Weblog of the Sydney Traditionalist Forum
The following article is a fictionalized account of an American teacher of English at a French university, as he attempts to justify his dialect before a class of hostile anti-American students. The ensuing discussions concern the development of the American accent and Received Pronunciation, and a comparison between the two.
¶ “Good morning, everyone! Welcome to your English language class.”
¶ The whole class stared at me in shock.
¶ No one moved. No one spoke. No one breathed.
¶ It was as if I had uttered a curse word in the classroom.
¶ Finally, one young man with an elegantly trimmed goatee found the courage to raise his hand and ask a question.
¶ “Sir,” he said, “why are you teaching us American? We came here to learn English.”
¶ “Well, Mr…” I started.
¶ “Georges. Georges Delaforge.”
¶ “Well, Georges, there is really no language called ‘American’, just as there is no separate language called ‘Quebecan’ or ‘Mauritian’. They are all dialects of one language—French—just as American is just a dialect of English.”
¶ “But sir,” said a young woman with curly hair called Mélodie, “when we heard that our lecturer’s name was Dr Justin English, we just assumed…”
¶ “That I was English from England?”
¶ “Exactly,” said Mélodie.
¶ A dark-skinned student in the front row, whose name was ironically Blanche, stood up defiantly to her full 1m80 height and stated,
¶ “Dr English, we have always learnt RP…”
¶ “Ah Pee!” I repeated, gently mocking her accent. Blanche frowned, and I resumed my serious tone.
¶ “Yes,” continued Blanche. “RP, Received Pronunciation, the Queen’s English, the only pure English.”
¶ “And American English is not ‘pure’ then?” I asked, slightly offended.
¶ “No!” boomed Blanche. “In my opinion, American English is a corrupt form of the English language, spoken by illiterate peasants who could not make it in polite English society, so they escaped to the New World. There they changed the language to suit their easy-going, cowboy lifestyle. British English is elegant; American English is not.”
¶ My eyes nearly popped out of my head as I listened to Blanche’s biased blather. True, I had heard this opinion expressed before, in many different ways, especially from the French, who were never really fond of Americans, mainly for political reasons. But I expected my French university students to be a little more open-minded.
¶ “All right, class,” I began, as calmly as I could, “I can see that you don’t let the facts get in the way of a good prejudice. This is as good an opportunity as any to teach you a little about the history of the English language, from the early seventeenth century till the present day. Now, you’ll just have to bear with my accent for now, but I guarantee that, by the end of my little lecture, you will have gained a little more respect for my dialect.”
¶ I cleared my throat, looked at the sea of fresh, young French students, and began my lecture.
In The Beginning
¶ “It was George Bernard Shaw who once said, ‘England and America are two countries divided by a common language.’ He was being witty, of course, highlighting the differences between the two dialects, which are really not that different at all, as you will see.
¶ “It all started in the seventeenth century, when the Pilgrim Fathers left England to settle a new colony on the other side of the world. I admit that there is nothing really glorious about our early history. A bunch of serious, hard-working pilgrims left their home country to start a new life in an unfamiliar, hostile environment. ‘Elegance’ was a quality for which they were known. But how could there be elegance when there was no class? Our society has been classless since its early beginnings, even before the American Revolution. People earned recognition and honor based on merit and hard work, not on the basis of the accent they used or on the basis of the class or family into which they were lucky to be born. You should know that. You had a revolution of your own, whereby you rejected the aristocratic values of your royalist past.”
¶ At the mention of the French Revolution, some of the students were beaming from ear to ear, while others were squirming uncomfortably.
¶ “Besides,” I continued, “how could the Pilgrim Fathers learn elegance and teach it to their children? What were the standards of elegance? We Americans have always believed that if we could master good grammar and good manners, we could rise to hold a place of honor and prestige in society.
¶ “After the English left for the New World and later fought their Revolutionary War, the English of England gradually started to modify their speech, mainly the accent and some finer points of vocabulary and grammar. This was mainly done to accentuate the social distance between the aristocracy and the workers and ‘natives’ from their colonies. This is how RP—Received Pronunciation—developed. People have called it ‘The King’s (or the Queen’s) English, ‘Standard English’, ‘BBC English’, and even—erroneously, I might add—‘British English’. This aristocratic speech still has its prestige value today, even though its political influence is all but lost. Anyone who desired to rise in the social echelons had to adopt this ‘Received Pronunciation’, this ‘golden standard’.
