The British and Americans Are
Divided by a Common Language
By John Powell
Both the Brits and the Americans speak the same language: English.
But why is there a large difference in syntax and grammar between the two? More importantly, why do we employ different spellings for words that obviously mean the same thing. You spell program and I spell programme. You write center and I write centre. And so on.
What's the reason for this discrepancy?
Before I get into that, maybe a few facts will be in order.
Today, the English language is used by some 800 million people worldwide, with barely half of those speaking it as a mother tongue. This is because the English language is arguably the richest in vocabulary. As a rough proof of this, German has a vocabulary of around 190,000 words, while French contains some 95,000. English, on the other hand, has 500,000 and counting.
English, as you almost certainly know, came to us in its basic form with the Angles and the Saxons, who invaded Britain in the 5th century AD. Thus, it is a pot pourri of the old Germanic, Dutch and Danish languages. What's more, English has been flexible enough over the years to accept much of its vocabulary from the Greek, Latin and French languages. Not to mention a vast array of words from India, Japan and the Middle East.
Given this kind of flexibility, it comes as no surprise that when English was exported to the New World, it underwent even more changes. The early settlers had to find new words to describe new experiences. Thus, in the late 1600s, we saw such words as wigwam, bluff (a bank or cliff) and canyon entering the language.
Others quickly followed. Seaboard, calculate, presidential and bookstore are all American home-grown – meaning that they were borrowed from Native Americans, the Spanish and the French, among others.
In inventing a brand new nation, the early Americans were also devising a new language. Yet there is more to it than even that. When the Mayflower landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620, the majority of people on board were from East Anglia – a region in England which has its own particular dialect. For that reason, one can still hear today in New England speech the long ‘a' in such words as car, far and apartment which is peculiar to Norfolk and Suffolk in England.
Which brings us to Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758 and who abandoned the law in favour of teaching. Between 1783 and 1785, he published a book titled A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, which was, in essence, a speller, a grammar and a reader for elementary students.
In this work, he set out to regularize what he termed the American language. This, combined with a later work, Dissertations on the English Language, a volume that was fanatical in its arguments for divorcing American English from its parent, set the fundamental seal of approval on the new American English.
It was Webster who coined the vast proportion of spellings used by Americans today – from color (colour) to theater (theatre), from fiber (fibre) to defense (defence). It was he, also, through his contention that children should be taught to spell by rote, en masse in the classroom, that we now recognise the distinctive pattern of American speech, which gives due emphasis to each syllable in a given word.
I take it that you've also heard of his dictionary.
So, whatever side of the fence you are on, you can either praise or blame Mister Webster for all the discrepancies. For my part, as an Englishman, I find the whole business most edifying. Let's be honest, the development of the English language has resulted from hundreds of years of dedicated illiteracy.
Don't you just love it?
© Markethill Publishing 2005.
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