English originated, as the name suggests, in England but at the dawn of the 21st century the United States is the largest English-speaking nation in the world. More than a century ago, however, the Irish author George Bernard Shaw joked that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” Now how can that be? English is English, isn’t it? Well, not exactly. While Shaw’s comment was obviously meant as something of a humorous exaggeration, he was the only man of letters to make light of the differences between English as it is spoken in the United States and in the United Kingdom (that is, England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland). In fact, there is even a song to celebrate the pronunciation differences that exist between the two countries: Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off! As funny as it may be to hear the differences between “tomayto” and “tomahto”, the underlying truth is clear: today the language of Shakespeare (who lived in the 16th century) sounds more like the English of the United States and his native England! As funny as it might sound in a song, however, the differences in pronunciation, spelling, and vocabulary that exist between the two nations are every bit as much of a point confusion as they are of humor. While the forthcoming blog series will be dedicated to discussing the vocabulary differences that exist among different Englishes, this introduction will try to answer a different question: how, exactly, did this happen?
As a result of British colonial expansion, English has spread from its island home in Northern Europe to every corner of the globe. At its height at the dawn of the 20th century it was widely said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire” and where the Empire went so too did its language. Today English-speakers may be outnumbered by their Chinese and Spanish counterparts but in terms of reach it is second to none. Time changes all things, however, and over time the “Queen’s English” that was introduced to its colonies started to diverged from each other in various aspects. This led to a new dialect in the form of American English. While this process occurred across the globe, because the US and Britain remain the two most-populous and influential English-speaking countries in the world, these two countries form the two principle points of reference (and will serve as the foundation for our discussion of some of the biggest differences).
The reason that this divergence affected English more than, say, Spanish is the fact that English, unlike some other major languages, does not have a “regulatory body” that oversees the use of the language. The Spanish-speaking world, by contrast, has the Real Academia Española , which is located in Spain and publishes an official dictionary that is recognized by all Spanish-speaking countries. The French has the Académie française to fulfill a similar purpose. English lacks this centralized governing body and therefore no one can definitively say what is “correct English.” Unlike the more prescriptive (top-down) French and Spanish, English is the result of a descriptive (bottom-up) process which evolved naturally with the changing usage of people. Accordingly, the only measure of right or wrong is actual usage but, as noted above, the extreme geographic range of the language means that actual usage varies quite a bit. It is important to emphasize that both versions are considered correct, albeit distinct, and that consistency is the most important point when considering usage. Thus, while the UK-based Oxford English Dictionary provides a different snapshot of the language than the US-based Merriam-Webster, one is no more correct than the other.
Merriam-Webster: A Note on Spelling
Speaking of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, words alone are not the only differences between the two. In fact, the Merriam-Webster dictionary – and its original, 19th century author, Noah Webster in particular – is responsible for popularizing many of the spelling differences evident between the US and the UK. His passion for what he called “spelling reform” introduced some of the most significant spelling changes that exist in modern American English today. The absence of the silent “u” in words like color and favor (UK: colour and favour), the elimination of duplicated consonants in words like canceled and jeweler (UK: cancelled and jeweller), and inverted order of the r and the e in words like theater and center (UK: theatre and center) are all the result of his efforts. All these changes were possible because of the absence of a central authority and did nothing to change their pronunciations.
Here is a key to look for between UK to US:
Elimination of the silent u: Thus our to or and iour to ior (colour/color, behaviour/behavior)
Change from s to z: Thus -isation to –ization and ise to ize [plus yse to ise] (civilisaton/civilization, theorise/theorize [analyse, analyze])
Change from -ence to -ense: Thus licence becomes license and defence becomes defense
Inversion of r and e: Thus metre and meter, fibre and fiber
Simplification of -ogue: Thus –ouge becomes –og (catalogue/catalog, dialogue/ dialog)
Again, and this is important to note: in all of the cases, the altered spelling does not change the pronunciation. Unlike tomayto/tomahto, there is no difference with theater/theatre!
Want more? Check out our new blog series on English Difference Around the World.