A language that separates us?


By Dr Kamal Wickremasinghe

When it comes to handling the English language, some choose not to care much about complex English grammatical rules and terminology that are based on Latin, a dead language anyway. But, for the pretentious souls, the textures, subtleties, and nuances of language are significant enough concerns that make them refer to higher authorities for guidance, ‘A Dictionary of Modern English Usage’, (‘Fowler’) for routine advice on vocabulary, syntax and punctuation, and to ‘The King’s English’ when they need more detailed instructions on such subtleties as the appropriate uses of ‘shall and will’! Then, there is the perennial favourite of the Civil Service, ‘The Book of Plain Words’ by Sir Ernest Gowers, offering the simple advice: ‘Be short, be simple, be human’, easily the best advice on how to write English.

For a messy language like English, it has had a fortuitous journey through history to its current preeminent position as the lingua franca of the world: English had periodic bursts of expansion in the history since William of Normandy defeated Harold II of England in the Battle of Hastings in 1066, leading to the blending of French—the language of the king’s court with the Anglo-Saxon tongue to give birth to modern English.

At least two centuries before Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer and Thomas Mallory had led through a transition of English from Old to Early Modern English through Late Middle English. Shakespeare, born in 1564, sailed through a language being transformed until Samuel Johnson stabilised English with a set of hard and fast rules in ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’, published in 1755, nearly a century and a half after Shakespeare died.

Then of course, colonialism transmitted English through missionaries and pirate-traders to all continents including to its most notable, enduringly successful preserve, India. An official goal of forming ‘a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect’—as per the infamous 1835 Minute of Thomas Babington Macaulay, who replaced Persian as the official language of the pirate British India Company—accelerated the teaching of English in India. During subsequent British Raj (1858 to 1947), English language penetration increased throughout India to make English the only functional lingua franca in the country at the time of Independence in 1947.

The current, more or less standardised English orthography—conventions for writing including norms of spelling, hyphenation, capitalisation, word breaks, emphasis, and punctuation—hides continuing diversity relating to such things as the spelling of nearly every phoneme (sound) and pronunciations of most letters depending on their position in a word and the context. This is natural for a language that has thrived on borrowing a large number of words from a large number of other languages throughout history while sticking to phonetic spelling conventions that ignore the sound changes such as the Great Vowel Shift.

Variations in English dialects spoken in different countries and even within different regions of the same country can sometimes be large enough to make communication unintelligible. Indian English for example, has many formations of words that would be unintelligible to English speakers elsewhere. In India, the verb ‘fire’ does not necessarily mean throwing some one out of work but ‘to shout at’ them. ‘Unmotorable’ roads—not suitable for use by a motor vehicle—exist only in India!

Despite such idiosyncrasies in many local versions of English, the two most recognised variations in English orthography come down to those between British and American versions and an investigation into the origins of divergence is revealing indeed.

American English and British English often differ at the levels of phonology, phonetics, and vocabulary and to a much lesser extent in grammar and orthography. These changes reflect sociological factors relating to the original English speakers—Puritan settlers—who were not the cream of British society, so to speak, but those strongly opposed to the Church of England and others who couldn’t make a living there. The evolution of language reveals almost an obligation felt by the early Americans to reinforce their political liberty with linguistic liberties as a totem of their independence.

The subsequent influence of waves of migration from other regions of the world and the subsequent ‘Laissez-faire’ attitudes that developed in America have been instrumental to no small measure; Loanwords are simplified and naturalised in American much more quickly than in English. In medicine, for example, American custom to spell the root syllable ‘hæm’ (in hæmorrhage and hæmiplegia) as ‘hem’, and the usage of esophagus for æsophagus, diarrhea for diarrhæa and gonorrhea for gonorrhæa) would almost hurt the eyes of a medical man used to the geniality of the Lancet!

American changes in English vocabulary

Perplexingly, differences in vocabulary between British and American versions of English show that some words and phrases used in the US have retained Elizabethan English meanings and pronunciations that have long disappeared in England, while some older English words that are still common currency in Britain have fallen out of use in the US. Words in the former category include, bug, candy cabin, cesspool, chore, deck (of cards), faucet, fall (autumn), hatchet, hog, jeer, junk, mad, mayhem, molasses, sick, slick and trash. American uses of gotten as a past participle of get also has long fallen out of favour in England.Other American-invented words including belittle, blizzard, cafeteria, caucus, cloudburst, cocktail, influential, prairie, reliable and talented have been adopted into British English.

