Why the British do not have a sense of humor

17 Mar

Paul Francis

Which came first? American English or British English?

We’ve all been there. The essay is due in two days time. You think you have got everything ready to start writing: all the secondary literature has been read, the first coffee of many is steaming in front of you on the desk, Facebook has been checked for any outstanding messages, the BBC website has been verified for any breaking news from Libya which would undoubtedly demand your full attention as a conscientious and caring citizen of the world. Finally, the blank page is loaded up in front of you, daring you to start writing. One last look at Facebook, and at long last you start creating your umpteenth scholarly masterpiece on a topic which has been already been examined (by academics better and brighter than you) even more times than you have felt that depressing sense of excitement at discovering a vacant post-grad table in the library.

Everything is going swimmingly until you come across the one thing you forgot to do before starting to write. Why is there a squiggly red line beneath ‘defence’? I know I’ve been writing solely in French for the past four years, but surely my English has not deteriorated that much!? Then with a feeling halfway between relief and indignation you realise that the document is still set to “English (U.S.)”. Whether the computer had been assigned American English as its default language or, if you are using a St Andrews library computer, the programme itself had decided to work in the lingua franca of the student population. I, as an Englishman, on such occasions often give an inward sigh of disappointment. Not only does the US now rule the world, but it has also created its own version of English, which, for foreign learners, is fast becoming the official form. After two thousand years of toil, creating a uniform language for Britain out of a mixture of Romance, Germanic and Scandinavian tongues, the Americans have come along and decided to spell ‘defence’ wrongly with an ‘s’. How rude!

Well, sorry to say, but it…er…actually turns out that it is the Brits who are ‘wrong.’ If we go all the way back to the origin of words, such as ‘defence’, like so many belonging to the English lexicon, it has come directly from Latin. Except in Latin, the form of the verb ‘to defend’ from which the modern English noun is derived is its past participle, ‘defensum’. Therefore, in spelling with an ‘s’ the word which denotes the commodity Colonel Gaddafi is currently severely lacking, the Americans are actually being much more faithful to their linguistic roots than the British.

So, we see that the same is the case for many other Latin derivatives, for example:

artifex’ [Lat. – ‘skilful’ (adj.)]/ ‘artifact’ [Am.]/ ‘artefact’ [Eng.],

dependens’ [Lat. – ‘hanging down’ (pres. part.)]/ ‘dependent’ [Am.]/ ‘dependant’ [Eng.],

and ‘fetus’ [Lat. – ‘offspring’ (noun)]/ ‘fetus’ [Am.]/ ‘foetus’ [Eng.]

The reasons for this intriguing type of distinction between American English and British English words derived from Latin lie in the very first origins of the United States. To cut a long story short, during the Renaissance in Europe it became fashionable among English scholars and upper classes to refine their language by modifying certain words to conform to their classical Latin roots. Latin borrowings with the suffix –or of the 16th and 17th centuries subsequently began to retain their original forms, instead of being transformed into –our (an Anglo-French combination deriving from the Old French suffix –ur). It was at this stage in history that British settlers began to colonise the North American continent, taking these lexical phenomena with them. Whereas over the succeeding centuries British English reverted in many cases to former spellings, American English retained these orthographical developments. Hence why American citizens have honor, and not honour, and grow mustaches, not moustaches.

In America too, after the Renaissance, a process of consolidation in certain parts of the lexicon took place. To take one example, as –­or suffixes became more prevalent, in some pre-existing words ending in –our, the suffix morphed into –or. As a result, saviour became savior. However, in this case, saviour had already developed far beyond its Latin roots, such that transforming it into savior gave it a completely new meaning (‘to kiss’), were you to analyse it etymologically. Likewise, due to similar modifications, a scholar versed solely in Latin and ancient Greek would be convinced that a pedophile was a person with a peculiar penchant for feet!

So, the next time you find yourself brooding over having to convince your own computer that you are not someone who considers cheeseburger and fries a healthy meal, don’t be disgruntled, we weren’t right in the first place; and for goodness sake, get on with your essay!


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