The History of the American Language

Seminar Paper, 1999
17 Pages

Free online reading



1. The Beginnings of American English

2. A Comparison between British and American English
2.1 Pronounciation
2.3 Spelling and Punctuation
2.4 Simplification
2.5 Regularization
2.6 Derivational Uniformity
2.7 Individual Word`s Difference in Spelling
2.8 Grammar
2.8.1 The Noun
2.8.2 The Adverb
2.8.3 Word Order
2.8.4 Lexis

3. American English itself and its Dialects

4. The American Dialects
4.1 Eastern New England
4.2 New York City
4.4 North Midland
4.5 South Midland
4.6 Southern
4.7 General American



"The remarkable story of how English spread within predominantly English-speaking societies like the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand is not [...] unique.It is a process in language that is as old as Greek, or Chinese.[...]The emergence of English as a global phenomenon - as either a first, second or foreign language - has recently inspired the idea [...] that we should talk not of English, but of many Englishes [...]:the present flux of English [...] is part of a process that goes back to Shakespeare and beyond [...]."1

The American Revolution is regarded as the turning-point in establishing this new kind of English, the American English, due to the rebels who wanted to announce their separation from the old country.Their longing for a nationality of their own lead to the fact that in 1782 the citizens of the new republic were proudly christened Americans and in 1802 the United States Congress recorded the first use of the phrase "the American language".

1.The Beginnings of American English

To underline the importance of Shakespeare according to the upcoming of American English one has to quote that it "was the [Elizabethan] English that was soon to be taken in ship after ship, across the Atlantic to the New World"2 "as the language of a unified nation"3, due to the fact that both, writing and speech, became standardized first throughout the British Isles under the Jacobeans.

With regard to the first Britons who reached the New World the focus laid on London.

The big city with the island`s greatest port was the hub of rumours and fables about that new country everyone talked about.

In 1605, the time the new king James I reigned, two companies, chartered by rival merchants, set out from London and Plymouth to fullfil their dreams of affluence and a new life.

Three ships of the London company set sail in 1606 to pass by the Azores and the Canary Islands on the southern route.They planned to head north after cruising in the West Indies to settle somewhere north of the Spanish in Florida and south of the French in Canada.

In April 1607 they sailed into Chesapeake Bay; there they got stuck in a shallow estuary and nearly a month later "they reached James River and moored [...] off a wooded island which they named after their new King - Jamestown."4

The English language took root in the New World.

The second English colony was Bermuda, which was established by a shipload of settlers in 1612 together with three survivors of the Sea Venture, that was wrecked on an island east of South Carolina in 1609.

"The men and women from the middle and lower orders of East Anglia`s towns and villages, who [...] crossed the Atlantic `to better themselves`, were often Puritans, whose story now becomes the story of American English."5

The Puritan`s intention to emigrate was a double-edged sword; on the one hand their motives were an idealistic, self-interested and religious ambition "to better themselves".6

On the other hand there were the minority of the Pilgrim Fathers, who wanted to establish a Kingdom of God according to their religion.

On 16 September 1620 the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth.Most of the travellers came from East Anglia, but there were also thirty different communities from all over England among them travelling sixty-five days across the Atlantic.

"[This]sea voyage[...]provided a kind of language melting-pot in which the regional differences began to intermingle."7

This speech situation should not have been the last of this kind, because on the following two hundret ships crossing the Atlantic the situation repeated.

Those people settled along the Atlantic seaboard, covered a long narrow strip of land extending from Maine to Georgia.This area is divided into three sections: New England, the Middle Atlantic states, and the South Atlantic states.

Even the French were not less important for the history of the American Language than the English settlers.They were explorers, trappers, traders, and missionaries who settled in the north and west and held the strategic points along the two great American rivers: the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi.One of the most sophisticated cities in the New World was French New Orleans, capital of the state of Louisiana, named after Louis XIV in 1682.

