A Common Language: British and American English

February 10, 2014

It is quite an often occurrence for foreigners not to know which variety of English they should use whether they work as teachers or they simply use the language for different reasons (from reading books directly in English to political affairs). To this issue, among others, we are going to find the answer in A Common Language: British and American English.

 This small book (it is only 79 pages long)britishamericanflag brings together written conversations between Professor Randolph Quirk (of University College, London) and Professor Albert H. Marckwardt (of PrincetonUniversity); it is not difficult to notice that the former represents Great Britain and the latter represents the United States. The dialogues were recorded in the first half of the 1960’s as a result of the agreement reached “between the BBC and the Voice of America to produce jointly a radio series on the British and American variants of the language”. What is the purpose of these conversations? We get the answer even before starting to read the first chapter; the two scholars try to give us “a rather wider view of the English language” not by highlighting the differences between the varieties of English spoken on both sides of the Atlantic, but by putting great stress on the fact that American and British English are more similar than one may think. We will notice that in order to show that this idea is true, the spelling that was used was American for Albert Marckwardt and British for Randolph Quirk.

 Starting from this point, it is only normal to assume that the title was chosen as a means of showing the fact that we are not talking about two languages, but of two varieties of the same language. Noah Webster claimed around 1800 that, in time, a new language will be formed in North America, different from the one spoken in England. It is not a mere coincidence that the very first chapter begins with Webster’s words. We are shown from the very beginning that yes, there are differences between the two varieties and overlapping of meaning might cause confusions, but in the end both Americans and Britons speak the same language and understand each other without any difficulty. Native speakers share the same language; they shouldn’t be divided by it.

 There are twelve chapters in the book, all of them short and straight to the point; one can easily find the issue he wants to read about because each title captures the essence of the topic brought into discussion. From the very first page we read about the difficulty encountered by foreign professors when it comes to choosing one of the two varieties to teach. The answer to this problem is surprisingly simple: it doesn’t matter which variety is chosen, because one should “teach the form that you know and that you have the resources to teach” (p 69). Everybody (foreigner or native speaker) should be well-informed about the differences and similarities between American and British English, because ignorance is the source of all the bad opinions formed over the years about the language used in the other area. We are told about differences and common aspects in vocabulary (we speak of differences here because settlers needed new words when they reached the new land or they introduced new meanings to already existing words), pronunciation, stress, word order and also about the areas of identity (and the existence of a common literary tradition).

 It is unrealistic to believe that a language will never change, especially since society evolves and language must be able to reflect the developments that appear in time. Both varieties of English presented in the book have the same starting point: the English spoken in Shakespeare’s time. We know that usually changes start from a centre (London, in this case) and reach the margin (what will become the United States) at a later time, therefore it shouldn’t be a surprise that American English is closer to Shakespeare’s English. Just as it shouldn’t surprise us that, despite being so similar, various differences did appear between American and British English, because of geographical, political and social factors (the same factors that cause regional variations).

 Quirk and Marckwardt speak of the processes of separation and of reunification of the English varieties, of the way English evolved from the seventeen century until the second half of the 20th century and great impact of industrialization, mass-media and written text over the language and its speakers (a far greater number in the 1960’s than in Shakespeare’s time). As for the last chapter, the professors try to foresee the future of the English language, pointing out two very important ideas: the first one is that English will become the most important language of learning (and we can agree that this prediction came true) and the second would be that, for a better communication and comprehension of the language, one shouldn’t see the varieties as British vs American, but as British and America (emphasising again the fact that in the end we are speaking of one and the same language).

 It is a book that can be easily read by anyone who is even remotely interested in learning more about the English language (not only by professors and students, although it might be even more helpful for them than for somebody who picked it up out of plain curiosity, for instance); the language used is very accessible, we are given enough examples to better understand a certain topic (but not too many, therefore we do not risk feeling overwhelmed by too much information) and – most importantly – the conversations are never dull, managing to lure the readers in with little to no difficulty. It is obvious that both Quirk and Marckwardt enjoy sharing their knowledge, but at the same time they enjoy learning from each other and clearing any doubts they might have had until that moment. And this is why we should follow their example and study without prejudices the rich variety that English offers us.

by Elena Atudosiei

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