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!)