The Dutch settled east and built up New Amsterdam, which was renamed New York, because in 1664 British settlers seized that town and forced the Dutch to exchange that name which "was perhaps one of the worst tradeoffs in history."8

The Germans, who fled from religious persecution at home, and due to the failure of the revolution in 1848, were non-colonizing immigrants.These migrations began in 1683, when settlers from the kingdom of Bavaria reached Pennsylvania.

Many of the latter settled in certain central cities such as Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and St. Louis, or became farmers in the Middle West.9

The Irish have been looking hopefully to the New World and thus they were among the first to emigrate.In 1588 the first Irish settlements on the island of Newfoundland took place due to seasonal influences; fishermen went to the island for the summer cod-fishing season and returned home before the harsh winter.Gradually during the seventeenth century a slow migration developed the community on the island.

By 1790 the Irish population in the New World counted 400,000 and it was the largest non-English community.Traditionally, the Irish in America worked as laborers, servants or soldiers.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century the slave ships with people from West Africa began crossing the Atlantic to the West Indies and the ports of Georgia and South Carolina, and even to New York and Massachusetts."There were a handful of [those] slaves in 1619, half a million 1772, and four million when the civil war began."10 The slave trade continued until the mid-nineteenth century.

Apart from the Germans there were Jews (three million between 1880 and 1910), who mainly ended up on the Lower East Side of New York City, and Italians (more than five million between 1865 and 1920), who, on the other hand, settled in the great cities of the Northeast, who immigrated due to different motives to the United States.

But, as we all know, the English were not the first to get in contact with the New World America.

It was a Spanish man from Genoa called Cristoforo Colombo, whom we all more likely know as Christopher Columbus. In 1492 he sought out a westerly route to the East Indies and discovered new land by accident of which Columbus thought to be the Indies he searched for.

The Spanish people settled at the westcoast of the country - in the states ot Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas - which they called New Spanish. Later the continent was named after the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci.

2. A Comparison between British and American Englisch

"[...]We have come to the present, some three and a half centuries after the first English was spoken on the North American continent.During that time English was born, shaping itself from the various speech of displaced Englishmen, Welshmen, Irish, and Scots, until it is obviously the most rapidly burgeoning dialect of the most rapidly expanding language[...]"11

British English is the Mother of her offspring, American English.The English language from the British Isles came to the new continent and even before it arrived at the coast it began to intermingle.The language of Shakespeare got in contact with other varieties on its way to the New World.Soon a kind of melting pot, different languages joined the speech communities to broaden the new language ; unconsciously, that goes without saying.As noted above, there was Irish, German, Jewish, African.

Due to the fact that the immigrants soon began to travel or to move, "the merging of regional differences through the mixture of the population[...]by a certain mobility [...] characterizes the American people."12 Some Americans claimed, and still do, that the spoken English in both countries (the British Isles and the New World) was essentially the same.There are quotations from contemporaries

that intensify that statement in saying that "the Americans in general speak better English than the English do.No country or colonial dialect is to be distinguished there."13

On the next pages the differences will become obvious , not only due to logical thought, but due to having an intense look on certain linguistic features concerning the differences between British English and American English; always referring to the standard variation (e. g. reference accents RP and General American).

With regard to linguistic features the story dates back to the very first beginning of American English.

Early changes in vocabulary occured when colonists settled in the new country, because their language was not sufficient at all to refer to all these new experiences and objects they came in contact with.All these new experiences had a dramatic effect on the American language.

But as the years passed by, a comparison between standard British and American can not exclusively be made concerning lexis, but also with regard to the fields of pronounciation, stress and intonation, spelling and punctuation, grammar and morphology.

2.1 Pronounciation

In general, American speakers throughout the country differ concerning their pronounciation; "many speakers from the Middle West, for example have a `nasal twang`."14 15 This has the effect that the voice sounds darker and tenser.

