A Financial Times piece by Michael Skapinker, “Thank America for saving our language” (if that link takes you to a registration page, paste the title into Google and get to it that way), takes a refreshingly unusual tack on the clichéd subject of UK-US linguistic differences: they don’t amount to much. He says “this year marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most illuminating [discussions of the relationship] – between Albert Marckwardt of Princeton University and Randolph Quirk of University College London”:

They do not dwell on the differences. Their principal point is how similar the two versions are. The grammars are almost identical. One of the few differences is the American “gotten”, but even that turns out to be only half a difference. Americans use it only when they mean “acquired” – “we’ve gotten a new car” – and use the same form as the British when they mean “possess” or “obliged to” – “I’ve got a pen” or “I’ve got to write a letter”. Occasional differences of vocabulary apart, UK and US English are mutually entirely comprehensible – and the two professors remarked on how extraordinary that was.
The first permanent settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, was in 1607, when Shakespeare was still alive. Think how much English has changed. Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice that the quality of mercy “droppeth as the gentle rain”. Both British and Americans altered -eth to -s (“drops”) and spent four centuries making their grammatical and linguistic changes together.
It didn’t have to be that way. The 17th century Dutch settlers in South Africa ended up speaking Afrikaans, a substantially different language.
Noah Webster predicted a similar fate for American English, which would one day be “as different from the future language of England, as the modern Dutch, Danish and Swedish are from the German”.

That didn’t happen, of course, and he concludes: “the US still speaks our language – and we non-American English-speakers should be grateful.” (Thanks, Paul!)


  1. des von bladet says:

    Afrikaans is so different from Dutch that Dutch high school students, when required (which they are) to read Afrikaans literature, get a course of study in the language that consists – in its entirety – of being told “Stop whining and get on with it.”.
    (Afrikaans is of course just a bit better than Dutch, but you can’t get them to admit it.)

  2. At school we read Chaucer and William Dunbar in the original. Do other European schoolboys read stuff in archaic forms of their own language of that sort of age? Dante?
    Are Luther and Cervantes too recent to count? If so, why?

  3. Although Cervantes was a contemporary of Shakespeare his work, while noticeably not modern, can be read with no great difficulty, maybe like Swift or Defoe in English.

  4. Noah Webster predicted a similar fate for American English, which would one day be “as different from the future language of England, as the modern Dutch, Danish and Swedish are from the German”.
    Which, presumably, he thought would have been a good thing – this is the man who deliberately changed US English spelling because he thought it would make the USA more of a proper country or something.

  5. I think it should have been added that this applies to every other English-speaking country (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, etc.), and yes it really is amazing.
    I’ve repeatedly told people: I was extremely lucky in regards to where I was born such that my native language ended up being English (because I want to travel and I would say that English is, by far, the most useful language for a traveler).

  6. marie-lucie says:

    Noah Webster predicted a similar fate for American English, which would one day be “as different from the future language of England, as the modern Dutch, Danish and Swedish are from the German”.
    Two hundred-odd years, especially with constant and improving communication, is hardly enough for varieties of English to develop to that point. But if some catastrophe prevented intercontinental (and even intra-continental) communication for 1000 years, the end result would probably be as Webster predicted.

  7. CONTRA Andrew, I am afraid that there is absolutely nothing amazing about English having remained a single language.
    One of my long-term goals would be to write a comparative study of the post-1492 expansion of various European languages outside Europe. I’ve done some research on the topic already, and one thing that is painfully clear is that the emergence of Afrikaans from seventeenth-century Dutch is a *very* unusual outcome.
    Consider Spanish in the Americas: unlike native English speakers, a majority of native Spanish speakers were illiterate until well into the twentieth century. Furthermore, in the Americas the various Spanish-speaking colonies were geographically far more removed (and hence more isolated from one another) than the thirteen colonies were. Also, the spread of Spanish involved much more language shift than in the thirteen colonies/United States: it is often forgotten that when Mexico, for example, obtained its independence in the early nineteenth century, a majority of Mexican citizens were native speakers of indigenous languages. Finally, the end of European rule did not yield a single Spanish-speaking country in the Americas: rather, various centers formed the nuclei of new nations, each going its own way.
    (Canada is not really an exception to my point above, inasmuch as its anglophone component consisted of loyalists, faithful to the Crown but speaking a variety of English whose roots went back to the Northern tier of the thirteen colonies).
    The fact is that, despite these circumstances which were much more conducive to linguistic diversification, Spanish remains a single language, with little more variation than is found in English. So I find it very difficult to understand why the persistent unity of English is supposed to be a surprise.

