American and British English differences with a look at their history

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

24 Pages, Grade: 2,0




I. The Colonial Period
A. English in England and in the Colonies
1. English in the Mother Country (England)
2. Settlement in the Thirteen Colonies
3. Exposure to New Geography and Environment
B. English in America
1. Declaration of Independence
2. Debate in America

II. American Revolution
A. The Way to American English
1. The Elite and the Debate
2. Noah Webster’s Influence
B. Establishing American English
1. Linguistic Controversy
2. American English as Standard English?

III. English in the 19th Century
A. Developments in the Second Half of the 19th Century
1. Immigrant Languages in the 19th Century
2. Policies in American English
B. Dictionaries and Spelling Books for AmE and BrE
1. Vocabulary
2. Grammar and Pronunciation



American and British English Differences with a Look at Their History


Both British English and American English are interesting topics to look at but to look at them in a contrastive way is even more interesting because here you have to take the history of both varieties into consideration to see where the differences lie and why they became two distinctive varieties. Now you have to keep in mind that America was settled by British people but yet Americans now do not speak British English and then voted for their own way of speaking and pronouncing English. But how did that come? It was simply impossible not to have a different variety of English in America since English was exposed to different external factors such as other existing languages and a new environment compared to English in England and Great Britain. Hence with the Declaration of Independence in 1776 as a political separation from the mother country a linguistic separation needed to follow to finally divorce the USA from England which was important for the Americans because they wanted to have their own national identity.

I. The Colonial Period

A. English in England and in the Colonies

Before English was transported to and rooted in America it was spoken in England by the ancestors of and the pilgrim fathers themselves. The settlers who had been using English for centuries in their own country brought their own way of speaking and pronouncing into a new country and were not aware that they would create a new variety for the centuries ahead of them. English, a language that had undergone such a change over the centuries with influences such as Latin and French, was so complex but not unchangable that due to new circumstances English developed into something which was not like the Elizabethan or Shakespearen English the first settlers had brought to America.

1. English in the Mother Country (England)

At the time, when the first settlers were about to leave England for the new colonies in America the English spoken in England was more or less Elizabethan or Shakespearen English. Writers such as Shakespeare shaped English into its then-conventions as Dryden and others did later on in the seventeenth century. All these role models modeled back to the English speakers in various social classes and different parts of the country. So English in seventeenth century England cannot be said to be homogeneous for in each and every part of England they spoke a different dialect of English and only at the end of the seventeenth century there was a “relativ [hoher] Grad an Uniformität hinsichtlich der Grammatik und der Lexik, während [Englisch] in der Aussprache noch lange Zeit eine beträchtliche regionale Differenzierung zeigte, bevor sich für [das Englische] auch hier auf der Basis der Variante der gebildeten Oberschicht Londons eine regional neutrale Prestigenorm entwickelte” (Hansen, Carls, Lucko 32). It would have been strange if there had been homogeneity between the dialects brought to America because that would have meant that there was no social stratification. The prestigious RP accent, however, was never established neither in the colonies nor in the rest of the USA. But the American counterpart to RP is General American which is mainly used along the West coast and in the Midwest, for there are only three other different dialects mainly along the East coast which are the Northern, Midland and Southern dialect.

2. Settlement in the Thirteen Colonies

The first settlement in 1607 and later in 1620 brought many English speakers to the New World but did they also establish Elizabethan English in the new colonies? Fact is, those who came to America brought with them their way of speaking coming from different social classes and various parts of England. William A. Kretzschmar, Jr. says due to the various backgrounds of the settlers and because “the separate colonies developed cultural differences early on, including linguistic differences” they needed to find a common way of speaking in order to understand each other (258). He goes on arguing that “the word stock of the different colonies was largely shared, but preserved differently in each place” but he does not mention if they established Elizabethan English and how far it developed if it got not lost at all (258). But it is clear American speakers use a number of words British speakers do not use anymore as, for example, gotten for got as the past participle which, as Baugh and Cable imply, “impress the British of today as an old-fashioned feature not to be expected” (360). So in some way, Americans did keep a colonial lag but they did not establish standard British English.

Concerning pronunciation, Kretzschmar and Hansen, Carls and Lucko agree on the fact that it did not differ so much from England. There are “im Vergleich zu England bemerkenswert wenig regionale Unterschiede im Englischen [entstanden]. Das hatte seinen Grund zum einen darin, daß es in Nordamerika ja nicht natürlich gewachsen war, sondern dorthin "verpflanzt" worden war“ (Hansen, Carls, Lucko 99). Kretzschmar says there were few differences in pronunciation in each of the colonies but only “because of the mixture of settlers, and for the same reason the different American colonies sounded more similar to each other than to the speech of the old country” (258). Had they really wanted to sound different from each other than settlement history should have been more exclusively as to who settled which colony. But the result of sounding alike was certainly not to be unexpected because the settlers needed to find a way to communicate with each other and so their adjustment wasjust a matter of time. Sooner or later you will adjust to the external factors surrounding you and if you do not speak the way the others do then you need to find a common or standard or cross­regional way of speaking so that everyone in the colony could understand you.

