The BBC — an organization which takes Language exceptionally seriously — published a piece “How the Americans Preserved British English”. In it, the author posits that there are isolated populations in America that pronounce words more closely to the way they were in Shakespearean England than the British currently do. And that Americans, in general, are more Elizabethan in their accent than the English now are
I’ll take her word for it, as there is no evidence that she is wrong.
The English indulge in smug satisfaction that they are the right stewards of the language. But is there any support for that position? Or is their claim based merely on the fact that the language is called English — and that alone gives them standing as ex officio arbiters of what is correct or not in the language?
The answer is that the neither the British — nor anyone other English-speaker — has any right to claim primacy in language arbitration. The French, with Gallic propriety, have imbued in the Académie français the authority to regulate the language. It formulates rules on grammar, orthography, and vocabulary. Which in turn the average Frenchman usually ignores.
There is no such body deciding what is or is not ‘good’ English.
In 1776 there was no difference between the English spoken in the American colonies and the English used in England. Most of the population were recent immigrants, and their grammar and pronunciation would have been that of their ancestral homes.
Well-educated Englishmen in America (they weren’t called Americans yet) would have often been educated at English schools. Grammar books would have been imported from England or reproduced from English originals. Perhaps by Ben Franklin.
Since then, British English and Amerian English have gone their separate ways. The American version is rich in Native American words and has been influenced by Spanish. The British meanwhile have adopted many words from their Empire. And both versions have mopped up other foreign words with abandon.
Americans might be familiar with a ‘zucchini’, but the English would be puzzled until they discover it is a ‘courgette’. In America when you ‘table’ a motion you postpone discussion of it. In England, it means you start discussing it. The unexceptional British slang for a cigarette is, in America, a vile slang for a gay man. Cars in America have hoods, trunks, and windshields. In England, they have bonnets, boots, and windscreens.
And who is to say who is right?
Spelling is also a dividing issue. And here Americans tend to the simple — jewelry vs. jewellery, honor vs. honour, etc. — and isn’t simpler better? Americans rely more on context. In America, the word ‘practice’ is both noun and verb. In England, the verb is ‘practise’. Americans do maintain the difference in ‘advice’ and ‘advise’. In England, it is a TV ‘programme’ but a computer ‘program’. In America, there is one spelling, but no one is confused.
American verbs are more regular. In the US, the past of dream, learn and spell, is dreamed, learned and spelled. The British, on the other hand, favor dreamt, learnt and spelt.
And now we come to the meat of the matter — where the English believe they are on the high ground. They feel as if their command of grammar is more sophisticated than the average American’s. But is it? And does it matter? Ultimately you win the game by scoring the most points — not by how well you stick to the rules.
Grammar itself is arbitrary. Hearken the debate over the serial — or Oxford — comma. And why shouldn’t you split an infinitive? Star Trek did: “To boldly go where no man has gone before”. And as for preposition placement, let Winston Churchill comment: “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I shall not put.” Satirically illustrating that rules enforced inflexibly lead to convolution and ugliness.
Americans are more supple in their use of English. It has worked well for them. Language is at its root a tool to enable communication. In the US immigrants, speaking every language from Albanian to Uzbek, have learned to speak English and become part of the social fabric. They may be sneered at by the British, but they speak an English that made a globe’s worth of cultures mutually intelligible.
Lastly, there are the numbers. Among people who speak English as their first language, 69% are American. Think on that. If 100 English speakers were in a room 69 would be from the United States. Among the rest, 15 would be from the UK, 5 from Canada, 4 from Pakistan (who knew?) 4 would be from Australia. The rest from hither and yon.
You may argue that quantity shouldn’t be confused with quality. Fair enough. But if for argument’s sake we say 50% of Brits speak English well and only 25% of Americans do, there would still be 2.3 times as many quality speakers of English in the US than in the UK. Even if the President isn’t one of them.
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