It’s English, yes, but is it Australian or American?

My very first WordPress post was chosen for Freshly Pressed. I was overjoyed! And I couldn’t believe the torrent of email notifications of comments and likes. I had tried to edit my rant about apostrophe use very carefully, to avoid the possibility of criticism, but I did get some comments on my usage.

And so that has prompted me to write this one, on the variations in spelling and usage between Australian and American versions of this thing we call ‘English’. I’m Australian, and our version should really be the same as British English, but we have a lot of Americanisms these days. Now, I’m not a linguist, and I haven’t studied language at university level, or even much at school. What I know about the language and spelling I have learnt mostly from my mother, and from reading a lot as a kid. I am a pedant, but I don’t expect everything to be written like a doctoral thesis or whatnot. I accept poetic licence, informal settings and modern trends (sometimes). But there are so many very simple ways in which people just plain get things wrong! That particular rant was about how many people do not understand the quite simple uses for the apostrophe.

But enough of an intro, let’s get started. Please contribute other examples of variation. Note that I don’t mean to sound critical of American usage, just to point out some differences in the way I write.

1. Gotten. I wrote something like: “I don’t think he would have got the joke”, and was told that it should be ‘gotten the joke’. Well, I have looked this up in my old English English dictionary and the word doesn’t appear at all. In my newer dictionary of ‘Contemporary English’ it lists got as ‘Past t. and p. of GET’ and gotten as ‘AmE past p. of GET…gotten is more common than got as the past participle of get…’

So there you have it. In Britain and Australia, correct usage is just got. In America, you can go and gotten all you like.  😉

2. Fit as past tense. This really irks me! So many times in American movies I have heard lines such as: “It fit well”, “He fit in”, etc. In British/Australian usage the word fitted is appropriate as past tense and past participle. We talk about how well clothes fit us currently, or fitted us at some point in the past, or how much somebody fitted right in to a place. But I’m baffled as to the reason why Americans use gotten but not fitted, and Brits and Aussies will use got but not fit (as past t.). Ahh, gotta love this language! (And yes, I do accept ‘gotta’ as a modern abbreviation/contraction thingammy.)

3. The O and/or U issue. Was it Mr Webster who rejigged the stuffy old-country tongue and created a new version for the New World? I think I’ve heard that it was him who removed the letter U from words like favour, colour, honour, etc. Yes, it does make them look more like they sound, but did he get lazy and not bother doing the same with eight, Wednesday, tongue, haemorrhage, phlegm and all those pesky words that end with –tion or –ough? Shorly it shood hav becum opshun, locamoshun, Pasific Oshun, ruffshod, thurruh, Arkensor. . . And if you’re going to do that, then why keep both C and K? Surely one becomes redundant. Perhaps it had more to do with giving the finger to Old Blighty than anything else, really.

4. Aluminium vs Aluminum. I’m sorry, I don’t get it. I’m no science buff, but how can you just delete a whole syllable? It may be only one letter different, but the pronunciation changes dramatically. I’ve just had a read on the Wikipedia article under ‘Etymology’. So it’s about what one boffin thought sounded better than another boffin. Then lexicographers made their decisions, and we’re left with two spellings. Pfft.

5. Mum vs Mom. Don’t get this one either. To Aussie ears, when Americans address their mother, it does often sound like ‘mom’ with the accent, so perhaps that’s why the spelling is different. But as far as I can figure, an American reading the word ‘mum’ wouldn’t sound too different. Hm. The way I hear it is that they’re the same word, with a difference in sound only due to accent.

6. Hello / Hallo / Hullo. Huh? I’m interested to know people’s opinions on why the English-speaking world needs at least three spellings these days, when there isn’t so much hollering or view-hallooing happening to require different versions. I suppose they could provide variation in one’s writing, give characters different accents and personalities, perhaps..?

7. Mee-gan / Meh-gun. Thus far, I have come to believe that Americans all pronouce the names Megan, Meghan, Meagan or any other variants as Meh-gun. Short, quick e, as in met, and a disappearing second syllable. In Australia the name is almost exclusively pronounced as in Mee-gan. Long e, as in me, and the second syllable not quite so clipped. No idea why.

8. Double letters. Underneath my name are the words ‘writer, traveller, musician’. In British and Aussie English we often double the letter before a vowel suffix. Traveller/travelling, unravelling,  etc. Focussed/focussing is another one that gets me. I believe it should have the double s but even in Australian writing I most commonly see it as a single letter. To me that would be pronounced ‘foc-yused’. We don’t write swiming or joging – although we do write sewing. Hm. Is it to do with the length of the vowel sound..? Or just one of those many anomalies of our crazy, wonderfully adaptable language?

9. -ice vs -ise. I think this is one of those simplification issues. Americans write practise and license. Australian and British English use the -ice suffix for the noun, and -ise for the verb. So we practise our driving in preparation for gaining the piece of paper called a Driver’s Licence. A handy way to remember that is to remember that ‘ice’ is a noun, so that suffix is used for the noun.

