American English

I. Introduction

American English, variety of the English language spoken in the United States. Although all Americans do not speak the same way, their speech has enough in common that American English can be recognized as a variety of English distinct from British English, Australian English, and other national varieties. American English has grown up with the country. It began to diverge from British English during its colonial beginnings and acquired regional differences and ethnic flavor during the settlement of the continent. Today it influences other languages and other varieties of English because it is the medium by which the attractions of American culture–its literature, motion pictures, and television programs–are transmitted to the world.

II. Characteristics of American English

All speakers of English share a common linguistic system and a basic set of words. But American English differs from British English, Australian English, and other national varieties in many of its pronunciations, words, spellings, and grammatical constructions. Words or phrases of American origin, and those used in America but not so much elsewhere, are called Americanisms.

A. Pronunciation

In broad terms, Canadian and American speakers tend to sound like one another. They also tend to sound different from a large group of English speakers who sound more British, such as those in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. For example, most Canadians and Americans pronounce an r sound after the vowel in words like barn, car, and farther, while speakers from the British English group do not. Also, some British English speakers drop h sounds at the beginning of words, so that he and his are pronounced as if they were spelled ee and is. The English spoken in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa sounds more like British English than American English does because these varieties have had less time to diverge from British English. The process of separate development began later in these countries than in North America.

Although Canadians and Americans share many speech habits, Canadian speakers of English sometimes tend more toward British English because of the closer historical association of Britain with Canada. One prominent difference between American English and Canadian English is the vowel sound in words like out and house. Americans often say that the Canadian pronunciation sounds as if the words were spelled oot and hoose.

In some cases there are differences between American English and British English in the rhythm of words. British speakers seem to leave out a syllable in words like secretary, as if it were spelled secretry, while Americans keep all the syllables. The opposite is true of other words, such as specialty, which Americans pronounce with three syllables (spe-cial-ty) while British speakers pronounce it with five syllables (spe-ci-al-i-ty). Vowels and consonants may also have different pronunciations. British speakers pronounce zebra to rhyme with Debra, while American speakers make zebra rhyme with Libra. Canadian and British speakers pronounce the word schedule as if it began with an sh sound, while Americans pronounce it as if it began with an sk sound.

B. Words

The most frequently used words are shared by speakers of different varieties of English. These words include the most common nouns, the most common verbs, and most function words (such as pronouns, articles, and prepositions). The different varieties of English do, however, use different words for many words that are slightly less common–for example, British crisps for American potato chips, Australian billabong for American pond, and Canadian chesterfield for American sofa. It is even more common for the same word to exist with different meanings in different varieties of English. Corn is a general term in Britain, for which Americans use grain, while corn in American English is a specific kind of grain. The word pond in British English usually refers to an artificial body of water, whereas ponds also occur naturally in North America. British English chemist is the same as American English drugstore, and in Canada people go to the druggist. Many of the words most easily recognized as American in origin are associated with aspects of American popular culture, such as gangster or cowboy.

C. Spelling

American English spelling differs from British English spelling largely because of one man, American lexicographer Noah Webster. In addition to his well-known An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), Webster published The American Spelling Book (1783, with many subsequent editions), which became one of the most widely used schoolbooks in American history. Webster's books sought to standardize spelling in the United States by promoting the use of an American language that intentionally differed from British English. The development of a specifically American variety of English mirrored the new country's separate political development. Webster's most successful changes were spellings with or instead of our (honor, labor for the British honour, labour); with er instead of re (center, theater for the British centre, theatre); with an s instead of a c (defense, license for the British defence, licence); with a final ck instead of que (check, mask for the British cheque, masque); and without a final k (traffic, public, now also used in British English, for the older traffick, publick). Later spelling reform created a few other differences, such as program for British programme. Canadian spelling varies between the British and American forms, more British in eastern Canada and more American in western Canada.

D. Grammar

The grammar of educated speakers of English differs little among national varieties. In the speech of people with less access to education, grammatical variations in regional and social varieties of American English are very common as normal, systematic occurrences (not as errors). One major difference between British and American English is that the two attach different verb forms to nouns that are grammatically singular but plural in sense. In American English, the team is..., or the government is... (because they are viewed as single entities), but in British English, the team are..., or the government are... (because teams and government are understood to consist of more than one person). Sometimes function words are used differently: The British stay in hospital but Americans stay in the hospital.

