Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Fourth Of July: America's Linguistic Independence from Britain

This week has been a festive one at The Lingua File. A few days ago we celebrated Canada Day, and now today is Independence Day in the United States. Since we've looked at the linguistic diversity of the country in great depth in the past, we decided that we should instead look at some of the many ways Americans have demonstrated their linguistic independence from Britain.


Back in the 1800s, an American man named Noah Webster decided that spelling in the English language was overly difficult, and sought to correct the problem. He created his own dictionary, which included many "Americanized" spellings of words he felt could be improved. Many of his modifications were accepted by the general public, while others (such as writing tongue as "tung") failed miserably. Here's a sampling of some of the most common spelling differences between American English and British English.

The Washington Monument
The letter 'u' in British terms like colour, neighbour, and labor disappears, leaving the American words color, neighbor, and labor.

We imagine that the suffix -re in British words such as centre and theatre was changed by Webster to -er to make center and theater so that people wouldn't pronounce the last syllable "ruh". Americans also decided that the suffix -ize is preferable to -ise in words like organize, which also makes sense given pronunciation.

There's something disconcerting to Americans about using 'ae' or 'oe' as vowel combinations, so they're often changed to a lone 'e', as in encyclopedia, originally encyclopaedia in Britain. The 'll' in words like travelled is often changed to just have one 'l', while the silent 'e' is rarely kept when adding suffixes, as in aging and likable.


There are certainly linguistic differences between the two nations when it comes to the past tense in English. Americans are quite fond of the suffix -ed, while Brits find it acceptable to end certain words with 't', as in learnt, dreamt, and spelt!


In the U.S., you find yourself constantly waiting in line, which sounds quite different to standing in a queue. Americans also tend to talk about things they're doing during or over the weekend, while their UK counterparts do things at the weekend.


This photo contains four biscuits.
One is American, three are British. Got it? 
While the vast majority of the lexicon of both varieties of English is shared, there are still plenty of differences between the two. An American takes the elevator, puts gas in their car, walks on the sidewalk, and ends most sentences with a period. Brits, on the other hand, take the lift, put petrol in their car, walk on the pavement, and end most sentences with full stops.

We won't even get into the soccer vs. football or fall vs. autumn debates. Food terms can also be tricky, since an American biscuit is a British scone, while a British biscuit is an American cookie. We could go on and on, but we'll conclude with the note that we even call our mothers different things. One can only imagine the hilarious responses that have come from American children when hearing that a British friend is going to call their mummy to take them home.


Americans have also declared independence from Britain in terms of date format, though it really doesn't make much sense why. The standard American format for writing today's date is July 4th, 2013, or 7/4/2013, with month coming before day and year. However, there are a few exceptions to this insanity, and today is one of them. Most Americans refer to this holiday as the Fourth of July, not July Fourth! Perhaps it's to retain just a bit of a connection to Great Britain on this day that celebrates independence from it.