‘Trousers’ or ‘pants’? ‘Lift’ or ‘elevator’? ‘Colour’ or ‘color’? ‘Theatre’ or ‘theater’? Which lexical item do you use? Which form of spelling do you opt for? Do you teach ‘American’ or ‘British’ English? Or both? How do you decide what to teach? Does it matter?
Well, according to some recent research, it does matter, and if current trends continue, it might matter even more in the future.
The study, called The Fall of the Empire: The Americanization of English, analyzed over 15 million digitized books published between 1800 and 2010, as well as over 30 million tweets, which were geolocated. The research team scanned the data for differences in vocabulary (trousers v pants, or lift v elevator) as well as differences in spelling (theatre v theater).
Some of the results were unsurprising. However, others might raise more than eyebrow, and have implications for English language schools, publishers and English language teachers, as well as learners.
With regards to vocabulary use, there were no surprises in the fact that people in the British Isles and in the USA showed an overwhelming preference for their respective lexicons. Interestingly, however, in Western Europe, where British English vocabulary has traditionally held sway, the increase in the use of American English words has been noticeable. The authors of the study put this down to the influence of US television and film, and the fact that cities such as Madrid, Amsterdam and Frankfurt have become internationalized due to their role as touristic and transportation hubs.
The influence of British influence is more marked in the former British colonies, like New Zealand, South Africa, Australia (where English is spoken as the native language), and India (where English is spoken as a second language). However, the research shows that the trend in these ex-colonies is towards a greater use of American vocabulary. Countries such as Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, which came under the influence of the United States after the Second World War, strongly favor the use of American English vocabulary.
When it comes to spelling there it is no surprise that spelling forms in the British Isles and the ex-colonies ((Australia, New Zealand, etc) follow the British models. What is surprising, however, is that British forms have been much more resilient in Europe than choices of vocabulary. This is due to formal education, where British spelling conventions traditionally held sway, and the fact that people tend to continue to spell words the same way in which they originally learnt them.
When we consider the evolution of British and American English, some interesting trends become apparent. The first is that the divergence between British and American vocabulary and spelling forms have become more pronounced over the last 200 years. The authors pinpoint the beginning of this divergence to 1828 when Noah Webster published An American Dictionary of the English Language, with the expressed aim of standardizing, and simplifying, American vocabulary and forms of spelling. Secondly, the data shows that it is over the last 20 years that American English has really asserted itself. This corresponds to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Cold War, which left the United States as the world’s only superpower. It might be added that the period also corresponds to the start of globalization and the growth of digital media. It can only be assumed that with the expansion of digital media, and its dominance by American corporations, people’s exposure to American vocabulary and spelling conventions will continue to increase exponentially. This is particularly true of those countries which lie within Kachru’s ‘expanding circle’, such as Brazil, where English is spoken as a foreign language.
The graph below shows these trends clearly:
The Americanization of English
On a scale from -1 (thoroughly British) to +1 (thoroughly American)
Guardian Graphic | Source: Gonçalves et al. 2017
The results of this study do not portend the death knell of British English, however. British vocabulary and spelling conventions will continue to stand their ground against the onslaught of Americanisms in those parts of the world described by Kachru as lying in the ´inner circle´, where British English is spoken and written as a native language (i.e Ireland), and in those countries residing in the ´outer circle´, where British English is a second language (i.e India). In addition, there will always be foreign language learners of English who will both desire and/or require British English. For example, I still get students who express a preference for learning British English because they consider it to be somehow more ´elegant´.
Having said that, we cannot ignore the fact that American vocabulary and spelling forms are in the ascendancy, and will very likely continue to be so in the foreseeable future. This fact, therefore, will undoubtedly play an increasingly important role in the decisions publishers, educational institutions, teachers and learners make when deciding which variety of English they should be promoting, teaching or learning.