John McIntyre

Our common language, up to a point

In U.S. English, we use the verb ending –ize, and British English uses -ise. Noted. Nothing could be simpler to understand.

But, Lynne Murphy points out, the –ize suffix was original in British and American spelling, and survives in both. In the nineteenth century, Noah Webster favored the -ize suffix while the British shifted to a preference for –ise, perhaps from borrowing a number of French words with that spelling. The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary listed –ize spellings first to mark the Greek root, but in the 1990s the Times of London and Cambridge University Press shifted to the –ise preference. Now opinion is widespread in Britain that the –ize spellings are American, and deploring them is "a badge of honour, declaring to all and sundry I AM NOT AMERICAN."


There, in one example, you can see what makes Ms. Murphy's The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English (Penguin, $17) such a delightful and useful book, going beyond the mere variations in the two dialects to explain historical development of the language, the linguistic underpinnings, and the social dimension, all explained conversationally.

We knew that the U.S. cookie is the British biscuit, the U.S. elevator the British lift, but Ms. Murphy, an American linguist long resident in England, has both personal experience and academic qualifications to explore the subtle and complicated relationship between these two Englishes.


You may already be acquainted with her blog, Separated by a Common Language, in which she has explored these differences and from which she has derived material for the book. You may also have heard that she is to be the keynote speaker next month at the national conference of ACES the Society for Editing in Chicago. She is worth hearing.

The "I AM NOT AMERICAN" attitude rises from what she calls the "British Verbal Superiority Complex," which plays into the "American Verbal Inferiority Complex." But the historic poles have been reversed over the past century, leaving the British sensitive and defensive over their reduction of global power and U.S. ascendancy, while American swooning over Received Pronunciation is increasingly limited to PBS viewers.

The deeper divide, she suggests, lies in social divisions. For example, in Britain, the middle class is derided by the aristocracy and the working class, while in the United States most people see themselves as middle class, aspiring to success. In Britain, "good English" equates with existing social class, while in the United States "good English" is aspirational, in keeping with our striving for upward mobility.

In Britain, English is associated with literature. In the United States, it is associated with practical communication, "the belief that one can be schooled into articulacy"—thus the proliferation of freshman composition courses in U.S. universities and the reverence paid to Strunk and White.

In her exploration of the particulars, you will find many tasty nuggets: that fall and autumn were common in Britain, but autumn, the more poetic, prevailed in Britain while fall, as in fall of the leaf, prevailed in the United States with its more spectacular autumn foliage. In Britain the verb reckon is commonplace and neutral, but it the United States, where people generally say "I figure" rather than "I reckon," reckon has been stigmatized by its association with the Appalachian dialect.

Ms. Murphy also tells you the things that a linguist needs for you to know, for one, that language is not logical. "If you show that a grammar stickler's premise is incorrect or if you offer an exception to their 'logical' rule, you cannot expect to be thanked for that favour." The mistaken belief that English should be logical she pins on Bishop Lowth, a major source for the belief that double negatives make positives. Lindley Murray she holds accountable for the bogus rules against singular they.

"What grammar we learn in schools," she warns, "is oversimplified to the point of self-contradiction."

Rather than fret over England's imagined superiority and America's imagined inferiority, or repine over divergent developments in English over the past couple of centuries, Lynne Murphy would have us understand how rich and sturdy English is, that we may come to understand and delight in the richness of our differences.


This book is a romp. Go buy it.