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The Origins of American English

As is well known, there are many differences between British and American English, especially when it comes to spelling. However, few people know why this is the case. Did these differences happen gradually, as part of a natural process due to both varieties being separated? Or are they due to a deliberate change?

The American Revolution was of paramount importance when it came to determining the English spoken by the new nation. The rebels wanted independence from the British in all respects, not just political. At first, they even considered adopting a totally different language from English; some patriots proposed German, French, and even Hebrew. However, they concluded that this initiative would be virtually impossible to implement, and decided that English should be the de facto language of the United States of America, although they still felt that this classical language was not a good vehicle to convey their revolutionary ideas.

So it was that Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the nation, coined new words, such as the verb “belittle.” He also approved the terms to be used on the new currency, “dollar” and “cent.” Benjamin Franklin, for his part, published an article in 1768 entitled “A Scheme for a New Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling.” In it, he included words such as honor (honour) theater (theatre), plow (plough), and curb (kerb), thus giving rise to new spellings.

Among the major contributions to American English was without a doubt the work of Noah Webster, who, while working as a teacher, wrote three important volumes that made up the book A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. One of these volumes was American Speller, which intended to achieve uniformity and accuracy of pronunciation in schools. In 1806, Webster published his first dictionary and later, in 1828, his American Dictionary of the English Language. His influence on American English was enormous: not only did he introduce the spellings of “fiber” (fibre) and “color” (colour), but also eradicated the English pronunciation of the word “forehead” (in which the h is often silent), suggesting instead its current pronunciation. His work can also be attributed to the adoption of a distinctive rhythm, different from that of the British, in which each syllable is given practically equal importance, resulting in the characteristic pronunciation of words such as “secretary” or “waistcoat.”

Undoubtedly, the United States has achieved its goal regarding its language identity, as its variety of English is distinctive and recognizable throughout the world.