Tuesday, February 19, 2008

What I say when my students ask why there are differences between US and British English.


My first response is to ask them why there are differences between Iberian and Latin American Spanish. Answers often have to do with the large distance that separates the mother country from the former colonies and changes that developed over time. Sometimes students bring up the impact of immigration and multiculturalism, and if no one mentions them, I do. This typically leads to a discussion of how similar factors have affected the development of "Englishes" around the world.
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Then I usually mention that to my eyes and ears, US English has somewhat greater differences from British English than Australasian, Irish and Canadian English have. Why is that?
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Could the fact that the US is not in the British Commonwealth have something to do with it? (Well, neither is Ireland. Besides, the Commonwealth has only been in existence since 1965.) Could it be partially due to the US having declared its independence so long ago? (Over 230 years ago, whereas Australia, Canada and New Zealand never have and Ireland only did so in 1922.) Could the wars the US fought against Britain have played a part? (The US War of Independence, 1775-1783 and the War of 1812, which, despite its brief name, actually lasted until 1815.).
While each of these must have had some influence on the development of English in the USA, there is something else that has probably had more impact than all of these combined. Actually, to be precise, it wasn't something else, but someone else: Noah Webster.
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Noah Webster was the creator of America's first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1806. His second dictionary, published in 1828, was called An American Dictionary of the English Language. These were the precursors of today's Merriam-Webster Dictionaries.
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Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1758, Webster lived through the War of Independence. He came to believe that after political independence from Britain, cultural independence should follow. He went to law school and worked as a teacher to support himself during that time. Although he obtained his law degree, he ended up preferring teaching and writing to practicing law.
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As a teacher, he was not happy with the textbooks that came from Britain, which did not contain much information about America. He also thought that British spelling should be simplified. His proposed changes included centre to center, plough to plow, cheque to check, and colour to color, all of which were adopted in the USA. He also suggested changing musick to music, which eventually became the accepted spelling worldwide. (My students often ask why he didn't go further. I tell them he tried, but that some of his proposals never caught on, such as tung for tongue.).
Webster wanted his students to have American books, and I suppose since none or few were available, he created his own. The first was an American Speller in 1783, followed by an American Grammar in 1784, and an American Reader in 1785. These textbooks and his subsequent dictionaries were welcomed by the American people because they documented the English that people were hearing and using in the newly formed United States, and in so doing, the books helped to standardize English usage across the country.
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This is some of the information I use in one of my lessons about the differences between British and US English. Depending on the students' levels, for homework I may have them search on-line for more information on the subject, as well as on related topics such as the history of the English language, how English is currently evolving, accents in English speaking countries, etc. and write a brief report on an aspect that they find interesting. I usually end up learning things, too.
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It would be interesting to know of any notable influences on other variants of English. For example, was there an Australian Noah Webster? Also, what about Latin American Noah Websters who may have had similar influences on Spanish?
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Language -- history, biography, culture, geography and more!
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Chao amig@s
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Carloz

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