How Did American English Originate and Become Different from British English?

I've written this hub in answer to the question, "How did American English originate? Was there a conscious desire to have differences to British English?" asked by aspiretoinspire .

Languages Evolve; Seldom Invented

Languages in general, tend to evolve, and are rarely created by design. One exception I can think of is the Klingon Language, which was deliberately invented to provide realism to the Klingon characters in the "Star Trek" TV series and movies. It is fantasy, but at the same time, it is a full language, complete with a dictionary. In theory, it would be possible to study and become fluent in Klingon.

Another Invented Language

Like Klingon, Esperanto is another invented language, but one that is actually in use. It was invented back in the 1800's, and was intended to make it easy for speakers of various European languages to understand each other, even if they did not know each others' languages; it's sort of a 'middle ground' language.

Esperanto is based upon root words that are similar in all of the languages, so even if the final word differs, it is easy to recognize. For example, "window" in Italian is "finestra," in French, it is "fenêtre," and in Spanish, "ventana." Esperanto gives it as "fenestro." In this case, the Spanish is the stretch in understanding the translation, but overall, it seems to be a workable, if relatively unkown language, at least in the major English-speaking countries.

The link at upper right in this section gives a good overview and chart of its main characteristics, as well as links for further study.

Modern confusion
Modern confusion | Source
Noah Webster
Noah Webster | Source

Back to Reality...

...and to practicality: back to our discussion of the differences between American and British English.

Conscious thought incomes later; much later in the process, as the language spreads over ever wider geographical areas, and a way must be found to allow for widespread communication that remains understood by all. That is where the concept of rules of grammatical structure and dictionaries come into play. Otherwise, we'd have the proverbial 'Tower of Babel.'

Some would give credit to Noah Webster as the "father" of modern English. That would be a mistake. What Webster did was catalog the existing language of his day; he did not invent the language. He merely provided the first dictionary of the American English language.

We Are All Speaking the Same Language--Why Don't You Understand Me?

The English Language, in any of its variations, can be absolutely maddening. People are speaking the same language, and yet, can have difficulty understanding one another.

In essence, this is because it is what can only be called a 'bastard' language. Its roots are not pure, from a single source, such as old Latin. English is a language that has borrowed heavily from many other languages, only a few of which include German, French, Spanish and Latin.

There was an instance of someone trying to translate a document, and asked his supervisor, "How do you spell 'maneuvers' in French?" Well...the answer is--there is no spelling change, because it is a French word to start with.

Geopolitical map of Europe
Geopolitical map of Europe

Proximity To Other Countries

As you can see on the map at right, the United Kingdom, or UK, sits in close proximity to France, Germany, Spain and Portugal. Italy is a bit farther away, but back in the days of the Roman Empire, those Romans got into everyone's lands. Italy is what is left, physically, of that Empire, but the influences of those days live on in surprising places all around the globe.

As you probably know, and can see on the map, the UK is an island, as is its neighbor, Ireland. Farther away are the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. However, those were the lands of the famed Vikings, who had sea travel down to a science early on. Therefore, English also has roots coming from those languages.

Language Families

There are many families of languages, but two are of prime importance in the development of English, and those are the Germanic and Latin families.

The Germanic languages include obviously German, but also (in the distant past) the Scandinavian tongues and Dutch. The article linked at right, from San Jose State University goes into considerably more detail on the matter.

The Latin (sometimes called "romance") languages include actual Latin and its derivatives of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and French. They are listed here in order of their evolutionary distance from the original Latin.


Grammar Headaches

The reason English is so perplexing to many (including native speakers who struggle with grammar rules) is this: English is essentially a Germanic language, onto which Latin grammar rules have been grafted. It is a difficult combination, made more so by inconsistency in the application of these rules.

For example, in the Latin languages, it is proper to identify the subject of a sentence prior to any adjective, thus: "The dog brown was sleeping." ("La chien brun dormait," in French.) Notice, there is also no dual verb, ("was"), as the past tense is covered by the conjugation of the verb "sleep." You want confusing? Check out the chart linked just above, that gives all the French variants for all the parts of speech for the single word, "sleep!"

It sounds very awkward in English, for we are accustomed to the reverse phasing, "The brown dog was sleeping." In German, we get, "Der braune Hund schlief," 'braune' being the German word for brown, so we see that the English sequence follows that of the German rules.

Elisions, Contractions, Misunderstandings and Usage Changes

Oh, what fun! We have more changes between the variations of English that come about due to misunderstandings, deliberate changes to fit new circumstances, and simple contractions and elisions that come about naturally over time as a result of lazy speech patterns.

