Language Variety: AMERICAN ENGLISH

Indo-European > Germanic > West Germanic > English > American English

When we speak of the global influence of English, we are more often than not referring to the media-driven United States variety. While many British speakers consider their transatlantic cousins' tongue to be a bastardisation of their own, pouring scorn upon its influence, they are often surprised to learn that many of its features are simply retained from earlier forms of British English which have died away relatively recently.

For example, US english is a 'rhotic' speech, meaning they pronounce the final or medial 'r' in words such as word or four. This is a trait shared with the English spoken in Ireland, Scotland, South-West England and parts of Lancashire. For example, the word mirror is pronounced in London as mirrah, but in Los Angeles it sounds more like meer. Yet until the 17th C, all forms of English were rhotic, which explains the proliferation of 'silent' r's in many English words. Dialect within the US is less obvious to outsiders than in places such as Britain, but variations exist, even within single metropolitan areas (such as New York). Dialects are usually divided into Southern, Midland and Northern, but even this is an oversimplification; the ongoing survey The Linguistic Atlas of the United States (begun in 1931) provides an interesting guide (Crystal, 2004: p313).

English has been spoken by permanent settlers in North America since the early 17th C. Independence from Britain gave the former colonies impetus to create their own national standard. Noah Webster produed the American Dictionary in 1828, in which he primarily reformed spelling, such as: colour > color, plough > plow, traveller > traveler. Words ending in -ise or -ize were standardized to the common form -ize. In 1848 John Russell Bartlett compiled a Dictionary of Americanisms, parading such common words as awful and meeting, along with such oddities as sanctimoniouslyfied. To this day, linguists revel in listing the many vocabulary differences between the two varieties; in the late 19th C and throughout the 20th C it was believed that the two would be mutually unintelligible by the 21st (Bryson, 1990: p242).

In truth, the two forms are probably moving closer together, thanks to the age of mass-communications - though almost all new words and coinages are American in origin. This has led to the situation whereby some Americans are unfamiliar with other forms of English - while somebody from Liverpool or Cape Town may have little problem understanding someone from San Francisco, the Californian might find them unintelligible. However, it is important to remember that the actual lexical and syntactical differences are much smaller than many imagine; it is usually accent that proves to be the barriers.

examples of american english

I have lately made a Tour thro' Ireland and Scotland. In these Countries a small Part of the Society are Landlords, great Noblemen and Gentlemen, extreamly opulent, living in the highest Affluence and Magnificence: The Bulk of the People Tenants, extreamly poor, living in the most sordid Wretchedness in dirty Hovels of Mud and Straw, and cloathed only in Rags. I thought often of the Happiness of New England, where every Man is a Freeholder, has a Vote in publick Affairs, lives in a tidy warm House, has plenty of good Food and Fewel, with whole Cloaths from Head to Foot, the Manufactury perhaps of his own Family. Long may they continue in this Situation!
Benjamin Franklin, "Compar'd to these People Every Indian Is a Gentleman", 1772.

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place for those who died here that the nation might live..
Abraham Lincoln, "The Gettysburg Address", 1863.

(more to follow...)

a short american english bibliography
  • Gunnel Tottie, An introduction to American English (Blackwell, Oxford: 2002)
  • John Russell Bartlett, "A Dictionary of Americanisms" (New Jersey, 1848, repr.2003)
  • David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (Cambridge: 2004)
  • Tom McArthur, Oxford Guide to World English (Oxford: 2002)
  • Bill Bryson, Mother Tongue (Penguin, London: 1990)
  • Bill Bryson, Made In America (Penguin, London: 1994)
  • Barbara A. Fennell, A History of English (Blackwell, Oxford: 2001)
  • Peter Eisenberg, German: in E. Konig & J. Van Der Auwera, The Germanic Languages, pp349-387 (Routledge, London: 1994)

some american english links


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