What is U.S. English?

Definition. American English (AmE) is the received standard spoken in the United States. Most of its features are also shared with Canadian English (see below). However, it is important to separate the standards since U.S. English is chiefly based on the dialects spoken in the Mid-Western states (like Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota).

 

Although for historical reasons Candada kept more features of today’s British English than the Americans, the dialect of North America closest to R.P. is New England English, whose speakers are mostly from the United States. Popular perception of American English sometimes leads us to believe that AmE is a corruption of British English.

This can hardly be the case because linguists have proven that a language changes and evolves as long as there is a substantially numerous community who speak it, keeps it up-to-date and ensures that there is a relative uniformilty that allows it to be understood by all the speakers within that community.

Also, American English did not in issue from what we recognize today as the English of England. In fact, it did, only American English branched out of the Standard English used at the time, i.e. the Northern English spoken by the Elizabethans whereas U.K. English developed from the Kentish dialects.

In other words Northern English was the basis for the standard used by Shakespeare. As such, English was exported to America. But in England the Northern Standard was already losing ground to Southern English dialects at Shakeapeare’s times. A few centuries later when the English of England took up the traits of today’s R.P. it only did so by assimilating the traits of South Eastern dialects (more at lexis).

Uniformity of American English

In spite of the melting pot that makes up American society, the English spoken in North America shows a remarkable degree of uniformity. Some scholars explain it by pointing to the fact that North-Americans are frequent movers (commuter is American), so that speakers of different dialects influenced each other blending their differences in one big national dialect. People in the U.S. often travel long distances across state borders, and many change state several times during their lifetime. Though this cannot be applied to all classes, it has certainly helped reduce linguistic barriers between English-speaking communities.

Linguistic diversity in Britain and Europe

There seems to be less linguistic uniformity in Europe, though in many ways it can be considered a richness, and many Europeans usually master one or more dialects besides their own national standard. Linguistic differences are more numerous and marked within a single nation because such dialects could mature independently in more than one thousand years of relative isolation.

Even in Old England, travelling was difficult and risky especially in medieval times, and the number of dialects within a single English county were necessarily the product of a forced isolation that lasted for several centuries, only to be eased by the railroad and the steamboat in Victorian times. The same applies to continental Europe, where the local dialects within nations are often non-native.

Some of them are considered foreign languages in their own right: Sardinian, Old Albanian, Franco-provençal and South-Tyrolean in Italy, Corsican and Breton in France, Bavarian and Saxon in Germany, Basque in Spain and Catalan in France and Spain being just a few.

Phonetics of American English

Rhotic R

The first thing one notes is that U.S. (and Canadian) English has a rhotic R in all positions (not just in tRend or mateRial, but in neaR and aRt as well.) This is an archaic trait that survived from OE into the 17th century.

This was further reinforced by the immigration of Irish and Scottish farmers. R is, however, a flap and no longer trilled as in Scotland or Northern England. The only exception is Eastern New England (Massachussetts, Maine, New Haven, Rhode Island, N.Y. And Northern N.J.) and its bordering areas, where R is not sounded at the end of a word or before a consonant as in England: in Boston, traveler and term sound more like ‘traveluh’ and ‘tuhm’.

The New York City accent is typically non-rhotic although some New Yorkers tend to conform to Standard American, perceiving the local dialect as a mark of low class. Typical of American English is the whine-wine merger. In R.P. WH- words, the W often merges with a harsh H sound, who, what sounding like hwoo, hwot as in Old English, and this rule is also applied in Scottish English, but Standard American English does without the H, so who, what, whose sound like woo, wot, woos. In North America T and D may be flapped, so that words like latter and ladder sound homophonous: the T sonorises, and becomes an alveolar tap, not much distinguished from TH of weather.

Because some speakers are influenced by the Canadian Raising, however, writer and rider do not merge since the T raises the /a/ of the diphthong to a schwa. Also greater and grader, writer and rider bitten and bidden may be spoken differently by some since T preceded by /ai/, /ei/ or /i/ keeps its full value.

