Differences Between Americans and Our Brothers Across the Puddle, Part II

When did American speech begin to diverge so greatly from that of our English ancestors. Obviously no sound recordings from the era were made, so I’m curious if someone can point to an article, letter, or diary from the olden days saying something like “Boy, those Yanks sure talk weird!” or “Boy, those Limeys sure talk weird!” Any linguists care to ring in?

I remember seeing on an English Language PBS special that Baltimore’s unusual accent was a derivation of Cockney. Almost makes sense . . . I wonder how the Deep Southern U.S. accent developed?

A general rule is that languages change more slowly in offshoot branches than on the main line. The colonists are more homogenous and conservative in their speech habits, while the stay-at-homes are much more experimental and change more rapidly.

This means that, in general, American speech (the offshoot) is more like eighteenth century British speech than current British speech is. But then you have to figure in the fact that sometime in this century American English has become more dominant than British English and the home field advantage switched sides.

Many items of usage show up in writing, and comparison of written English allows some deductions to be made. As you pointed out, pronunciation differences can only be inferred from the writings of the time, but rhymes and puns are good sources for information and pronouncing dictionaries are not that much more recent than the American Revolution so some definitive data is available.

An excellent book on this kind of thing is The Origins and Development of the English Language, by Thomas Pyles.

“If you had manifested fatigue upon noticing that you had been an ass, that would have been logical, that would have been rational; whereas it seems to me that to manifest surprise was to be again an ass.”
Mark Twain
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

For a really fun (and funny) book on this topic read Bill Bryson’s Made in America in which he discusses American English. For British English try The Mother Tongue. They are both good books, and more importantly, well researched and very accessable.

It’s generally assumed amongst my Southern friends and family that “Suthun” is very like many Brit dialects. The Crown Colonies (VA, the Carolinas, and GA) were populated by a higher percentage of Brits than much of the North.

-andros-


“Listen Children Eternal Father Eternally One!” Exceptions? None!
-Doc Bronner

It also seems to me that Brits, Aussies and New Zealanders (New Zeas?) use more ‘fancy’ French words than North Americans. Is it that more French words were imported to England after American English split away?


Only humans commit inhuman acts.

In some respects, as I remember from Bryson, American English pronunciation is closer to Shakespearian times than current British is.It also has changed. The “ask” and “bath” pronunciations are quite recent, snooty pronunciations.

And the pronunciation of “ei” as in “either” to rhyme with “high” is, I believe, the result of having a German royal family, although many Americans also use it nowadays.

Shakespeare would regard all of us as cockneys. At least since Chaucer’s time, the dialect of London has tugged in one particular direction.

And on the other hand, most colonists didn’t come from London.


John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

So, the question lingers:

Which side of the pond speaks the most proper English?

I say we speak the most proper American.

(Except you Yoopers, that is…) :wink:

Which side speaks the most “proper” English translates into “Which side does the best job of teaching grammar in the public schools?” a question that I, for one, do not feel qualified to answer.

As to which side speaks the most “authentic” English, that depends solely on how one defines it. England is the native country of the English language, and by that test, the English win, by definition. On the other hand, there are far more Americans, so the Yanks win on majority rules.

The changes between the colonial period and the present are considerably greater than the differences at present between the two nations, especially after omitting differences in technological language that did not even exist in colonial days (tension/voltage, hood/bonnet, etc.).


John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

I wrote a big long tirade in answer to this (it’s one of my pet peeves) but I deleted it.
The question presupposes the existence of some universal standard to which we can appeal. The short answer is that there is no standard definition of “proper English”. Generally what is meant by “proper English” is English as it is written and spoken by educated people, but even that definition leaves a lot of room for variation. At the very least, educated Britons and educated Americans speak differently – which is “proper”? By choosing one you have answered your question by default.


“If you had manifested fatigue upon noticing that you had been an ass, that would have been logical, that would have been rational; whereas it seems to me that to manifest surprise was to be again an ass.”
Mark Twain
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

By proper English I meant pronunciation. If you look in any dictionary it will tell you the “proper” pronunciation of any word. I guess my simplified question is: Which side of the pond uses the proper pronunciation according to the dictionary?

I know, I know, there are lots of different dictionaries. Do they have variant pronunciations for the same words? I never really thought about that before.

Yes, the pronunciations will differ in British and American dictionaries. So, again, take your pick and answer the question by your choice.

In support of my earlier ranting, dictionaries are intended to serve as a record of the language as it is used, rather than a description of what is “proper”. We frequently appeal to the dictionary to settle pronunciation questions, but what we’re actually looking up is what the lexicographer thought was the most common usage. Of course there are frequently several pronunciations offered, generally in the order of “preferred” usage, and over time, the dictionary entries change.


“If you had manifested fatigue upon noticing that you had been an ass, that would have been logical, that would have been rational; whereas it seems to me that to manifest surprise was to be again an ass.”
Mark Twain
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

New Zealanders are , well, New Zealanders. Occasionally refered to as Kiwis. (Pronounced KEE-WHEEZ; singular kiwi\KEE-WHEE)


We have met the enemy, and He is Us.–Walt Kelly

Ok, so my followup and somewhat offensive (sorry in advance to the Brits) question is this…

Do British dictionaries actually specify the odd (to us uncouth Americans) pronunciations that we hear them speak? Or is it just that the dictionaries haven’t caught up to their aaadvaaanced lexicon yet?

Moe: Garage, ooooh, fancy french.

Homer: What do you call it?

Moe: A car hole!
I guess Americans do use less “fancy french”.

Actually, “garage” is an oddity. Americans pronounce it as though it were French, but in England, that pronunciation is regarded as a genteelism (i.e. something said by a lower-class person trying to fake being upper-class and blowing it), or at least it was in 1936.

“Herb” is another oddity. Americans drop the “h”, but the English pronounce it.


John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

Yeah, what’s the deal with defense/defence offense/offence?

I think that’s an attempt to mainstream English spelling to make it more American (post-independance). It’s also to make the spelling more ‘logical.’

colour – color
centre – center
defence – defense

The spelling on the left is British and comes from Norman French. Strangely, they only went half-way. Why is ‘bottle’ not spelled ‘bottel’?