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Differences and Continuities Between British and American English

Topics: English language / Pages: 8 (1953 words) / Published: May 7th, 2013
(main information taken from BB1 pp. 79-81 and 152-57)
Stress on difference and continuity has characterised the story of the relationship between British and American English over the centuries. For instance, difference was strongly wanted in the US after Independence and emphasised by the British as sign of their distinction from the new, less cultured, nation for at least the two following centuries. On the other hand, continuity is being emphasised nowadays by the British as mark of the solid long-settled and international influence of today’s ‘world language’, of which British and American English are the two major models.
Compared to the language variance existing in the UK, in the US ‘there is little variation between one speaker and another.’ In Britain English has been established for 1500 years and over the centuries most people in the British Isles have spent all their lives in the localities where they were born, whereas in the US since the 19th century there has been an enormous expansion and movement of the English-speaking population.
Geographically, three main dialect areas broadly characterise linguistic variation in the US: 1. Northeastern, 2. Southern, 3. General American. The Northeastern accent is heard in New England and NY State, not in NY City (extending to west, to include Pennsylvania and the Midwestern states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and north-west into the Dakotas); the Southern from Virginia along the Atlantic coast and the Gulf coast states and inland into Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas); (MA in the east-coast region separating the NE from the S, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh); General American (or Network English) is what is spoken in the rest of the country often divided into two: a western region (most of the Pacific coast, the Rockies, the Great Planes and the western Mississippi Valley) and an eastern region (from Pennsylvania to the eastern Mississippi region). It is used by most Americans, although we can’t say it’s a single unified accent. It’s a standard variety having no marked regional characteristics, somewhat comparable to RP in Britain although unlike it, it has no connotation of eliteness.
The Northeastern accent is characterised by the dropping of ‘r’ after vowels (as in vigor). “Park the car in Harvard yard” is rendered as pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd. Most Americans would laugh at this, except in the South East where main features are shared. The Southern accent is also non-rhotic and recognizable for its slow delivery and its tendency to form diphthongs where pure vowels are found in other accents. The ‘South drawl’ refers to the lengthening of vowels in stressed syllables, turning them into diphthongs (man>mæIn). An exception to this diphthongizing tendency, is the pure vowel in words like ‘I’ and ‘my’ > ‘ah’ and ‘ma’.
In the US Linguistic variation may also be described by ethnic dialects (C, SE, 17): Anglo (of European British ancestry, mainly in the northern region); African-American (of African ancestry, mainly in the southern region); Hispanic (of Central American ancestry, mainly in the south-western area).
Soon after Independence years Noah Webster made his best to make American English different from British English. By the 19th century BE had achieved standardisation resulting into a variety whose character was supra-regional within Britain. For a few decades (1760-1800) the English-speaking world was rather unified in the way spelling, grammar and vocabulary were taught than had ever been before – and would ever be again. However, SE, conceived as a uniform mode of linguistic behaviour uniting English speakers everywhere, began to fragment as soon as it had appeared. While Johnson and others were busy finishing dictionary and grammars which they though would keep English under control, in the North American colonies, these very conventions were being questioned by Noah Webster, the linguist who was proposing different norms for American English.
Webster saw the American independence as an opportunity and a necessity to get rid of the linguistic influence of Britain. In his Dissertation on the English Language (1789) he proposed the institution of an American Standard. He saw British English in a state of decline having failed to fix a reliable set of standard rules. Above all, it was a matter of honour for an independent nation to have a system of its own, in language as well as in government. His was the same reasoning previously used by the British: a standard is needed to symbolise status, stability, political unity. In short, Webster was doing what Johnson and the others had done: codifying it through a spelling-book, a dictionary and a grammar.
His reform focused mostly on spelling, which he felt to be the heart of the matter, considering the proposed changes in orthography “an object of vast political consequence.” He considered the highly irregular system of spelling as imported from Britain, “an orthography very ill suited to exhibit the true pronunciation” and his basic question was: “ought the Americans to retain these faults which produce innumerable inconveniences in the acquisition and use of the language, or, ought they at once to reform these abuses, and introduce order and regularity into the orthography of the American tongue?”
This small change in the language system would have major consequences: 1. it would encourage publications in the US; 2. it would represent national unity for all American people; 3. it would facilitate language learning to kids and foreigners reducing pronunciation variety.
His approach was based on two main principles: 1. ‘the omission of all superfluous and silent letters’; 2. The substitution of a character with a definite sound for one that is vague and indeterminate.’ Yet not all the proposed changes were accepted/caught on. However, he was successful in: 1. Changing -re words to -er (theater, center); 2. omitting u from words ending in our (color); 3. changing z for s in verb endings (advertize, analyze); 4. replacing –ce by -se (defense, offense); 4. simplifying the double consonant before a suffix (traveling).
Such changes took the British by surprise who reacted with consternation: they had assumed that the linguistic identity emerging among the elite class in GB would naturally transfer to the rest of the English-speaking world, as the British Empire grew, that it would take more than the occasional independence movement to stop it. The press referred to these changes as ‘linguistic perversions’ that would ‘make the dialect of the Americans unintelligible to an Englishman’.
A diffused saying claims that the UK and the US are “divided by their common language.” As the paradox indicates, there is much more continuity than difference, this is in fact why we generally focus on divergence along sameness.
This tradition of stressing differences dates back to the tales of American and British travellers since the late 19th century. One telling example is Charles Dickens’ American Notes, written after his return from his US tour and based on his travel journals. In the passage we are going to read, there is an important point we can make on the relationship between the two languages: what was in D’s time a difference has been erased in time, as US uses have come to merge, be assimilated in BE.
“Dinner, if you please,” said I to the waiter.
“When?” said the waiter.
“As quick as possible,” said I.
“Right away?” said the waiter.
After a moment hesitation, I answered “No,” at hazard.
“Not right away?” cried the waiter, with an amount of surprise that made me start.
I looked at him doubtfully, and returned, “No; I would rather have it in this private room. I like it very much.”
At this, I really thought the waiter must have gone out of his mind: as I believe he would have done, but for the interposition of another man, who whispered in his ear, “Directly.”
“Well! And that’s a fact!” said the waiter, looking helplessly at me: “Right away.”
I saw now that “Right away” and “Directly” were one and the same thing. So I reversed my previous answer, and say down to dinner in ten minutes afterwards. (American Notes, p.35)

