One language, two grammar? – Differences between British and American English by Gunter Rohdenburg and Julia Schluter. Cambridge University Press 2009. ISBN 9780521872195 hardback. GBP60.00 USD120.00.
Despite being a year dominated by talk of retrograde global economics, 2009 has already proved an exciting one for science and knowledge. Our understanding of the universe and the stuff of matter are set to change thanks to the launch this year of the Planck and Herschel satellites. By year's end we should see data-taking from the first collisions expected soon at the LHC at CERN.
It is four centuries since Galileo Galilei turned his telescope towards the heavens. Today the quest for deeper understanding of the universe continues. The thrill of research is in discovery. It is fuelled by our desire to know what else exists in the world -- what is still to be discovered, what rich veins remain untapped?
It is also 400 years since James Towne was settled in 1607, a perhaps small event that marked the birth of American English. The status quo still holds that American and British are one and the same language, English, and should be treated so.
This consensus view, however, deliberately chooses to ignore the plentiful evidence to the contrary. Like the Vatican's stance centuries earlier, you can only argue that the world is flat and that the Sun revolves around the Earth for so long, before you begin to look foolish.
Anyone who has worked as a journalist, translator or sub editor/copy editor for both a US and a British media organisation knows the reality that there very much exists two varieties of English.
Just as year 2009 is on course to re-write the Standard Model of physics thanks to the LHC and other endeavours, it could well be that One language, two grammars? is the spark that ignites new avenues of English research.
Make no mistake: this is an important book. It prises open the door to a legitimate field of study that is both rich and largely uncharted. This "new frontier", for want of an early Americanism, is, in fact, not new, but an area that has been quietly ignored for far too long.
Two standard varieties
American and British English differ greatly, and at almost every level: vocabulary, punctuation, pronunciation, spelling and grammar. It is grammar that this latest volume in the English Studies series by Cambridge University Press focuses its attention.
Prior to the publication of One language, two grammars?, the two best books that take seriously the grammatical contrasts between American English (AE) and British English (BE) are British and American English (1972; long out-of-print) by Peter Strevens and the recent British or American English? (2006) by John Algeo. The work by Strevens remains the only book-length treatment of the differences between the grammars of AE and BE. The text by Algeo, also part of the same English Studies series, is predominantly an expanded alphabetical list of competing lexical and phraseological terms grouped by grammatical subcategories.
From the start, One language, two grammars? exposes several keenly held generalisations and long held falsehoods about standard American English and its relationship with British English. More importantly the book backs up its claims by presenting reams of new statistical findings that put paid -- once and for all? -- the simplistic view that the two streams of English should be treated as though they were one and the same.
This full-length text is both in-depth and at the same time broad in scope -- a brave and remarkable feat that renders this 450-page volume a goldmine worth its weight in gold. It will without a doubt be profusely cited and serve as a springboard for much research for decades to come. These two claims are justified on the basis that its concluding chapter presents no fewer than 46 areas in five categories of grammar that are in need of further research on grammatical contrasts between AE--BE.
The problem of colonial lag
The first chapter dives head first into the long held notion of colonial lag versus colonial innovation, and makes no apologies for laying it bare as being too over simplistic in describing the equally fraught relationships between AE and BE. Chapter author Marianne Hundt quotes Richard Bailey: 'Some authors have been far too quick to assume that "lag" exists rather than test the idea as a hypothsis.' Indeed, what this book calls for, is that a fresh view is needed.
This fresh and unbashfully frank approach sets the tone for the remaining chapters. The next 16 chapters are full of remarkable results. Each one is a paper outlining specific areas of linguistic study and the subsequent findings; all of which have been aided -- and in large part been made possible -- thanks to computerisation of large-scale corpora and availability of newspapers online and on CD-ROM.
The finding on compound verbs is that they are more frequent in AE and more often hyphenated in BE. The degree of variation in forming past participles is less frequent in AE, while in BE verbs are far less regularised than previously thought, according to the authors. Likewise, the ratio of comparatives in BE is found to be twice that of AE, which instead prefers more-comparatives.
