Standard American English: Socially Distinguishing?

Intermediate Examination Paper, 2004

13 Pages, Grade: 2.5


Table of Contents

1.0 Introduction

2.0 A Brief History of American English

3.0 Standard American English
3.1 An Approach to a Definition of “Standard American English”
3.2 “Standard” – Socially Promoting, or Socially Distinguishing ?

4.0 Conclusion

5.0 Bibliography

1.0 Introduction

Language variation could also be called „. . .the most basic and fundamental of human socialisation tools.”[1] You need language to express yourself, to learn things, to communicate and to get educated. Without language, an independent life is hardly to live.

As long as people speak, there always have been dialects and individual ways of speaking in one language. British English for example, during the twelveth and thirteenth century, was spoken in four varieties, besides French and Latin. Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth century, the more unified Great Britain needed some kind of “Standard”, to cope with official tasks and affairs.[2] So, at some point, it seems necessary to compromise on one way of speaking for official matters

This paper will focus on “Standard American English” as a sociolinguistic tool: A brief history of American English will be given and definitions of “Standard American English” will be discussed. The central question of this paper will be: Why there is a need for the so-called “Standard”? Whom does it serve? Is it an “ideology”[3] of the upper classes to distinguish them also linguistically from the lower classes? Or is the function of “Standard American English” solely to enable the American people to communicate on an even level, despite the various dialects? Further, the example of New York City speech will be given, to show that “Standard” seems to be necessary for “upward mobility”.

2.0 A Brief History of American English

When the Jamestown colonists settled in 1607, their speech actually more resembled today’s American English, than today’s British English. Within this period of English – referred to as “Early Modern English” - the language consisted of many variations that the early settlers took with them from Great Britain to the New World. Phonologically innovations in British English did not arrive at the colonies, so the colonists stayed with the traditional pronunciations, of for example “dance” and “path”, with a low front vowel. Former British word meanings were also still used in the colonies, like the word “mad”, meaning “angry” in American English. In British English it is used as “. . . mentally unbalanced.”[4] In addition, some syntactic structures that were changed in British English over the times stayed the same in the new communities. Especially the use of “gotten” and “done” represented relics of Early Modern English.[5]

Although dialect variety existed among the settlers, many of them came from Southeastern Britain with its cultural center London. In London, which could also be considered the most powerful center of all Britain, a “London” or a “British Standard” developed around the mid-1700s. This standard speech was prevalent in Eastern New England, with its r-lessness. In other regions, like New York State and Western New England, the speakers were r-pronouncing, according to their British dialect heritage, or to language change.[6]

Further, Westwards movement, inmigration and independent lifestyles, not connected to Britain anymore, pushed the development of new words.[7]

At the time of the Revolutionary War today’s most distinctive dialects already existed. When the thirteen colonies became independent from Great Britain in 1776, American speech already differed from British English, according to language or dialect contact and new phenomena that settlers needed new words for. With the new independence, people also wanted to show the political separation with language: The American lexicographer Noah Webster changed the spelling of some words, for example from “colour” to “color”; Benjamin Franklin supported the spelling reform for American English and Thomas Jefferson loved to invent new words. In 1782 the notion of “American English” appeared for the first time in print.[8]

All in all, you could say the development of American English was a mixture of taking the old British English to the New World and preserving expressions that were meanwhile abandoned in Britain and, on the other hand, a conscious separation from old linguistic ties, with spelling reforms and the coining of new “American” terms and vocabulary.

3.0 Standard American English – Socially distinguishing?

3.1 An Approach to a Definition of “Standard American English”

Rosina Lippi-Green calls” Standard American English” a “. . . mythical beast. . . “[9], but before we take the concept apart, I would like to focus on widely-known definitions of “Standard”.

Wolfram and Schilling-Estes conclude that you can talk of “Standard” use if people speak without using stimatized items, or using relatively few of them and therefore their language is positively judged by listeners.[10] Stigmatized language items are “. . .multiple negation, nonstandard subject-verb agreement, and different irregular verb paradigms. . . . “[11]. These non-regional stigmatized items might also function as widely accepted in some local areas.[12] They say further that the items defined as stigmatized, usually by “. . . the higher-status groups.”[13], are brought to the people by “agents of standardization”[14], like teachers, the media and other authorities.[15] Despite those common factors of “Standard” listed above, Wolfram and Schilling-Estes insist on a “pluralistic notion”[16] of spoken language, which means that different dialects are considered to be “Standard”.[17]

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “Standard English” as following:

The English that with respect to spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary is substantially uniform though not devoid of regional differences, that is well established by usage in the formal and informal speech and writing of the educated, and that is widely recognized as acceptable wherever English is spoken and understood.[18]

It says that “Standard” speech is non-regional, a common basis to communicate everywhere where English is spoken , contained in written and spoken language and coined by the educated.

Both definitions imply that “Standard English” does not stigmatize, but helps its speakers to have a neutral speech. The two approaches make clear that a “Standard” is hard to define excactly, since they do not go into detail.

3.2 “Standard” – Socially Promoting, or Socially Distinguishing ?

Standard varieties of a language are usually “. . . associated with socially favored and dominant classes and . . . nonstandard dialects are associated with socially disfavored, low-status groups.[19] So, there are socially prestigious variants, but also socially stigmatized items. Both, the positively and the negatively judged items changed over times. A very good example is the use of the postvocalic “r” in the New York City area: In the 1940s the r-pronouncing did hardly serve as social class stratification - in other terms – whether you used, or not used the postvocalic“r”, was a neutral factor of

language, which did not distinguish socially. This has changed in the second half of the 20th century: Today, r-pronouncing is not a neutral linguistic factor anymore, but positively valued.[20]


[1] Rosina Lippi-Green, English with an Accent. Language, Iedeology, and Discrimination in the United States (London, New York: Routledge, 1997 ) 59.

[2] Charles Carpenter Fries, American English Grammar. The Grammatical Structure of Present-Day American English with Especial Reference to Social Differences or Class Dialects (New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1940) 12.

[3] Lippi-Green 59.

[4] Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes, American English: Dialects and Variation, Language in Society 24 (Malden, Massachusetts, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998) 93.

[5] Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 93.

[6] Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 93-94.

[7] Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 97.

[8] Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 106.

[9] Lippi-Green 53.

[10] Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 158.

[11] Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 159.

[12] Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 159.

[13] Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 159.

[14] Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 159.

[15] Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 159.

[16] Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 11.

[17] Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 11.

[18] Lippi-Green 53.

[19] Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 157-158.

[20] Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 160.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Standard American English: Socially Distinguishing?
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
PS Regional and Social Varieties of American English
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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453 KB
Double spaced
Standard, American, English, Socially, Distinguishing, Regional, Social, Varieties, American, English
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Daniela Daus (Author), 2004, Standard American English: Socially Distinguishing?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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