly in terms of accent), written French is standardized, at least in theory.

    There is a regulatory body to govern the standard, and representatives from Quebec sit on the board.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acad%C3%A9mie_fran%C3%A7aise Académie française [wikipedia]

  43. manicmarc says:

    I am English, and when it comes to spelling, I think American English generally has it right. They spell it as it sounds.

    As that Wikipedia article points out, the differences aren’t just spelling. Still I think the lack of British English in Windows and other software, together with many American movies and TV shows being big over here will eventually mean American English takes over everywhere.

  44. Shaun says:

    I saw the Welsh version of Windows XP, we trialled it at the company where I worked – which was an entirely welsh-language business.

    Unfortunately, the translation was horrendous, and nonsensical.

    For example, MY Computer, became "the throne" (yr orsedd)

    Now, being a native Welsh speaker, and a fluent English speaker, It’s hard enough to find advanced options in the control panel when things are just moved around if they’re in a different language, but when they’re translated to meaningless words, the OS becomes unusable for the most part.

  45. Jonathan says:

    Worf: The Bing competitor’s "I’m Feeling Lucky" is translated in Hebrew to "יותר מזל משכל", which literally would be back-translated into "more luck than brains". But it’s a better translation because it keep the spirit of the original, much more than the awkward-sounding literal translation "אני מרגיל בר-מזל".

  46. Stephen Jones says:

    ——"But then again, you’d still have to take a back seat to Indian English, since they outnumber you by a huge margin.)"——

    Nope. The number of native English speakers in India is under 200,000 according to the last census (or 20,00,000 if you prefer Indian numbering). The number who claim to be bilingual in English comes to around 140 million (or 14 crore) but ‘bliingual’ covers a multitude of sins and I would say the figure of those competent in English is lower than 50 million.

  47. Stephen Jones says:

    Whoops that should have been ( or or 2,00,000 ( 2 lakh) if you prefer Indian numbering).

  48. steveg says:

    I wish…

    XP had used yyyy/mm/dd by default and mm/dd/yyyy was omitted. My life would have been so much better.

  49. Jorge Coelho says:

    @Leonardo Brondani Schenkel: "Is it customary in Portugal to call Brazilian Portuguese as "Brazilian" like it’s another language?"

    Oh yes. We say Brazilians are talking ‘Brasileiro’, not ‘Portuguese’.

    The funny thing is that the Portuguese can understand the spoken (and written) Portuguese-Brazilian language perfectly from the get-go, but Brazilians have a hard time understanding "our" Portuguese when they first arrive in Portugal.

    Maybe because we’ve been having to endure a ton of daily Brazilian soap-operas on TV for the last 20 years. ;-) Or, more likely, perhaps because we (unlike them) do not double foreign movies and use sub-titles instead, which exposes and makes us more receptive to ‘foreign language’ sounds.

  50. Abhishek says:

    Ah, color and other such en-US spellings remind me of the time when I just started programming, and always had to kick myself when my compile failed due to a liberal sprinkling of those pesky xxxColour() functions… :)

  51. Worf says:

    Written French is supposed to be standardized, but Quebeckers take extreme offense at "Anglo" words being used. Which results in words used exclusively in Quebec and not in France.

    Also why the stop signs say "STOP" in France, but "ARRET" (with accent, of course) in Quebec. Plus a few years ago Quebec added a bunch of words because they were too "Anglo" (even though everyone’s already used them for years). These were words like e-mail (courriel) and such…

  52. Neil says:

    I used to have a "uk.h" header file that consisted of extra #define statements e.g.

    #define COLOUR_GREYTEXT          COLOR_GRAYTEXT

    Obviously this particular define was wrapped in an #ifndef NOCOLOUR ;-)

    Actually that wasn’t its entire use; it also optimised a few internal macros e.g.

    #define MAKE_FP(SEG, OFS, TYPE) ((SEG) :> (TYPE __based(void)*)(OFS))

    VC1.5 used to generate horrible code for the windows.h version of that macro.

