Ideas | Mark Peters

Trousers and pants — stripping down British and American English

Mandatory Credit: Photo by ANDY RAIN/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (9286748c) The British Union flag and European Union flag outside parliament in London, Britain, 12 December 2017. British Prime Minister Theresa May is set to face another Brexit Bill showdown over a 'meaningful vote' on the final deal, when ministers vote at parliament 13 December. British Prime Minister May faces another Brexit Bill showdown, London, United Kingdom - 12 Dec 2017

Lynne Murphy — an American teaching English and linguistics in England — is immersed in the differences, similarities, and controversies of American and British English, which she explores in her new book “The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English.”

Ideas reached Murphy across the pond, via e-mail. The transcript below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What’s the misconception about American and British English that drives you the craziest?

Both revealing and crazy-making are the times when Brits (and, to be fair, other non-Americans) assume that if a linguistic mistake is prevalent, then it must be Americans’ fault. Probably one of the clearest examples of that in my book is the case of complaints to the BBC about “would of,” which, of course, is a misspelling of “would’ve.” Why have they assumed that’s an Americanism? From the evidence I’ve looked at, British people make this mistake at something like twice the rate that Americans do.


What’s also revealing is how willing Americans are to go along with this idea that the British must be better at the language than we are. This is also tied up with assumptions that education must be better in England — something I remain firmly unconvinced about. A lot of Americans’ assumptions about Britain come from exposure to certain kinds of British people — even fictional characters. They are generally from the top echelons of society. They go to boarding school or live in manor houses or drive Aston Martins. We associate “British” with “upper-class English,” and assume that means “proper.”

You write that Brits fear American English taking over because of the power of the United States. What kinds of specific changes worry Brits? And what about British English influencing American English?

When people say British English is being Americanized they’re almost always talking about vocabulary. Yes, Britain takes on a lot of American vocabulary, but it certainly hasn’t stopped making its own. I mean, if you look at something like phones — Brits talk on mobiles, not cellphones. You’d think that something so technological and modern as that might be bound toward transatlantic standardization, but no. There’s already a word for it, so no need to borrow another. The American words Brits tend to take are the ones that fill a gap — that’s not displacing British vocabulary, but enriching it. And of course, America takes on British vocabulary too — unsurprisingly in lesser amounts, since there are five times more Americans inventing English words than Britons doing so — but it does look like British words are coming into America faster these days because of the unprecedented access Americans have to British voices and products.

Are British and American accents converging or diverging?

British accents and American accents are generally moving in different directions, and there’s no reason for that to change. People express who they are in how they sound, so people from different parts of Britain continue to pronounce things differently from how Americans pronounce them. Spelling gives a nice clear example of us moving apart even today. It’s only really been in the computer age that Brits have rejected verbs ending in -ize, preferring -ise because -ise is unambiguously not-American. If British English were really going to the American dogs, you wouldn’t see things like that happening.

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Is there any relationship between the dropped Rs in Boston and British accents?

There’s some influence, but there’s also been a lot of change since colonial times. An interesting case is Boston and New England more generally because they have taken the “England” part seriously. Some of the things that you hear in the old “Boston Brahmin” or “Harvard” accent sound more like the Received Pronunciation (or upper-class speech) of England — and those are sounds that didn’t come over to America with the Pilgrims, who, if they had had cars, would have parked them, not pahked them. But New England kept its ear a bit more to the pulse of what was going on in England than much of the rest of the US did in the 19th century, and we still hear the echoes of that today.

What should make us proud of American English?

Those who really listen to American voices often comment on average Americans’ abilities to express themselves verbally. You only need to look at the articulateness of the young Floridians engaged in battle with the NRA to see some of that. Americans are known for standing up for what they believe in and saying so.

Mark Peters is the Ideas language writer.