How did American and British English become different?
December 19, 2005 9:29 PM   Subscribe

Why is American English so different from British English?

I am curious about the history of linguistic change that brought American and British English apart, mostly pronunciation wise but also with regard to vocabulary. I assume that American colonial English was very similar to British English. Since then, they have grown far apart, either because modern British pronunciation has really changed since the 17th and 18th centuries or because American pronunciation evolved, perhaps due to an influx of immigrants who tended to speak differently than the original Colonials. Now I know that both Britain and the United States each have a subset of different pronunciation patterns, regional vocabularies and expressions. But for the purposes of the question, lets consider the differences between British and American English in general.
posted by gregb1007 to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It's all about Grimm's Law.

Language's undergo a constant process of sound change, meaning they evolve and diverge (or converge), depending on the level of communication between the speakers.

If you physically separated Americans, Brits, Aussies, Canadians, New Zealanders and South Africans, such that they couldn't ever communicate with one another, over the course of several human generations, all these versions of English would evolve into six entirely different languages.
posted by frogan at 9:40 PM on December 19, 2005

gregb1007: language always changes over time.
posted by delmoi at 10:00 PM on December 19, 2005

Best answer: Firstly, the original English-speaking inhabitants of America would have spoken various different dialects of English, and most would not have spoken standard British English, as that was the speech of the wealthy classes who don't often emigrate. So already there was a very different speech community from that of Britain.

Secondly, sound changes happen within all speech communities, and they are to all intents and purposes random. The vast majority of British and American English speakers didn't ever communicate with each other, so the languages developed in different directions.

As for the specific differences, it's probably not possible to say where most came from (random changes, see) but we can guess at some. For example, standard American pronounces the 'r' in 'air', while standard British doesn't. But many British dialects do pronounce the 'r', so we can assume that speakers of at least one of those dialects were represented in significant numbers among the early immigrants to America.
posted by nomis at 10:03 PM on December 19, 2005

Also, Grimm's Law is about the differences between Germanic languages and other Indo-European languages, and not particularly relevant to modern varieties of English
posted by nomis at 10:05 PM on December 19, 2005

It's quite a long and fascinating story. I highly recommend this lecture series on the history of English, although he doesn't start talking about your question until about 24 lectures in.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:07 PM on December 19, 2005

Oh yeah, book recommendation, good idea. Bill Bryson's 'Made in America' is an entertaining and informative read on the history of American English.
posted by nomis at 10:11 PM on December 19, 2005

You willl certainly enjoy a book called The Story of English which accompanied a BBC TV series of the same name. It sold so well, there must be copies in used book stores everywhere, next to the abridged version of Mencken.
posted by planetkyoto at 10:13 PM on December 19, 2005

In addition to Bryson's "Made in America" I would recommend you first read Bryson's "The Mother Tongue" which sets the stage for "Made in America"
posted by Robot Johnny at 10:16 PM on December 19, 2005

I'll add that the subtitle for "The Mother Tongue" is "English and How it Got That Way"
posted by Robot Johnny at 10:17 PM on December 19, 2005

There is a History Channel (originally BBC I think) show called "The Adventure of English" that addresses this topic among others.

I rather like it, although it takes a fairly personable/upbeat approach (rather than heavy scholarship). This may or may not be acceptable to you.
posted by aramaic at 10:25 PM on December 19, 2005

Are they really that different? There are some very significant differences within British and American English, which makes it difficult to discuss differences between them. Which are more different: Cockney English, BBC announcer English, Maine Potato Farmer English, Louisiana Bayou English?
posted by TimeFactor at 10:26 PM on December 19, 2005

When Noah Webster wrote the first American dictionary he wanted to differentiate American English from British English. Webster is responsible for removing the "superfluous" 'U' from words like colour and humour and the 'K' from musick.
posted by tresbizzare at 10:29 PM on December 19, 2005

Whoops, meant to hit preview. I think it's more surprising how similar they all are, considering how many years, miles, and class differences have separate them.
posted by TimeFactor at 10:30 PM on December 19, 2005

What tresbizzare said about Webster. At least in terms of spelling, he's the one responsible for the major differenece between American English and other variations of English.

The rest is the natural and wonderful gradual change of each of the English dialects. :)
posted by ancamp at 11:32 PM on December 19, 2005

seconding/thirding tresbizzare's comment. That is what I have read as well.
posted by edgeways at 11:41 PM on December 19, 2005

British English has retained the 'superfluous U' in colour and humour, but lost the 'k' in 'music' which I think had pretty much gone by the time Webster was writing. But neither of these examples is really a linguistic difference, as the second vowels in 'humor' and 'humour' essentially sound the same. It becomes interesting when you start to consider why most British people don't pronounce the 'r' on the end of 'humour'. Which has been covered above.
posted by altolinguistic at 1:34 AM on December 20, 2005

Best answer: Although it's been many years since I read it, I believe that Daniel Boorstin's The Americans: The Colonial Experience has some really interesting bits on the specific historical factors that caused American English to evolve the way it did. If I recall, one theory he advances is that in the colonies, Brits of a wide variety of social classes and points of origin would mingle with each other (and with non-native speakers of English) to a much greater degree than they would back in the UK, allowing their accents to rub off on each other in a way they never would in the motherland.
posted by yankeefog at 4:18 AM on December 20, 2005

A big second for Bryson's "Mother Tongue". That's a fascinating and entertaining work on this subject. What particularly interested me is that the common perception that "Americanisms" are elements of the language which evolved from British English, is often false. In many cases such words and phrases are truer to the English both nations were speaking at the time of the split, and it's the "Britisms" which have evolved further away from the common root.
posted by Decani at 5:07 AM on December 20, 2005

TimeFactor writes "Are they really that different?"

