7

I always get “mad” (we don’t actually get upset with each other) at a friend of mine because he uses the UK versions for the past tense of verbs like spill or spell, saying spilt or spelt instead of the American versions like spilled or spelled, etc. He’s “retaliated” (just teasing) by saying ✻feeled and ✻builded rather than felt and built.

Does anyone know why American English changed ‑t to ‑ed only for certain verbs but not for others?

  • 1
    American English? Which one? Note how many theatres (sorry, theaters) are spelled/spelt the -re way on Broadway. And in the UK, we have dogs homes and dogs' homes (the funded kennels). We are two nations divided by many streams of language. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 8 '19 at 22:52
  • 6
    @EdwinAshworth This question appears to be based on a false hypothesis. It's not true that you cannot use the -t versions of past tenses in the United States: forms like spilt, swept, slept, dreamt, wept, kept, knelt, crept, leapt, sent, lent, rent and all the rest continue to be grammatical in American English. That's because there are no “for-use-in-England-only” inflections of verbs in our shared language. Variant forms have always existed everywhere for these even if specific personal preferences vary. On the other hand, pronouns like hoo and tha don’t cross the pond. – tchrist Dec 8 '19 at 23:08
  • It's "spelled" because "spelt" is a form of wheat. – Hot Licks Dec 8 '19 at 23:17
  • 2
    @HotLicks Smoked smelt are a wonder to be—um, olfactorily perceived. – tchrist Dec 8 '19 at 23:21
  • 2
    Apologies if I came off rude or snobbish. Our language discussions are a characteristic of our friendship; we don't actually get upset with each other. It just made me curious if there was a reason that some words use both -lt or -ed, but some don't. – Elle Fromm Dec 9 '19 at 2:05
2

From a linguistic and phonetics standpoint, in the majority of cases, the suffix -t as a formative of past participle of verbs appeared as a result of the reduction of -ed to -'d, and the devocalization of d.

Here is the full explanation from OED with some historical notes:

Formative of the past participle in some weak verbs, for earlier -d and -ed (see -ed suffix1), due usually to the devocalization of d after a breath consonant, as in nipped, nip'd, nipt. In some verbs the use of t for -ed goes back to Germanic, esp. in apparently contracted or irregular verbs, as bought, brought, might, thought, wrought (Gothic bauht, brâht, maht, þâht, waurht); in others it appears in West Germanic, as sought (Gothic sôkid, Old Saxon and Old English sôht); in others only in Old English as laught (læht), taught (tæht, taht). But in the majority of cases the t is of later appearance, arising from the reduction of -ed to -'d, -d in Middle or Modern English, with consequent devocalization of d, not only after breath consonants, as in dropt, nipt, crept, slept, swept, left, lost, tost, past, but, in certain cases, after liquids and nasals, as in felt, spelt, spilt, dreamt, burnt, meant, pent; also in contracted formations, such as built, bent, lent, sent, spent, girt, cast. But in many words where the pronunciation has t, the current spelling is -ed, e.g. blessed, dropped, hushed, passed for blest, dropt, husht, past.

OED has a separate entry for the suffix -t as a formative of the past tense of some weak verbs and adds that: "In modern English on the contrary the spelling in t is more frequent in the past participle, esp. when used adjectivally, than in the past tense: cf. tempest-tost (see tempest-tossed adj.), the wind tossed the ship; in time past, he passed his time."

Additionally, it is not only used in British English. For example, shortening of a long vowel in the participle of certain verbs, as in crept, slept, the spelling with -t is universal.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    @green_ideas William F. Nolan, for one. – user888379 Dec 11 '19 at 21:54
  • 2
    @green_ideas: Kissed was kist in Middle English also. OED has this note: "In some cases even the form in -ed is a mere modern fashion of spelling, at variance with both the pronunciation and the history; thus, kissed was in Old Saxon kusta, Old English cyste, Middle English kist, as actually pronounced; it has come to be spelt kissed, because in other verbs -ed is pronounced -t." – ermanen Dec 11 '19 at 23:10
  • 1
    I don't know what you mean by "shortening of a long vowel in the participle is universal": creep, crept; keep, kept; leap leapt; sleep, slept; weep, wept; but heap, heaped; peep, peeped; reap, reaped; seep, seeped; steep, steeped. – Peter Shor Dec 11 '19 at 23:20
  • 1
    @PeterShor: Taken along with the previous sentence, I think the point is that "slept" is not a British English spelling: Americans also always use "slept" and never use an -ed spelling for this word. – herisson Dec 11 '19 at 23:23
  • 1
    @PeterShor: For certain verbs, not all with a long vowel. – ermanen Dec 11 '19 at 23:29
1

This question is very hard, so I will provide 20% of an answer only.

The British isles had speakers of many different dialects of English. The people who went on to colonize the US generally did not speak RP, but rather mostly less reputable dialects. In most cases you'll find that features of "American" English are simply features of a non-RP English dialect that disproportionately supplied American colonists. And so on for other world Englishes. I suppose some Americanisms can also be explained by substrate influences (esp. Spanish loan words), but most are explainable by an evolutionary bottleneck, as it were.

| improve this answer | |
  • You could mine this reference for a far stronger answer. – tchrist Dec 9 '19 at 3:01
  • @tchrist I had at hand Crystal's The English Language, was about to revise, then decided to wash the dishes instead! – user31341 Dec 9 '19 at 3:23
  • 2
    Interestingly, Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary shows only spelled (or rather, spell'd). I'm pretty sure that there was no such thing as "RP" in the 18th Century. – Spencer Dec 9 '19 at 3:25
  • 2
    @tchrist That reference undermines jlovegren's argument. "It may well be the case that the more conservative nature of BrE with respect to this variable has to be attributed to an avoidance strategy treating the regular forms as a morphological Americanism". – Spencer Dec 9 '19 at 3:36
  • @Spencer the reference is in no position to undermine my claim. It is not a work of historical linguistics and is not really a relevant resource for answering the question. – user31341 Dec 9 '19 at 4:51

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.