American English

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Languages

English language spread in the United States. The deeper the shade of blue, the higher the percentage of English speakers in the state.
English language spread in the United States. The deeper the shade of blue, the higher the percentage of English speakers in the state.

American English (AmE) is the dialect of the English language used mostly in the United States of America. It is estimated that approximately two thirds of native speakers of English live in the United States. American English is also sometimes called United States English or U.S. English.

The use of English in the United States has been inherited from British colonization. The first wave of English-speaking settlers arrived in North America in the 17th century. In that century, there were also speakers in North America of Dutch, French, German, Spanish, Swedish, Scots, Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Finnish, and a myriad of Native American languages.


In many ways, compared to British English, American English is conservative in its phonology. Dialects in North America are most distinctive on the East Coast of the continent partly because these areas were in contact with England, and imitated prestigious varieties of British English at a time when those varieties were undergoing changes, and partly merely because many speech communities on the East Coast have existed in their present locations longer than others. The interior of the country was settled by people who were not closely connected to England, as they had no access to the ocean during a time when journeys to Britain were always by sea. As such, the inland speech is much more homogeneous than the East Coast speech and did not imitate the changes in speech from England.

The red areas are those where non-rhotic pronunciations are found among some white people in the United States. AAVE-influenced non-rhotic pronunciations may be found among black people throughout the country.
The red areas are those where non-rhotic pronunciations are found among some white people in the United States. AAVE-influenced non-rhotic pronunciations may be found among black people throughout the country.

Most North American speech is rhotic, as English was in most places in the 17th century. Rhoticity was further supported by Hiberno-English, Scottish English, and West Country English. In most varieties of North American English, the sound corresponding to the letter "R" is a retroflex or alveolar approximant rather than a trill or a tap. The loss of syllable-final r in North America is confined mostly to the accents of eastern New England, New York City and surrounding areas, South Philadelphia, and the coastal portions of the South. Dropping of syllable-final r sometimes happens in natively rhotic dialects if r is located in unaccented syllables or words and the next syllable or word begins in a consonant. In England, lost 'r' was often changed into [ə] ( schwa), giving rise to a new class of falling diphthongs. Furthermore, the 'er' sound of (stressed) fur or (unstressed) butter, which is represented in IPA as stressed [ɝ] or unstressed [ɚ] is realized in American English as a monophthongal r-colored vowel. This does not happen in the non-rhotic varieties of North American speech.

Some other British English changes in which most North American dialects do not participate:

  • The shift of [æ] to [ɑ] (the so-called " broad A") before [f], [s], [θ], [ð], [z], [v] alone or preceded by [n]. This is the difference between the British Received Pronunciation and American pronunciation of bath and dance. In the United States, only linguistically conservative eastern New England speakers took up this innovation, which is becoming increasingly rare even there.
  • The shift of intervocalic [t] to glottal stop [ʔ], as in /bɒʔəl/ for bottle. This change is not universal for British English (and in fact is not considered to be part of Received Pronunciation), but it does not occur in most North American dialects. Newfoundland English and the dialect of New Britain, Connecticut are notable exceptions.

On the other hand, North American English has undergone some sound changes not found in Britain, at least not in standard varieties. Many of these are instances of phonemic differentiation and include:

  • The merger of [ɑ] and [ɒ], making father and bother rhyme. This change is nearly universal in North American English, occurring almost everywhere except for parts of eastern New England, like the Boston accent.
  • The replacement of the lot vowel with the strut vowel in most utterances of the words was, of, from, what, everybody, nobody, somebody, anybody, because, and in some dialects want.
  • The merger of [ɒ] and [ɔ]. This is the so-called cot-caught merger, where cot and caught are homophones. This change has occurred in eastern New England, in Pittsburgh and surrounding areas, and from the Great Plains westward.
  • Vowel merger before intervocalic /r/. Which (if any) vowels are affected varies between dialects.
  • The merger of [ʊɹ] and [ɝ] after palatals in some words, so that cure, pure, mature and sure rhyme with fir in some speech registers for some speakers.
  • Dropping of [j] after alveolar consonants so that new, duke, Tuesday, suit, resume, lute are pronounced /nuː/, /duːk/, /tuːzdeɪ/, /suːt/, /ɹɪzuːm/, /luːt/.
  • æ-tensing in environments that vary widely from accent to accent. In some accents, particularly those from Philadelphia to New York City, [æ] and [eə] can even contrast sometimes, as in Yes, I can [kæn] vs. tin can [keən].
  • Laxing of /e/, /i/ and /u/ to /ɛ/, /ɪ/ and /ʊ/ before /ɹ/, causing pronunciations like [pɛɹ], [pɪɹ] and [pjʊɹ] for pair, peer and pure.
  • The flapping of intervocalic /t/ and /d/ to alveolar tap [ɾ] before reduced vowels. The words ladder and latter are mostly or entirely homophonous, though distinguished by some speakers by a lengthened vowel preceding an underlying 'd'. For some speakers, the merger is incomplete and 't' before a reduced vowel is sometimes not tapped following [eɪ] or [ɪ] when it represents underlying 't'; thus greater and grader are distinguished. Even among those words where /t/ and /d/ are flapped, words that would otherwise be homophonous are, for some speakers, distinguished if the flapping is immediately preceded by the diphthongs /ɑɪ/ or /ɑʊ/; these speakers tend to pronounce writer with [əɪ] and rider with [ɑɪ]. This is called Canadian raising; it is general in Canadian English, and occurs in some northerly versions of American English as well (often just applying to the diphthong /ɑɪ/, but not to /ɑʊ/).
  • Both intervocalic /nt/ and /n/ may be realized as [n] or [ɾ̃], making winter and winner homophones. This does not occur when the second syllable is stressed, as in entail.
  • The pin-pen merger, by which [ɛ] is raised to [ɪ] before nasal consonants, making pairs like pen/pin homophonous. This merger originated in Southern American English but is now found in parts of the Midwest and West as well.