  8. Of course the reason the differences are so annoying (leaving aside matters of national pride) is that the two are basically the same language. If they were different languages no one would worry any more.

  9. “The fact is that, despite these circumstances which were much more conducive to linguistic diversification, Spanish remains a single language, with little more variation than is found in English. So I find it very difficult to understand why the persistent unity of English is supposed to be a surprise.”

    New World Portuguese and New World French are … closer to the Dutch vs. Afrikaans situation. Brazilians have real trouble understanding spoken European Portuguese, the French have real trouble with Québéquois, not to mention Haitian Creole; but the other direction works fine, because of exposure to TV and film. It may be a question of relative population sizes and resulting media markets, it’s quite a recent thing that the population of the US is so massively bigger than that of the UK (e.g. in WWII, Britain was about 50 million while the US was about 100 million, current figures are 60 million vs. 300 million)

  10. Have you seen ‘que dificil es il hablar espanol’ yet? Maybe I’ve already sent you the link. But relevant to this topic I think.sorry, can’t seem to figure out how to paste.the link in on my iPad.

  11. Oh, also, the various films that have had to have subtitles in order to reach American audiences such as train spotting sort of puts paid to this argument a bit.

  12. Aidan Kehoe: Brazilian Portuguese is somewhat intermediate between the English and Afrikaans case, but Canadian French certainly isn’t: it differs from Parisian French about as much as American English or Spanish differ from the European standard: that is to say, apart from some phonological differences (some of which involve conservatism in the transplanted languages) and some differences in non-basic vocabulary, the languages remain practically identical. One of the first linguists to work on Afrikaans was indeed quite struck by the contrast between the fate of French in Canada and of Dutch in South Africa.
    You’re quite right that relative demographic weight explains why some varieties are more widely understood than others: but this is of course a separate issue from the actual differences.

  13. @ des von bladet: Dutch high school students, when required … to read Afrikaans literature
    Is there any particular reason that Dutch high-school students are required to read Afrikaans literature? Is it due to some kind of claim that ‘Afrikaans is really Dutch’, or that ‘this literature is part of “global Dutch”‘ or that ‘these people are part of the Dutch diaspora’? Is there a similar requirement to read Flemish literature? Is there such a thing as ‘dialect Dutch literature’ (e.g. Frisian literature) and is it also taught? Just curious. These kinds of things (which somehow slip between the cracks because it’s uncommon to find out what gets taught at schools in other countries) always seem to be closely bound up with judgements on national identity, so I’m just wondering.
    Come to that, what about the Scandinavians? Do they study each other’s literature in schools, or do they fence themselves off at the nation-state level? What about South America, for that matter? Do the Brazilians study Portuguese literature and the Spanish-speaking South Americans study Spanish literature? Do the metropolitan countries study the literature of their former colonies? Do the French study Quebec literature, Belgian literature, or Swiss French literature? All things I’ve suddenly become very curious about.

  14. So given that there seems to be a consensus that Afrikaans is a special case, inquiring minds want to know why.
    My general impression is that Dutch speakers have a high degree of fluency in surrounding “big” languages like English and German (although I’m not sure if this has historically been so). Could it be that one or more of these “big” languages helped serving as “international languages” between Netherlands and South Africa, thereby relieving the necessity of Afrikaans to stay similar to Dutch?
    When I went to school in Denmark, some exposure to Norwegian and Swedish was mandatory. I imagine it still would be. I don’t think it was due to any political agenda. At least, if it was, the agenda wasn’t pushed with said exposure in any apparent way.