"Apron" is one such example. In the original British English, the word was "napron." It was paired with the letter "a" to indicate one. "Please put on a napron to keep your clothes clean."

I don't imagine it was very many centuries at all before the "a" migrated across to the rest of the word, splitting it after the "n," making the sentence read, "Please put on an apron ...." thus following the rule with which we are now familiar, that a word begun with a vowel is preceded by "an."

Some of the differences that come about between the languages, I'm not sure of; with others, I can hazard a reasonable guess. Check the chart below for some common cases of different words for the same thing. You'll note that one of the differences can be cause for a very embarrassing social misstep.

BRITISH ENGLISH
AMERICAN ENGLISH
Nappy
Diaper
Lorry
Truck
Lift
Elevator
Ladder in one's Hose
Run in one's Stocking
Telly
TV; Television
Pub
Bar
Knock me up in the morning
Wake me in the morning
I'm going to ring me mum (in some local dialects, such as Cockney)
I'm going to phone my mother

Dialects, Regionalisms and Class Distinctions

As if all this were not confusing enough, there are certain turns of phrase that may be common in one area of a country, and completely unheard of in another region.

Likewise, there are certain accents that can identify a person's area of origin. The British English often spoofed on such shows as the old Benny Hill TV series, is closer to "Cockney," which is also the variant you hear with Liza in the early parts of the stage musical, "My Fair Lady." Then, there is the clipped, sharp, British accent heard from their newscasters.

You might compare the two as the difference between a Boston accent from here in the States, and an accent from the Bronx in New York, or the drawl of the deep South. They can be nearly indistinguishable to the untrained ear, as in the case of a young woman from the northern US going to the South for college.

The lady from whom she was going to rent an apartment asked, "D' y'all have aynyee payots?" The young woman was puzzled. "Payots?" She was not familiar with the word, and asked what those were. "Payots," repeated the woman, "You know, cayts and dawgs--payots." Oh. Pets.


Spelling Variants

Most of us have seen the common spelling variations between British English and American English.

They involve such words as: color, honor, favor....which in Great Britain, are spelled with the addition of a "u": colour, honour, favour.

Spell checkers for American English will flag those as misspelled every time, however, here on Hub Pages, with writers from around the globe, either is accepted.

I can see, however, that the proximity to France and the other countries with Latin-based languages is probably responsible for these particular variation. In French, for example, the first two examples are spelled as, "couleur," and "honneur." The folks in the UK got rid of most of the other "extra" letters, but not the final "u."

Many Other Varieties of English Abound

Of course, English is spoken in many countries worldwide, not just the USA and Great Britain. English is also spoken in Canada, Australia, New Zeland, Belize, parts of Africa, the Philippines, Malaysia, Guam and in many other places. Each is bound to have its own idiosyncrasies and accents. Think of the sing-song rhythm of the English spoken in Jamaica; or the (unfortunately stereotyped) "G'dai, maite" of the Aussies.

In many other countries, English is a common second language--there are many places to which one can travel and get along just fine without knowing anything of the "official" language of that country.

In fact, it may surprise you to know that English is so universal, that it is the international language of diplomacy and of international air travel. An Italian pilot, for example, coming in for a landing in Japan, will be conversing with the control tower in English!

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Comments 25 comments

DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 2 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello there, grand old lady!

You raise some good questions. I'd have to look up the actual etymology of things like 'truck,' and 'elevator.' As for TV, it is an invented shortcut of the word, 'television.' The initial "T" and the intermediate "V" were combined to get at that usage. Bar? Hmm...in other countries, it's a pub, which got shortened from "public house." I can only guess that "bar" refers to the long serving counter common in most such establishments, being so much more narrow than a table, not much more (by stretch of imagination), than a 'barre' used to practice ballet, or a bar dropped across a doorway to discourage entrance. But I admit that is pure guesswork.

Thanks very much for stopping by; I'm glad you got a chuckle out of the "payots" story.


grand old lady profile image

grand old lady 2 years ago from Philippines

Very interesting to know that proximity to other countries has much to do with how a language evolves. However, how did the US get words like truck, elevator, TV and bar? Was it due to proximity to South America, or Canada? The payot anecdote was hilarious.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 2 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Greetings, BigBlue54,

My goodness, but you certainly contributed a great deal of additional information. Thank you for that input. Yes, the old "Ye," was pronounced "The," as we do, but so few realize that today.