Among many words introduced in to American by non-native English speakers include goober, jambalaya, and the synonyms gumbo and okra by African slaves brought over to work on the plantations. Words such as canyon, coyote, mesa, and tornado by the Spanish; prairie, bureau, and levee by the French; bluff, boss, and waffle by the Dutch; pretzel, sauerkraut, and nix by the Germans. Many words like moose, raccoon, caribou, opossum, skunk, hickory, pecan, squash, and toboggan were taken from the indigenous cultures. Pure American invented words pressed into service to detail their new government include congress, senate, and assembly and other new compounds rattlesnake, blue grass, bobcat and bullfrog.

Pronunciation and accent

American pronunciation is distinct from British, mostly due to it being ‘rhotic’ (the ‘r’ sound nearly always pronounced anywhere in a word) unlike in most British dialects. The current differences however, can be seen more as due to changes in British pronunciation while American pronunciation remained static: the ‘proper’ educated English accent of Elizabethan England fully pronounced the ‘r’ in words like after and butter. Similarly, the ‘ah’ pronunciation was considered low-class in most parts of England with words like ask, dance, glass, and path pronounced exactly the same as the currently most distinctly American way of pronouncing ain hat and fat. The situation changed later in England, but not in America!

As to regional variations in accent, American English is much more homogenous than British English. An African American in England would speak with an accent that represents his geographic origin within England, whereas an African American from any part of the US would be speaking with a similar, uniform accent. Linguists have identified around 25 American dialects that defy geographical classification but represents a ‘dialect continuum’ attributed to immigration of people from all over Britain, all over Europe and later from all over the world, who were quite mobile within America, contributing to a homogenising effect.

While a few distinctive dialects of English—typically stigmatised in the general culture—may be spoken in the rural heartland of America, the accents in the versions of English spoken in New York and other money cities – and the universities – do not sound too different from the educated British standard pronunciation.

Noah Webster and American spelling

The most obvious difference between the British and American versions of English boil down to differences in spelling. At the time of the first settlement of America the rules of English orthography in England were vague and American discourse reflects it. Thomas Jefferson wrote ‘honour’ in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, but the final version contained ‘honor’, a change presumed to have occurred by accident than by design. Benjamin Franklin had published his extravagant, ‘Scheme for a New Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling, with Remarks and Examples Concerning the Same, and an Enquiry into its Uses’ in 1768. Franklin advocated replacing the letters c, w, y, and j with six new letters.

It was the man named Noah Webster Jr.—a descendent of first Puritan settlers in Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts—who started a movement for divorcing American spelling from its parent version. He struck the first blow in 1783, with the publication of an essay titled ‘Grammatical Institute of the English Language’, with an appendix titled, ‘An Essay on the Necessity, Advant ages and Practicability of Reforming the Modeof Spelling, and of Rendering the Or thography of Words Correspondent to the Pronunciation’.

In his Essay Webster advocated reforms such as the dropping of the silent letter in words like head, give, built and realm, (making them hed, giv, bilt, and relm); the substitution of doubled vowels for decayed diphthongs in such words as mean, zeal and near, (making them meen, zeel and neer); and the substitution of ‘sh’ for ‘ch’ in French loan-words like machine and chevalier. He also suggested stile for style, and many other such changes.

In 1806, Webster published ‘A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language’, the first truly American dictionary. In this pioneering American work, Webster changed the ‘ce’ in words like defence, offence, and pretence to ‘se’; abandoned the second, silent ‘l’ in verbs such as travel and cancel when forming the past tense; dropped the ‘u’ from words such as humour and colour; and dropped the final ‘k’ from words such as frolick, physick, publick and musick. The ‘publick’ at the time accepted some of the changes and rejected others!

In 1828,Webster published his two-volume‘ AmericanDictionary of the English Language’, which challenged the authority of Dr Johnson’s ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’ that had been influential since its publication in 1755, prescribing hard and fast rules of orthography such as the use of the ‘u’ in the our words. In is dictionary, Webster had expanded his reforms first proposed in 1806 by removing whole classes of silent letters—the ‘u’ in the ‘our’ words, the final ‘e’ in determine and requisite,the silent ‘a’ in ‘thread’, ‘feather’ and ‘steady’, the silent ‘b’ in ‘thumb’,the ‘s’ in ‘island’ , the ‘o’ in ‘leopard’, and the redundant consonants in traveller, wagon, jeweller etc. He transposed the ‘e’ and the ‘r’ in many words ending with ‘re’ such as theatre, lustre, centre and calibre, ‘ ph’ to ‘f’ in words of the phantom class, ‘ou’ to ‘oo’ in words of the group class, ‘ow’ to ‘ou’ in crowd, porpoise to porpess, ‘acre’ to aker, ‘sew’ to ‘soe’, ‘woe’ to ‘wo’ , ‘soot’ to ‘sut’ , gaol to jail, and plough to plow. He invented along list of boldly phonetic spellings, ranging from ‘tung’ for ‘tongue’, ‘wimmen’ for women, ‘hainous’ for heinous and ‘cag’ for keg. Webster’s was enthusiastically received by Americans who were well aware of Johnson’s intense hatred of all things American.