  15. @ dainichi
    Well, not an explicit political agenda, but I would suggest that it most certainly indicates certain assumptions about language and culture (e.g., Scandinavian countries form a group and are ‘sister languages’ — excluding Finnish, of course, and it is normal to have access to the others’ literature). The assumptions are not necessarily bad, but they are there, which is why, for instance, there was such a reaction against studying the literature of DWM (dead white males) in the US at one time.
    I’m curious whether there is the same openness to other countries’ literature between Malaysia and Indonesia, for instance. Although the two languages are basically the same, do children in Indonesia study Malaysian literature and vice versa?
    I’ve seen it pointed out at a quote at Ethnic ChinaLit that ‘the three great epics—the Tibetan “King Gesar,” the Mongol’s “Life of Jangger,” and “Manas” of the Kyrgyz—have all become the object of global studies in the genre. But there is not even a basic introduction to these three epics in our histories of Chinese literature’ (from Li Xiaofeng’s piece on The Plight of Native Language Literature among Ethnic Minorities in China). This betrays certain very pronounced biases in Chinese ideas of their core national identity over and above official platitudes. And it seems to me that all countries have particular slants (conscious or unconscious) in what they consider fit to teach their children.

  16. des von bladet says:

    Is there any particular reason that Dutch high-school students are required to read Afrikaans literature?
    Because it’s there and because they can, I guess. (My native informant and wife is not here to answer.)
    There is Frisian literature, but they wouldn’t like it if you called it a dialect of Dutch. In general, non-standard language is not especially well represented in High Culture, but it does exist and is generally neglected.
    The changes in Afrikaans are mostly put down to creolisation – it has lost grammatical gender and the verb system has been aggressively simplified. Dutch was nominally an official language of South Africa until 1925, and not Afrikaans.
    But why its history is so different from Latin American Spanish is not clear, especially to me.

  17. As far as I know, my daughter, who’s 18, hasn’t had any special exposure at school to any Scandinavian literature besides Norwegian, but there’s a lot of that, obviously. She’s reading Hamsun’s Sult at the moment as well as reviewing the film version (doesn’t work, apparently). She’s taken a lot of English at school, and so I think she’s read one or two US authors (Mark Twain, possibly?) as well as the usual 19-21C British suspects. Jane Austen & the Brontes are popular: a) they’re women and b) there are film & tv versions. A little Shakespeare (I think it was Hamlet & Richard III, both of which have good screen versions), but no Chaucer. Still, not bad for a bunch of foreigners.

  18. I wonder if the relative conservatism of New World Spanish and English might be due to the fact that for generations the populations in both areas were constantly being refreshed by non-native speakers, whether immigrants or indigenous peoples, who made an effort to learn the standard? Of course that doesn’t explain why Brazilian Portuguese is so differerent. maybe the English, French and Spanish standards were viewed as prestige languages by the New World literate population whereas Portuguesse and Dutch were not?

  19. Have you seen ‘que dificil es il hablar espanol’ yet?

  20. Etienne: Apart from some vocabulary, the difference I have always found on visiting Montreal is the accent, which to me varies from neutral to totally incomprehensible. This is particularly striking when there are two talking heads on TV, each displaying one of the above. The incomprehensible version is, to me, a language completely different to my Parisian-learned French.

  21. Trond Engen says:

    When I was in school we did read some Swedish and Danish, but not much — a few novellas and poems, I think. But I haven’t paid attention, and my children aren’t quite that age yet, so it may well have changed.
    I want schools to mix the mainland Scandinavian languages indiscriminately in reading and listening — but that is, with Bathrobe, probably a political statement.

  22. Peter Erwin says:

    the various films that have had to have subtitles in order to reach American audiences such as train spotting
    I reallly don’t think Trainspotting had subtitles in its US release; what they did do, if I recall correctly, was to re-record the opening monologue with a weaker version of the accent, to ease viewers in.
    I think the only real case of subtitles for a British movie in the US was the working-class drama Riff-Raff.