I am delighted you liked this article so much, and took the time to share your knowledge as well.


BigBlue54 profile image

BigBlue54 2 years ago from Hull, East Yorkshire

Interesting hub DzyMsLizzy. I hope when you say Ye you pronounce it correctly as The. When the printing press arrived in Britain we used the letters Thorn Þ and Eth Ð. Thorn when used in Middle and Early Modern English looked like this Ƿ. Because printers did not have this letter it was substituted with the letter Y. Everyone knew this so Ye was still pronounced The.

TomBlalock I am not sure what you mean by the English speakers being almost wiped out. I studied that period when I did my degree in archaeology and I can say the English were not wiped out. Evidence to that is there is very few Scandinavian placenames in England, approximately 1,400 and I believe even that is to high because we both used the word thorpe. If they did take over you would expect a much higher number then that.

Interestingly where it has been used it is as an addition to an existing English placename. An example of this is the Yorkshire village of Shiptonthorpe. Ship come from sheep. Ton comes from the Old English word tun meaning farm and finally thorpe which means secondary settlement. So Shiptonthorpe is a secondary settlement where sheep was farmed. So even if you accept thorpe is the Scandinavian version the bulk of the name is English. The sheep may have been fed by the farm nearby called Hayton, hay farm.

Most of them came across for land and what little evidence there is suggest they took what the land they English were not using. What you are actually looking at was usually a change of management at the top. They recognised that it was fine to defeat an army but if the local population had risen against them they we done for.

Words change meaning over time. The word viking is actually an English word. Another which changed meaning is the word welch. The people of Wales call themselves the Welch but again it is an English word. So who were the welch? Everyone who is not English is welch. It means foreigner in Old Englisc (that is the original spelling).

Anyway, DzyMsLzzy I very much enjoyed this hub. English English and American English is an interesting subject.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello, iguidenetwork,

Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment. Golly, you've reminded me of an expression I haven't heard in a coon's age! I'm glad you enjoyed the article.


iguidenetwork profile image

iguidenetwork 4 years ago from Austin, TX

I like the phrase "to drive someone 'round the bend". Although I'm not British, I use it more often (in writing at least) than "to drive someone crazy". I like this hub. Voted this one up. :)


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello, ThelmaAlberts,

I'm so pleased you enjoyed the article. Language is a fascinating study, and I only wish I had my mother's knowledge. In her day, it was "almost required" that students study Latin in school, so she had an even better grasp of word origins than I do.

I think the think that would have driven me to drink most in "Ye Olde Days" would have been the inconsistencies in spelling. With no official 'correct' forms nailed down, eveything was phonetic, and to each ear, it sounded different, so everyone spelled words differently from anyone else.

Thanks so very much for the praise and for your kind words. .


Thelma Alberts profile image

Thelma Alberts 4 years ago from Germany

What a great hub! Very educational, too. English language is fascinating. I love listening the old British language, the way the people spoke in the time of Shakespeare. Brilliant! Thanks for sharing.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

@ Jools99—Thank you so very much for your wonderful comment. Language is such an interesting, if complex, study, is it not? The various accents and regional expressions can be confusing, to say the least. I’d love to hear some real Elizabethan English—it would be fascinating. Thanks very much for the vote and the share!

@ Pavlo Badovskyy—Of course, you are correct. That is why I used the example of an Italian pilot landing in Japan, to show just how universal English has become. Naturally, the Japanese in their control tower would also be replying in English. There are indeed many kinds of degrees available in the study of languages. Thank you so much for your contribution; I’m pleased you enjoyed the article.

@ sandrabusby—Thank you very much for the compliment. I agree that linguistics is fascinating, and yes, we must choose our words carefully. I appreciate your stopping by and commenting.


sandrabusby profile image

sandrabusby 4 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

Wonderful hub. I adore anything that I can learn about linguistics. Language is such a wonderful tool, we should all be grateful and much more careful about how we use it -- especially in writing.


Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

Pavlo Badovskyy 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

Not Only Italian pilots i must say... Here in Ukraine our pilots also speak in English with the tower. Language is such a complex thing that numerous scientists made their degree in language. Very good hub and very exact explanation of historic development of language.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

Dzy...what a great hub. Kept me reading from beginning to end. I am in the UK, in the North and I have a very strong 'Geordie' dialect. A lot of the time I speak to friends and family in a sort of colloquial lingo which would leave those outside of my area scratching their heads. Language is organic for all of us and that is a good think I think. I love all of the US 'dialects', the Southern drawl, the Bostonian flat vowelled dialect (sounds a bit English sometimes) and I understand that there is still a small village in the south where the people still speak a form of Elizabethan English - amazing! Voted up and shared.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello, MizBejabbers,

Yes, legalese is in a very real sense its own language. It gives everyone fits. Contracts, terms of service, rules and regulations and judgements of all sorts are written in this obscure, difficult-to-understand language. In the end, most people don't even bother to read it, finding it overly verbose and incomprehensible. To wit:

"Should the party of the first part, whether in conjunction with or separately from the party of the second part, have been deemed to have interacted with the party of the third part, their immunity is thereby forfiet and they shall be subject to immediate arrest and incarceration."

Yes, I realize that is not "actual" legal terminology, but it serves to illustrate the overly complex wording. Lawyers do not understand the "K.I.S.S." principle. All they have to say is, "If 'A' messes with 'C,' regardless of whether or not 'B' is involved, 'A' is going to jail." Short, sweet, simple and to the point--and easily understood by anyone--even those not having a law degree. The law is very good at twisting words and their meanings and taking statements out of context.

Thanks very much for stopping by and adding that perspective.


MizBejabbers profile image

MizBejabbers 4 years ago from Arkansas

I just read the comments on the dynamics of the English language and would like to add mine to that. As a legal editor these dynamics and trends have to be carefully taken into consideration in legal word usage. For example, would you believe what the word "shall" meant 100 years ago is not the same as the interpretation being given today, and that becomes a problem. It is only one of several word changes that are causing us to have to update our manuals. We have laws dating back to the early 1800s, and I have been here long enough to see several trends (nearly 25 years). They are giving us fits! I have argued with the powers that be that I certainly don’t mind updating the language, but we can’t change to update every will o’ the wisp trend. This may sound like a boring subject, but if anyone ever finds himself on the wrong side of the law, he or she will understand exactly what I mean.

Defendant: But I thought….

Defense attorney: No, that may be what it meant 20 years ago, but that’s not what it means now!

Get the picture?


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello, Peter Geekie,

You are right. The same is true of American English, and, I suspect of many other languages. Language itself is a living thing, always changing and adapting to fit new circumstances or technologies.

This is not always a plus, however. Sometimes great words get ruined for general use by having their meanings skewed. "Gay" is a perfect example of this phenomenon. It used to mean carefee; happy-go-lucky; happy; youthful and free. (Think of its use in the "I Feel Pretty" song from the musical "West Side Story.") Don't get me wrong--I have nothing at all against the LGBT folks--I just rue the loss of a great word for general use. And so it goes.

Thank you so much for stopping by and adding your input; your comment is appreciated.


Peter Geekie profile image

Peter Geekie 4 years ago from London

Dear DzyMsLizzy,

English as spoken in England and other parts of the British Isles is a dynamic language constantly evolving to give the greatest possible vocabulary. This enables us to take advantage of modern trends by using the best of our own and other languages.

Kind regards Peter


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello, uNicQue,

Thank you so very much for the praise. I'm certainly pleased that you found the article interesting. French has its own idosyncrasies, too, does it not? I studied French off and on from Jr. High through college, and never did manage to become fluent.

I can sometimes follow the gist of a conversation, but heard on the radio, they are speaking too fast, and all I 'get' is that they are speaking French. If I am trying to converse with someone, I'll have to say to them, "Parlez lentenment, s'il vous plait!" Asked whether I speak French, my usual wisecrack answer is, "Oui. Je parle francais comme la vache espagnol!" (No way in here to put in the proper accent marks!)

Thanks so very much for your nice comment ant the vote!


uNicQue profile image

uNicQue 4 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

Wow, what a great hub! The English language is completely bewildering when you really think about it. I learned that after five years of French. Voted up!


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

@ MizBejabbers--Thanks very much for the compliment. I had to cringe inwardly at the sentence diagramming--I so struggled with that in grade school; in fact, it was the only semester in which I received a poor grade in English. Later on, in college, I had an English professor (who was near retirement age--make the comment, "Diagramming sentences is BS!" Imagine my relief! ;-)

Loved your story. I'm very pleased you enjoyed the article--thanks for contributing, and for the vote.

@JSMatthew--Thanks so very much for the high praise. I'm so pleased that you liked the article so much. Thanks also for the vote and share.


