THE twenty-sixth and final letter of the Latin alphabet is an innocuous little chap – most of us would be hard-pressed to name more than ten words which contain the letter z off the top of our heads. Unless, of course, you are American, in which case you could easily rhyme off dozens of words containing the letter z; familiarize, sympathize, finalize, et cetera.
Its use, or non-use, has over the years become the cause celebre in the battle between British English and American English. This battle has raged now for over 200 years – considerably longer than the American War of Independence (1775-83) between the newly-formed United States of America and the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
Differences between British English (BrE) and American English (AmE) include spelling, grammar and vocabulary, formatting of dates and numbers, and, most obviously, pronunciation. In fact, the pronunciation of the letter z is quite different depending on where you come from – in most English dialects, including Canadian English and Australian English, the letter is pronounced ‘zed’ /ˈzɛd/, whereas in the US it is always pronounced ‘zee’ /ˈze/. As such, you might think the play on words from Shakespeare’s famous line in the title of this article, ‘To be, or not to be’ might be lost on the average British person, but that would hardly be the case as most English-speakers watch enough Hollywood movies and US sitcoms to be quite familiar with American English pronunciations.
So where did this all begin? Oddly enough, it began with the invention of the printing press. Before this revolutionary innovation, the spelling of words in the English language wandered this way and that, with words being spelled in different ways even within England. Printers began increasingly to look to influential dictionaries as a way of standardising (or standardizing, depending on which side of the pond you live) spelling, and the most influential dictionary of the day – and most likely in the history of the English language – was A Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1755 by Samuel Johnson (1709-84).
Johnson’s magnificent opus – nine years in the making – contained over 42,000 words and included literary quotations and, unusually for a dictionary, a good deal of humour – his definition of lexicographer reads; ‘a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words’. Not exactly Oxford English, but this was the first time such a work had ever been undertaken and we must allow for Johnson’s idiosyncrasies if we are to appreciate his genius and hard work.
And so the great work of English lexicography came into existence. It is the tome on which practically all subsequent English dictionaries were based. Meanwhile, nationalism was spreading in the colonies like a prairie wildfire. America, not yet even the United States, was a hodgepodge of nationalities: English, Spanish, French, Dutch – soon to be followed by Germans, Swedes, Finns, Russians, Poles, Irish and Italians. Though many immigrants still spoke only the language of their home country in the US, English had for a long time been the principal language of trade and government. But many in this blossoming nation felt that if English should be their language, then it should be American English. None may have believed this more than Noah Webster Jr.
Noah Webster Jr (1758-1843) was an American lexicographer, textbook pioneer, political writer, editor, and prolific author. Often called the Father of American Scholarship and Education, he was also an ardent reformer of the English language and a nationalist. His An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) took some twenty-eight years to compile, and such was Webster’s thoroughness in seeking the origin of words that he learned twenty-six languages, including Old English (Anglo-Saxon), German, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Hebrew, Arabic, and Sanskrit. Webster thought British spellings too complicated and introduced color for colour, center for centre and program for programme, and to the horror of English-speakers on both sides of the Atlantic ‘ain’t’ was introduced to a dictionary for the first time. American English was born, and the battle lines firmly drawn.
But this was, for the most part, trench warfare – occasional sniping from the ‘snooty’ British at the ‘cultureless’ Yanks and vice versa. The apparent absurdity of the argument prompted Oscar Wilde to write in 1888, ‘We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, the language,’ and George Bernard Shaw to joke that the United States and United Kingdom are ‘two countries divided by a common language’. Incidentally, both were Irishmen and well-placed to poke light-hearted fun at the linguistic squabble between Britain and America. And so, apart from some minor skirmishes between linguistic experts – to whom not a great many people listen to anyway – it remained trench warfare for the best part of a century. Until the dawn of Hollywood, of course.
Like it or not, the United States of America is the biggest cultural influence in the world today. Hollywood reigns supreme, most of the biggest music acts listened to by millions of teenagers across the world are from the States. This is a simple fact. John Wayne and Marlon Brando were two of the greatest movie stars of the last century – neither spoke British English, but every boy watching movies tried to imitate them. American English has been encroaching and it has been doing so through the television screens and movies theatres across the world.
So where does this leave us in this great linguistic battle? Still in a 200-year-old stalemate? It depends on how entrenched you are. As in all conflicts, there are extremists – those who won’t give an inch or concede a point. On both sides of the divide, these people abhor the incorrect use of ‘their’ English. But the fact is that languages evolve. One of the most common ways languages evolve is from outside influences. English itself is made almost entirely of northern Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) languages, with a good helping of French from Normandy and a smattering of Norse and a Latin-based grammar system. England’s original language was of the Proto-Celtic group, the last remnants of which can only be found on the western fringes of Europe. And so, American English, with the heavyweight punch of Hollywood, will may well eventually supplant British English. But for the moment, the differences remain, for better or worse.
Some of the more common differences between British and US English
Americans tend to write Mr., Mrs., St., Dr.; the British will most often write Mr,
Mrs, St, Dr, following the rule that a full stop/period is used only when the last
letter of the abbreviation is not the last letter of the complete word.
Levels of buildings
In most countries, including the UK, the ‘first floor’ is one above the entrance
level, while the entrance level is the ‘ground floor’. In the US the ground floor is
considered the first floor.
Dates are usually written differently. Christmas Day 2000, for example, is
25/12/00 or 25.12.00 in the UK and 12/25/00 in the US.
The 24-hour clock (18:00 or 1800) is considered normal in the UK and Europe in
many applications including air, rail and bus timetables; it is largely unused in
the US outside of military, police, aviation and medical applications.
In both the US and the UK, a student takes an exam, but in BrE a student can
also be said to sit an exam.
In Britain, political candidates stand for election, while in the US, they run for
Most words ending in an unstressed -our in British English (e.g. colour, flavour,
harbour, honour, humour, labour, neighbour, rumour) generally end in -or in
American English (color, flavor, harbor, honor, humor, labor, neighbor, rumor).
The difference is most common for words ending -bre or -tre: British spellings
calibre, centre, fibre, litre, lustre, manoeuvre, meagre, metre, mitre, sombre,
spectre and theatre all have -er in American spelling.
For advice / advise and device / devise, American English and British English
both keep the noun/verb distinction (where the pronunciation is -[s] for the
noun and -[z] for the verb).
However, American English has kept the Anglo-French spelling for defense and
offense, which are usually defence and offence in British English.
-ise, -ize (-isation, -ization)
American spelling avoids -ise endings in words like organize, realize and
recognize. British spelling mostly uses -ise, while -ize is also used (organise /
organize, realise / realize, recognise / recognize): the ratio between -ise and
-ize stands at 3:2.
The ending -yse is British and -yze is American. Thus, in British English analyse,
but in American English analyze.
British and Commonwealth English uses the ending -logue and -gogue while
American English usually uses the ending -log and -gog for words like
analog(ue), catalog(ue), dialog(ue), demagog(ue), pedagog(ue), monolog(ue),
homolog(ue), synagog(ue), etc.
Carefree means “free from care or anxiety.” (American style)
Carefree means ‘free from care or anxiety’. (British style)