The Original Language
¶ “As far as linguists are concerned, however, language cannot undergo change as a result of its speakers crossing an ocean. The first English-speaking colonists in America continued to speak precisely as they had done in England. And because they were isolated from the Mother Country, they tended for the most part to be more conservative in their language development. It may be hard to believe, but the English spoken in America has retained many characteristics of 17th century English, which the English from England themselves have not retained.”
¶ A corpulent student called Jacques raised his hand and said,
¶ “The same thing happened to the French language that the early colonists brought to Quebec in the early 17th century. Our Quebecan dialect is more conservative than the French of Paris.”
¶ Some students started to boo, others laughed. I raised my two hands and lowered them in a gesture bidding them to be quiet.
¶ “Your classmate—Jacques, isn’t it?—is quite correct.”
¶ Jacques nodded, but the others gasped incredulously.
¶ “Yes,” I continued, “to regard North-American English—or French, for that matter—as an inferior dialect, is to regard the earlier stages of the standard language as inferior. Would you call the language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible inferior? Evidence shows that at the time of the American Revolution, in 1776, all speakers of English had a similar pronunciation and vocabulary. For example, they all pronounced words like ask, after, path, glass and dance in the same way—in the same way as we still pronounce these words in the States today. The same thing applies to postvocalic r.”
¶ “Pardon, sir?” asked Mélodie. “What is ‘postbucolic r’?”
¶ “Postvocalic r,” I explained, gently correcting her, “is the letter r, or I should say, the sound /r/ after a vowel and before a consonant or at the end of a word, e.g. the final sound in car, heart and teacher. Until the end of the 18th century, most English speakers, on both sides of the Atlantic pronounced /r/ everywhere, wherever it appeared in the spelling. Shortly after America gained her independence, the English in England started to ‘drop their r’s’…”
¶ “So when the English lost America, they were so angry, they dropped their r’s?” asked Blanche.
¶ I laughed, not only at the idea, but also at the unintended innuendo in the way she pronounced the phrase ‘dropped their r’s’.
¶ “I don’t think it is as simple as that, Blanche,” I replied. “Besides, not all American speakers retained their postvocalic r. The citizens of New York, Boston, Charleston, Savannah (and some other eastern towns), which kept in close contact with England for commerce and trade, adopted non-rhotic speech, while the other colonies remained rhotic.”
¶ “They remained ‘erotic’?” asked Blanche.
¶ “No,” I explained, trying to keep a straight face, “rhotic—from the Greek name for the letter r, rho. General American is a rhotic dialect, because we still pronounce the sound /r/ in every position in a word where r appears.”
¶ “I never knew that,” said Georges and others sitting next to him, as they nodded their heads.
¶ I smiled and continued confidently, knowing that I was gradually winning them over.
¶ “American English not only kept features of the original pronunciation of English, but some lexical and grammatical features too.”
¶ “Please sir, could you give us some examples?” asked a gorgeous brunette called Violette.
¶ “All right, let’s see… American English has preserved the original past participle of the verb get—gotten—that British English has lost, except in some expressions like ‘ill-gotten gains’. We have also kept the poetic name for the season of Autumn: Fall (from ‘Fall of the Leaf’). We say ‘mad’ to mean ‘angry’ and ‘sick’ to mean ‘ill’, just as Shakespeare and the King James Bible do. Remember, the English who settled in the New World were not illiterate peasants, but ambitious and industrious members of the English upper and middle classes, as well as the lower and working classes.”
¶ “Do all Americans speak the same way,” asked Georges. “Don’t New Yorkers speak differently from Texans and Californians?”
¶ “Yes,” I answered, “there are of course regional variations, because, as I have said before, people living on the eastern seaboard aspired to be more like the English in the Mother Country. But American English dialects are surprisingly more homogeneous than British dialects. And regional or accent differences have never been an obstacle to social advancement as they have in Britain, where accent has been until recently a badge of honor and a class marker. Did you know that parents used to send their children to rich, prestigious boarding schools—‘public schools’—just so that they (their children) could acquire the prestigious RP accent necessary for success? They were willing to sacrifice time with their children, so firm was their belief that a good accent was essential for a successful future.
¶ “Are you aware that American English is sometimes grammatically more conservative than British English? Let me give you some examples to show you what I mean:
(a) With collective nouns, British English often uses a plural verb while American English uses a singular verb, because the noun is singular:
The government is introducing a new bill.
My family is from America.
(b) American English prefers have and don’t have to the confusing and often inaccurate British idiom have got and haven’t got.
I have a sister. I have black hair.
How can you say ‘I’ve got a sister’ or ‘I’ve got black hair’? Did you acquire a sister or black hair?
