Soldering On: On ‘Americanisms’ and Pronunciation

All too commonly I hear fellow Brits carp about divergent American spelling, grammar, and pronunciation. Thing is, that’s exactly what is it; divergent, not aberrant. Outside their respective borders (and arguably even then), neither British English nor American English is ‘right’. Why divergent? Well, many of the differences are actually examples of former, er, ‘English’ English (we’re talking pre-Act of Union here, so ‘British English’ isn’t appropriate). Significant numbers of English-speaking English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish settlers began to populate North America from the early 17th century, a time when these rules of language had yet to be set. There was no ‘Received Pronunciation’, no ‘Queen’s English’. A great example of this is a fairly obscure word to some of us; ‘solder’, as in soldering iron. In Britain today it’s spelled ‘solder’ and pronounced ‘sowelda’. Yet in the States, it’s ‘sawder’. Ignoring issues of differences in accent, there’s a marked difference there; and on the face of it, the Americans are pronouncing the word ‘wrong’, even by their own standards of spelling. Yet in reality, the American pronunciation is not only legitimate, but arguably more correct than the British. The quote that follows below is from ‘Elements of Orthoepy: Containing a Distinct View of the Whole Analogy of the English Language; So Far as it Relates to Pronunciation, Accent, and Quantity‘, a guide to the English of the day written by Robert Nares and published in 1784. This of course is after the American War of Independence, but there is no reference to America or Canada. It tells us something very interesting about broadly agreed conventions in English/British English;

‘Soder rather than solder : souder, French ; soldare, Italian. I think it is sometimes pronounced as if written soder ; but more frequently like sawder or sauder.’

So not only is this particular writer advocating that the ‘correct’ spelling ought to be ‘soder’, which already supports modern US English pronunciation, but he comments that contemporary pronunciation was either ‘soder’ or ‘sowder/sauder’. Quite how we then both standardised the spelling as ‘solder’ with an ‘L’, I’m not sure. But this is no stranger than British English’s ‘plough’ rather than the more logical American ‘plow’ (which also pre-dates Victorian British English spelling conventions).

Who’s ‘right’? Both of us. But ‘sawder’ is the older form; it’s us Brits that have changed our pronunciation in the meantime. So next time you get all high and mighty about ‘color’ or ‘aluminum’, stop and think; who are the real deviants?!

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6 Responses to “Soldering On: On ‘Americanisms’ and Pronunciation”

  1. Facey Romford Says:

    Somewhere in the ‘Forsyth Saga’ Galsworthy uses the expression ‘soft sawder’ to denote flattery, rather as we might more usually say ‘soft soap’; I have come across it in other English writings, and vaguely assumed that the ‘sawder’ meant ‘soda’, and had something to do with soap. It had never occurred to me to check this, but Mr Google now informs me that the phrase was invented in 1836 by the humourist Thomas Chandler Haliburton of Nova Scotia; the context makes it clear that it means ‘solder’. Thank you for that.

  2. George Says:

    The “problem” with all this divergence is that it indicates a failed/flawed education. The origin is largely irrelevant as is impossible to undo the mistakes of the past.
    The word xxxx is currently pronounced xxxx and if properly taught and learned that way future divergence would be prevented. The first primary school child to pronounce it xxxz is simply wrong and should be corrected, here we all agree. If the child is not corrected and xxxz spreads we’ll end up back here posting articles and comments.
    Someone will even fabricate a historic origin for xxxz. Middle English spelling was guesswork, just find an xxxz typo and claim it as an origin.
    Swapping the words “then” and “than” is becoming very popular these days, I’m not looking forward to the future article telling my why I should accept this divergence.

    • bshistorian Says:

      This article is about *American* English and post-colonial British attitudes to it. I freely acknowledge that a British schoolchild (or anyone else in Britain for that matter) who starts using archaic/American spelling should be corrected., and I’m not suggesting that we don’t follow the (now) established rules of English. The point is that American English has its own standards that sometimes pre-date our own. Are you suggesting that because Victorian Britain made one set of choices to standardise *British* English, that the Victorian Americans should have decided to follow suit?

  3. Alex Says:

    Came across your blog via your post debunking ‘Annie’ at Mary King’s Close, and i’ve ended up spending an enjoyable evening (god, I need to get out more) reading some of the posts.

    Laughed at this one in particular, being British myself but working in a job where a) solder is often used and b) many of my colleagues are American. All too often i’ve seen fellow Brits make complete pricks of themselves in public, arguing over words and pronunciations, completely oblivious to the historical roots.

    Keep up the great work! 🙂

    • bshistorian Says:

      Thank you! Sorry for the delay, I only post rarely and haven’t checked comments for ages. Hoping to get back into it a bit more though.

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