Southern speakers are known for their typical `southern drawl`.16

British speakers, on the other hand, have a greater tension and a lesser degree of lengthening in stressed vowels at their disposal.

In the following descriptions the usual abbreviations for the British reference accent - the RP - and the American reference accent - the GenAm - will be used.

The consonants of RP and GenAm are identical according to number; both varieties count the same twenty-four phonemes.

With regard to the number of the vowels there is a difference between the varieties; RP has twenty, GenAm sixteen.

In the following lines the most obvious differences will be pointed out.

One of many noticable difference in its realization in the two accents is /r/ and /l/:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten17 18 19 20 21

2.2.Stress and Intonation

The stress patterns of RP and GenAm are generally the same.

The most obvious and nearly unique difference concerns words ending in -ary, -ery or -ory.

In RP they contain a single stressed syllable, which is the first or the second one in the word, and the second to last syllable is frequently elided.In GenAm the stress runs in the reverse direction; the stress is on the first syllable and in addition, secondary stress falls on the next to last syllable.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Stress on different syllables can be found in a number of words such as:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

According to pronounciation of RP or GenAm in general a whole lot of differences can be brought out.

The intonation pattern of RP is often characterized as more varied, that of GenAm as flatter.With regard to the Wh -question, for example, the GenAm shows a falling intonation while the RP uses a low rise at the end, "something which is perceived as friendlier."22

2.3 Spelling and Punctuation

Spelling and punctuation differences are, much like the majority of differences in pronounciation, not merely haphazard and unsystematic; they follow a certain pattern including simplification, regularization, and derivational uniformity.I will only have a quick look on these sub-chapters.

2.4 Simplification

Although the GenAm has a greater reputation for simplification, this principle can even be found in RP, only realized differently.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

"BrE employs some simplified spellings which have not been adopted in AmE, such as[...]:"23

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten24

2.5 Regularization

Again, this feature is more frequent in AmE than in BrE. Regularization always refers to the ending of a word, which means that the endings < -or > and < -our > are reduced to the single form < -or >.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

But this is not continuously the rule in BrE.

Here the two forms, < -our > and < -or > occur side by side: neighbour and saviour, but there are even forms like donor and professor or honour and valour, but metaphor and anterior.

Although BrE seems to be without a rule according to regularization there is one with regard to special endings. The ending < -ation > and < -ious > lead to the form with the ending < -or- > as in coloration and laboriuos, the ending < -al > and < -ful > as in behavioural and colourful, have no such effect.

In AmE there is a rule that words like glamour and Saviour retain the < -our > ending perhaps because to simplify the spelling of these words.

Another well-known rule concerns the endings < -er > and < -re >.British words with the ending < -re > became the AmE ending < -er >.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten25

2.6 Derivational Uniformity

In BrE one writes defence, offence, pretence, but practise (as a verb), while in AmE one writes defense, offense, pretense, but practice.

On the other hand it is the other way round; BrE writes analyse and paralyse where AmE writes analyze and paralyze.

2.7 Individual Words ` Difference in Spelling

When having a look on the difference concerning the prefixes < in- > and < en- >, there is no clear principle to be found, except the preference in AmE for the use of the prefix < in- > and in BrE for < en- >.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

According to the writing of compound words the BrE has the preference to hyphenate those as in make-up and neo-colonialism, while AmE writes make up and neocolonialism.

Although these usages varies from dictionary to dictionary there is a tendency to the usage of single unhyphenate words.

The following examples show the most common differences in spelling:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Other striking differences can be found in advertising, more frequently in AmE than in BrE, as in kwik (quick), donut (doughnut), e-z (easy), rite (right, write), blu (blue), tuff (tough) and many more.

2.8 Grammar

2.8.1 The Noun

Here it has to be noted "that some words appear regularly in the singular in the one, but in the plural in the other variety."26

BrE uses the words overheads and maths in the plural, whereas AmE uses the singular; the plural cases accomodations and sports in AmE are contradictory to BrE singular accomodation and sport. In BrE it is possible to use words like fish or shrimp even in the plural, while this is impossible in AmE.