10. -tre vs -ter. Australians and Brits write centre, theatre and kilometre. Americans write -ter. Why? To be simpler and less like the French..?

11. -ise vs -ize. This has long puzzled me, and I have always assumed that -ize was the American suffix for words like realize, capitalize, criticize, familiarize etc. And indeed, my trusty old British dictionary (that I have dubbed ‘The Oracle’) only lists the -ise suffix for each word. My modern dictionary lists -ize first, as if this is the British spelling, with -ise given as a variant. Aha! A little search on Wiktionary leads me to a link to the Online Etymology Dictionary about it. Apparently -ize is the correct Greek spelling, but the Brits took up the French spelling from the late 16th Century. Now -ise remains dominant, perhaps due to the difficulty of remembering the few words not from Greek which must have the s. And according to that website, the -ise suffix is listed as the ‘British English spelling’ for other similar words.

Do people care about -ise or -ize, or just use whichever is thought of first? Do people feel that one is more correct? After reading the etymology, I feel that perhaps we should learn which – according to Greek – should be -ise and which -ize. But I also feel a pull towards -ise alone as that feels like more ‘correct’ British usage, which I prefer.
I’d love to receive some feedback on these, or any other differences people know of. If I think of more I’ll add them in. And if you do feel inclined to comment, I ask that you read any other comments first to avoid doubling up.

~ LQ ~

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12 thoughts on “It’s English, yes, but is it Australian or American?

  1. sagescenery says:

    I simply love, love, love that you know and care about all this!! As a teacher…sometimes my ears hurt when I listen to what some people do to the English language…and my eyes hurt to see how they write it!! Your posts are so soothing to me!! Well done…post on!!!

  2. edelweiss says:

    Great thought on the changing language!
    As English is not my mother tongue, what we know is whatever that was taught at school and the trends imbibed from the media. I am from India, and I was taught British English at school.
    More than once, at school, I had my “realize” corrected to “realise”, and I am not too free to accept “color” in place of “colour”. The “ice/ize” issue is not so prevalent here, all seem to follow British standards.
    The spoken word is also changing, as 10 years ago people used to say “she-dyool” for what now is “ske-dyool”. And that’s rather a mix of the original British and American styles, I think.
    But that’s the beauty of English. It is so open to change. And according to me, that’s the reason it keeps growing like no other language has done over the years.

  3. I am from Philippines. We are using American English but are also taught that British English is equally acceptable and some Filipinos are actually speaking and writing in British English. For us, what matters is consistency.
    What interests us more is the difference between the two versions in terms of pronunciation. In fact, we have here the old joke about British doctor asking his American patient, “Are you brought here today?”. It is said that the patient was offended because what he actually heard is, “Are you brought here to die?. Hahahaha.

  4. Love this post!! It highlights so many things that bug me about the way we all write! I studied English Language at university and learnt about all these differences between the different varieties of English. What bugs me is that i have to constantly reset my MS Word spellcheck to British English because it keeps reverting back to US English, surely it should have got the message by now! I don’t like being told my English is wrong when actually it’s correct!

  5. poetgirl59 says:

    Love the discussion on language.
    I use “fit” and “got” in the past tense, prefer to use “U” as that’s how I was taught. Was also taught that a double consonant after a vowel, keeps the vowel short. As if there were rules in English. Coming, for example.
    Prefer -ize, just looks correct. And I am not even Greek.
    Like “theatre” and “centre”, but then I am Canadian and we have strong connections to the French.
    And as a fellow English teacher remarked (He is also in love with the English language), “We don’t speak like Shakespeare or Chaucer. Language evolves over time. Albeit slowly and whimsically.”
    And Canadians do spell, just like Americans, Brits, and Aussies.

    • Thanks poetgirl. It would seem that Canadian English uses elements of both American and British English – not surprising I suppose.

      “Language evolves over time…” Indeed it does. And no doubt, all throughout history those people who have loved and learned their language have mourned its apparent demise!

  6. Laura says:

    Loved this post. As someone in the U.S., I find it fascinating how English varies around the world, but mostly how U.S. English is different from the language in other countries. To American ears, “mum” and “mom” are quite different; in general, “mum” means to keep quiet or an shortened form of a fall flower. We’d never pronounce it like “mom.”

  7. Thanks bambusa. I agree with your comment on spell-checkers. It drives me mad that they don’t stay put when you change them. Even if you haven’t left the program! I end up adding words to the dictionary or just trying to ignore the red lines.

  8. I’m Australian too. Love your reasoning in No. 10 – “To be less…like the French” – seems quite plausible.

    One thing that causes even more confusion and annoyance is the fact that almost every software program uses American English as the default dictionary and, if you really want the spell-checker to work correctly in Australia (or Britain for that matter), you have to change the language settings. Even if you thought you had locked in Australian English as the default for all documents, it occasionally doesn’t “stick” and you have to repeat the process. It’s no wonder no one knows how to spell any more!

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