The American A Flat A of ‘cat’, ‘fat’, ‘bat’, and broad A of can, can’t, path, bath sound closer to /e/ in the U.S. And Canada than in England or New England. This sound further aproximates to /e/ in the Southern States, while /i/ of ‘bit’ opens to /e/ of ‘bet’. Where British R.P. has broad A of car (path, aunt, past, can’t, half etc) American English has flat A of cat, fat, sad, but Eastern new England keeps the R.P. Distinction.

More American Vowels

Words like ‘bed’, ‘get’ may sometimes raise their vowel to /i/: /git/, /bid/ especially in the South. E in words like ‘pen’ and ‘pin’ also tends to close to /i/ in Standard American. This is known as the pin-pen merger (words like pin and pen take the same sound ‘pin’) and occurs because the nasal N causes a raising of the vowel: e > i. In Standard American English R.P. cot and caught merge (this applies to New England as well). In R.P., however, these vowels are kept distinct.

The differences between Eastern New England and Standard American can be explained by the fact that the Northern shore of the U.S. remained somewhat exposed to British influence, while the mainland was cut off from the Old World. In the southern states some traits of the West County dialects persist, including non-rhoticity, monophthongization (words like wide and fair sound like wahd and feh).

R.P. Distinction between hurry and furry is usually kept, but the lax-tense distinction of fill and feel is not retained and a short vowel is used in both cases. Many southern traits are also kept in Black English although this differs from that in other respects.

Schwa

Sometimes a schwa is also heard in between E and N, and not just in words affected by the pin-pen merger, but also in man, can, bang. It is also possible to hear this extra vowel in words like hoarse, four (‘or-er’), vs horse, for (‘or’). Words like loud, sound, shift the first vowel of the diphthong towards /e/ while the u tends to open to /o/, sounding something like ‘la-od’, sa-ond.

Palatilization of dentals

Words like ‘mature’, ‘future’, ‘endure’, ensure, are ahead of their British counterparts in palatalising the dental into ch/sh. This outcome is caused by the contact of an alveolar consonant with an original ‘yoo’ or ‘yuh’ sound: muh-‘tchoo-ur, ‘fyoo-tchur, en-‘joohur vs. U.K. Muh -‘tyoo-uh, ‘fyoo-tyuh, end-‘yoohur. It must also be noted that in the United States the /ju:/ always loses /j/ after an alveolar consonant: cfr. new /nu:/, lute /lu:t/, suit /su:t/, sue /su:/, but not in rebuke /re ‘bju:k/ or refute /re’fju:t/.

‘Sure’ and compounds (as ‘assure’, ‘ensure’ etc.) that exceptionally change /ju:/ to /o:/ in RP do not in American English, although a post-tonic schwa is sometimes added: shoo-ur, shurr are all possible standard variations.

Lexis

Historical background

Isolation allowed the inland states to preserve many of those archaic traits from Elizabethan England we mentioned earlier. The Atlantic coast had more contacts with England and this must account for the fact that it was sensibly influenced by the changes that took place in England from the 17th century.Until recently, RP was considered prestigious and therefore imitated as much as possible. Such changes impacted especially on Eastern New England, and to some extent, to the southern United States.

mad (OE)(ME) = angry (OE) (ME)

hire (OE and ME) = to employ

quit (ME) = to stop

smart (OE,ME) = intelligent

dirt (ME) = loose soil

guess/ to suppose

dampen (1630)/ to put off

oftentimes (1430) / often

supplemental (1605)/supplementary

overly (OE oferlice) /excessively

presently (17th c)/ now

meet with / to meet

baggage (ME)/luggage

hit (a place) (ME) /get, arrive at

to squire (ME, 1386)/ to escort (esp. A lady)

to loan (no later than Henry VIII) /take a loan, borrow

Others are no longer common in Britain and are usually mistaken for Americanisms, where they are just plain old-fashioned British words. Some of them even originated in 19th century Britain:

Fall (1664) (n the sense of autumn, gotten (past participle of get) obligate, oblige acclimate, doghouse, broil, rider / passenger sidewalk / pavement, faucet, spigot, coverall, necktie, range /cook stove letter carrier, attorney/ lawyer misdemeanor (law), teller (in a bank), crib (for a child), plat/ pillow cushion pocketbook, monkey wrench, candy, night table, to name for, station house, police, wastebasket, skillet, raise (a child) diaper.