Some mergers found in most varieties of both American and British English include:

  • The horse-hoarse merger of the vowels [ɔ] and [oʊ] before 'r', making pairs like horse/hoarse, corps/core, for/four, morning/mourning etc. homophones.
  • The wine-whine merger making pairs like wine/whine, wet/whet, Wales/whales, wear/where etc. homophones, in most cases eliminating /ʍ/, the voiceless labiovelar fricative. Many older varieties of southern and western American English still keep these distinct, but the merger appears to be spreading.

Differences between British English and American English

American English has many spelling differences from English as used elsewhere (especially British English), some of which were made as part of an attempt to make more rational the spelling used in Britain at the time. Unlike many 20th century language reforms (for example, Turkey's alphabet shift, Norway's spelling reform) the American spelling changes were not driven by government, but by textbook writers and dictionary makers. Spelling tendencies in Britain from the 17th century until the present day (e.g. -ise for -ize, programme for program, kerb for curb (noun), skilful for skillful, chequered for checkered, etc.), in some cases favored by the francophile tastes of 19th century Victorian England, had little effect on American English.

The first American dictionary was written by Noah Webster in 1828. At the time the United States was a relatively new country and Webster's particular contribution was to show that the region spoke a different dialect from Britain, and so he wrote a dictionary with many spellings differing from the standard. Many of these changes were initiated unilaterally by Webster.

Webster also argued for many "simplifications" to the idiomatic spelling of the period. Many, although not all, of his simplifications fell into common usage alongside the original versions with simple spelling modifications.

Some words with simplified spellings in American English are words such as centre, colour, and maneuver, which are spelled centre, colour, and manoeuvre in other forms of English.

American English also has many lexical differences from British English (BrE). American English sometimes favors words that are morphologically more complex, whereas British English uses clipped forms, such as AmE transportation and BrE transport or where the British form is a back-formation, such as AmE burglarize and BrE burgle (from burglar).


North America has given the English lexicon many thousands of words, meanings, and phrases. Several thousand are now used in English as spoken internationally; several however died within a few years of their creation.

Creation of an American lexicon

The process of coining new lexical items started as soon as the colonists began borrowing names for unfamiliar flora, fauna, and topography from the Native American languages. Examples of such names are opossum, raccoon, squash, and moose (from Algonquian). Other Native American loanwords, such as wigwam or moccasin, describe artificial objects in common use among Native Americans. The languages of the other colonizing nations also added to the American vocabulary; for instance, cookie, cruller, and pit (of a fruit) from Dutch; levee, portage "carrying of boats or goods," and (probably) gopher from French; barbecue, stevedore from Spanish.

Among the earliest and most notable regular "English" additions to the American vocabulary, dating from the early days of colonization through the early 19th century, are terms describing the features of the North American landscape; for instance, run, branch, fork, snag, bluff, gulch, neck (of the woods), barrens, bottomland, intervale, notch, knob, riffle, rapids, watergap, cutoff, trail, timberline, and divide. Already existing words such as creek, slough, sleet, and (in later use) watershed, received new meanings that were unknown in England. Other noteworthy American toponyms are found among loanwords; for example, prairie, butte (French); bayou (Louisiana French); coulee (Canadian French, but used also in Louisiana with a different meaning); canyon, mesa, arroyo (Spanish); vlei, kill (Dutch, Hudson Valley).