2.8.2 The Adverb

In AmE a greater tendency to use adjectives rather than adverbs can be noticed, which mainly refers to speech and informal writing and sports journalism as in You did that real good. 27

2.8.3 Word Order

The differences in British and American word order are quite striking.

In BrE the use of Will you give it me ? for common Will you give it to me? or Will you give me it ? is possible, even the inversion Monday last, which is impossible in AmE.

In business letters the Americans choose the close Sincerely yours while the British use Yours sincerely.

2.8.4 Lexis

Differences in lexis can occur due to different reasons, that do not necessarily lead to misunderstandings. In the following lines I`ll list examples concerning different word fields.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

These fields are only an extract out of many more, such as government, politics, cooking and baking etc., in everyday life in Britain as well as in the United States.

Due to constant language change in the world the lists mentioned above might only be up to date today; items, that bear different meaning in the two varieties nowadays, might be similar in meaning tomorrow and vice versa.

3. American English itself and its dialects

The impact on the early colonists can still be recognized especially for British visitors to the United States nowadays.They today often note "the unmistakable sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century characteristics still evident in the American language."28

Even if we take a look on grammar, we will recognize that "nineteenth-century American grammar [...] is not demonstrably different from nineteenth-century British grammar [...]."29

When we speak of American English standard we refer to the "Network Standard".American broadcasting as an important medium since years evolved its own all-American accent, the "Network Standard", which has, unlike Britain, no class connotation.

Regional characteristics of Southern, Texan or Brooklyn speech built that standard due to clarity, intelligibility and neutrality.

The impact of foreign languages like German, Yiddish, Dutch, Flemish, Danish, Swedish, French, Italian,

Portuguese and Spanish as well as borrowings from Hebrew and Arabic, Chinese and languages of Australia or West Africa leads to a great "unique vitality"of the language.Nearly 80% of the American English vocabulary is foreign-born.

At the time of the American Revolution and especially in the years following it, Americans gradually became

conscious of their language and still do.They regard their language as a marker of nationality and they live and speak for patriotism.

If we speak of an American English standard we must even mention those various dialects that make up an important part of American English.

4. The American Dialects

There is no recognized standard pronounciation for the whole of the United States as there is for England.30

For a long time it was customary to distinguish three main dialects: the New England dialect, the Southern dialect, and General American, which refers to the rest of the country, where pronounciation is particularly uniform. This appoach proofed wrong, because each dialect couldn`t clearly be distinguished from the other; on the one hand, for example, not all of New England shares in the features said to be characteristic or parts of the South were settled by people from the North and are not typically southern in speech.On the other hand, general American shows regional differences as well.

In 1949 Hans Kurath published A Word Geography of the Eastern United States. He distinguished eighteen speech areas, which he grouped into three main groups:Northern, Midland, and Southern, which gave a broader overview over the dialect continuum.

I will have a look on seven dialects out of Kurath`s study; the Eastern New England, the New York City, Inland Northern, the North Midland, the South Midland, the Southern, and the General American.31

4.1 Eastern New England

Kurath took Boston as the focal area32, where they got a rounded vowel in words like hot and top, whereas the rest of the country has a unrounded vowel like the a in father.

Bostoners use a broad a in fast, path, grass, etc. and leave out the r in words like car, hard, etc., except before vowels as in carry or Tory.

4.2 New York City

Although often considered a part of the Eastern New England dialect, the speech of New York City is quite different.

The use of the non-prevocalic r has increased since the second world war and has become a reliable indicator of social class, a prestige marker.33

Words like cot and caught are phonemically contrasted [k.t, k.t] since the o in words like cot and top , before voiceless stops, is almost always unrounded.The pronounciation of curl like coil and third as thoid is the most distinctive characteristic in the popular mind, although it should be mentioned that among cultivated New Yorkers curl and coil are phonemically distinct [k..l, k..l].