III. History of American English

American English shows many influences from the different cultures and languages of the people who settled in North America. The nature of the influence depends on the time and the circumstances of contact between cultures.

A. Colonial Period

The first settlements on the East Coast of North America in the 17th century were composed mostly of British subjects. Accounting for about 90 percent of the people, the British vastly outnumbered French and German settlers. English was therefore the only real candidate for a common American language. The settlers spoke varieties of English from various parts of England, but in the creation of American English, these varieties were leveled–that is, their differences largely disappeared. Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur, a French-born writer who published under the name J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur and became famous for his book Letters from an American Farmer (1782), describes the desire of settlers to "become an American," their common ideal to own and work their own farms, without prejudice toward neighbors whatever their neighbors' religion or national origin. This shared goal encouraged development of a shared variety of the language, which came to be enriched by contributions from many cultures.

As the European settlers came into contact with Native Americans, American English collected a large stock of Native American place names (Allegheny, Chicago, Mississippi, Potomac) and Native American names for things not found in Europe or Asia (moose, opossum, squash, moccasin, tomahawk, totem). Sometimes Native American words were spelled by settlers so that they looked more like English words; woodchuck, for example, probably comes from the Cree word wuchak. Cultural exchange with Native Americans was more limited than might be expected, because diseases brought by Spanish explorers and European settlers greatly reduced the Native American population in eastern North America during early settlement.

In the 18th century people from Ireland and Northern Europe joined the British settlers. By the time of the American Revolution (1775-1783), there were comparable numbers of British settlers and settlers from other European countries. Some Europeans formed separate communities, such as the Pennsylvania Germans, but most mixed with British settlers and contributed to American English words from their own languages. Examples include pumpkin, bayou, and bureau from French; cookie, waffle, and boss from Dutch; and pretzel, pinochle, and phooey from German. Scottish and Irish settlers were already English speakers, but they influenced American English with features from their own varieties–for example, pronunciation of r after vowels (while many British English speakers were losing the r after vowels) and double verb forms like might could.

Africans were imported as slaves throughout the early settlement of North America. By the American Revolution one-quarter of the American population consisted of African Americans, and as much as 95 percent of the population living in plantation areas was African American. Slaves were not allowed to share in Crèvecoeur's American ideal, but they learned American English from their owners, overseers, and other slaves. Some slaves may have developed creole languages on plantations. A creole is made of words from different languages–in this case, English and the African languages spoken by the slaves. It also has its own grammar. Over time, especially after slavery was abolished, the language of African Americans came to have fewer creole characteristics. One authentic American plantation creole remains: Gullah, spoken by African Americans in communities on the Sea Islands off South Carolina and Georgia. African words in American English include gumbo, okra, and voodoo.

B. Territorial Expansion and Urbanization

During the 19th and 20th centuries settlers pushed westward as the United States acquired control of land from the French, the Spanish, and the Native Americans. Crèvecoeur's American ideal of separate farms lasted well into the 20th century, and a shared sense of purpose maintained social pressure for immigrants to participate in American language and culture. This period also saw the rise of great cities, first in the East and later in other regions. Development of industries brought opportunities for immigrants to work in cities instead of on farms, and the resulting concentration of people in urban areas allowed for maintenance of immigrant languages in some quarters, while most people still found it best to learn and use American English for everyday discourse.

At the same time that settlers from other countries were adapting to English, they were influencing it as well. Settlement of the West and Southwest by northern Europeans meant contact with the Spanish-speaking settlers who were already there. As a result, American English adopted many words commonly associated with Spanish, such as enchilada, pueblo, sombrero, and tortilla, and also many words not usually thought of as Spanish, such as alfalfa, cockroach, marina, plaza, and ranch. Scandinavians established homesteads in the upper Midwest and gave American English the words smorgasbord and sauna. Other European immigrants were drawn primarily to urban areas. Jewish immigrants are particularly associated with New York City, for example, and provided such words as kosher and kibbitz. Polish immigrants, strongly associated with Chicago, provided kielbasa and pierogi; Chinese immigrants, associated with San Francisco or Los Angeles, chow mein and mahjong; Italian immigrants, associated with many cities, contributed the words spaghetti and pizza. Many other cultural groups have also had an impact on American English, often more local than national, as, for example, Cubans in Miami, Florida.