A good many of the s new spellings were not actually Webster’s inventions and were being used in a random manner by many writers due to the fluid state of English spelling at the time: for example, the uncertainty about the ‘u’ in ‘our’ words (of the honor class) had long existed with honor and honour used in almost equal proportions in the first three folios of Shakespeare, 1623, 1632 and 1663-6 before the ‘our’ form was consistently adopted since the fourth folio of 1685.

Webster deleted the ‘u’ for purely etymological reasons, going back to the Latin honor, favor and odor without taking account of the intermediate French honneur, faveur and odeur. Where no etymological reasons presented themselves, he made his changes by analogy and for the sake of uniformity or for euphony or simplicity, or simply to defy Dr Johnson!

Webster’s reforms were challenged by the guardians of tradition in America. Most literary bigwigs of the early 19th Century American literature ignored his new spellings though they were quickly adopted by the newspapers. Lyman Cobb—a brash and combative young man 42 years Webster’s junior—and Joseph E. Worcester became the chief opponents of ‘Webster’, with Cobb publishing a rival ‘Spelling Book’ in 1835.

The 1828 dictionary of Webster showed concessions from his demands in the 1806 edition. He dropped the suggestions of Croud, fether, groop, gillotin, iland, instead, leperd, soe, sut, steddy, thret, thred, thum and wimmen to crowd, feather, group, island, instead, leopard, sew, soot, steady, thread, threat, thumb and women, and changed gillotin to guillotine. He restored the finale indetermine, discipline, requisite, imagine etc. In the 1838 revision he abandoned more spellings that had appeared in either the 1806 or 1828 edition, notably maiz, formaize, suveran for sovereign and guillotin for guillotine.

Though he was forced to give ground on some of his demands, Webster saw the majority of his reforms, especially the ridding of doubled consonants,the ‘s’ in words of the defense group, and gave currency to many characteristic American spellings, notably jail,wagon, plow, mold and ax that are universal in the US today. Their consistent use in America constitutes one of the most obvious differences between written English and written American.

Born in West Hartford, Connecticut in 1758, Webster was a pioneer in many fields other than in lexicography. He was a pioneer in epidemiology, working with the science available at the time to improve prevention and control of yellow fever and smallpox. In 2008, his alma mater the Yale School of Public Health honoured Webster as the ‘father of epidemiology and public health in America.’ In 1830, the ageing Webster met President Andrew Jackson and Congress to enact new federal copyright laws. He helped found Amherst College, Massachusetts. Webster died on May 28, 1843.

Despite all his other involvements, Webster’s name will always be synonymous with the American Dictionary. Four years after his death, in 1847, George and Charles Merriam gained the rights to Webster’s work, having An American Dictionary of the English Language first published in 1828 the modern Merriam-Webster dictionary that forms the American standard today. But, purist colonials still choose to run to the ‘Concise Oxford English Dictionary’ in an emergency!

With greatest respect to Noah Webster and his more worthy predecessors in England including Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dr Johnson, orthographic rules and grammar in the English language—unlike in languages such as French—will always be open to interpretation by the creative.

Some, like this student of English have taken a personal oath to never use the ‘Oxford comma’, no matter whose bright idea it was to suggest that a comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list such as ‘We sell books, videos, and magazines’ is essential to convey the meaning. Some rules need to be broken for common sense to prevail!

By the same token one wouldn’t go so far as to follow the advice of George W. Bush—so illiterate that he couldn’t distinguish dot from comma—who declared in his stupor: ‘In my sentences I go where no man has gone before… I am a boon to the English language.’

Purists need to be humbly reminded, as H. Jackson Brown, Jr. noted in his Life’s Little Instruction Book: ‘Never make fun of someone who speaks broken English. It means they know another language.’

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