Divided by a Common Language

England and America are two countries divided by a common language – George Bernard Shaw

When you’re here, let’s speak American – Sarah Palin

George Bernard Shaw, of course, was Irish, which just goes to show how confusingly international the English language can be. While there are a number of national and regional variations of English around the world, the greatest division between forms of English is that between American English and British English. Most other forms of English tend to be largely a variation, or mix, of one of these two, with varying influences from other languages of that country.

There are two main areas of difference between British and American English. The first is vocabulary, with different words being used to describe the same thing: cookie/biscuit, tap/faucet, vacation/holiday, hood and trunk/bonnet and boot, lorry/truck, and the whole fry/chip/crisp fiasco. The second is of course spelling. Some of the main changes are: words ending in -re in British English changing to -er in American English, and -our changing to -or.

It’s quite easy to live with these changes, and they tend to cause little confusion for native speakers (except for the occasional who goes on holiday to America and asks for a burger and chips). And yet, people can get very passionate about these differences, and defensive of their English. I think a lot of that can be attributed to simply preferring the way one has always done things, and instinctively resisting any alternative to that. I think almost all of us have that instinctive resistance to change to some extent, and a sense that our way is unquestionably the right way. However, I think that when it comes to language, there’s a little more to do it than that.

I think that the English we use is also inextricably bound up with our national or cultural identity. And why not? We use it every day to communicate our thoughts, and it can be a clear signifier of where we’re from. Look at how American English differs from British English. Looking at it objectively, it certainly seems more logical. English pronunciation can be notoriously confusing, due to its origins in, and borrowings from, other languages. Changing -re to -re, for example then, just makes the spelling of words closer to how they’re pronounced. And with words like colour and flavour, is that u really necessary? No? Get rid of it then. It’s understandable that a new country, conscious of setting out on their own in contrast to their former coloniser, would like to establish its own identity. Language is an easy thing to change, and is an obvious sign of difference. In addition, the ideals of the Founding Fathers were strongly influenced by the Enlightenment ideals of logic and reason, and it makes sense that in creating a uniquely American form of English, they would try to impose some logic on the language. It’s a modern, forward-looking form of English, not relying on using old forms simply because they’ve always been used.

As for why some people seem to resent American English? I think it’s partly just resentment at the new form of English, daring to make a change. But also, the UK is very old compared to the US, and has accrued a lot more traditions. One can observe many seemingly archaic rituals and institutions in relation to government and the monarchy. And one can look at British English as a similar institution. Does it make sense that words that end in -re sound like -er? Not anymore, but then how on Earth could one imagine changing the spelling of a word that’s existed for so long? Logic and reason are all well and good, but sometimes you just have to accept things as they are and work with it. I don’t think that’s a uniquely British attitude by the way, but rather a more general European one. So many of our nations are so old, and we’re so often reminded of our history, that we can be resistant to change. Plus, the cultural exchange common in a small continent with many differnet countries means that different languages influence each other, and we get used to the fact that some of the results of these influences might not seem so logical. So why simplify things then, when we’ve learned to live with language’s eccentricities?

I should state for the record, by the way, that being Irish, my English is mostly British English, with a lot of influence from the Irish language. As a result, I do instinctively prefer the conventions of British English, and when I see American English spellings my brain does tell me that they’re wrong. And yet I use some Americanisms, like, for some reason, the way I pronounce yoghurt. So I think that gives me a little objectively in comparing the two forms of English. And I suppose the way Hiberno-English can incorporate some American English reflects the nature of Irishness. We’re culturally and geographically very close to the UK, but we’ve long felt an affinity with the United States, largely due to the numbers of Irish people who emigrated there, and we’re very exposed to and influenced by American culture.

George Bernard Shaw might have been joking when he made his pronouncement about British and American English, but there is some truth to it. Some things can get lost in translation, but at the same time, whatever variety of English we speak, we still speak the same language, and despite the many differences, that still unites us. Still, be careful if you go to England and tell someone that you like their pants.

Image: https://idea-udl.org/conferences/past-conferences/london-new-york/

 

12 thoughts on “Divided by a Common Language

  1. In my Southern Ontario, Canada small home town, we had a ‘chip wagon’, a rebuilt 1928 Essex truck, which went from place to place, serving French Fries. When my small town brother drove to Yellowstone National Park, he stopped at a diner, and actually asked for a hamburg and an order of chips, and was outraged when the waitress went behind the counter, opened a bag of ‘chips’, and poured them on his plate. 😯 😦

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  2. […] Of course one obvious answer is that the date formats we use reflect the way we speak. In British English one usually says the eighth of May, and in American English, May eighth. But then that simply begs another question, why do we say the dates differently? No-one really seems to know, but as often, I suspect that many citizens of the early years of the United States wanted to differentiate themselves from the British linguistically. […]

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