You Say Tomato…

Talking about the differences between European English and American English is always fun. (Especially when you’ve got someone speaking the Other Kind right in the house with you. I’ve become an expert in Irish English, which is ever-so-slightly different from Her Majesty’s English. For one thing, they apparently don’t care much about—and thus don’t ever say—clotted cream. How can this be? One trip to England, friends, and clotted cream will be a part of your vocabulary too. As in: when I die, I’d like to be buried in clotted cream. But … I digress.)

They call it a boot, we call it a trunk. What we call a flea market, they call a boot sale. Cookies are biscuits over there. Gas, petrol. Cell, mobile. More interesting, I think, are the spelling differences. Curb … kerb. Color … colour. Aluminum … aluminium. Itemize … itemise. Ever wonder about that?

Well, I did. (And, btw, this is a very simplified version of it.)

Standard American usage dates, really, to the colonization of this continent, primarily by the English, in the 1600s. They brought their culture, language, laws, and so forth—language, of course, being the operative word. Now, the language they all spoke back then was not what either the English or we Yanks speak now. I’ve seen it referred to as “old English,” which is actually incorrect but feels right, and “modern English” (the language of Shakespeare), which is technically correct according to historians but doesn’t really satisfyingly account for the subsequent 400+ years.

At that point, then—colonization of North America—the language split into two branches, which were on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The English colonists were isolated from England, though, and so their language, their manner of speaking and writing, took little part in the changes going on in European English. American English is, in fact, more closely related to “modern English” than European English is, due to its slower development here (mutation? do they use that word in linguistics?). The colonists clung to the language of their home country, even as that language was growing and changing due to other influences across the pond.

So that move from “z” to “s” … what’s up with that? Well, it was one of those changes that never made it here. A friend (whose mother was a linguist) says that originally itemize was spelled just like that. But the English decided they wanted to emulate their counterparts on the continent (all things Continental European being very much in vogue at that time), and because the French (with whom they had very close connections) spelled all ise/ize words with an “s,” the English duly copied them and, over time, modified their own behavior.

So there. And I’m not even going to discuss slang.

UPDATE: There’s more on this subject here.

Tweet: English English and American English—oh, good times. 

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  1. Very interesting! Though I still don’t know what clotted cream is. Just read about it in a book last night and had the thought…one of these days I’m going to have to look that up. :) But it sounds positively disgusting.

    You should totally do a post on Irish slang. Of the rated G variety… ; )

    • jamiechavez says:

      Clotted cream is like…really thick, spreadable whipped cream. You’ve outed me: next week’s post is on slang. :)

  2. Evelyn says:

    We have a mutual friend in London who goes on about delicious pasties (never failing to get a chuckle out of this Yank). And then there’s gaol instead of jail … lorry/truck (not to mention *articulated* lorry/semi) … flyover/overpass … trainers/sneakers…. After several trips across the pond and many friends from the UK through the years, these differences (usually) don’t befuddle me, anymore — and I never fail to appreciate and enjoy them. Thanks for a “brilliant” blog entry. :-)

    • jamiechavez says:

      Thank you! The vernacular is even more fun. Where I might say, “Let’s do it, just for grins,” Gerry says, “…just for pig iron.” If I were to put something “on the back burner,” Gerry puts it “on the long finger.” :)