4.3 Inland Northern

Like the speech of eastern New England, Inland Northern distinguishes [o] in words like mourning and hoarse from [..] in morning and horse.It has [.] regularly in with, [s] in the verb grease and in the adjective greasy, and [u] in roots.

The Inland Northern differs strikingly from Eastern New England in its retention of the postvocalic [r] and in the occurrence of the vowel [.] in words like ask etc..

4.4 North Midland

The North Midland dialect is in some cases similar to the Inland Northern dialect.

It preserves the r in all positions and has [.] in fast, ask, grass, etc..In the subarea, the Middle Atlantic34, the speech has the unrounded vowel in forest as well as in hot, the [.] of egg in care, Mary, merry, and a merging of [o] and [.] before [r] in four and fourty. South Midland35

Due to the first settlement from Pennsylvania and later from the South, the speech shows a mixed character out of this regions."Although none of the dialect features of South Midland are unique in themselves and all of them occur in either Midland or Southern, the configuration of features is peculiar to the South Midland."36 This can be seen in the fact that the r is sounded as in Midland, but [a.] is pronounced [a.].

4.6 Southern

The important focal areas in the Southern part of the country are the Virginia Piedmont and the low country near the coast of South Carolina.

A striking feature of the Southern dialect is the Southern drawl, which is characterized by the diphtongization or double diphtongization of stressed vowels, which is not only a matter of slower enunciation, but arouses a muttering sound.This is clearly obvious in the word yes; it becomes [j..s] or [j.j.s]; class becomes [kl..s] or [kl...s] etc..In nonstandard use speakers tend to omit final consonants due to a weakened articulation: last, kept and find become las`, kep` and fin`.

In addition, there is a similar feature to the drawl; the nasal twang, which describes the nasalized pronounciation of vowels.

In many districts the dialect features agree with eastern New England in the loss of r finally and before consonants, as in car and hard. Even in cases where the word begins with a vowel the r is omitted like in far away [f. : .`we].The dialect does not have the rounded vowel in top and hot, or the broad a in grass and dance.

4.7 General American

This dialect "[...] was widely accepted as one of the three main dialects of American English, along with New

England and Southern."37 It was characterized by the flat a (in fast, path, etc.), the unrounded vowel in hot, top, etc., and the retention of a strong r in all positions.The pronounciation of postvocalic /r/ before consonants and in final positions makes GenAmE a rhotic accent.All vowels followed by /r/ are affected by a so-called `r- colouring`.38

Additional information can be gathered from part 2.

5. Result

Can American English be regarded as a separate language apart from British English?

After having read the preceding pages a possible logical answer to the question above could be affirmative to me, because there are so many differences to the much-discussed question that regarding American language as complete seperate is one possibility, despite a whole range of contradictory opinions.

G. B. Shaw regards Britain and the United States as "two countries divided by a common tongue."39 He quotes that American and British English are similar enough to avoid communication problems. And even Noah Webster "[...] predicted in 1789 that Englisch and American would become as different from each other "as the modern Dutch, Danish, and Swedish are from German."40

I think that the discussion, wether American English is a separate language or not, is more than much-discussed, but neverending.

The most important thing in this context is in any case to keep the origins, influences and effects of American English in mind.