  23. I’ve heard The Wire was subtitled going the other way? I’m not sure you can judge the state of the language on the ineligibility of two strong regional working-class accents, though…
    I don’t think Pennsylvania Dutch and standard German are mutually intelligible, but I don’t know if Pennsylvania Dutch was Standard German or a regional dialect to begin with.

  24. Pennsylvania German is fundamentally Pfälzisch with some Alemannic influences, and Pfälzisch is quite remote from Standard German.

  25. Paul: yes, some Québec phonologies are impenetrable initially, but repeated exposure removes this problem. And once the phonology is “out of the way” there is no serious remaining problem. Hence my claim that Canadian French is to (Standard) Parisian French what American English or Spanish are to the European standards: phonology is the main obstacle, especially between varieties speakers have no previous exposure to.
    Vanya: because of the similarity between French, English and Spanish in terms of the differences (of degree as well as of kind) between their American and European varieties I doubt language shift had much of an impact (there was until recently very little language shift to Canadian French). And in the case of Spanish, where language shift had little to do with the school system (to repeat myself, a majority of native spakers of Spanish were illiterate well into the twentieth century), I do not see how (equally illiterate) non-natives could have shifted to a “standard” form of the language.
    Dainichi: actually, while a majority of native Dutch speakers today are bi- or multilingual, this was certainly not true in the seventeenth century, when Afrikaans emerged as a separate language. Indeed it has been claimed that Dutch was more widely known among English speakers than vice-versa at the time (Panta rhei, as the Greeks said…)
    All: the common denominator between Afrikaans, Brazilian Portuguese and the various creoles of the West Indies is to my eyes quite plain: Africans. Unlike native Americans, who were decimated by European diseases, Africans had better immune systems than Europeans. This meant that, whereas a ruling European minority would quickly turn into a majority if the initial majority consisted of indigenous Americans, an African majority was in no danger of being turned into a minority through the spread of European diseases (actually, it was the European minority which was vulnerable to disease).
    As a result, pidginized varieties of European languages could take root overseas wherever large numbers of Africans were found.

  26. S/O, you know one of the main Wire characters is English. I thought his accent was pretty good, but I don’t think everyone did. We certainly never had special subtitles for The Wire, but in Europe all US & British stuff is subtitled into the language of the country where the dvd is being sold and you can turn them on if you think you need them.

  27. (Actors, not characters.)

  28. Trond Engen says:

    My wife has been buying Doctor Who DVDs from amazon.uk, and the children watching them with English subtitles. That way they’ve been both able to follow the dialogue and picking up a lot of English.

  29. Garrigus Carraig says:

    @Etienne – I’m not sure it’s so simple. Much of Latin America’s indigenous population has survived. I would guess that indigenous peoples, or indigenous blood, are a majority in Paraguay, Bolivia, Mexico. Also, the African component of the Caribbean Spanish speaker population is pretty high. And yet the Spanish is still Spanish in both cases.

  30. Haitian French might be evidence for the “African” hypothesis however.

  31. As long as you can’t understand the sound, subtitles are an excellent way to learn to read fast in a foreign language.

  32. As I understand it, in the enjoyable Inspector Montalbano series, the actress playing his annoying girlfriend spoke her lines in English and was dubbed into Italian. In Britain we see her apparently speak Italian and can read what she said in English subtitles. Any offers for a dafter example?

  33. I may have mentioned that I once saw The Forsyte Saga on tv dubbed into Italian. That was quite daft.

  34. marie-lucie says:

    My understanding is that ALL Italian films are dubbed, whether they use Italian actors or foreigners. It is very funny to see Italian actors apparently speaking English, because not only the motions of their mouths but their facial expressions and gestures are still Italian and do not go together with the English they are heard speaking. I can see well imagine that The Forsyte Saga in Italian, with Italian voices and intonations coming out of English actors, would be quite something.

