San Francisco, 2010. It’s a hot afternoon in late August. Marissa and I sit on a hilltop in Dolores Park, an inner-city green space that takes up 2 square blocks of prime real estate. From our perch, we have one of the best views of the city.
I’m 20 years old, on a semester abroad at San Francisco State University. I should be focused on enjoying myself, but alas, I’m not. I’m up to my neck in a debate about language.
“Firstly, Marissa,” my finger is up in the air like an academic explaining the theory of Pi. “It is I ‘couldn’t’ care less. I ‘could’ care less makes no sense. If you ‘could’ care less, then do it. And secondly…”
Marissa isn’t listening. She’s too amused by my accent.
“Mate, c’mon, don’t get annoyed, it’s just banter.” She’s mocking my BBC English. “Anyway,” she takes a bite of her burrito, “American English just makes more sense. And I could care less what you think.”
During my semester abroad I spent countless hours in heated debates about language and pronunciation. Unfortunately for me, I was usually outnumbered. But I stuck to my guns, loud and proud, totally convinced that I was right. Everyone else was wrong.
Ten years later and it’s time for me to eat my words. I’ve been doing some digging, and much to my dismay, it turns out Marissa (and all the others) had a point. In fact, they may well be speaking English more accurately than I ever will. So I present to you, begrudgingly, a few ways that America has actually improved the English language.
Americans Have Preserved Shakespeare’s English
Something Brits and Americans can agree on is that, at one point in time, we both had the same accent. In the 17th century, British settlers landed in America. At that point, we definitely spoke the same way. But what happened over the next 400 years? As it turns out, the current differences come more from the UK, not America.
In terms of pronunciation and vocabulary, the General American accent is actually closer to Shakespeare’s English than most modern British accents. And in this BBC Culture article, writer Christine Ro says that today’s Americans actually preserve more 18th-century British pronunciation than modern British does. I didn’t see that coming.
American Pop Culture Has Made English Easy To Learn
As a Brit, I often find non-native English speakers struggling to understand me. I speak very fast and use lots of British slang. Plus, non-native speakers aren’t exposed to my accent in the same way they’re exposed to American accents. The world doesn’t grow up with TV shows like Fawlty Towers and Coronation Street. They grow up with Friends, The Simpsons, South Park and Frasier.
America has also slowed the English language, making it more palatable and accessible. This means non-natives can understand it and learn it more efficiently.
There are other aspects of American pronunciation that make it easier to learn, too. For instance, the American accent is rhotic (meaning that speakers pronounce the letter R in words such as “hard”), whereas the British accent is non-rhotic. This turns “hard” into something like hahd. Since the rhotic accent is more phonetic, this makes it easier for non-natives to understand.
American Spelling Is More Phonetic
Chances are, you’re probably familiar with lexicographer Noah Webster, as he’s the creator of the famous American English dictionary of the same name. However, he sought out to do more than merely catalogue all the words in American English — he wanted his dictionary to reflect its current usage.
He did this by dropping the letter U from words such as “honour” and “colour,” to make “honor” and “color.” On top of that, Webster changed words ending in –ise to –ize to reflect the way that English is pronounced. He also questioned (and then changed) why English still keeps –re endings from French.
It’s infuriatingly logical! His motivation went beyond language, though. Webster also differentiated spellings to demonstrate independence from British rule (and also, perhaps, because Z is a little bit cooler than S).
America Comes Up With Some Pretty Good Slang
A study conducted just this year affirms that America is still the most influential country on Earth. This extends beyond politics — America’s influence on pop culture has a big impact on the rest of the world, especially when it comes to language. Even Brits use Americanisms. And although some people aren’t big fans, the phrases do add some variety to our interactions. Here are some American phrases that are commonly used in the UK:
- “Can I get a coffee to go?”
- “It is what it is”
- “Touch base”
- “I’m good”
American English Loves British English
The constant language debates during my year abroad were exhausting. But there’s a big bonus I forgot to mention: Every time I opened my mouth, I was treated like a queen. Simply ordering a drink at a bar, about five different people would tell me I was great and ask where I was from. It was outrageously easy to make friends because everybody loved my accent. They wanted me around at all times.
Living in America opened my eyes to how curious and interested people in the US are about their fellow English-speaking countries. And when it was all over, and I was back in the UK, I felt sad when nobody high-fived me just for speaking. I still miss it to this day.