What season are we in now? Depending on the country you were born in if English is your first language, or which “version” of English you learnt as a second language, you will give one of two words: autumn (if you are British, Australian or from New Zealand) or fall (if you are American; Canadians I understand use the two interchangeably).
Today, these are your only two options. If you were to use harvest, most people would know what you mean but today that is used as a verb (to harvest) or as a noun for religious festival (Harvest Festivals are still common CofE services at this time of year). Nobody would expect you to use “harvest” to refer to the season because though farmers still schedule their working year around the seasons, few of the rest of us need to do so.
Many see fall as distinctly American and autumn as distinctly British and it is one of those words you must change in your text if you are a Brit writing a book set in the US or vice versa. Where did they come from and why does it matter?
From a functional perspective, fall makes sense as a contrast to spring and the two words were used interchangeably during the colonial period. Yet once the colonies expanded, this is where the language split along with many other words that are different today between the two countries. The difference for Canada is that it largely remained British colonial land for so long after its neighbour to the south claimed its independence and went its own way. Australia and New Zealand maintained links to Britain and still with strong ties to the Commonwealth, this meant that they too prefer autumn.
From the perspective of the Anglo-Saxon root of many words in English (because all other seasons: spring, summer and winter are also Anglo-Saxon in origin), fall wins hands down again. Yet we know that function is not the only attribute of the English language. If it was more concerned with function, then we wouldn’t have superfluous letters, silent letters or non-phonetic spellings. No, it is a hybrid language of several German dialects, of Norse, of French and of Latin. My preference for autumn is not just based on my country of birth, but also because I think it sounds nice as a word and autumn has a magic of its own so in some ways it deserves to stand out.
Does anybody in the US prefer autumn? Is it a regional thing there or is fall ubiquitous? And does anybody in Britain prefer fall?
For more information, Slate has an interesting article on the history of the two words.
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