Another reason for introducing new words may be that pioneers were moving farther and farther west meting with new environments (plants, animals, landscapes) and peoples. The new republican nation produced by the American Revolution also called for a rich new vocabulary to use with institutions no one had invented before then. However, the Industrial Revolution is also responsible for many new terms, which spread on both sides of the Atlantic.

The trasportation (U.K. transport) prompted a new wave of new terms, since the U.S. Rail and automobile industries were crucial in the aconomic development of North America. Following that, it was the turn of a host of great discoveries that brought an incredible array of new appliances in the homes of Americans and from there spread to Europe and the World. (see following par.)

New words of Indian origin

Terms like moose, racoon, skunk, opossum, chipmunk, porgy, terrapin, wigwam, tomawawk, canoe, squaw, papoose, canoe, mocassin were introduced because they describe something that existed neither in Britain nor in British English.

New words coined by the colonists

The words we have just quoted are of Indian origin, but there are others that the colonists did not found ready made on the spot, and had to be invented wholesale, as mud hen, garter snake, bull frog, potato bug, ground hog, reed bird, squatter, prairie, prairie dog, cold snap, log cabin, corncrib, popocorn, snowplow, sleigh.

Finally, some British words acquired new meaning in America: it is the case of snag (a dead, branchless tree), neck (of the woods), trail, bottomland (a term for lowland), timberline (a line separating woodless land from forest)divide (also known as watershead in the commonwealth), gulch (a term for a deep, V-shaped canal, usually dry.

There are significant loanwords for geography terms from other European languages, since the English were preceded by the Dutch, French, and Spanish: prairie, butte (a steep hill flattened on top), bayou (a slow-moving creek), coulee (a paved drainage canal in Louisiana, i.e. a steep ravine covered in debris in the North-western U.S. and Southwestern Canada) come from French.

Words like canyon, mesa (a flat high plain in the torrid regions of the U.S.), arroyo (a dry creek that fills with rainwater) are of Spanish origin. Dutch has given us kill (from kil), another term from ‘creek’, a North-American term for “stream”.

New political terms

A second cause was the new system of government that resulted from the American Revolution. Congress, senate, congressional, presidential, congressman, senator, administration, gubernatorial, governmental, caucus, primaries, lobby, pressure group, fundraising, fundraiser, gerrymander, maverick, pow-wow, bipartisan, appropriation (commitee), federal agency are U.S.-only terms.Some, like governmental, lobby, lynch-law and maverick have probably filtered through the other Englishes because they are applicable to international politics.

New words from the Industrial Revolution

Thirdly, the industrial revolution provided a vast range of terms for the new inventions and innovations. Lighting-rod, Franlin stove(Ben Franklin), phonograph (Th.A. Edison), airplane (the Wright Brothers), aviator, automobile (which became popular with the Ford T), also adjectivally as in automobile industry or just as a formal term for car). More follows below.

Technical terms for the railway and automobile industry

The lexical divide for transportation (or U.K. transport) with the Commonwealth is especially deep with automotive and railway terms: expressway (a multi-lane, divided highway, like the English motorway), interstate (road), windshield (U.K. Windscreen), streetcar (U.K. Tram), trunk (the back compartment of a car for storing luggage, U.K. boot), hood (the hinged cover of a car engine, U.K. Bonnet), hatchback, SUV (universally known as 4WD or 4×4), truck (U.K. Lorry), pickup truck, compact car (U.K. Family car), tire (U.K. Tyre), parkig lot (U.K. Car park).

The gap is also wide in the railroad (U.S.) or railway (U.K.) industry: engineer (U.K. Train driver),freight (U.K. Goods train),conductor (U.K. guard), switches (U.K. Junction), railroad car (U.K. rolling stock), subway (U.K. tube – in Britain subway stands for an underground passage for pedestrians connecting different platforms), round-trip (U.K. return ticket or return). More recently, Silicon Valley contributed most terms in information technology at a rate that almost reflects the exponential growth of the net.