A History of the English Language

3rd edition (revised)

London etc., 1978


The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language 2nd edition

Cambridge, 1997


Modern British and American English Pronounciation A Basic Textbook

Paderborn, 1998

4. HOOK, J. N.

History of the English Language New York, 1975


London, New York, 1995


Language in America

London etc., 1972


The Story of English

New and Revised Edition

New York etc., 1993


Die Englische Sprache in den USA: Variation und Struktur

Teil 1

Tübingen, 1982


1 Mc CRUM, CRAN AND MACNEIL, The Story of English, New and Revised Edition, 1993, p. 2

2 McCRUM, CRAN AND MACNEIL, The Story of English, New and Revised Edition, 1993, p. 88

3 see above, p. 92

4 see above, p. 89

5 see above, p. 98

6 see above, p. 98

7 McCRUM, CRAN, AND MACNEIL, New and Revised Edition, 1993, p. 99

8 see above, p. 107

9 compare: BAUGH, ALBERT C,, CABLE, THOMAS, A History of the English Language, 3rd edition, 1978, p. 342

10 see above, p. 200

11 LAIRD, CHARLTON, Language in America, 1972, p. 481

12 BAUGH, C. ALBERT, CABLE, THOMAS, A History of the English Language, 3rd edition, 1978, p. 349

13 McCRUM, CRAN, MACNEIL, The Story of English, New and Revised edition, 1993, p. 225

14 `GRAMLEY, STEPHAN, PÄTZOLD, KURT-MICHAEL, A Survey of Modern English, 1995, p. 336

15 articulatory habit of leaving the velum open so that the nasal cavity forms a further resonance chamber

16 drawing out of sounds is due perhaps to an overall lack of tension in articulation

17 made with the tongue raised and tensed in the area just behind the alveolar ridge

18 made with the tip of the tongue turned backwards

19 with a flap of the tongue tip against the alveolar ridge; usually perceived as a /d/; see CRYSTAL, DAVID, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 2nd edition, 1997, p. 159

20 see DRETZKE, BURKHARD, Modern British and American English Pronounciation, 1998, p. 65

21 <a> followed by an <s>, an <f>, a <th>, an <m> or an <n>

22 GRAMLEY, STEPHAN, PÄTZOLD, KURT-MICHAEL, A Survey of Modern English, 1995, p. 342

23 see above, p. 344

24 might be reflection of pronounciation

25 GRAMLEY, STEPHAN, PÄTZOLD, KURT-MICHAEL, A Survey of Modern English, 1995, p. 345

26 GRAMLEY, STEPHAN, PÄTZOLD, KURT-MICHAEL, A Survey of Modern English, 1995, p. 354

27 compare GRAMLEY, STEPHAN, PÄTZOLD, KURT-MICHAEl, A Survey of Modern English, 1995, p. 357

28 McCRUM, CRAN, MACNEIL, The Story of English, New and Revised Edition, 1993, p. 105

29 LAIRD, CHARLTON, Language in America, 1970, p. 309

30 DRETZKE, BURKHARD, Modern and American English Pronounciation; 1998, p. 165

31 parts of states that lie to the east of the Conneticut River in Massachusetts and Conneticut and east of the Green Mountains in Vermont

32 focal, because of its political, commercial, cultural, or other importance (e.g. social)

33 see LABOV, WILLIAM, The Social Stratification of English in New York City, 1966, pp. 63-89, 207-43

34 includes the eastern third of Pennsylnania, the southern half of New Jersey, the northern half of Delaware and adjacent parts of Maryland

35 includes all of West Virginia except the counties bordering on Pennsylvania and Maryland, the mountain regions of Virginia and North Carolina, most of Kentucky and Tennessee

36 BAUGH, ALBERT C., CABLE, THOMAS, A History of the English Language, 3rd edition, 1978, p. 373

37 see above, p. 374

38 due to the production of the vowel where the tongue curls slightly and is pulled back in the mouth Æretroflex /r/

39 see OOMEN, URSULA, Die Englische Sprache in den USA: Variation und Struktur, Teil 1, 1982, 20

40 HOOK, J. N., History of the English Language, 1975

17 of 17 pages


The History of the American Language
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"
Seminar: History of the English Language, Professor: Ulrike Schemmann, M.A.
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History, American, Language, Seminar, English, Professor, Ulrike, Schemmann
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Anja Hinz (Author), 1999, The History of the American Language, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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