J.S.Matthew profile image

J.S.Matthew 4 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

Wow! I have been following this question in hopes that someone could provide a good answer. I got a lot more than I bargained for here! What an awesome Hub! This should be a Hub of the Day! Nice job. Voted up and shared. This really was incredible!

JSMatthew~


MizBejabbers profile image

MizBejabbers 4 years ago from Arkansas

I find this a great introduction into the difference of American speak and the King's English. After all, volumes could be written and hub space is limited. Great job! As an editor, my late co-worker used to argue with me that a sentence in English couldn't be properly diagrammed because English was derived from the Germanic rather than Latin. My answer was "so, what's that got to do with the price of eggs in China?" I came from the sentence diagramming generation, and he didn't. He was voted down.

I loved your anectdote on the "payots"! Being a Southerner, I have to tell this one. This same friend also told about his first trip to New York. At his hotel, he called room service and asked for "some ahss." The reaction was "what"? "Some ahss." (They thought he was talking dirty.) After repeating himself three or four times, he finally gave up and said, "you know, frozen wah-ter." Room service delivered him some ice. Voted you up+


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

@ internetgeek--Thanks very much for the compliment. I'm pleased you enjoyed the article. Thanks, too, for the vote!

@ alocsin--Interesting that you own a Klingon dictionary. Have you mastered the language? (hee hee) Sadly, that is lacking in my own reference library. On the other hand, what better reference library can there be than the entire internet? ;-) Do tell about your invented language--what was the magazine? Fascinating! Thanks very much for your comment and the votes!

@ TomBlalock (any relation to Jolene Blalock who played T'pol on "Star Trek--Enterprise"? ;-) )

Thanks very much for your comments and additions. You are certainly correct about the Latin languages using gender for inanimate objects, having no generic "it" as we do. I pulled that statement up from memory from a college instructor...and I'm sure there is more to it...but the illustration there was the subject/verb reversal that appears in Latin-based languages...(or, maybe as the newcomers, it is we who have created the reversal? ;-) )

I realize I did not go into any of the other issues, and it was a deliberate decision, as my intention was to write a brief explanation in answer to a question in the Q&A section. The full answer would be much, much longer, and would occupy an entire book--or series of books. In fact, years back, the BBC produced an entire television series on the subject.

In point of fact, the briefest answer to the person's question, is a simple, "No,It was not a conscious decision." I merely tried to elaborate briefly on how language evolves and changes; and at that, the length of the piece got away from me. ;-)

No offense taken; I appreciate the addition of extra information, as will other readers.


TomBlalock profile image

TomBlalock 4 years ago from Hickory, NC

An interesting article. I do have a few concerns, however. I won't go into great detail, and I certainly only wish to highlight a few things, not to fully critique the article.

There are a number of things missing, but one that stands out the most is the absence of "Colonial leveling," from which stem the various dialects and accents of American English.

Another thing which was less than clear, English actually shares very few Latin grammatical rules, having no true declinations, nor a masculine, feminine, or genderless form for words. Latin also had a number of fun "cases" such as the ablative case. Anyway...

It would also have helped, I think, to have included a brief bit of history. An example being that while the Scandinavian countries did effect English, they did so by invading, and nearly wiping out the last remnants of English Speakers. During that period, English acquired the " 's ."

That also applies to how French effected the English language as well, more so than even Germanic or Scandinavian influences. During the Norman invasion of the English speaking countries, nearly 20,000 words were added to the language, giving it depth that many languages lacked, in later years. Many of our terms for royalty come from that.

Lastly, some elaboration on English as a Germanic nature might be in order, as it came originally from a proto-germanic tribe, long before modern German came into the limelite. With the changes to English in the interregnum, the two are hardly mutually intelligible, although some similarities, including structure, still exist. Dutch, oddly, is more intelligible than German, forming an odd sort of middle ground for English speakers.

Anyway, just some food for though, I hope it didn't come off as offensive. Thanks for taking the time to write the article.


alocsin profile image

alocsin 4 years ago from Orange County, CA

A nice explanation of the evolution of the English language. I actually have a Klingon dictionary and invented my own language decades ago, which was published in a magazine. Voting this Up and Interesting.


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internetgeek 4 years ago from Hyderabad, India.

Wow! This is really interesting and informative Hub on this topic. You have provided some great instructions and most importantly you have listed some differences between American and British English. Nice written and well expressed. Thanks for sharing such a valuable Hub and voted up !

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    DzyMsLizzy878 Followers
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    Liz has always loved reading and writing, and has been fascinated by language since childhood. Word games are her among favorite type.



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