American words in British English

There are plenty of words from the U.S., but their number would be far higher if we also included those that have migrated to the other Englishes through commerce, technology, politics and science. In fact, many British citizens are not entirely aware that many of the words they use in everyday life are not of British origin but American ones which have the ability to blend in the new phonetic environment when they are read from a text. The reason for this is that many of these words are perfectly compatible with the English phonetic system, especially when they are ‘etymologically neutral’ (i.e. do not hint explicitly to their geographic origin, as ‘caucus’ does). When these words cannot be localised, they stand a good chance of being mistaken for, and therefore naturalized as, British ones. That also applies to the Commonwealth, which is generally more inclined to stick to RP rather than U.S. English. Acceptance of American words outside America also depends on social factors, whether they are featured in a popular song, or are used by a famous actor in a movie, but the newsrooms also do their part, if for example an English reporter works in a warzone where U.S. troops are stationed. Without going too far we absorb so many every time Silicon Valley develops some plugin or gizmo that did not exist before, including brand names which in time are used for any product of that kind, as media player or I-Pod. Because English-language forums, podcasts and newsgroups often groups English speakers from different countries, they are also potential outlets for these new words. Britain’s relationship with the U.S., the presence of a scientific community strongly funded by U.S. institutions and businesses, the internet, where most of the software giants come from Silicon Valley, the Hollywood establishment are the biggest forces behind the penetration of U.S. English in the world. Will we be still be talking about language varieties in a few years of broadband internet on portable PCs, I-pods, and cell phones all talking to each other? What can an interconnected world do to protect its regional differences? Although the answer might seem obvious, the net is not just the workhorse of globalization but a terrific opportunity for linguists to share information around the world, uniting their efforts to save those very languages that are on the verge of extinction. The net is the use we make of it, and the more culture we feed into it, the better.

Prefixation

Prefix pronunciation

U.S. English pronunciation tends to sever prefixes from the rest of the word so that ‘detour’, ‘incoming’, ‘outbound’ sound as if there was a pause in between: dee-tour, in-coming, out-bound sound as if the stress fell on the prefix rather than on the root (the body of the word, i.e. tour, come, bound). Prefixation is also subject to other exceptions: semi- multi- pluri- etc. diphthongise the I (as in ‘I’ am).

-ILE Words

On the contrary, words ending in -ile in polisyllabic words like mobile, missile, futile do not develop the I-diphthong in the U.S.: the I becomes ‘schwa’, but there are few exceptions like ‘reptile’, ‘textile’. It does not look like Canadian English is much affected by this pronunciation. 3.9 Backformation Typically American is to backform new verbs from substantives: cfr. impact, table, burglarize (< impact, burglar, table). The English do not make verbs this way, but use alternative constructs when a single verb is not available:

Three hooded men burgled my home yesterday (U.K.)

Three hooded men burglarized my home yesterday night (U.S.)

The pensions reform is going to have a negative impact on seniors (U.K.)

The pensions reform is going to impact negatively on seniors (U.S.)

Stressing

In RP, only stressed vowels have a distinct value, whereas unstressed vowels usually become schwas. However, American English tends to differentiate unstressed vowels as well. For eg. extraordinary, military, depository, inventory are not pronounced extraordin’ry , milit’ry, deposit’ry and invent’ry, and one can hear the flat A (as in fan) of military as well as the O of ‘or’ in inventory.

They sound as if a secondary stress were falling on these vowels. It is not that easy to draw the line between stressed and unstressed, however, since Americans usually do not so much stress or unstress, as ‘tense’ or ‘lax’ their syllables, meaning that boundaries are not really so clear-cut as in RP.

M.B.

History of U.S. English

American verses British English

One thought on “What is U.S. English?

  1. admin Post author

    This is part of a research I made a few years ago. I think we have more on the subject – we’re gonna have more in the future, please come visit us again!

    Reply

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