Elizabethan or Shakespearen English could not possibly have maintained the same way as in England. The reason for that is that the diversity of English speakers was very complex and therefore they intermingled their ways of speaking not keeping their original dialects apart. That is furthermore a sign for later uniformity of American English which can be traced back to the end of the eighteenth century. Had the colonists kept separate ways there would have been a chance of having less uniformity these days but that did not happen and instead more and more immigrants came to the colonies and brought along their linguistic features.

Where the different settlers came from and where they settled has been written about many times. There are many linguists who tackle the issue of the settlers’ origins but some differ in time restrictions. John Algeo, for instance, recites Fisher’s overview and at the same time critizes it having flaws, stating four major settler-migrant waves which are (overview on p.7­8):

1. Puritans from eastern England to Massachusetts Bay, 1629-41
2. Gentry and their servants from southern England to Virginia, 1642-75
3. Quakers from the North Midlands and Wales to the Delaware Valley, 1675-1725
4. Common people from northern England, northern Ireland, and Scotland to the Appalachians, 1717-75.

However, Baugh and Cable state almost the same concerning the immigrants but sometimes the time boundaries are set a bit differently. For example, “Dutch occupation of New York began in 1614” (Baugh and Cable 353) but John Algeo says “in 1624 [the Dutch] settled Fort Orange...and in 1625 established New Amsterdam (later New York City)” (12). Algeo does not even mention earlier settlement in that region. So either he lacked earlier data or found it unnecessary to mention.

3. Exposure to New Geography and Environment

Being exposed to new environmental conditions in a foreign country without a standard or official language and the influence of foreign unknown languages brought forth a shift in English. In the seventeenth century, when the settlers arived in the New World they found themselves among native Indians who had already lived on the American continent. They did not speak English and found themselves forced into the background. But still there was intensive contact to the Natives which resulted in taking over some native Indian words into English. Indian words that were taken into English mainly belong to the groups of plants and fruits such as hickory, pecan, persimmon, squash and tamarack; also animals such as chipmunk, moose, muskrat, opossum, raccoon, skunk, terrapin, woodchuck; and not to forget Indian culture such as manitou, totem, squaw, maccasin, tomahawk and wigmam (cf. Barnickel 70).

Later when the first African slaves arrived in the colonies they also brought along their various West African languages. They also influenced the English spoken by the settlers with words like gumbo, buckra, voodoo, hoodoo, juke and juke box (cf. Barnickel 73). Peter Strevens, on the other hand, argues that African “influence on the language was less than might be expected” because they were only slaves who “did not share a single tribal, geographical or linguistic origin” (33). But the African tongues did influence English even more because slaves working on plantations had to acquire it to talk to their masters and as Strevens puts it correctly as a “lingua franca for their own use” (34). Had the blacks been able to learn English properly then there would not be such a thing as ‘Africanisms’ in English nowadays; and had slave owners only imported slaves from one single African country and tribe they would not even have used English as a lingua franca. So the making of American English and thus a new variety of English can be traced back to the seventeenth century where we can find influences of foreign languages such as differnt Indian and West African tongues; which intermingled with English spoken in the colonies and which are still part of American English today.

B. English in America

When English received more and more prestige among American speakers, especially in the eighteenth century, a call for a unified and separate language was voiced and received great anticipation. The eighteenth century was also an important one for politics because America finally got divorced from England and developed a national consciousness for identity. Identity politics and language as will be described were very much involved with each other and became one of the most important issues in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

1. Declaration oflndependence

A political separation from the motherland desperately called for a linguistic separation as well as for national identity to make the American people a whole new nation. After having had differences on the level of politics, economy and especially taxation, Americans wanted to be independent from England and hence embarked on the War of Independence (1775­1783) which granted the Americans their independence from the motherland. The political separation had people like Banjamin Franklin, Noah Webster, Thomas Paine and others voice the opinion of also having a linguistic separation from England and giving them hence the opportunity of creating a whole united nation which is completely independent from other nations. Many believed in shaping a new world with better chances of living and better opportunities for common thinking. Since the eighteenth century was the century of Enlightenment and the time of thinkers; people like Noah Webster thought of language as a tool for mobility and solidarity as a requirement for the new nation:

“...the establishment of a common language on national principles would be the greatest possible single contribution to political and cultural solidarity among the citizens of the new republic” (Simpson 3).

That furthermore triggered off the debate about language as a national identifier for the USA a few years later.


Excerpt out of 24 pages


American and British English differences with a look at their history
Free University of Berlin  (Institut für Englische Philologie)
VS Sociolinguistics and Varieties of English II: English as a pluricentric language
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ISBN (Book)
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British English, American English, British vs. American English, differences between American and British English, Grammar, Lexis, Anglistik, Amerikanistik
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Magister Anke Werckmeister (Author), 2008, American and British English differences with a look at their history, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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