How do you pronounce “aluminium” or “herb”? You probably already know why theatre, colour and harmonise all have alternative American English spellings, but how are the languages of the UK and USA so close, yet so different? If you speak English in the USA, your pronunciation and spelling is probably very different to English speakers in England, but why is that, and most importantly – who’s right?!
In the 16th and 17th centuries, British colonisation of the Americas brought the English language to what would eventually become the United States. English was spoken as a second language everywhere around the world during the height of the British Empire, but in the Americas, it became by far the most adopted first language.
The near constant movement of people between England and the so called New World meant that English was maintained for the most part. But English was changing in subtle ways in its native land – and some of these changes weren’t exported.
Hotel, Hospital and Hello
In modern times, both BrE (British English) and AmE (American English) place a hard “h” at the start of some words – like hand, hindrance and hero – and drop it from others; like hour, honour and honesty. Both AmE and BrE agree on pretty much everything that begins with h – except for that most infamous word, herb.
In American English, it’s pronounced ‘erb. This is an example of a subtle cultural change that didn’t cross to America.
Since the Norman invasion of 1066, French words had been absorbed into the English language as permanent mainstays. Beef and pork are directly taken from the French words boeuf and porc, long favoured over the English words cow and pig to describe meat. Herb was a French loanword too – pronounced in France as ‘erb. This was still the case when BrE and AmE branched off, and both pronounced it ‘erb.
By the 19th century, traditional Latin pronunciations became a reserve of the upper classes, which saw proclaimed the hard “h” sound as proper and refined, in an attempt to distance themselves from peasantry – only commoners would say ‘ello. Only the riff raff would say ‘erb.
This would eventually permeate into society as a whole (for the most part, as several regional accents still drop the h), and herb would forever be known in England with a hard “h” – while Americans never took the style on.
Why other French-derived words, like hospital, all have hard “h” sounds in front is a mystery lost to linguistic evolution – but if you’re looking for the correct way to pronounce herb, the argument for ‘erb is strongest, as it most closely matches its origin word. Not that it matters though – we’ll come back to correctness and properness at the conclusion to find out why.
Brits Hate it when Americans say Aluminum
This word, for some reason, ignites the tempers of British people when they hear American people say it. Aluminium, with the extra i, is the BrE spelling, defended over decades as being “correct”.
But the man who discovered and named the element couldn’t decide himself what “correct” was. Sir Humphry Davy, who discovered the element in 1807, first named the metal alumium, which was quickly changed to aluminum. He finally settled on aluminium – some five years later. Aluminium was favoured by academics for it’s classical sounding name, that fit with other elements like sodium and potassium – but the huge gap from discovery and initial naming to the final form of aluminium was significant enough to allow aluminum to prevail in American English.
So there you have it – aluminum was actually the original name for the element, which was renamed after pressure from British academics – but that message never made it to America.
400 years of linguistic evolution and development later, both languages aren’t just mutually intelligible – they’re on the borderline of converging. This is a partial consequence of printing, telecommunications, film and the era of the internet. The USA is the largest producer of English language media, and Britain has been deeply exposed to American culture since the Golden Age of Hollywood first landed in Britain.
The media dominance of AmE means that it’s slowly displacing British English – but BrE lags some 30 years behind, which shows quite clearly that while there’s some natural (perhaps generational) resistance, English is now by far an American-controlled language – at the very least culturally.
So… Who’s Right?
The real answer is – nobody’s wrong. Language is as much art as it is tradition. It changes so much, in such short spaces of time, that nobody’s wrong for long. But we Brits love being right about “our own language” (which is actually a mashup of Frisian languages from Anglo-Saxon settlers that displaced the native Celtic languages, and Norman French). We’d like to think that our English skills are superior to the exported versions.
But if you’re a hardcore British English pedant then sadly, you’ll be disappointed to know that Americans actually have a slight edge over the British when it comes to the English language. That is to say, with the exception of the deliberate political separation of the languages with Webster’s Dictionary, AmE has remained closest to what was originally exported.
Well – we suppose you could say in that case that British English is simply the more evolved – but that’s an argument for another day!
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