Having finished the book, edited it and prepared the artwork I now get to enjoy the laborious task of translating everything to US English (obviously I intend to keep the UK English version as well).  Why would I do this?  Because I can’t think of anything worse than forcing all our colonial brothers and sisters to wade through an entire book full of words with an s where there should be a z and far too many u’s.

Before my British counterparts get all huffy about the American efforts to bastardi(z)e the Queen’s tongue, though, I thought it might be worth pointing out the truth about our diversification of language and how it isn’t just down to the yanks wanting to do things differently or being linguistically lazy.

One of the most popular examples of difference can be found in the word colo(u)r and the many derivatives of this pronunciation.  The reasons behind this difference are complex and go back beyond the Battle of Hastings.

The unstressed syllable -our, as appears in words like colour, flavour, honour and harbour is reduced to -or in American English, reflecting the pronunciation of the word whereas unreduced words like contour and velour retain the u in all forms, again reflecting the pronunciation.  Most of these words were originally borrowed into old English and ended in -or and -ur, but they were subsequently adapted to -our to reflect the old French pronunciation (very different to our pronunciation today and therefore arguably redundant).

Post Renaissance the original Latin spellings came back into favour and many words were switched back to -or and -ur (eg chancellor).  This movement was not entirely inclusive, however, reflecting the chaotic nature of the language’s development.

It wasn’t until the 18th century when Noah Webster and Samuel Johnson both released their dictionaries on opposite sides of the Atlantic that both nations made language choices based on different sides of the argument.  Neither format had any sense of precedence and at the time the language was spelled and structured in any number of forms both in Britain and America

There was an element of wanting to be different on Webster’s part, but it was borne out of a very brave and idealistic impulse that was running through the country at the time.

It is always worth remembering that America was fighting to stand on its own two feet in Webster’s time and had endured decades of financial and ethical abuse at the hands of a greedy empire; the impulse to stand alone on solid academic ground was a truly noble one and not in any way brought about by laziness or ignorance as we Brits are so often keen to assume.

The stereotype of our American cousins as being academically lazy and culturally bereft is a poor one.  We have a long and complicated history with America and we should celebrate this rather than take every opportunity to abuse it for no better reason than to perpetuate a senseless generational dislike.

We often say ‘you have no history’ and yet their history is our history.  When they went over the sea they were our brothers and sisters; their declaration of independence didn’t cut the chord and we would be fools to forget that.  The story of our diversification of language is a perfect example and shows more than stubborn difference, it shows two academically enthusiastic views of the same language.

In closing, another example that often comes up in the debate over US vs UK English – aluminum.

The amount of times I had this thrown in my face when I was studying American History as my associated subject I cannot count, but I always responded the same way.  I explained that it was nothing to do with American’s being lazy, but that, like any linguistic development it was a long a complex story.  The short version is that Humphry Davy identified the element first and derived the name from alum (latin).  He called it alumium and then aluminum.  It was later isolated by Hans Orsted, who likewise adopted the name aluminum.  It was much later that it was changed to aluminium to conform with the -ium suffix of most elements.  It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that America switched back to aluminum to honour the original spelling.

The point is that language heritage is like any other lineage – crooked.  So, next time you find yourself in one of those ‘why can’t the yanks spell?’ conversations down the pub, just spare a thought for the centuries of interesting and entirely relevant differences that have grown up between our nations since we parted ways and maybe try to remember how much we actually have in common.


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