  35. Garrigus Carraig: regarding your second objection (that many parts of the New World with African majorities speak versions of a transplanted European language which differ little from other transplanted varieties), I never claimed that the early presence of large numbers of Africans would *automatically* cause a pidgin to spread and nativize into a creole. Rather, this African presence was a necessary *but not in and of itself sufficient* condition.
    Regarding your first point (that several Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas have a majority of inhabitants who are of indigenous descent): you are correct, but language shift to Spanish was a very gradual (and indeed still ongoing) affair, and originally, in colonial society, Spanish was the first language of whites only.
    The difference, to my mind, is the following: in societies with an African majority, the demographic stability of this African-origin population meant that any pidgin used as an in-group language stood an excellent chance of being transmitted to the next generation as a first language, i.e. of being creolized. For the following generations language shift from African languages had this new creole language as the language being shifted to.
    In societies with a native American majority the demographic frailty of this majority (regularly decimated by disease) prevented any incipient pidgin from becoming the next generation’s L1: hence for the following generations language shift away from indigenous American languages was to Spanish (or whatever the locally dominant European language was).

  36. In the 1960s, I recall, John Wayne movies dubbed into French and Italian were hilarious. I suspect they were the Ur-source for Woody Allen’s “What’s Up, Tiger Lily”.

  37. I can see well imagine that The Forsyte Saga in Italian, with Italian voices and intonations coming out of English actors, would be quite something.
    It was, but I’m not sure why. Is it just because I knew Eric Porter’s dry and clipped portrayal of Soames wasn’t being represented by this basso profondo (if that’s what it was; I can’t remember the details)? It’s hard to know how well performances translate, and I don’t have adequate knowledge of contemporary Italian culture to be able to tell. There’s so much more than the words.

  38. I can’t see any thread this really fits into, but I’m wondering when people feel it’s okay to go all prescriptivist?
    I tend to be prescriptivist, for example, about measures of distance, and find it frustrating/maddening when people use the same word for different units, especially with exact distances. The classic examples being pace, which originally meant two steps, a mile being one thousand paces, but is sometimes used to mean one step, sometimes two steps, and league, which is sometimes used to mean one-and-a-half miles, sometimes three miles.

  39. A thousand double steps is an exact distance?

  40. As opposed to a vague, undefined, or rhetorical distance, yes.

  41. Well, fair enough, but why back one definition of a unit when (a) there are contrasting definitions going back centuries and (b) new modern units have been introduced, partly to avoid this kind of ambiguity?

  42. It had to do with the use of “pace” in translations, especially in contexts where which pace was meant was unclear and wasn’t specified.

  43. David Marjanović says:

    Afrikaans… I forgot where I read this, but there’s evidence that it once was almost a creole, used in a community of mixed origins that contained few native speakers of Dutch – the ancestors of the “Cape Coloreds”, basically. The oldest known Afrikaans document is written in Arabic script – by a Malay of Muslim faith and letters.
    Brazilian Portuguese, I may have read on Wikipedia, had so much language shift from the sizable native population early in its history that it has grammatical features from Tupí and who knows what else.

    Are Luther and Cervantes too recent to count? If so, why?

    Luther is not only quite a bit later than Chaucer in absolute time, he’s also Early New High German; the contrast to Middle High German, which is deemed to have ended around 1350, is quite striking. Moreover, some of the features that distinguish his ENHG from the modern standard language are already familiar to readers from poetry/archaicizing literature or from dialects.
    Finally, Luther single-handedly created a large part of modern standard German. Starting from the language of the bureaucracy at Meißen, he was very careful to choose words and grammatical features that were as widely understood as possible.
    (Part of the reason why Old, Middle and New High German are so easy to distinguish is that they’re separated by gaps in time, during which almost all writing was done in Latin.)

    Pennsylvania German is fundamentally Pfälzisch with some Alemannic influences, and Pfälzisch is quite remote from Standard German.

    Which means it’s actually quite close (I can mostly just read the Pennsylvania “Dutch” Wikipedia), it just hasn’t shifted /p/ to /pf/. The vowel system is weaksauce. :-)

  44. which pace was meant was unclear
    I can only say, with Jane Austen’s Mr. Bennet, “It seems an hopeless business.”

  45. I only though to ask over here because I was wondering if there were any regional or other dialectual patterns in where it refers to one step and where it refers to two.

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