American English

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

19 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The English Language in the USA
2.1 History of the English language in the USA
2.2 What is American English?

3. Features of American English
3.1 Pronunciation
3.2 Spelling
3.3 Grammar
3.4 Vocabulary

4. Sociolinguistic Features
4.1 Regional varieties: The myth of the American Standard English
4.2 Social varieties: Differences between social classes, age, and gender

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

In this term paper the emphasis is set on American English and its main characteristics regarding linguistic and sociolinguistic features.

The USA is one of the largest western countries. Its population amount to approximately 250 million people. Thus, American English is spoken by an immense number of people in the world. It is estimated that nearly 2/3 of all native English speakers use any dialect of American English. American English, as an independent variety, differs from British English and even weakens its hegemony. More and more, American language, culture, and business become an integral part of European society. Therefore, it is very interesting to investigate the significant characteristics of this language.

To give the reader some background information there is a brief overview of the history of the English language in the USA at the beginning of the study. After that the term American English is explained and analyzed. Further, different linguistic features, among them pronunciation, spelling, grammar, and vocabulary, are described and compared to British English. In addition, sociolinguistic characteristics, such as regional and social dialects, are illustrated. As a result a conclusion follows.

2. The English Language in the USA

2.1 History of the English language in the USA

The first wave of English-speaking immigrants arrived on the East coast of the United States in the seventeenth century. The British captain John Smith established the first permanent English settlement by founding Jamestown in 1607 (cf. Tottie 2002: 29). The first British colony on American territory, called Virginia, was meant to be the Promised Land. Hence, more and more people entered the new found continent in order to find political and religious freedom. “Because of religious persecution large groups of venturers crossed the ocean after the first successful Mayflower voyage had been made in 1620.” (Janicki 1977: 14) These so called Pilgrims established new settlements on the East coast, for example Plymouth and Boston. The territory of the British colonies expanded. Up to 1732 thirteen colonies were established, among them New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia (cf. Tottie 2002: 29). Gradually the British settlers developed the desire for freedom and independence. Therefore, the British Empire sent troops to stop the progress on the pretext of protecting the colonists against Indian assaults (cf. Janicki 1977: 14-15). Many battles between British soldiers and the rebellious Americans followed. In 1776 the Americans declared their independence; nevertheless, the War of Independence continued several years and ended in 1783. The decades after the American independence could be characterized by an immense territorial expansion in which all of the present states were conquered and integrate. The unification of these independent states ended in a new born country, today known as the United States of America. People from all over the world settled to the USA to start a new life. People were fascinated by the unknown country that seemed to be no man’s land and only waited to be took possession of. Soon America was considered to be a country in which one’s dreams can become true and where the streets are paved with gold. The mythos of the American Dream was born and thousands of immigrants from all over the world entered the country in order to improve their lives. Therefore, more and more immigrants came for a variety of reasons and from several different countries to the United States of America (cf. Tottie 2002: 44). Because of that the racial make-up of the country constantly changed. Today the USA consists of 50 states. It ranks among the worlds largest countries with 9.9 million square kilometers and a population of nearly 250 million people. (cf. Hickey 2007: 27)

2.2 What is American English?

Today English is considered to be an important world language. It is the official language in more than 60 countries, spoken by nearly 380 million people as mother-tongue, and can be found on every continent in the world (cf. Crystal 1995: 106-107). The majority of native English speakers live in the USA and in the UK. It is estimated that 2/3 of English native speakers use any form of American English. American English is a variety of the English language used mostly in the USA. “The phrase American variety of English will thus imply the language spoken in the United States with its geographically, politically and economically conditioned characteristics.” (Janicki 1977: 12)

American English (AE), or so called General American English (GenAmE), has several linguistic differences from British English. These discrepancies were first mentioned in Noah Webster’s Dissertations on the English language in 1789 (Crystal 1995: 80). He mentioned that the USA should not only be politically independent, but also linguistically. “[O]ur honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government. Great Britain ... should no longer be our standard […].” (Tottie 2002: 9) In 1828 he published the first American Dictionary of the English Language to show that the region spoke a different dialect from Britain, so called Americanisms.

The divergence of linguistic forms between the English spoken in America and that

spoken in Britain, was initiated as a natural result of the language being spoken by

the two distant groups of people whose language operated in different social

conditions. (Janicki 1977: 16)

After the first British settlers entered American territory, they were faced with several problems. The most significant one was that the colonists were confronted with language barriers. They did not only have problems to interact with Indians, but also to name all new things they discovered. “They were faced with many plants and animals that they had never seen before and with large stretches of land that they had no idea how to cultivate.” (Janicki 1977: 15) Hence, they either created new words or they borrowed words from other languages that already existed. They had to reorganize their way of living, because the conditions differed completely from known structures. “The entirely different environment of the new world greatly influenced the language […] as it developed in America.” (Janicki 1977: 18) Although new words entered the language, it did not change significantly until the seventeenth century. Whereas the development of American English seemed to stand still, the English language of the British Isles changed permanently.

British and American English were essentially similar in the 17th century. After this

period the two major varieties of English drifted apart with American English

remaining more conservative […] while British English continued to develop quite

rapidly […]. (Hickey 2007: 28)

Thus it can be said that American English is a quiet older variety than British English. Many words which were replaced in British English are current forms in American English. After the Declaration of Independence all nationalities that entered the US were metaphorically melted into a new American nation. Unlike other western countries the USA is a country that accommodates not only one ethnic group but an immense number of different nationalities. “During the 17th century, new shiploads of immigrants brought an increasing variety of linguistic backgrounds.” (Crystal 1995: 93) America is a multicultural society and is considered to be the world’s largest immigration country. Many immigrants from Spain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Africa brought their languages into the country and influenced the official language English. (cf. Crystal 1995: 94) “The concept of the ‘melting pot’ must have applied very early on to immigrant accents.” (Crystal 1995: 93) By the end of the nineteenth century “the fundamental processes that English in America underwent were finished” (Janicki 1977: 17).

3. Features of American English

The following sections deal with several linguistic fields in which American English differs from British Standard English (BrE). These fields contain pronunciation, spelling, grammar, and vocabulary. In view of the existence of many regional dialects in the United States, it is important to mention that following investigations concentrate on General American English (GenAmE), also known as Network English. It refers to non-eastern and non-southern accents, and is commonly used by the majority of educated speakers, especially by professionals on national network news (cf. Dretzke 1998: 165-166).


Excerpt out of 19 pages


American English
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Englische Sprachwissenschaft)
Hauptseminar: Language, Meaning and Use
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
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American English, AE, General American English, GenAmE, American Pronunciation, American Spelling, American Grammar, American Vocabulary, American English regional varieties, American English social varieties, History of English, English in USA
Quote paper
Katrin Appenzeller (Author), 2007, American English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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