IV. Development of Regional Speech Patterns

Even settlers who shared Crèvecouer's goal of "becoming an American" did not always share American English in exactly the same form. People tend to talk like the people they talk to, and so American English developed regional varieties. These varieties match the main ports of entry and follow the typical paths of settlement that started in each port. According to American linguist Hans Kurath, three broad east-west bands–North, Midland, and South–show a link between settlement and speech patterns. These bands reach as far as the Mississippi River but do not cross it, because settlement of the West was more mixed.

The Northern speech band includes New England and the northernmost tier of states. Boston served as the focus of the New England settlement area, from Rhode Island north to Maine, but mountains hindered direct overland settlement to the west. New England speech came to leave out the r sound after vowels, as also occurred in British English, and to pronounce the vowels of aunt, half, and law much like the vowel in calm.

New York City, also in the Northern speech band, developed speech habits different from those of many other northern regions, in ways made famous by the city's prominence in the media. These differences include the lack of the r sound after vowels, occasional substitution of a t sound for a th sound, and pronunciation of words with an oi sound that others pronounce with an er sound. All of these combine in the pronunciation toity-toid for thirty-third.

The first English-speaking settlers in the Inland Northern region traveled through Connecticut to get to upstate New York. Later, the Hudson River and the Erie Canal opened up settlement for the entire Inland Northern region via the Great Lakes. Inland Northern speakers do pronounce r after vowels.

The Midland region has one city as its focus, Philadelphia, but two different settlement pathways. Settlers could move west from Philadelphia through southern Pennsylvania to Ohio and Indiana; this path created the North Midland area, whose inhabitants share linguistic features with the Northern region. Settlers could also proceed southwest through the Shenandoah Valley, creating the South Midland region, where people share linguistic features with the Southern region. Midland speakers from both pathways pronounce r after vowels.

The Southern region has two focal areas–the Virginia plantation area around Richmond and the Charleston plantation area in South Carolina and Georgia–but only one main path of settlement. This main thrust of Southern settlement went into areas suitable for plantations, extending as far as eastern Texas. Southern speakers do not pronounce r after vowels. African Americans worked on plantations and learned Southern American English, acquiring many other Southern linguistic features.

Settlement west of the Mississippi River was more mixed than settlement through the regular pathways in the East, and eastern regional features were leveled in the West just as the speech of people from different parts of England had been leveled in the colonies. Western American English is not all the same, however, because of varying amounts of influence from Spanish residents and because the plains and Western states were settled by different proportions of Northerners, Midlanders, and Southerners. The Pacific Northwest and northern California gained more Northerners and North Midlanders, while the Southwest and the southern plains received more settlement from the South and South Midland.

V. Modern Variation in American English

The regional speech patterns that developed during the settlement of the United States are still present and are still important aspects of American English. However, social circumstances have changed in the 20th century. Large-scale immigration and initial settlement have given way to movements between established regions of the country, and people who stay in one area develop local speech patterns. These social conditions lead, paradoxically, both to wider use of a spoken standard American English and to greater variety in local speech types. Some scholars believe that local accents in American cities differ more now than ever before.

This paradox occurs because people talk differently depending on whom they are talking to and on the circumstances of the conversation. For instance, people who work together in different kinds of jobs have special words for their jobs: lawyers know legal language, doctors know medical terms, and factory workers know the right terms to describe the products they make and the processes used to make them. Such job-related language not only has special purposes, it also identifies the user as somebody who knows the job. For example, someone who cannot use legal language convincingly is probably not a lawyer. Language for particular needs and for identification occurs in connection not only with jobs but also with social groups–groups formed by region, gender, ethnic affiliation, age, or other criteria.

A. The Spoken Standard

American English has never had a strict spoken standard that is considered "correct," as most European languages have. Today the spoken standard in American English is best defined as the relative absence of characteristics–such as word choice or pronunciation–that might identify the speaker as coming from a particular region or social group. National newscasters and other broadcast personalities often adopt this speech type in public, as do many Americans in formal settings such as schools, courts, and boardrooms.

The spoken standard has become associated with education. In general the more someone has gone to school, the better the person's command of American English without regional and social characteristics. This occurs largely because the written American English taught in schoolbooks does not include many regional or social features. This association does not mean that the spoken standard is more correct than speech with regional or social characteristics. However, standard language is usually more appropriate in formal situations because people have come to expect it on those occasions.

