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American vs British English

This Material Courtesy of Jeannine M. Pitas

For some years it has been fashionable to claim that Americans are destroying the English language. American neologisms, slang, inattentiveness to grammar and spelling, and even pronunciation have met with criticism not only from British people interested in guarding the integrity of their language, but from some Americans as well. However, language is not a set of static axioms, but a living entity that is constantly evolving. While Americans’ acceptance of split infinitives and misplaced apostrophes may irritate the grammarians among us, we must remember there was a time when spelling was not standardized, which makes it very fun to read Renaissance works like Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and find the word “queen” spelled about four different ways throughout the text. And while some lovers of British English may complain that Americans are changing the language, they do not realize that in some ways our continent has been much more conservative in adhering to the standard that was in use when our country was founded.

According to linguist John Algeo in his essay Language Myths, (Penguin Press, 1999) “The differences between American and British are not due to Americans changing from a British standard. Rather, both American and British evolved in different ways from a common sixteenth-century ancestral standard. Present-day British is no closer to that earlier form than present-day American is.” Algeo then points out that many American forms of pronunciation are older than British ones. For example, standard American English has retained the pronunciation of the final “r” in words like “father” and “mother,” while British has lost it. Americans have maintained the “flat a” sound of cat in words like “path” and “class” whereas the British have replaced this sound with the “broad a” of “father.” Americans also fully pronounce all syllables of words like “library” and “dictionary,” but the British shorten them to “libr’ry” and “diction’ry.” Algeo shows us that in all of these examples and many more, the American variation is closer to the original sixteenth century version than the British one.

On the other hand, there are cases in which Americans have departed from the original while the British have retained it. One of the most common cases of this is the pronunciation of the letter “t” when it comes in the middle of a word. A British speaker would most certainly pronounce “Adam” differently from “atom,” but and American most like would pronounce the two words the same. Also, the British have maintained certain phrases and expressions that have been lost in American English, such as “I reckon,” to mean “I think” or “I suppose.” Algeo maintains that it is hard to judge which version of English has changed more from the original, but he succeeds in reminding us of a basic truth: English is a living language that has been changing for centuries and will continue to do so. It is unjust to claim that any group of people—whether it be Americans or Canadians or the millions of people in the world who now speak English as a second language— are “ruining” a language that was born on a small North Atlantic island and came to be spoken across the entire globe.

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