The word corn, used in England to refer to wheat (or any cereal), came to denote the plant Zea mays, the most important crop in the U.S., originally named Indian corn by the earliest settlers; wheat, rye, barley, oats, etc. came to be collectively referred to as grain (or breadstuffs). Other notable farm related vocabulary additions were the new meanings assumed by barn (not only a building for hay and grain storage, but also for housing livestock) and team (not just the horses, but also the vehicle along with them), as well as, in various periods, the terms range, (corn) crib, lay by (a crop), truck, elevator, sharecropping, and feedlot.

Ranch, later applied to a house style, derives from Mexican Spanish; most Spanish contributions came indeed after the War of 1812, with the opening of the West. Among these are, other than toponyms, chaps (from chaparreras), plaza, lasso, bronco, buckaroo; examples of "English" additions from the cowboy era are bad man, maverick, chuck, and Boot Hill; from the California Gold Rush came such idioms as hit pay dirt or strike it rich. The word blizzard probably originated in the West.

A couple of notable late 18th century additions are the verb belittle and the noun bid, both first used in writing by Thomas Jefferson.

With the new continent developed new forms of dwelling, and hence a large inventory of words designating real estate concepts (land office, lot, outlands, waterfront, the verbs locate and relocate, betterment, addition, subdivision), types of property ( log cabin, adobe in the 18th century; frame house, apartment, tenement house, shack, shanty in the 19th century; project, condominium, townhouse, mobile home, multi-family in the 20th century), and parts thereof ( driveway, breezeway, backyard, dooryard; clapboard, siding, trim, baseboard; stoop (from Dutch), family room, den; and, in recent years, HVAC, central air, walkout basement).

Ever since the American Revolution, a great deal of terms connected with the U.S. political institutions have entered the language; examples are run, gubernatorial, primary election, carpetbagger (after the Civil War), repeater, lame duck, and pork barrel. Some of these are internationally used (e.g. caucus, gerrymander, filibuster, exit poll).

The rise of capitalism, the development of industry, and material innovations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries were the source of a massive stock of distinctive new words, phrases, and idioms. Typical examples are the vocabulary of railroading (see further at rail terminology) and transportation terminology, ranging from names of roads ( Interstate, freeway, parkway, etc.) to road infrastructure ( parking lot, overpass, rest area), and from automotive terminology to public transit (e.g. in the sentence "riding the subway downtown"); such American introductions as commuter (from commutation ticket), concourse, to board (a vehicle), to park, double-park, and parallel park (a car), jump (as a red light), double decker, terminal (as a noun), or centre (of a city) have long been used in all dialects of English. Trades of various kinds have endowed (American) English with household words describing jobs and occupations ( bartender and barkeep, longshoreman, patrolman, hobo, bouncer, bellhop, roustabout, white collar, blue collar, employee, boss (from Dutch), intern, busboy, mortician, senior citizen), businesses and workplaces ( department store, supermarket, thrift store, gift shop, drugstore, motel, main street, gas station, hardware store, savings and loan, hock (also from Dutch)), as well as general concepts and innovations ( mail "letters and packages," automated teller machine, smart card, cash register, dishwasher, reservation (as at hotels), pay envelope, movie, mileage, shortage, outage, blood bank). Already existing English words—such as store, shop, dry goods, haberdashery, lumber—underwent shifts in meaning; some—such as mason, student, clerk, the verbs can (as in "canned goods"), ship, fix, carry, enroll (as in school), run (as in "run a business"), release, and haul—were given new significations, while others (such as tradesman) have retained meanings that disappeared in England. From the world of business and finance came breakeven, merger, delisting, downsize, disintermediation, bottom line; from sports terminology came, jargon aside, Monday-morning quarterback, cheap shot, game plan (football); in the ballpark, out of left field, off base, hit and run, and many other idioms from baseball; gamblers coined bluff, blue chip, ante, bottom dollar, raw deal, pass the buck, ace in the hole, freeze-out; miners coined bedrock, bonanza, peter out, and the verb prospect from the noun; and railroadmen are to be credited with make the grade, sidetrack, head-on, and the verb railroad. A number of Americanisms describing material innovations remained largely confined to North America: elevator, power cord, ground, gasoline; many automotive terms fall in this category, although many do not ( hatchback, compact car, SUV, station wagon, tailgate, motorhome, truck, pickup truck, to exhaust).

In addition to the above-mentioned loans from French, Spanish, Mexican Spanish, Dutch, and Native American languages, other accretions from foreign languages came with 19th and early 20th century immigration; notably, from Yiddish ( chutzpah, schmooze, and such idioms as need something like a hole in the head) and German ( hamburger, kindergarten, gesundheit, hinterland, wiener, scram, deli, and apparently cookbook, fresh "impudent," what gives?, and perhaps the often criticized use of hopefully as a sentence modifier).

