How American English Grew Its Wings

When did American English become distinct from British English? A brief chronology.
british english vs american english

Hello world! It’s America. We may have an unnatural preoccupation with Doctor Who and Benedict Cumberbatch, but that doesn’t mean you’ll ever catch us “fancying” any “crisps.” This is the land of (limited) vacation time and football with concussions, and we’ve been cultivating our fiercely American-manufactured parlance since way before 1776, despite any assumptions you may have held about British English vs American English.

America went through great pains to assert its independence, but not everything about our refusal to embrace “colourful” vernacular from across the pond was necessarily the product of teenage rebellion. The split between American and British English was just as much the product of a disdainful parent disowning its kid. In fact, the modern British accent wasn’t even a thing until way after the American Revolution. Plus, some of the words we still use in America (like “junk” and “cabin”) were previously British words that fell out of favor in England.

If we’re going to be totally realistic about it, though, the divergence of American and British English was, in many ways, the natural outcome of what happens when language evolves in separate corners of the world. American English adopted words from native languages like “maize” and “canoe,” as well as from Dutch, Spanish and virtually any other language that ever washed up on our shores.

When you remove the markers of political boundaries and time, language itself is a continuum, and there’s no way to definitively say when “American” became a fully actualized way of speech. Instead, we can only offer helpful guideposts and examples along the way. Here, for your edification, is a simplified timeline of two dialects that grew apart:

Pre-colonial times: The nautical pidgins used by early explorers to communicate with native people were arguably among the first purely “American” ways of speech. In A History of American English, J.L. Dillard notes that by the time the Pilgrims first touched down in Massachusetts, there were already native people here who could effectively communicate with them in English. Slaves also had their own version of English from the nautical regions of West Africa.

Colonial America: According to Mary Linn, a linguist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, people in England were already aware of “the quirky new ways Americans were speaking English within a generation of the colonists’ arrival.”

1775: Samuel Johnson published A Dictionary of the English Language, launching one of the earliest efforts to standardize English spelling in Europe.

Post-1776: British people began to de-rhotacize their way of speech. In plain English, this means they dropped the “r” sounds from words like “car” and “hard.” The shift largely occurred in southern England, and mainly among the upper classes. The “posh” accent was eventually standardized and taught to people who wished to sound fashionable and high-status. Americans held on to their robust rhotic pronunciation for the most part, but some former colonists, especially those who lived in port cities like Boston, Richmond, Charleston and Savannah, adopted this affectation.

1806: Noah Webster published the first American dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. Webster (of Merriam-Webster fame) was hugely instrumental in American standardization, but many of his earliest attempts to simplify English spelling were ridiculed. In this early work, he suggested “tung” for “tongue” and “wimmen” for “women.” Though he was apparently referred to as “an incurable lunatic” and “a prostitute wretch,” he did believe it was important for America to assert itself culturally, and he believed words should be spelled the way they actually sound.

1828: Webster published the vastly more successful An American Dictionary of the English Language and earned the right to take credit for nixing the “u” from “colour” and the “re” from “theatre,” as well as changing “defence” to “defense,” “catalogue” to “catalog,” and more. Webster’s dictionary also contained more than 70,000 words (compared to roughly 40,000 in Johnson’s dictionary).

Over in England, they eventually dropped the “k” from words like “magick.” Other changes that occurred in America, however, were looked down on. The Brits were actually flexible on spellings like “colour” and “theatre,” but that was before they came to be seen as American.

1908: The British style guide, The King’s English, decreed it more logical to use single quotation marks for regular quotations, and double quotation marks for quotes within quotes. There’s reason to believe this book also created the impetus for Brits to place periods and commas outside of quotation marks.

1919: H.L. Mencken published The American Language, a grammar of American English and a formal defense of “Americanisms” against the snooty English prescriptivists (in his view). A number of linguists soon followed suit in the early 1920s with the “Linguistic Atlas of New England,” which was one of the first formal attempts at documenting a regional dialect. This was part of a larger cultural fixation on defining “American” English in the immediate aftermath of World War I.

1922: Rep. Washington J. McCormick introduced a bill to Congress that would officially designate the “national and official language” as “the American language.” The bill went nowhere nationally, but the state of Illinois did succeed in separately mandating “American” as its official language that same year. The law never really took in practice, however, so it was revised in 1969.

Post-World War II: American English, like many of its other cultural exports, became “cool.” Around the 1960s, it almost seemed as though the U.K. was about to abandon its spellings of “colour” and “centre.”

2000s: The languages continue to exist side by side, but not in distinctly separate silos. In the 2000s, the U.K. used American spellings about 11 percent of the time, while Americans used British spellings 10 percent of the time.

There is, apparently, some anxiety across the pond over whether British English is now copying the more direct, economical style of American English. But these days, it’s probably more realistic to assume that we’re all just cleaving to the impact of emojis.

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