  53. Bulletmagnet says:

    I used to work for a British software company. All our software used American spelling in the UI (the US market was very important due to its size). When I asked them why weren’t they using "native" (British) spelling, they explained it’s safer to use the American spelling, because:

    Reaction of Americans reading British English:

    Doh! The spelling it wrong.

    Reaction of British reading American English:

    Sigh, American spelling.

  54. Mykola says:

    Hmm, and what about special ukrainian edition?

    Sometimes Ukrainian wrongly considered to be a dialect of Russian, and, although this is completely wrong, there is another issue: Russian is commonly understandable in Ukraine.

  55. Raphael says:

    Actually, brazilian portuguese is quite diferent from the european portuguese. if you a portuguese tells a brazilian to "wait in the line" the brazilian understands "chase a gay men"

  56. SEE says:

    <i>it’s used by the vast majority of the English speaking world.</i>

    Only if you count all bilingual speakers as part of the "English speaking world" (whether or not they use any English in their daily lives) <i>and</i> ignore that Indian English, Nigerian Pidgin (and other West African dialects), and Jamaican Creole (and other Caribbean dialects) are all quite as distinct from the language of Britain as American English is.

  57. abadidea says:

    @Rob: "Reverse the argument, if MS produced only a British English version, how miffed would US folks be?"

    I honestly think a lot of us wouldn’t even notice. When reading, I’m not even consciously aware of the difference color/colour, etc, and in fact I’ve *written* both. I’ve heard a lot of British folk rant and rave about American English and I don’t really see what the problem is… Maybe it’s because, going to a good school, I read a *lot* of British literature growing up. Solution: ya’ll Brits need to read more Mark Twain.

  58. carl says:

    For what it’s worth, Windows Mobile (The Microsoft Phone OS) is available in British English.

    Mobile Internet Explorer has ‘Favourites’ and the control panel lets you change your ‘colour scheme’

  59. Ricardo says:

    I’m from Portugal and i prefer using an English version than a Brazilian Portuguese one. Brazilians like to do literal translations of English words without even realising there is already a Portuguese word with the same meaning. For example, they translate "AIDS" as "AIDS" instead of using SIDA or using "câncer" (cancer) instead of "cancro". I once tried reading a math book in Brazilian Portuguese and it was very strange. They create new words which sounds like the English ones but written as Portuguese. It ruins the Portuguese language making it loose its identity making it sound as English.

  60. Random User 29517 says:

    And there’s the classic argument everyone loves to ignore. For any given language used by more than one person, there are varied dialects. This becomes noticeable as the quantity-of and distance-between people increases.

    Taking English as an example, this comment chain has mostly discussed "American English" versus "British English" versus "Indian English". Why not break it down further and discuss having other dialectal variations, such as "Cockney English" and "Valley-Girl English"?

    As for calling "British English", "true English", why not "Modern Anglo-Saxon"? Languages are constantly in flux, and change their names (or not) whenever enough people decide it has that name.

  61. Ken Hagan says:

    I think Bulletmagnet has the right answer. Frankly, most of us Brits are so used to US usage that it isn’t an issue, whereas we only have to spend a little time in the States to realise that we are slightly exotic as far as the natives are concerned.

    Perhaps it’s better this way. We get a cheaper product AND the opportunity to whinge about the Yanks. :)

    Anyway, if MS *did* get a UK translation done, it would probably be wrong and *then* they’d be sorry. No, best not to go there.

  62. Ray Trent says:

    I’m going to go out on a hugely politically incorrect limb here and say that I am quite wistful that we (as a species) squandered the opportunity to create a unified world-wide language by localizing Windows *at all*.

    I realize that there’s no practical way this could have actually happened, but it does seem like we gave up way too easily.

    As it happens, that language probably would have turned out to be my native language, (American) English… so one my accuse me of being self-serving — but frankly I’d have been happy to learn whatever language it turned out to be.

    The only constraint I’d put on it is that alphabetic languages have ideographic ones beat by a mile when it comes to using computers.

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