American vs British English

As I’ve indicated, I love the English language in all its varieties — well, maybe not all, but it is a very rich and versatile language.

Now and then, popular magazines run these trivial articles comparing our American English with the language used in our ancestral isles and whenever a discussion between two people, each on the other side of the ‘Pond’ are interviewed, it seems each person wants to put distance between our competing varieties of English. In an article I just read there was a lot of that sentiment; often our English cousins assert that our American dialect, as Dr. Johnson called it, has little resemblance to theirs. Then the American author of another piece which focused on American history, denied that we had much in common linguistically with our British cousins.

It is certainly true that the differences between the dialects within the Anglosphere are diminishing. It seems evident that the differences are shrinking, in part because of the media especially American TV and movies. Also a factor is the widespread travel between our country and the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and of course Canada, which has led to more familiarity with one anothers’ idioms and slang. There is far less need for ‘British-American’ dictionaries’ and the like for the sake of those travelers who for some reason find British English hard to understand.

I do notice that a lot of younger Americans, especially, adopt some of the English or British vocabulary just because it has a certain cachet for them, though sometimes they use those words incorrectly. One example of that is the term ‘smarmy’ which has been around for some decades, but the Americans who brought it over here in the 1980s or so (long ago!) used it to mean sleazy or disreputable, when it originally meant unctuous and ingratiating; having an oily, insincere manner. A perfectly useful word, for which we have few one-word synonyms, while we already have plenty of synonyms for ‘sleazy, slimy,’ etc.

Our Americanized English is not something we should feel ashamed of, as some Americans do. It’s true that there are people who speak our language badly, and there are those who speak their native language less than perfectly and less than euphoniously. It’s true that there are some linguistic snobs out there, wherever you go, but that’s life in the big city.

In my studies, though, when looking at the many kinds of English dialects and expressions, the varied American dialects have brought bits and pieces of dialects from old England; they are heard in many of the Southern dialects as well as New England. I can’t speak to the Midwestern or other dialects, but certainly a lot of the peculiarities one hears in the older American dialects are traceable to England, and in some cases also to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

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