English writer Oscar Wilde once quipped: “We and the Americans have much in common, but there is always the language barrier.” And George Bernard Shaw described the English and the Americans as “two peoples separated by a common language.”
The truth, however, is that in both spelling and grammar the differences between the two leading varieties of English are few and amount to no more than a bump in the road to educated speakers of the language.
As we saw in a previous column, the main differences in spelling in America can be traced to American Noah Webster. But he also won a few spelling battles in Great Britain. His argument against the k in words such as critick, frolick, publick won out on both sides of the Atlantic.
But even though he persuaded Americans to adopt the simpler spelling in words like favor, odor, humor, and center (instead of favour, odour, and humour), the British balked and kept the old French forms. (In modern French they are faveur, odeur, humeur.) The British also retain the French spelling of centre but not the French pronunciation. They pronounce it essentially like the American center.
The Americans also simplified the diphthongs inherited from Greek and Latin—oe and ae—in words like amoeba, encyclopaedia, and mediaeval. In American English these became ameba, diarrhea, encyclopedia, and medieval. Programme, catalogue, cheque, and tonne became program, catalogue, check, and ton in America. Regardless of the spelling, however, there only minor variations in pronunciation.
Is it “grey” or “gray”? The British prefer the first, the Americans, the second. Actually both coexisted a thousand years before English settlers arrived in America. It seems that both came from the Old English variants graeg and greg. These in turn were descended from old Frisian. Modern Frisian is said to be the closest relative of English.
All transplanted languages tend to be conservative. English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese in the New World confirm the rule. No wonder, therefore, many Americanisms are survivors of the Elizabethan Age. In response to a criticism of American English, James Russell Lowell turned the tables by remarking humorously that the Americans “unhappily could bring over no English better than Shakespeare’s.”
Editor’s note: A Friendswood resident, Harold Raley served two terms on City Council and was Mayor Pro Tem. A linguist, professor and writer, he is the author of a dozen books and was Chairman of Foreign Languages at the University of Houston and later Dean of Fine Arts and Humanities at Houston Baptist University. Presently he is Senior Editor of Halcyon Press book Publishers in Pearland. Readers may contact Dr. Raley at firstname.lastname@example.org