Oh ya, especially when you get into technical historical terms. I'm one a few old wood working hand tools lists and you need an English-English dictonary a lot. And I'm Canadian, the culture probably most adept at translating between the two.
posted by Mitheral at 5:21 AM on December 20, 2005

The American Language by H.L. Mencken goes a long way to answering your question and is available online. This book is great and very detailed.

Also, here is a great wikipedia article about American vs. British English.
posted by Alison at 5:58 AM on December 20, 2005

Hey, that Wikipedia link is good.
posted by Decani at 6:30 AM on December 20, 2005

I strongly second the Mencken suggestion. what a book.
posted by matteo at 7:55 AM on December 20, 2005

Um, I seem to remember that some US government official tried to remove "u"s and simplify words in general in order to increase correspondance efficiency sometime in the 20th century...

Of course, this is a vague, vague memory which may have been picked up off a rumour, twisted into something unrecognisable from it's earlier form, and then delivered to you via MeFi...
posted by djgh at 8:03 AM on December 20, 2005

This is very anecdotal--just a faint recollection of an NPR segment I heard as a child--but I believe that southern accents along the eastern seaboard, like those in the Carolinas, are the closest approximation today of how colonial Americans sounded. Or maybe it was that those accents have drifted the least from the British...can someone clarify?
posted by jbrjake at 8:53 AM on December 20, 2005

djgh: you're thinking of Theodore Roosevelt's attempt at legislating spelling reform. Most of the suggested reforms did not take, and certainly not through law. As to removing the "U" from certain words, that is Noah Webster's doing.
posted by Gnatcho at 9:04 AM on December 20, 2005

Best answer: Kind of a side note, but in general, while American and British English are noticeably different, there is still very little--almost nothing--that prevents mutual intelligibility as long as one is not willfully trying to confuse the other nationality and as long as nobody is drunk.

The common core of the Englishes changes only slowly, particularly at the level of academic, scholarly, or upper-class speech. Much is made of the vocabulary differences though phonetic differences are the most difficult and the most noticeable to the average English-speaker. But since English vowels are very elastic, most English-speakers have little problem, with a little practice, in accommodating themselves to understanding despite the differences. Learners of English as a second language have a hard time believing this--they want to learn the "right" English, some preferring RP, some American English--but it's true.

In lower registers of oral speech, where it can be most difficult to understand other English varieties, there is so much repitition and restatement that, with context, one is usually able to bridge the gap. After being immersed in a different English-speaking environment, after a short period (days, weeks) of remarking on the differences, most speakers of another variety of English will accommodate themselves quite quickly, while still retaining the features of their own variety in their own speech and writing.

Witness the movie Trainspotting: if an American can make it through the first 15 minutes (without subtitles), then by the end of the movie they tend to forget the difficulty they had understanding in the beginning, even accounting for all the Scots and youth slang. (Of course, the film's dialog is not true casual spoken speech: it's performance speech, so it's not a perfect real world example.)

The "History of the English Language" audio series by Seth Lerer, recommended above, has good content at about the level of a college freshman. However, I cannot stand the man's voice.

While Bryson's books are fun and generally correct, when he ventures facts about the dates and ages of words or their etymological origins, one should not consider him a reliable source. He not only has many such errors, but much of his work is now out of date.

Mencken's The American Language is indeed a good work, but it's a bit dated (since so much etymological and historical work has been done since; at the time it was a landmark achievement). The abridgement edited by Raven McDavid (1963) is probably your best bet, although you can find full sets of the three-volume full work (which amounts to the original book, with edits, plus two supplemental volumes as large as the first) at most good used book stores. If you get the full work, make sure all three volumes have the publishing date of 1948, which I believe was the last edition before the abridgement.

For a more scholarly look at American English (but still very readable by non-experts), you want American English by Walt Wofram and Natalie Schilling-Estes.

For an even more scholarly look at historical linguistics (how and why languages change), you want Historical Linguistics by Larry Trask (1996). While it seems to have been written for classroom use, it is not off-putting to the layman; what parts are technical can be glided over, though the specialized vocabularly might be interesting enough to learn just for its own merits.
posted by Mo Nickels at 10:59 AM on December 20, 2005 [2 favorites]

The "History of the English Language" audio series by Seth Lerer, recommended above, has good content at about the level of a college freshman. However, I cannot stand the man's voice.

Hmmph. I love listening to him. But then again, I listened to the whole series while working out at the gym, and thus tripping balls on endorphins, so your mileage may vary.

Also, Mr Nickels, sir, I humbly submit that you wildly overestimate the skills of the average college freshman.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:22 PM on December 20, 2005

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