I arrived in England two weeks ago Saturday, leaving sunny California and traveling via a 3-week circuitous route through central Europe to Oxford. Though I go to school in California, I’m a native of the state of Ohio, whose state motto is “The Heart of it All,” perhaps equally due to its shape (vaguely heart-lik
e), and its embodiment of the virtues of Middle America.
However, I by no means consider my
typical American, least of all when compared to European stereotypes of Americans: I do not talk, chew, or conduct international affairs in a loud and boisterous manner. Nor am I a devotee of the sport known here as “American football”. While I am perhaps the biggest fan of American action films you will ever meet, and I consider monster truck shows the gift of a benevolent God, aside from this my consumption of American popular culture is limited to pop songs played through the speakers of elevator (lift) cars.
While culturally speaking I may be able to “pass” as European (I was asked throughout my European travels if I was Italian, for some reason), people in the UK nevertheless seem to have no trouble identifying me as American. It still seems odd to me that the key to understanding why this is so lies behind the way I say my a’s and my r’s. Over the past two weeks, the way I speak has become synonymous with an identity, and the minute I open my mouth I can’t help but feel that by some, I am pegged as a Sarah Palin-loving, gun-toting cowboy. These phonetic differences are of particular interest to me as a student of linguistics.
Thinking about this cultural-linguistic synonymy, and the differences between our two Englishes, made me curious about how it all developed, and I did a bit of research. While today, these dialect differences are remarkable oddities and linguistic curiosities, they once were quite important in the very creation of national identity. Arguments over the pollution of British English, on the one hand, and the iconoclastic creation of a uniquely American language, on the other, occupied a good part of 18th and 19th century intellectual life. Our two languages did start as the same language, after all, as early as Roanoke and Jamestown. But over the course of its evolution in a new place, with new ideas and new contacts, the American English of the end of the 18th century had begun to look quite different.
One figure in the debate over American English whom I find particularly fascinating is Daniel Webster. For this man, observing, discussing, and in a sense even creating American English was tantamount to creating America. As he remarked in his unprecedented 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, “It is not only important, but in a degree necessary, that the people of this country should have anAmerican Dictionary of the English Language… Language is the expression of ideas; and if the people of one country can not preserve an identity of ideas, they can not retain an identity of language.”
It should be noted that unlike linguists today, Webster was a prescriptivist-instead of speaking of how language is (a descriptivist outlook, the one most commonly taken in modern dictionaries), he spoke of how it ought to be. He was a chronicler with an agenda. To this end, beyond producing his dictionary, he also produced a spelling book and a grammar compendium meant for school instruction. His preface to this book is a strongly-worded diatribe against British English:
“Europe is grown old in folly, corruption and tyranny…. For America in her infancy to adopt the present maxims of the old world, would be to stamp the wrinkles of decrepid age upon the bloom of youth and to plant the seeds of decay in a vigorous constitution.”
He likewise wrote in 1817, following the War of 1812 (in a letter to John Pickering, more on him in a bit): “I trust the time will come, when the English will be convinced that the intellectual faculties of their descendants have not degenerated in America; and that we can contend with them in letters, with as much success, as upon the ocean.” He was not exaggerating when he went on to predict that American English and British English would one day be as mutually incomprehensible as Swedish and German.
More than an ideologue, Webster actually significantly altered the way we spell and pronounce English in America. It is no exaggeration to say that the majority of American-British spelling differences are the result of his advocacy in his spelling book, and his influence on pronunciation is likewise great. Thanks to Webster, American English has honor and color; fiber, center, theater; defense, offense, ax, plow, and story. While he also advocated dropping the e at the end of such words as determineand changing speak to speek, these changes were less popular. Such spelling reform was also attempted by Benjamin Franklin, who even sought to produce new characters for writing American English.
Not everyone was so enthusiastic. Many in Britain, as well as many in America itself, likewise prescriptively objected to what they saw as the degradation of the mother tongue. John Pickering was an American who nevertheless subscribed to this line of thought. He compiled the first dictionary of Americanisms in 1816, entitled A Vocabulary, or Collection of Words and Phrases which have been supposed to be Peculiar to the United States of America. Unlike Webster, his purpose in publishing this dictionary was not to celebrate but to condemn: he sought to purify the language of England from foreign influence.
Purists such as Pickering objected to almost any disagreeable English phrase by calling it an Americanism. Samuel Coleridge objected to “that vile and barbarous word, ‘talented’,” adding, “Most of these pieces of slang come from America,” without realizing that “talented” was not from America at all. Similarly with Mencken, who incorrect
ly objected to the non-American word “scientist” as an “ignoble Americanism”. Perhaps the best manifestation of this anti-American purism comes from Basil De Selincourt, who exlaimed “Only when we hear English on the lips of Americans do we fear for its integrity.”
Reaction against the purists was equally vehement: Brander Matthews, in his Americanisms and Briticisms, wrote: “any American who chances to note the force and the fervor and the frequency of the objurgations against American spelling in the columns of the Saturday Review…may find himself wondering as to the date of the papal bull which declared the infallibility of contemporary British orthography, and as to the place at which it was made an article of faith.”
Regardless of whether American English is a polluted or a purified form, the English of America in many ways represents the English of an earlier England-some have argued that in the case of colonies, one finds a sort of arrested linguistic development. While this has been disproved to an extent, phenomena such as the flat a of “class” and the rhotic r of “car” were originally quite prevalent in certain parts of England as well. The purists were thus to some extent greatly misguided.
The debate over these matters has largely cooled. I have come across several articles recently bemoaning the encroachment of American English upon the English of Britain. Similarly with the claim I heard that American English is the English of children’s television. But these are largely the exception – the two sides of the pond seem to have reconciled their linguistic differences… to an extent at least. I’ve personally got to work on not using my fake British accent in public, and I’ve met multiple British people now who insist on communicating with me in a southern drawl…
(I’d like to thank Albert C.Baugh and Thomas Cable for their A History of the English Language)