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Or whose language is it anyway?

A porter in a British hotel comes upon an American tourist impatiently jabbing at the button for the lift.
"Sir, the lift will be here in a moment."
"Lift? Lift?" replies the American. "Oh, you mean the elevator."
"No sir, here we call it a lift."
"Well, as it was invented in the United States, it’s called an elevator."
"Yes sir, but as the language was invented here, it’s called a lift."

from The Reader’s Digest

Linda Berube, currently a Fulbright scholar in Norwich, addresses the question of who is responsible for the world-wide dominance of the English language: the Americans or the British.

"This treatise is written with such elegance as the subject admits, tho’ not without some mixture of the American dialect, a tract[i.e., trace] of corruption to which every language widely diffused must always be exposed."

Samuel Johnson

Truly, the Yanks have been taking a beating on the language front for some time now. For H.L. Mencken, Samuel Johnson’s observation sums up the "tone [of] English criticism" of the "American dialect" from colonial days right up until the time of Mencken’s own ground-breaking publication, The American Language, in the first half of this century. It should come as no surprise to Mencken that the "tone" has persisted, and will persist in all likelihood into the next century. Indeed, in the course of giving talks on the subject of American English to various British groups, I encounter a range of reaction, from good-natured teasing ("what do you call that language you speak over there?") to downright hostility. On a broader level, American English still warrants the attention of journalists, politicians, and scholars alike in the UK, not always in a kindly or objective way. Often it is regarded as an aberrant version of English. Most Americans would object to this latter classification, at least given the postwar global influence of American culture and vocabulary. Still, the rather vociferously-expressed comment from one audience member at a recent talk - "We gave you a perfectly good language. Why can’t you speak proper English?" - seems not far removed from Johnson’s tone in spirit, however remote in time.

Nevertheless, it has to be admitted, as Mencken and other scholars do, that a certain amount of this hostility Americans called down upon themselves, thanks to statements made by the likes of John Adams and Noah Webster. Adams was just as capable of adopting a superior tone as Johnson:

The English language has been greatly improved in Britain within a century, but its highest perfection, with every other branch of human knowledge, is perhaps reserved for this land of light and freedom. As the people through this extensive country will speak English, their advantages for polishing their language will be great, and vastly superior to what the people of England ever enjoyed.

One cannot help but hear the slap of a gauntlet thrown down here. There was even some talk of an American Academy, along the lines of the Academie Française, charged with the task of preserving the purity of the language..

Then there was Noah Webster, who regarded the form of English spoken in the British Isles as having been corrupted by the English aristocracy. Webster worked with dogged determination to standardise and simplify the spelling of American English. He excised extraneous vowels: colour/color; favour, favor (although he resisted this change for quite a while in the face of Johnson’s example). And he transposed letters, most notably the final -re: theatre/theater; centre/center. Some of his changes remain an integral part of American spelling, where others have failed to survive (croud, hed, giv, meen etc.).

And so the stand-off has continued, and despite the bickering between the two major factions, an international language has been born. And, of course, both sides would lay claim to its current world dominance. Exactly whose language is it, this current lingua franca?

Long before the United States became a superpower, it could lay claim to being a "land of light and freedom," there was the British Empire which set its cultural tone on many parts of the world. Earlier still, the British Isles themselves had been subject to invasion by Vikings and Normans/ But, as soon as the English experienced their first taste of relative freedom from foreign dominance, British English underwent a growth surge, most notably perhaps in the period immediately preceding the colonisation of America,. In some ways, the rapid changes in the language represent the movement toward a more unified English identity. If the Middle English of Chaucer in the late 1300s is compared to Shakespearean English and then again to what begins to be Modern English in the late 1700s, the language is virtually transformed in a matter of only 400 years. Current differences between British and American English pale in comparison: inflection is lost; verb conjugations become more uniform; thousands of new words flood the language, some 2000 alone attributed to Shakespeare. These are only some of the more prominent changes, as on many levels vocabulary, pronunciation, spelling and grammatical structure shift dramatically.

At about the time that England was experiencing this linguistic awakening, the spirit of exploration began to take hold. Of course, this exploration and colonization brought English to the Americas, to the southern hemisphere, to Africa, and to South Asia. In fact, India is exceeded only by the United States and the United Kingdom in numbers of English speakers.

The role that English literature played, both in its contribution to vocabulary and to its contribution to world literature, cannot be overemphasized when considering the importance of the language. The English Renaissance, Shakespeare, and the publication of the King James Bible particularly assisted the expansion and lent prestige to the language. And though the United States can lay claim to a literary tradition of its own, that of the British Isles remains unparalleled.