From the second half of the 18th century, in the US and in GB, the prescriptive temperament ruled (writers believed in the value of a uniform variety taught in school and used in writing and speech by people throughout the country as a sign of educated upbringing). At the same time, the spread of English throughout North America had led to unprecedented linguistic diversity. The linguistic contrast between educated and uneducated classes was very much in evidence, the contrast much more marked in America than in GB because more types of people were involved.
A number of factors shaped this unprecedented amount of language and ethnic variety: 1. Great popular mobility (the search for land moved people westwards); 2. The US grew as a decentralised federation (that fostered regional identity); 3. There was not a single political, economic and cultural capital; 4. No inherited social structure; 5. Environmental conditions – deserts, deltas, forests, prairies, high mountains, new flora and fauna, indigenous uses and language – meant new words; 6. Above all, the settlers came from very different British language and dialect backgrounds; 7. Immigrants and people from non-English speaking countries (natives Americans, Africans, Dutch, Germans, French).
Linguistic variation lay at the heart of the new nation, though the extent of the regional diversity became evident only in the 20th century. As in Britain, the true extent of spoken variety was obscured by a focus on the written standard and the process of cultural accommodation and dialect levelling. The concept of the ‘melting pot’, of uniformity, applied very early on the immigrant speech, resulting into the foundation of the accent which came to be heard across the US from the northern to the central regions and referred to as General American. This accent came to be represented in dictionaries and grammars and is as standard of reference.
American English and British English belong to the same language, with variation of use from bottom to top, from less-educated to formal written use, reaching a general international level which is over the top of the single nations: an international standard of written English or World Standard English. In this sense, what divides American English from British English is the Atlantic, in this globalised era also called ‘Atlantic gap’ or ‘pond’.
In these years, a continuing transatlantic drift has exported American English habits to the UK and other English-speaking countries, where words and phrases get quickly normalised, assimilated. Particularly in the UK, where there has always been the tendency to borrow and make words at home, this doesn’t look like a new tendency at all, ‘a word’s American aura is soon lost’ ‘no longer felt to be foreigner.’ (BB1, p.157) The Atlantic passage works out a ‘sea change’ (p. 158), by which strangeness becomes familiar. The instantaneous flow of communication across the Atlantic makes particularly evident in these days the influence of the New World upon the Old. Cultural and linguistic cargos are taken to the UK and the world from the US.
In spite of Transatlantic drifts and continuity, there are features that hardly uniform, such as accent (that a Brit would never Americanise), since stress and pronunciation are too closely related with identity to be left behind. For a list of main differenes between the two standards see the appointed section in your BB1.

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