The Language of the Special Relationship

“The English language is one of our great sources of inspiration and strength, and no country, or power so fertile and so vivid exists anywhere in the world” – Sir Winston Churchill

Britain and America have traded accents, spellings and vocabulary for 400 years. If the Jamestown settler’s version of English were a brand, it would be a market beater. Their rhotic accents and minimalized spellings have endured. In some places, the similarities are remarkable. Think of the modern West Country accent today and then listen to these men speaking in Tangier Island, Virginia. Virginia, or Devon?

Note the strong emphasis on the letter R in words like cart, bark and tart. This is shared by most American accents and the surviving rhotic accents of England. America may be the New World, but modern Americans speak and spell in old world English. Look at Shakespeare’s original manuscripts. He wrote “Loves Labors Lost”, not “Loves Labours Lost”.

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This did not happen by accident. It was a deliberate effort early English-Americans to preserve their language, much like French speakers in Quebec.

The American brand of English was supercharged by one man, Noah Webster. More than any other individual, Webster fought to copyright American spellings and codify them. His dictionary removed u’s from words like honor and color, reduced doubles to singles in words like traveler and replaced er with re in words like theater. Defence with a c became defense and axe lost an e to become ax. Webster boasted that his dictionary, which is still in use today, contained less than 50 terms which were new to America. Words like greenhorn and Fall were in common use in England in the 15th Century, but were only in use in America by the 19th. The House of Representative even tabled a motion inviting the sons of the English aristocracy to come to America to learn to speak properly. As a result, by 1820 it was Americans who claimed they they had the purest form of English.
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At the same time, English in England changed radically. In the 19th Century, English Public Schools produced a conveyor belt of students speaking a new non-rhotic accent, Received Pronunciation. RP became the ultimate marker of class and aspiring Americans took note. They “imported” the new English accent, just as they had spellings two centuries earlier. This was especially notable in the port cities with close trading ties to England. Listen to this recording of  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

It’s not hard to hear the inflections of the British upper classes. FDR says to’ard rather than toward and wa rather than war. Katherine Hepburn’s accent is even more pronounced. Weather becomes Weathe. Rather became Rathe.

Although non-rhotic pockets can be found in Boston, parts of New York and the South, the so called “Mid-Atlantic” accent is much rarer today. It was ultimately washed over by a mass import of vocabulary, dialogues and mostly rhotic accents which came to America with mass immigration. The new Americans bought language imports of their own. The Scottish word scoone meaning to skim over water became a new type of American ship the schooner. The Irish brought words like tee-total, smithereens, or smidiríní in Irish, yes indeedy and no-siree, changing Webster’s official vocabulary for good.

New settlers linguistic energies produced a whole range of vocabulary that was exported back to Britain. The word riffraff, which many attribute to the British upper class, actually comes from so-called Rednecks. Riffs were used to steers rafts on the Mississippi river. Other phrases such as pass-the-buck, the buck-stops-here, no big deal, put up or shut up, poker face, the chips are down, wildcard and call your bluff, traveled directly from the gambling saloons of the West and to pubs of England. See how it will pan out, strike it lucky and stake a claim, have transported from the Gold Rush to Britain’s betting shops today. Spanish words like Canyon, Rodeo, Ranch came to in England via American cowboys, rather European neighbors in Spain.

American English accents are predominantly rhotic today, as they were 400 years ago. American spellings are also largely as they were. The international market in English vocabulary is  vibrant, thanks to TV and social media. Despite America’s size, the traffic is not all one way. New British words such as bespoke, gormless and metrosexual are appearing in the American lexicon thanks to Harry Potter and other British cultural exports.

Our linguist differences cause amusement, but sharing the same language enables intimate access to each other’s societies. It is the prism through which we interpret a common past, exchange literature and share music. English case law is the common root of both legal systems. English facilitates a flourishing trade in goods and services. As Churchill said “the fraternal association of English-speaking peoples” is pivotal to the success of the Special Relationship. He was right and in the today’s world, where English is the world’s language, it bodes well for future success.