I remember hearing that modern American English is more similar to Old English than modern British English, due to rural British influences.

Is modern American English a more accurate representation of Old English than modern British English?

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    I don't think this is a meaningful question. Which of two species is a more accurate representation of their common evolutionary ancestor? What does that even mean, and how would you quantify it? – Karl Knechtel Oct 11 '11 at 22:40

I think most would agree that any modern English variant, from anywhere in the world, is very, very different from Old English. However, I would say American English is more similar to Old English in some respects than modern British English is.

The most striking way, in my mind, is the stronger retention of the 'r' sound. I have heard (from a professor speaking on the radio; I don't have a citation) that American English generally sounds more like Old English than British English does. (In my oversimplified way of thinking, spelling has changed slower than pronunciation, and American pronunciation generally seems to stick closer to a "naive" interpretation of the letters than British.)

In other ways, of course British English is more like Old English than American is.

While not credentialed, here is a nice discussion on the topic: Which accent is more similar to that of the old English?

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    Are we sure what we mean by Old English? As I said in my own brief answer, it was the language spoken in England before the Norman Conquest. It is sometimes called Anglo-Saxon. – Barrie England Oct 12 '11 at 15:26

Neither are 'old english' (see When did Indo-European descendants stop speaking Old English? What were the influencing factors in the shift from Old English to Modern English?)

There are some arguements that American English spelling preserves some more of 17th century English because the early settlers left for America at this time. In the following century British English changed as French fashion and classical studies influenced it.

But a lot of American spelling is due to Noah Webster - the first editor of the standard American dictionary. He deliberately tried to rationalise/rationalize spelling. Sometimes he did this by using an older simpler usage, sometimes he just made stuff up! The main result today is the American use of -ize compared to the British -ise and some missing 'u's.

  • Funny how the name of a pioneer has "web" on it. – Camilo Martin Feb 6 '12 at 20:14
  • Webster's use of -ize was not a personal choice. I'm sure if -ise were popular at the time, he would have used it; after all, most words ending in the same sound have -ise and spelling -ize introduces more exceptions. – Angelos Aug 18 '15 at 19:45

Not Old English, but Modern American English does have some strong ties to British English of the time of colonization. If you look at the OED entries for "trash" and "rubbish" you can see that "rubbish" gradually took on the former's meaning in the British English, while trash became more specifically used for domestic waste in Modern American English.

That is also an excellent example of how Modern American English is more distant from Old English, with rubbish being a word derived an ancient Anglo-Norman word, while trash comes from Norwegian origins.

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    Some of this are accidents of geography. Many American words are because of local usage in the regions of the UK that early settlers came from rather than earlier history. If the pilgrims had come from Yorkshire you would have "Ay-up to the chief" ! – mgb Oct 11 '11 at 21:00

Absolutely not. Old English was spoken in England before 1066 and has now to be learnt as a foreign language. Nor is it true that in the Appalachians they speak like Shakespeare.


Most American English is very characteristic of the way British people would have sounded around the time of colonization, which would have been in the 17th century: at the time most speech in England was rhotic, especially in places like the West Midlands. British redcoats were infamous for making fun of Americans during the Revolution by imitating a West Midlands accent whenever they sang Yankee Doodle, because it sounded similar at the time.

There are even a few drops of Scotttish and Welsh inspired accents if we want to talk about the South. Baltimore's accent is influenced, for example, by Cornish and Welsh of yesteryear, and parts of the Appalachians inherited the music and turns of phrases of Scotland and rural England. To hear what this sounds like, listen closely to Michael Phelps when he speaks or Loretta Lynn when she talks: both are typical of their regions. Phelps, from Baltimore, will round out short u sounds so that "bull" rhymes with "pool" and "home" sounds more like "hoom". In Lynn's case you can here it when she drops the -ing at the end of a word and replaces it with -in, and makes "growling" sound more like "grellin". She also uses phrases like "over yonder" and adds an a prefix to a verb, so it becomes "a-drinkin'" and "a-leakin'". The features of Lynn's speech can be found in Robert Burns and the a- prefix was known to be a feature in Shakespeare's time (it is very likely that he and Anne Hathaway spoke like that at home to each other, and even more likely that he was very careful not to use it too much in front of the King..sadly snobbery and accent went hand in hand, though not as extreme as during the much later Victorians.)

American English overall retains more vocabulary, grammatical quirks, and turns of phrase that come from older forms of the language, like putting babies in "diapers" rather than "nappies" and using " gotten" rather than "got". Old English to native speakers of both dialect families sounds most similar to German and frankly we would both have an easier time understanding Edward Longshanks and Chaucer than we would understand Harold Godwinson, who might have to draw pictures just to be understood by anybody at all since nobody has used his alphabet in nearly a thousand years.

  • There have been 400 years worth of changes in both Englishes since the 17th century. Americans have kept the rhotic 'r', but they have also started rhyming bother and father, and introduced the unhistoric past participles dove, snuck, and (in non-educated dialects) drug. – Peter Shor May 2 '19 at 17:36

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