Yet, even if the birthplace of the language and the importance of cultural and social contributions are considered, its usefulness as a form of international communication depended on the number of English speakers. True enough, the United Kingdom alone has been in the process of producing these numbers. According to David Crystal, "between the end of the reign of Elizabeth I (1588) and the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth II (1952) this figure [of five to seven million living within the British Isles] increased almost fifty-fold." to include emigrants and descendants. This is an impressive increase, but Americans can justifiably point out that the English language was not much used abroad before its introduction in North America. Only by turning their attention outward could the English make their full impression on the world culturally, linguistically, and politically. Perhaps Bill Bryson puts it a bit harshly when he states that "...without America’s contribution English today would enjoy a global importance on a par with Portuguese," (would that make India the UK’s Brazil?) but it seems reasonable that the almost exponential population growth of the United States, along with its own brand of English, coupled with the ever-expanding nationalistic and cultural activities of the English, were what gave the language its current status as a means of international communication.

And what of the English exported to America? It has often been said that the English the colonists spoke was virtually Shakespearean or, more generally, Elizabethan. But, as J. L. Dillard points out, it would be difficult to define what exactly Shakespearean English is, considering Shakespeare’s own variation in spelling and vocabulary. That it is equally difficult to describe Elizabethan English is evidenced by the varieties of regional dialect which were even more firmly entrenched by the 17th century than they are currently. Actually, the English did not give America "a perfectly good language," but rather a number of good languages or at least variations on a language, and those in a period of rather intense transition. Instead of the "two streams" or two separate languages that Mencken originally envisaged British and American English to be, it would be more accurate to consider Modern British English to be one result of that period of linguistic transition, and American English to be another.

In fact English was not immediately dominant in the colonies: other languages, such as Dutch and French, figured prominently. According to Dillard, English was a virtual "interloper" in some regions, and "had to adapt linguistically." At one point during the colonial period, there were 18 different languages spoken in the Hudson River Valley alone. Scholars have frequently suggested that the later waves of immigration to the United States explain the disparity in vocabulary between British and American English. But it is plainly not the whole story. Nevertheless, with other languages along with the Pidgin English common among Native Americans, slaves, and sailors undoubtedly contributed toward making American English as a different branch from, and not a subset of, British English.

Although the United States is not, geographically-speaking, the colonial power that England was, it had some direct role before this century in exporting its own brand of English. Dillard, citing Creole scholars, Berry and Hancock, maintains that, at least with the founding of Liberia by ex-slave repatriation, "it seems inescapable that, in a real sense, a variety of English that was in some sense ‘American’ was transported overseas before the period of British domination had ended." Of course, it is in the current century that American English has made its mark internationally. Marckwardt and Dillard highlight the efforts of such institutions and programs as the Fulbright Commission, the United States Information Agency, and the Peace Corps, as exporters of American culture and English. Technology has virtually assured the dominance of American English on a scientific as well as a popular level. With a 250 million-strong block of first language English speakers, and the rise of the United States as a military, industrial, and political superpower after World War II, Americans can certainly claim a prime responsibility for boosting English to world prominence.

The above is just an outline of how the two countries have ensured the position of English as the international language. There have been challengers to the title, none successful. As many gloom and doomsayers as there are predicting the demise of English as the predominant language in the United States, and with as much resistance to English as there is expressed in individual countries, no change in status seems imminent.

So, "Whose language is it?" appears to be a question of no pertinence. Crystal would give credit to the United States and its influence in the 20th century, "much to the discomfiture of some in Britain who find the loss of historical linguistic preeminence unpalatable." But, the world dominance of the United States rests partially on what the British had achieved in the 19th century. With as many theories as there have been on the divergence of the "two streams of English," it is still virtually impossible to consider them separately or even sequentially. It is true that the use of English predates the European settlement of America, but it has gained impetus concurrently with the rise of the United States to international status, as well as with the rise of the United Kingdom to that same status.


Baugh, Albert C. and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.

Berry, Jack. English loan words and adoptions in Sierra Leone Krio. In Creole Language Studies

Bryson, Bill. Made in America. Martin Secker, 1995.

---. Mother Tongue: The English Language. Penguin, 1990.

Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Dillard, J.L. All-American English. Random House, 1975.

---. A History of American English. Longman, 1992.

---. Toward A Social History of American English. Moulton, 1985.

Kachru, Braj B. The Other Tongue: English across cultures. University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Marckwardt, Albert H., revised by Dillard, J.L. American English. Oxford University Press, 1980

Mencken, Henry Louis. The American Language: An inquiry into the development of English in the United States. Knopf, 1919. Fourth Edition and Two Supplements, with annotations and new material by Raven I. McDavid Jr., 1986.

Pyles, Thomas. The Origins and Development of the English Language. Fourth edition. HB Coll Pubs, 1993.

Speck, W.A. British America, 1607-1763. BAAS, 1985.

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