The differences between the dominant language spoken in North America and that spoken in Great Britain are not substantial. Certainly, they are no bar to mutual comprehension. Not usually anyway, though my wife does recall one unsuccessful attempt to order water in Alabama, in which she was surprised to find herself completely unable to make her request understood in what she thought was her native tongue.
In general, differences between American English and the English spoken in Great Britain are less significant, for instance, than those between the Portuguese spoken in Brazil and that spoken in Portugal. Still, many people will have personally experienced difficulty or dismay at the differences that do exist between these two peoples “divided by a common language”.
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In Britain, the assumption is often that the language spoken here is somehow more pure, authentic and correct than the English spoken elsewhere, particularly in America. Eyes are rolled, in large part because it is known that most of the billion people worldwide who use and understand English do so not because of Britain, but rather because of (and in imitation of) the United States.
What, however, can these Yanks possibly mean when they refer to something that they have ‘gotten’? Why do they talk of changing a baby’s ‘diaper’ when they evidently mean his or her ‘nappy’? What on earth is this recipe talking about when it calls for a ‘scallion’? Eyebrows are raised and tuts are tutted. What is this transatlantic trash? Sorry – I mean transatlantic rubbish.
However, the truth is that many words, or grammatical tics, which seem corruptions of the true English spoken on the eastern side of the Atlantic are in fact anything but. These expressions may seem distinctively American, but in truth they are more faithful to the old English tongue than those used in Britain today.
Candy and diapers
Many words and phrases that now sound like Americanisms are in fact old terms that had fallen into disuse in England. While now the US is a very urbanised place, for a long period of time England in particular was much more urban and industrially developed than was North America. And language tends to transform more quickly in an urban environment than it does in a rural one.
Take a word like ‘fall’ – meaning the season of autumn. Nowadays this sounds like a classic instance of an Americanism. In actual fact, though, this is simply not the case. Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, the word ‘fall’ was commonly used in England. Here, as in other countries, the word literally connotes the ‘fall of the leaf’. This etymology can also be seen in Slavic languages like Polish, Czech or Serbo-Croatian, where November is known as ‘listopad’ (combining the words for ‘leaf’ and ‘fall’). Gradually in England the expression was superseded, then wholly replaced, by an older word – ‘autumn’ (inferior, thought the great lexicographer HW Fowler). Meanwhile, it continued to be used in the colonies on the western Atlantic. As Fowler remarked with reference to the word ‘fall’, “we have chosen to let the right lapse [our right to claim it], and to use the word now is no better than larceny”.
Many other examples of this can be found. If we object to an American usage like ‘gotten’, we should remember that far from being some frightful American slang, ‘gotten’ is in fact an old English past tense for ‘get’. It isn’t used much nowadays, though it does survive in words with a prefix, like ‘forgotten’.
Meanwhile, ‘diaper’ was an English word before it was ever an American one. Shakespeare used it in The Taming of the Shrew. The writer was rather free with language himself, frequently coining new words and altering the meaning of old ones, but he is nothing if not an authority nowadays.
What about ‘scallion’? Do they mean a ‘spring onion’? Well, perhaps. But ‘scallion’ was what this milder plant from the allium family was called in northern England, as well as northern Ireland, and from there it was bequeathed to North America.
And yes, you’ve guessed it: ‘trash’ is the same. “Who steals my purse steals trash”, advised Iago in Othello, the play by, yes, William Shakespeare. Othello was written in 1603 and first performed in 1604: shortly before the first English colony of Jamestown was established in Virginia.
These are not the only words and phrases which sound American, which once certainly were not. Another is ‘I guess?’ It is hard to say those two words to oneself now without doing so in an American accent. Yet while Fowler, the famous authority upon the ‘King’s English’, was critical of the phrase, he did admit that ‘I gesse’ had in fact been an expression popular with Chaucer.
It is Americans, surely, who started to call football ‘soccer’, since the former word was claimed already by a different sport of their own? No, in fact it was the English who coined the term soccer: making it from ‘association football’.
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What about ‘candy’, instead of ‘sweets’? Yet again, this was an old word that found its way into English by the 15th century, when was often used as a verb (‘candied oranges’, for example). By the 17th century, it was used as a stand-alone noun. Men and women called ‘spirits’ were employed by merchants and ship-owners to lure poor individuals who they found in the vicinity of ports on board to emigrate, and they did so often by offering a sweetener in return for a signed cross (because very often travellers were illiterate) on the indenture documents. In the case of children, this might be literal: it might be sweets, or ‘candy’. Just like all of these other words, ‘candy’ was taken to America, along with the colonists who sailed from England in such astonishing, prodigious numbers during the 17th century. And there it has remained in regular use, even while it largely died out back in England.
Nor is this only a question of vocabulary. Changes in an accent are difficult to pin down, given that we cannot listen to the sound of language spoken several hundred years ago. But there certainly are clues – most obviously in the way that words are spelled (as well as in the way that they are used to rhyme). The English language is famously not phonetic – is difficult to spell because of its irregularity, because the sound of a word is no certain guide to the way that it is written. (George Bernard Shaw once observed that fish as well might be spelled ‘ghoti’, since ‘rough’, ‘women’ and ‘nation’ all contain these letters making the appropriate sounds.) But in general, it is safe to assume that a letter that appears did at some stage have a purpose: after all, before spelling was standardised, words were usually spelled in the way that they sounded.
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A famous contrast between the way that American English is spoken when compared to the English spoken in most parts of Britain involves what is called the ‘rhotic’ r – the ‘r’ sound in words like ‘hard’ which were once (we must presume) clearly heard in England and which are still pronounced to this day in the United States. During the 17th century, when emigration to North America began in large numbers, the playwright Ben Jonson described the role of the letter ‘r’. It “sounded firme in the beginning of words”, he wrote, but “more liquid in the middle, and ends”. A century later, during the first half of the 18th century, another writer deemed it “almost mute”. Towards the end of that century, after the conclusion of the revolutionary war in America which saw an end to the region’s colonial status, Americans who returned to England wrote of their surprise at what seemed a significant alteration in the way that language was pronounced.
It seems likely, in other words, that the English language in the 17th century sounded more like it does now in the US than it does in England. The plays of Shakespeare arguably sound more authentic performed in Chicago than they do in London.
So, much as it might be awkward for some purists to accept that the English of England isn’t necessarily any purer than the English of the US, it is quite plausible that the former has changed markedly during the time since many of the early colonists left during the 17th century. The same is true regarding other colonial languages. The French spoken in Quebec, for instance, preserves features of an older French that have ceased to exist in France.
For one thing, this point about ‘rhoticity’ provides one important reason why my wife found it so difficult to order water in Alabama – because ‘water’, of course, is a word ending with an ‘r’, usually silent in England but still pronounced in the United States. So let us not be too assured in England that we have any claim to superiority, or that we have got it right. After all: William Shakespeare, for one, would be most unlikely to agree.
James Evans is the author of Emigrants: Why the English Sailed to the New World (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), out now
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in August 2017