Chapter five finds that lit as a past participle of light is far more frequent in BE, but is catching on fast in AE; the opposite is true of knit as the past participle of knit. Chapter seven highlights the reversal of word order since the 1960s in the usage of substitute as replace-like, as well as an interesting observation that the standard of edited material published in America over the past few decades has been notoriously stricter in the US than in Britain. This is according to a footnote, research by Tottie (2005), stating that British students rarely consult style manuals, unlike their American peers.
Chapter eight claims that reflexive pronouns are three to four times more common in BE, while AE prefers to drop them. The following chapter concludes that the pressure to communicate quickly in the Information Age has caused an explosion in the use of syntactically complex and compressed noun-modification devices, and that in this regard AE is far more innovative and uses them to a greater extent than what is the norm in BE.
Chaper 11, in what its author describes as the 'Great Complement Shift', examines the shifting from to-infinitives towards -ing forms. It is no surprise that the conclusion is that AE -- where it is now entrenched -- is fuelling the rapid trend towards the gerund also in BE. The next chapter finds that AE prefers the preterite over the BE preference for the present perfect, a trend that runs counter to modern trends in French and German.
And so it goes on, for five more chapters.
After absorbing all the data and findings that this book contains, one is left in no doubt about the status and extent of grammatical differences that exist between AE and BE. In her introduction to chapter 18, Gunnel Tottie writes: 'What I wish to do is argue, on the basis of some recent and ongoing research, that there are more differences between American and British grammar than previously dreamt of in our philosophy.' Continuing to treat 'grammatical differences as small or non-existent is mostly a thing of the past,' adds Tottie.
And it is at this point where where One language, two grammars? offers its final chapter -- one that suggests in detail no fewer than 46 individual areas of future English research. The authors admit that this impressive list is merely 'only a more or less arbitrary' sample of possibilities. Moreover, there remain many as-yet undiscovered differences of lexico-grammar between AE and BE.
An overall finding presented in the final chapter is that in 35 out of 48 areas evaluated, AE is proved to be more progressive than BE. On the other hand, BE is demonstrated to have a preference for formal grammatical structure in 32 out of the 43 cases examined. These conclusions end once, and turn on its head, the idea of colonial lag.
The final paragraph of the book best sums up more realistically the current situation of differences between British and American English: 'What is more, it may be that BrE and AmE represent two extremes of a grammatical continuum, with BrE at the conservative pole and AmE at the progressive pole.'
Anyone swayed towards buying this book should be aware that it an academic textbook first and foremost, rather than being a generalist read. For those wanting a broader view, some chapters and some areas of analysis are dedicated to very minor points of language that won't interest general readers.
One criticism can be made in the strong reliance on newspaper corpora in looking for evidence of British and American usage, for example with regular and irregular verbs. This is concern stems from the fact that newspapers employ sub/copy editors to remove spelling transgressions. Some findings may prove -- not evidence of preference one way or the other -- to be errors of the editing process rather than wider AE usage. Having worked on a national daily newspaper I know what affect tight deadlines and budget cuts can have on output quality. Also, there is very little emphasis made in the book of newspaper house styles, which dictate that usage be standardised according to each particular publisher's set style of spelling. Only brief mention is made of this, which is likely to weigh heavily in corpus data of newspapers and any results that attempt to "determine" AE and BE English. The problems is statistical change introduced by poor editing at any given newspaper cannot be overlooked.
The book itself, if one used it as a miniature corpus, would reveal many inconsistencies of spelling, hyphenation and usage. It is (apparently) written in BE but contains many American spellings, inconsistent use of variants and is at times poorly edited for compound hyphenation. A concordance search of, for example while/whilst would result in statistical data favouring while, but better editing of this same book would (should) remove any trace of the minority whilst.
Herein lies my only criticism of the reliability of similar results from wider corpus searches included in the chapters: is a percentage finding of any particular usage evidence of actual usage, bad writing, bad editing, house style, American English or all of the above?
However, this question does not take away from the monumental significance that this book represents and the avenues for further research that it offers. Its minor weaknesses should not overshadow its aims. It is a milestone book that raises the bar by ignoring the established simplistic advice that British and American English are one and the same. The real world knows that they have differences, now linguists do too.