By George Albert Brown
Just about everyone can identify differences between “British English” and “American English” — but very few people know the way these differences came to be.
We often think that the differences between British English and American English are due to changes made by the Americans.
In fact, it’s often the other way around.
Many of these changes occurred in the 1830s, when the British compiled dictionaries for the new middle class created by the Industrial Revolution. At the time, the British considered the French the height of culture, and began importing Frenchisms into their dictionaries.
Some changes were simple spelling shifts, as Frenchlike u’s began to appear in British English, e.g., “labor” became “labour”, “humor” became “humour”, etc.
The “er” at the end of words, such as “theater”, which predominated from around 1550 to 1700, or later (Shakespeare spelt it “theater”), was changed to “re”, i.e., “theatre”, the French spelling.
Other changes required a wholesale shift to French words in place of their English equivalents. The humble “eggplant” became the noble “aubergine”; the season “fall” became known as “autumn”.
“Gotten” became “got”: one of the rare examples of words becoming simpler during this shift.
These adaptations also included several changes to pronunciation. Some words, “aluminum”, gained an extra “i”, and an extra syllable. The English “uh-LOO-muh-num” became “a-luh-MI-nee-uhm”. (The French inserted an “i” into the word to make it sound like calcium, or sodium, despite the fact that the Englishman Humphry Davy, the discoverer of the element, called it by its original English name.)
Pronunciation of the letter “a” between consonants, such as in “bath” changing from bÆ-th (the American way of pronouncing it) to bAW-th (the current English way of pronouncing it–except in the UK city of Bath where real locals still call it BÆ-th).
Brits began to drop the “r” sound at the end of words, replacing it instead with an “ah” sound. (For example, “sugar” was pronounced “shuh-gah”.)
There was such an overall change in accent and pronunciation in Britain, in fact, that most scholars feel that the American way of speaking today is closer to what Shakespeare spoke than modern British English. In other words: to be authentic, all those plays at Stratford-upon-Avon should have American actors.
Then there was the recent ugly pronunciation change in Britain described by the more snobbish as having “come up from the lower orders”: the glottal stop. Commonly heard in Cockney dialect, this is where the ending “t” sound in a syllable is stopped in the glottis, before it ever gets to the tongue. So “what” becomes “whah”, “it” becomes “ih”, and bottle “boh-el”, with a glottal breath stop where the “t” used to be. (Of course, in the meantime, the Americans have made their own change to pronunciation of the ending “t”, substituting a “d”. Accordingly, Americans write a “ledder” and build shelters to protect themselves against the “adam” bomb. Embarrassing, really.)
Here’s a word pronunciation question for you involving America and British English and French. The French pronounce “filet” as “FEE-lay”, the Americans as “fee-LAY”, and the British as “FILL-et”. Why the difference between the American and British pronunciations?
(Want a hint? Both the Americans and the British got the word from the French.)
The Americans got the word from modern French and modified it with an American iambic emphasis. The British, on the other hand, got it from the French in 1066 when William The Conqueror arrived. At that time, all those letters in modern French that now appear to have lost any relation to phonetics were still phonetic. A thousand years ago, the French pronounced the end of the word “filet” as “et”.
Of course, “filet” notwithstanding, the fact that the British changed their language after the American’s left doesn’t necessarily mean the Americans should be praised for sticking with their version. It could just be that the Americans are inherently more conservative about these things. For instance, in the 1800s the Brits also changed from the traditional British way of writing the date of month-day-comma-year — still used by Americans today — to the French way of day-month-year (with no punctuation). The French way is now used by the largest part of the world, with the remainder using the Chinese way of year-month-day (with no punctuation). No one else in the world uses the American way of dating.
That is, as in so many things, America is out of synch with 95.75% of the population of the world.
To me, both the French and the Chinese ways make sense. To such an extent, I use the French system when writing correspondence, since it’s understood by the majority of the world (and even by the Americans when they get over the shock), and use the Chinese system when writing notes to file, since it makes more sense to file by the year first, then the month, then the day. Using the American month-day-comma-year makes no sense whatsoever other than that the Americans are used to it. Plus it virtually guarantees that when booking a hotel in at least the largest part of the world outside the US, you will end up booking the wrong date.
Another example of American conservatism is their attitude to the French-created metric system, which the British have adopted on the reasonable grounds that if your numbering system is based on ten, your measuring system should be based on ten.
Right now there are only three countries in the world — Myanmar, the Comoros Islands, and the United States — that do not officially accept the metric system. (By the company you keep shall you be known, huh?)
The result is that when Americans measure something—distance, weight, volume, speed—rather than having a single metric number to describe what they are measuring (1.12345 kilometers or 1,123.45 meters), they have to break the measurement up into archaic units.
For distance: miles + yards (of which there are 1760 in a mile) + feet (of which there are three in a yard), inches (or which there are 12 in a foot) + various conglomerations of 32ds of an inch; or weight: tons, pounds (of which there are 2,000 in a ton) + ounces (of which there are 16 in a pound) + various conglomeration of 32ds of an ounce; or volume: gallons + quarts (4 quarts per gallon) + pints (two per quart) + cups (2 cups per pint) + fluid ounces (8 per cup) + tablespoons (2 per fluid ounce) + teaspoons (3 per tablespoon).
The mind boggles.
Once again, Americans are doggedly clinging to outmoded traditions in the face of all reason — or, at least, of the standards of the rest of the world. One pundit ascribes the cause of this inherent conservatism to the US having “too much democracy”. There is just no chance that the great American people are going to be pushed out of their comfort zone by pointy-headed smarty pants using logic, especially foreign ones. Every American knows intuitively what a mile, a yard, a foot, an inch, etc., is. If there were a switch to metric, the American people would have to spend all their time mentally translating the old, intuitive measurements into the new “artificial” system, while at the same time trying to keep in mind things like how many “leaders” there are in a “cubic kilomeder”, when the damn measurements are not even spelt like they’re supposed to be pronounced. Too much damn trouble. What’s the point?
So, what happened here?
We started by making fun of the British changing their language after the Americans left and ended up making fun of the Americans for being such sticks in the mud.
All of which just goes to show that, at the end of the day, I’m truly an equal opportunity social commentator.
Looking at any society from the outside, you can’t help but see the absurdities that go unnoticed by those on the inside.