British English, American English, and Wordle
On Wednesday, I was bored at work and decided to have a go at everyone’s new favourite word game. I do pretty well at Wordle- I do all the clever strategies, maximising common letters with words like “arise” or “slate,” trying unusual configurations, et cetera. Being as I was at my finance job a couple blocks from Times Square, I was also thinking about the recent news that the game had been sold to the New York Times. It occurred to me to wonder: whose spelling conventions would this British game, owned by an American paper, use?
Lo and behold, my first guess hit (see above): evidently Wordle is all-American now. The choice of “humor” over “humour” caused a furore (not a furor) in Britain. Britons lamented that Americans were, yet again, ruining their language. It would shock them, and no less their cousins across the Pond, to learn that the truer, less adulterated form of English is the one Americans speak.
In 1776, people in America and Great Britain probably sounded roughly like modern Americans. Thanks to its long history, the language was highly variegated in England, while in America the intermingling of people from across the British Isles produced a more homogeneous register. But almost everyone would, for example, have pronounced the letter R at the end of words.
That began to change early in the 19th Century, when a trendy new accent caught on in London. Soon residents of the capital and aristocrats throughout the country were dropping Rs and morphing vowels in a way that would sound familiar to us today.
The new British accent spread quickly throughout the Empire, thanks to globalisation, new schools, and, later on and far more potent, the radio. It even got a foothold in the United States: the non-rhotic accents of East Coast cities like Boston and New York are half-British.
In the South, where the élite split their time between Charleston or Savannah and rural plantations, it spread throughout the region; thanks to the northward migration of black Americans in the next century, it is now present throughout the US. The planters self-consciously imitated their British peers. If the American Civil War had gone differently, Confederate Standard English would probably be closer to the British accent than the Yankee one.
But in the end, North America, including loyal Canada, proved a hard nut to crack. The distinctiveness of American English is due in no small part to the efforts of one man. Noah Webster learned his ABCs under the watchful eye of a portrait of George III, but his seminal achievement was the first dictionary of American English.
In 1828, Webster’s Dictionary standardised the American versions of words like “humor,” “analyze,” “theater,” and “defense.” He did not invent these spellings, but thanks to his arbitrary choices, they became American, and their alternative forms British. Again, the only innovators were the British: spellings like manouevre, programme, and cheque are products of Victorian Francophilia. More recently, Brits have also adopted Continental European conventions for punctuation, for example closing quotations before a period; some departments of the University of Oxford do not even use the Oxford comma.
For obvious reasons, it is easier to track the development of written language than the language itself. But it does seem that it took a very long time for Americans and Britons to find it obvious who was who. I recently read Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and one scene suggests that the only way English society people can tell a visitor is from Chicago and not London is when he uses American slang.
Right up until World War II, Ivy League universities taught students to speak in a “Mid-Atlantic accent.” Today one only hears it among some old New Englanders, but it is immortalised in New York aristocrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s declaration, “The ohnly thing we have to feah is feah(r) itself.”
Television was paradoxically the nail in the coffin of regional accents, as well as the wedge that decisively split apart American and British English. By the 1960s, polished London “BBC English,” also known as Received Pronunciation, was a daily presence in every British household.
America went through a similar process, but the triumphant accent was a more surprising choice: keen to appeal to a broad spectrum of Americans outside the great cities of the Northeast, broadcasters favoured a neutral Midwestern accent. Regional accents are still very much alive, but the vast majority of Americans now speak like Iowans.
In a world of instant communication, even people who have never crossed the Atlantic are aware of some words that are different in America and Britain. Americans may live in apartments instead of flats and fill their cars with gas instead of petrol, and Brits may eat crisps instead of chips and go on holiday instead of vacation, but aside from bickering about what football is this rarely hinders communication. It is also highly unlikely that English in America and Britain and indeed any other country will diverge much further.
So, who does speak proper English? Whose spellings should we be using in popular online word games? This is a tricky question, and one with no right answer. The most traditional English accent is not even in England. Scots never dropped their Rs, and indeed never even went through the Great Vowel Shift that reshaped English from roughly 1400 to 1700. If you want to go really far back, Dutch, and particularly the minority Frisian language, is arguably closer to Old English than our language is.
But few of us want to play Wordle in Dutch. Whether you are puzzling out five-letter words or listening to pop music (my roommate’s brother is a rapper in Bangalore, and even his peers there tend to affect American accents), present-day clout is more important than any sort of propriety. Just try to make sure your first guess has three different vowels.