(c) American English uses the object relative pronoun whom more often, or at least teaches it as ideal usage.
This is the man whom I met yesterday.
Although not all people use it in conversation, it is definitely taught as an ideal in all our grammar books. Some of the British textbooks that I’ve seen around here don’t even teach it!
(d) American English is fond of the subjunctive. This will appeal to you French speakers, who still treasure the subjunctive in your own language. Where the British would say, “I demand that she should come”, Americans usually say, “I demand that she come.” Here’s another example: It is necessary that you be here on time. British English prefers ‘that you should be here on time’ or, even worse, ‘that you are here on time.’
In English, the form of the subjunctive in the present tense is the same as that of the infinitive.”
¶ I looked at Blanche especially, since it was she who started this argument about dialects and their merits. She did not seem as hostile as she was at the beginning of the lesson, but she seemed deep in thought. Finally, she raised her hand to bring to my attention another supposed failing of the American dialect.
¶ “But sir, what about ‘shall’ and ‘will’? Isn’t that an example of American English being less conservative?”
¶ I knew that this thorny issue would be raised eventually.
¶ “I agree with you on that, up to a point,” I began cautiously. “But not all dialects of British English in Britain use the modal verb shall as much as they used to, if at all. Textbooks printed in Oxford and Cambridge don’t even teach it anymore. Shall conveys a sense of obligation, and in America, we still use it in questions like, ‘Shall I do that for you?’ ‘Shall we dance?’ It is still used in legal and religious texts throughout the Anglosphere (the English-speaking world), but not much in conversation. Even Irish, Scottish and Australian English hardly use ‘shall’ these days. I must add that even in the 18th and 19th centuries, its usage was poorly defined and poorly understood.
¶ “Now let’s examine the differences in pronunciation. Let’s start with such isolated examples as neither/either, vase, tomato, lieutenant and clerk, whose American pronunciation is easier, more logical, and sometimes more conservative than the British one. I mean, how can it make more sense to pronounce lieutenant as ‘leftenant’ or clerk as ‘clark’—excuse me, as ‘claak’, without the r. And vase is only pronounced vaaz due to French influence.
¶ “What’s wrong with the French pronunciation, sir?” asked Blanche defiantly.
¶ “Nothing is wrong with the French pronunciation in French. It just doesn’t follow the normal English pronunciation rule of a being pronounced ‘ay’ before a single consonant and silent e.’
¶ “Yes,” conceded Blanche humbly. “You’re right on that point, sir.”
¶ “Now, the main difference in the pronunciation of vowels is the pronunciation of a in words like glass, class, pass etc. Until about the middle to the end of the eighteenth century in England, the ‘broad a’ (‘ah’) pronunciation, that the English use today, was considered vulgar. After that period, it started to sound ‘classy’, probably because it sounded more like French and other European languages. But it is, you have to admit, a difficult and inconsistent practice. When should a learner use ‘ah’ (‘broad a’) and when should he (or she) use the a of cat (‘flat a’)? In bass, mass, crass and lass, all English speakers use ‘flat a’, but in class, glass and pass, the English use ‘broad a’ (‘ah’). In gastric, they use ‘flat a’, but in master, they use ‘broad a’. In ample, they use the a in cat, but in example, they use ‘ah’. You also have pairs of words like dance and romance, can’t and cant (slang), plants and pants, which the English pronounce with different vowel sounds, but who can explain why?
¶ The main difference in pronunciation between British and (General) American English is, as I have said before, the rhotic accent. This is a simplification, because Great Britain had, and still has, regions where people speak with a rhotic accent (like the West Country, some of the northern counties, Scotland and most of Ireland), and America has regions, especially on the east coast, where a non-rhotic accent is common. But non-rhoticity started in London in the late 18th century and spread to many parts of England, probably due to the increased mobility caused by the Industrial Revolution and other factors. And the American cities on the east coast that continued trade and business with the Mother Country adopted a non-rhotic accent as well. Again I stress that this is a simplification; if I gave you more details, this lecture would turn into a doctoral dissertation.”
¶ Blanche raised her hand impatiently.
¶ “Sir, what about ‘flapping’?
¶ The other students turned to one another quizzically, wondering what she was talking about.
¶ “Do you mean the t that sounds like a d,” I asked to clarify, “in words like water, better, letter and writer?”
¶ “Yes,” said Blanche nodding. “Doesn’t that sound less conservative? I think that it’s ugly.”