B. Regional and Social Variation

Outside of schools and other formal situations, regional and social variations thrive in American English. The majority of Americans now live in urban and suburban communities instead of on isolated farms, and this change in residence patterns encourages development of informal speech types, each one of which is called a vernacular. Vernaculars develop especially in neighborhoods where people have a great deal of daily contact, but they also develop more broadly according to regional and social patterns of contact. Old regional words sometimes fade, but new ones take their place in regional vernaculars.

The pronunciation of American English is also changing, but often in different ways in different vernaculars. American sociolinguist William Labov has suggested three sets of changes in pronunciation, each set appropriate to a different vernacular.

One pattern of change affects Northern cities: the vowel of wrought is often pronounced more like the one in rot; in turn, the vowel in rot is pronounced more like the one in rat; and the vowel in rat is pronounced more like the one in Rhett. Another pattern of change is occurring among South Midland and Southern speakers: the vowel of red is often pronounced more like the one in raid; in turn, the vowel in raid is often pronounced more like the vowel in ride. Each vowel is actually pronounced as a combination of two vowel sounds, called a diphthong, which many people would say was part of a drawl. The third pattern of change affects New England, the North Midland, and most of the western United States and Canada. Many speakers in these areas no longer pronounce different vowels in words like cot and caught, or tot and taught, so that the words now sound alike. When these large patterns of change combine, unevenly, with regional words and other characteristics, the result is that vernacular speech tends to be somewhat different from city to city, or in places some distance apart.

While regional and social background certainly affects people's speech, background does not prevent anyone from learning either the spoken standard or aspects of other regional and social varieties. When adults move to a new region, they typically do not pick up all the characteristics of speech in the new area. Young children, however, commonly learn to sound more like natives. The result is a mixture of speakers with different regional and social backgrounds in nearly every community. Spoken standard American English is also used in nearly every community. Some commentators predict the loss of regional and social characteristics because everyone hears spoken standard speech on radio and television. However, passive exposure to the media will not outweigh the personal contact that occurs within neighborhoods and social groups and through regional travel. This contact strongly shapes regional and social varieties of speech.

C. African American Vernacular English

African American Vernacular English (sometimes called Ebonics, and formerly called Black English) is a major social speech type. It refers to the variety of American English most shaped by African American culture. Historically, African American English has probably drawn some features from plantation creoles, but has drawn many more characteristics from the Southern American English associated with plantation culture.

Speakers of African American Vernacular English generally do not pronounce r after vowels, so that door may sound like doe, or poor like Poe. Words like this and that may be pronounced dis and dat. Groups of consonants at the ends of words are often reduced to a single consonant, as for instance in the pronunciation of sold as sole, or walked as walk. It is common for the linking verb, usually a form of the verb to be, not to appear in such sentences as He happy or She doctor. The use of be in the sentence He be sick, on the other hand, means that he has often been sick, or has been sick over a period of time.

During and after the Great Depression of the 1930s, many African Americans left farms in old plantation areas and moved to cities in search of work and opportunity. They maintained a strong common culture in the cities because of segregated housing, and African American Vernacular English was maintained as well, although some African American communities began to develop more local speech characteristics.

As more and more African Americans moved away from segregated housing, they had less connection to the vernacular and more occasion to use other regional or social speech characteristics or to speak standard American English. Experts disagree about whether African American Vernacular English is becoming more different from regional and social varieties of standard English or more like these varieties. This disagreement stems from differences in which African Americans they count as speakers of African American Vernacular English.

D. Spanish and English

Large communities of Hispanic Americans have developed in the Southwest and in many cities throughout the United States. Spanish and English are both commonly used in these communities, but often for different purposes or in different settings. People sometimes also blend Spanish words into English sentences or English words into Spanish sentences, a process called codeswitching. The English of such communities is enriched by many Spanish words, but the practice of codeswitching is not the same thing as a social variety of American English.

VI. Influence of American English

Most people around the world who learn English as a second language learn either American English or British English. The worldwide use of English began when Britain created a worldwide empire. Today, most people who learn English as a foreign language still learn British English. This happens because Britain has had a longstanding interest in teaching English and has publishers and institutions in place to promote it. American English is taught more and more, however, because of the worldwide success of American business and technology. This success also leads speakers of British English–even in England–to adopt many Americanisms. English has truly become a world language in science and business, and over time it will come to have more of an American English sound.

Contributed By:

William A. Kretzschmar, A.B., M.A., Ph.D.

Professor of English and Linguistics, University of Georgia. Editor, Empirical Linguistics Series, Sage Publications.

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"American English," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000 © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


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