6. THE GREAT TOMATO DEBATE

22/10/2019

When people from the United States and United Kingdom mix, it's hard not to eventually reach the subject of the 'divide' between the two types of English. It's an interesting line of conversation - our language often shapes our behaviour (and behavior), so looking at it from a fresh angle sometimes helps us to better understand ourselves. 

Unfortunately, these conversations have a tendency to diverge into questions of which version of English is 'correct'. Is it 'to-mah-toe' or 'to-may-toe'? Despite growing up in England, I've always had a gnawing feeling that the latter makes more sense as it rhymes with 'potato' (although one could always argue that it should be 'po-tah-toe').

As a Dutch company or university that communicates in English, you might ask yourself: does any of this actually matter? To a great number of people throughout history, the answer would be a resounding yes. As it turns out, many of the distinctions between UK and US English originally stem from an attempt to improve the language. American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was studying in Yale as the Revolutionary War took place, was a firm believer that spelling should reflect pronunciation; his famous dictionary therefore dropped the letter U from words like 'honour' and changed the letter S to Z in others like 'realise'. More extreme changes, such as 'wimmen' for 'women', failed to catch on.

Webster actually had an additional motive behind his spelling reforms, believing that they would lay an intellectual foundation for American nationalism. In his own words, "it will finally raise her [the US] to a pitch of greatness and lustre, before which the glory of ancient Greece and Rome shall dwindle to a point." His first dictionary sold just 2500 copies and put him in lifelong debt, but later became the standard across America. However, the differences can't all be blamed on Webster. English chemist Humphry Davy identified what he named 'alumium' in 1808, but by 1812 had changed his mind twice and called it both 'aluminum' and 'aluminium'. The pronunciation of 'tomato' with a long A, meanwhile, began as nothing more than a fashion statement by the eighteenth-century British aristocracy and only fully caught on with the broader public as late as the 1920s.

It's also worth considering the implicit differences in words that appear the same, with 'quite' being a notable offender. Looking at recent news, there are plenty of examples of this seemingly innocuous word, such as the BBC's 'DUP's opinion 'quite important,' says David Davis' or CNN's impeachment article in which "the headwinds Trump faces are quite different from the ones faced by his embattled predecessors." Unbeknownst to most in the UK, 'quite' is usually synonymous with 'very' in the US; to Brits, it means 'somewhat'. This can cause an enthusiasm gap when both sides mix and leads to a very different reading of these two articles. An emerging third category, 'Euro English', largely avoids such ambiguities by nativising common learner mistakes - the often-asked "How is it called?", for instance - until they become the norm.

So, does it matter? The answer is yes and no. If your documents are to be read by an international audience, possible containing no native speakers, which type of English you opt for is likely to be unimportant. A sudden switch from 'center' to 'centre' will not impact anybody's understanding of the text but will cause some people to wonder if the same oversights can be found in other areas of your work. Ultimately, the copywriting concepts of US and UK English are archetypes to be learned rather than a steadfast reflection of how people speak in any of the 56 countries that have English as an official language - especially when it's hard enough to get people to agree within any one of those.

- Josh