¶ “You’re entitled to your opinion, Blanche,” I replied, wondering if she could ever open her mouth without offending someone. “Yes, in casual conversation, Americans tend to pronounce t between vowels like a d, and this is formally called ‘lenition’, but informally called ‘t-flapping’ or ‘tapping’. In careful, educated speech, it is not used in every single case with every single person, and it varies in degree between regions and individual speakers. The same speaker may ‘flap his t’s’ among friends, but then articulate them more carefully in formal situations or to emphasize words.
¶ “Now, before we move on to spelling, there are minor differences in pronunciation that I must mention:
♦ The o in words like dog and hot is more open and unrounded than in British English. To Britons, this sounds a bit like ‘ah’ or ‘u’, but there is so much variation here, it’s difficult to pin down.
♦ The second-last syllable of the suffixes –ary, -ery and –ory receive secondary stress in American English, but are often ‘swallowed’ in Received Pronunciation, e.g. library, secondary, necessary, laboratory.
¶ Blanche stood up to her full height and smiled.
¶ “I must say, sir, that I am impressed. You have convinced me that American
¶ English is not as vulgar as I once thought. I don’t think I am ready to change accents, but I respect your dialect now.”
¶ “That’s all I ask, Blanche. That’s all I ask.”
¶ “What about spelling, sir?” asked Violette. “American English spelling is so different. Which one should we learn: American or British English spelling?”
¶ “You should know both, but use the one that you prefer. But you must do it consistently: don’t chop and change within the same text. It is wise to use the spelling of the person who will read your work or your letter. And remember, we Americans aren’t dumb: we understand British English spelling too.
¶ “American spelling owes a lot to Noah Webster, who simplified British spelling considerably in three ways:
♦ He preferred the ending –or to –our, e.g. color, honor, favor, harbor, neighbor. But this change had already begun in British English before Webster’s time. Would you believe that the words author, doctor, error, horror and mirror, among others, used to be spelled with –our?
♦ He preferred –er to –re in words like theatre, meter and center.
♦ He preferred –ize to –ise in verbs like realize, organize, specialize.
¶ “Sir, he eliminated the French spellings!” exclaimed Blanche.
¶ “You’re not obligated to like it,” I conceded, “but this is what he did. However, Webster did not just eliminate French spelling, he actually introduced some spelling changes that the French language also introduced, for example, he changed –ce to –se in words like defense and offense. And we credit him with dropping the useless k from the ends of words like music, public and almanac (which used to be spelled musick, publick and almanack). He also simplified the Latin and Greek digraphs ae and oe in words like medieval (mediaeval), pediatrician (paediatrician), archeology (archaeology) and gynecologist (gynaecologist).”
¶ “As is French,” said Blanche.
¶ “Yes, as in French,” I said triumphantly.
¶ “Are there any other simplifications in American spelling?” asked Georges.
¶ “There are a few others, which are isolated cases of simpler spellings. ‘Gaol’ in British English is spelled ‘jail’ in America. In polysyllabic words with the stress on the first syllable, there is no need to double the consonant before a suffix, as in marvelous or traveling, whereas the British spell it marvellous and travelling, with the doubled consonant. In the words judgment and acknowledgment, we drop the e before the suffix.”
¶ “Doesn’t that make the pronunciation ‘jud-ga-ment’ or ‘acknowled-ga-ment’?” asked Georges.
¶ “I have to admit, you’re right on that one,” I admitted. “I can see how this simplification breaks the normal spelling rule of ‘soft g’ before e, i or y. Not all American spelling simplifications are efficient or useful.”
¶ “What about ‘thru’, ‘lite’ and ‘nite’?” asked Blanche.
¶ “Come on, Blanche!” I said with a laugh. “You know that these are mainly for advertisements and public signs. Hardly any educated American takes them seriously these days.”
¶ “Yes, you’re right, sir,” she said smiling.
¶ I stopped and took a breath and sipped some water from my glass.
¶ “This concludes my brief lecture on the history of the American English dialect, as compared with British Standard English. I hope that it clarifies things for you.”
¶ Everyone stood up. Everyone cheered. Everyone applauded.
¶ I bowed and beamed from ear to ear.
¶ George Bernard Shaw said that England and America were two countries divided by a common language. But a language divided against itself cannot stand, as English has stood for so long, and shall stand longer still.
– Emile Joseph
The author teaches the English language to adult migrants and is passionate about all things linguistic. He is also a serious conservative at heart, who treasures the beauty, the poetry and the gallantry of yesteryear. He is happily married with two young children in Sydney.
I owe many of the ideas in this essay (and much more) to Ramy Tadros, publisher, author and friend. – E.J.