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Historical Reasons for The English Diversity

Historical Reasons for The English Diversity | ITTT | TEFL Blog

British versus American English is a subject that encompasses a number of fields, including linguistics, history, archaeology, geography, and the study of the history of the English language. British English has a deep foundation that stretches back into time to the advent of the Indo-Europeans, and while America can claim this as well, the language was, for the most part, very close to its modern form by the age of exploration. That being said, many archaic forms of words and grammar were still in use during the age of exploration and spelling was not standardized when the great voyages and colonization of the Americas began.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Aaron T. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

Historical Changes

The early English settlements in North America were the points of entry into the wilderness. Spanish was spoken much more early in the Americas, as well as Portuguese, starting in 1492 when Christopher Columbus’ journey opened the exploration of the Americas. The first British colonization of the Americas was the ill-fated colony in Roanoke, Virginia, which, for the most part, failed to establish a solid foothold or a foundation from which American English could spring. The 1607 establishment of Jamestown, Virginia was far more successful and continues to be a tourist destination to this day. In 1610, a chartered company known as the Society of Merchant Venturers established a permanent settlement at Cuper's Cove, Newfoundland and in 1664, England took over the Dutch colony of New Netherland, including the capital of New Amsterdam, which England promptly renamed the Province of New York. These three colonies became the font from which American English was to spring. Within a few months, seeds of divergence began to bloom, resulting in unique American dialects and a split from British English.

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Spoken English

Much of the divergence is within the spoken form of English, and especially in vocabulary and spelling. Written forms, for the most part, of British and American English very little in constituent features, with only a few truly noticeable differences. The differences in vocabulary were the primary form of confusion prior to British television shows penetrating the American market. Notable differences include football. Americans have their own distinct form of football which, oddly relies on hands more so than the foot. What British call football American call soccer, though that has been fading in recent years, with the distinction instead moving to American Football versus English Football. Another interesting difference in vocabulary is the American use of the word “cookie” which the British call “biscuits. The last example is the British use of “trainers’ while the American equivalent is called “sneakers.” There are many other examples of words that are slightly different, and this is, by no stretch of the imagination, a complete list. Indeed, if one was teaching Business English to a resident of a country that does business with both American and British business people, it would behoove the instructor to make and teach a complete list of potential words that could sow confusion in the business environment.

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Historically, it was the writing of the first dictionaries that showed the divergence of the spellings between the two countries. In Britain, the first dictionary was compiled by London-based scholars. In the United States, the lexicographer Noah Webster allegedly changed how the words were spelled in order to make American English different from British English in order to establish cultural independence from The United Kingdom. Webster was frustrated by inconsistencies in English spelling and wanted to spell words the way they sounded. Webster changed the spelling of words that include color from color, honor from honor, and labor from labor. Dropping the letter “u” from these words to make the spelling match the pronunciation. This is fairly typical for Americans and their rather ridiculous notion of “American Exceptionalism." Another example of this attitude lies deep in the southwest corner of Colorado, where I live. For many years, scholars wanted the United States to have it’s own “high archaeological culture” and removed the stunning architecture from its context of being part of the Mesoamerican world in order to do so, despite the clear connections between the sites.

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Aside from spelling and vocabulary, there are grammar differences between British and American English. First, in American English, collective nouns are considered singular while in British English collective nouns can be either singular or plural; however, the plural form is most often utilized. British are more likely to use formal speech, such as ‘shall’, while Americans favor the informal ‘will’ or ‘should’. Finally, Americans use ‘gotten’ as the past participle of ‘get’, while British people use ‘got’ instead.

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British and American English differ in many ways and began to diverge with the establishment of the American colonies. Vocabulary differentiated for certain words and spelling diverged as a result of Noah Webster wanting to show that America was fully divested from Britain, and changed the spellings of words to reflect this desire. Grammar also differs, but only slightly. However, the differences are acute enough that a teacher of English as a foreign language needs to be aware of them, especially when teaching business English to those who have business relationships in both countries. It is necessary to understand the nuances in order to eliminate potential confusion and to ensure smooth communication which will save time and money, which contribute to the goal of business which is to maximize profitability.

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