November 5, 2021
The United States and the United Kingdom share the same language, English… formed over many hundreds of years, with its start as Old English (which is mostly unintelligible with modern English) to its modern equivalent. Playwright George Bernard Shaw once said that the US and UK are “two countries divided by a common language” and Oscar Wilde, the famous playwright, and poet, said, “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, the language”.
These quotes are reminders of the differences between the two countries’ varieties of English. How did they become different if the language they spoke started in the same place?
The main reason for the difference in English between these two nations is how English evolved, as at one point they would speak English exactly the same way. American English is based upon late 17th century English brought from the UK by the first settlers to the thirteen colonies that later became the United States of America. American English preserves certain features of the language that were not retained in British English.
An example of this is the use of full rhoticity, which simply means that American English speakers pronounce the “R” in a word that a British speaker wouldn’t. A classic example of this would be the word “Fire”. An American English speaker would pronounce it “fi-er” whereas a British English speaker would pronounce it as “fi-yah”.
The reason for many dialects of modern British English not using full rhoticity is due to a trend in the late 18th century, in the south of England. Members of the aristocracy, who were a higher class, began dropping their R’s and this became popular with British people who were members of lower classes who imitated this feature. It is important to note that in some regions rhoticity is still used, but it has seen non-rhoticity begin to affect it.
Another reason for differences in English between these countries is the vocabulary, as American English colonists borrowed names for the new unfamiliar flora, fauna, and topography from Native American languages with examples such as “raccoon”, “moose”, and “moccasin”. As America is a nation of immigrants and its colonial period saw interest from the Spanish and French as well as the British, it has many loanwords from many other languages and groups of people.
Spanish and German are the most common origin languages for American English loanwords along with Dutch and a few other languages. The word “cookie” came from Dutch, the word “kindergarten” from German and the word “cilantro” from Spanish.
A key component of any language is its written form, and this is where American English and British English deviate most heavily. This is due to the first dictionaries in both countries being written by two different authors with two different perspectives on language. The British dictionary was put together in London by scholars who just wanted to collect all known English words. The American dictionary was put together by lexicographer Noah Webster, who wanted spelling to be more straightforward and better reflect the pronunciation of words.
One theory is that he wanted American spellings to differ from British spellings as a way of showing independence. Another theory is that because newspapers charged for how much space an ad took up on the page, so the more economical spelling was always preferred in the US. Some examples of different spellings include the dropping of the “u” in various worlds like “colour” and “honour” which changed to “color” and “honor” or the dropped “e” in “judgement,” which is spelled “judgment” in American English.
Other common shifts include the use of “z” instead of the British “s” in words like “colourise” and “hypnotise”, which are spelled “colorize” and “hypnotize” in the American version of the languages. Words that end in the letters “re” in British English such as “centre” and “theatre” are usually spelled with an “er” in American English (“center” and “theater”).
In conclusion, British and American English are different due to American English being based on an older version of English that preserves old linguistic features, being isolated from British English, containing a multitude of loanwords from other languages, and in true American fashion an independent showing by Noah Webster who wrote the first American English language dictionary with straightforward and more phonetic changes to spelling.
Liam is the digital marketing apprentice working for Lingua Fonica. He speaks English fluently and has studied English language for his A-Level qualification, providing him with knowledge surrounding the formation of words and the origins of the English language.