With respect to morphology, American English has always shown a marked tendency to use substantives as verbs and form compound words. Examples of verbed nouns are interview, advocate, vacuum, lobby, expense, room, pressure, rear-end, transition, feature, profile, buffalo, weasel, express (mail), belly-ache, spearhead, skyrocket, showcase, merchandise, service (as a car), corner, torch, exit (as in "exit a place"), factor (in mathematics), gun "shoot," author (which disappeared in English around 1630 and was revived in the U.S. three centuries later) and, out of American material, proposition, graft (bribery), bad-mouth, vacation, major, backpack, backtrack, intern, ticket (traffic violations), hassle, blacktop, peer review, dope, and OD. Compounds coined in the U.S. are for instance foothill, sidehill, flatlands, badlands, landslide (in all senses), overview (the noun), backdrop, teenager, brainstorm, bandwagon, hitchhike, smalltime, deadbeat, frontman, lowbrow and highbrow, hell-bent, foolproof, nitpick, about-face (later verbed), upfront (in all senses), split-level, fixer-upper, no-show; many of these are phrases used as adverbs or (often) hyphenated attributive adjectives: non-profit, for-profit, free-for-all, ready-to-wear, catchall, low-down, down-and-out, down and dirty, in-your-face, nip and tuck; many compound nouns and adjectives are open: happy hour, fall guy, capital gain, road trip, wheat pit, head start, plea bargain; some of these are colorful ( empty nester, loan shark, ambulance chaser, buzz saw, ghetto blaster, dust bunny), others are euphemistic ( differently abled, human resources, physically challenged, affirmative action, correctional facility). Many compound nouns have the form verb plus preposition: add-on, backup (reserve, stoppage, music), stopover, lineup, shakedown, tryout, spinoff, rundown "summary," shootout, holdup, hideout, comeback, cookout, kickback, makeover, takeover, rollback "decrease," rip-off, come-on, shoo-in, fix-up, tie-in, tie-up "stoppage," stand-in. These essentially are nouned phrasal verbs; some prepositional and phrasal verbs are in fact of American origin (spell out, figure out, hold up, brace up, size up, rope in, back up/off/down/out, step down, miss out on, kick around, cash in, rain out, check in and check out (in all senses), fill in "inform," kick in "contribute," square off, sock in, sock away, factor in/out, come down with, give up on, lay off (from employment), run into and across "meet," stop by, pass up, put up (money), set up "frame," trade in, pick up on, pick up after); in a few cases the preposition was prefixed (offset, downplay, downshift, overkill, update). Some verbs ending in -ize are of U.S. origin; for example, fetishize, prioritize, burglarize, accessorize, itemize, editorialize, customize, notarize, automatize, weatherize, winterize, Mirandize, Manhattanize; and so are some back-formations (locate, fine-tune, evolute, curate, donate, emote, upholster, and enthuse). Among syntactical constructions that arose in the U.S. are as of, outside of, headed for, meet up with, back of, and lack for.

Finally, a great deal of common English colloquialisms from various periods are American in origin ( OK, cool, darn, gnarly, hot, lame, doing great, hang (out), no-brainer, hip, fifty-fifty, gross, doofus, diddly-squat, screw up, fool around, nerd, jerk, nuke, nutball, 24/7, heads-up, thusly, way back), and so are many other English idioms (get the hang of, take for a ride, bark up the wrong tree, keep tabs, run scared, take a backseat, have an edge over, stake a claim, take a shine to, in on the ground floor, bite off more than one can chew, off/on the wagon, for the birds, stay put, inside track, stiff upper lip, bad hair day, throw a monkey wrench, give the hairy eyeball, under the weather, jump bail, come clean, come again?, will the real x please stand up?); some English words now in general use, such as hijacking, disc jockey, boost, bulldoze, and jazz, originated as American slang. Americanisms formed by alteration of existing words include notably pesky (from pest), phony (from fawney), rambunctious (from rumbustious), pry (as in "pry open," from prize), putter (verb, from potter), buddy (from brother), sundae (from Sunday), and skeeter (from mosquito). Adjectives that arose in the U.S. are for example capsule, deadpan, lengthy, submittable, upcoming, wrathy, leery, logy, cluttered (up), bossy, cute and cutesy, vanilla, flippy, gloppy, peppy, glitzy, picayune, grouchy, scroungy, wacky, grounded (of a child), punk (in all senses), sticky (of the weather), and through (as in "through train," or meaning "finished").

English words that survived in the U.S.

A number of words and meanings that originated in Middle English or Early Modern English and that always have been in everyday use in the U.S. dropped out in most varieties of British English. Outside of North America, many of these words and meanings (some of which have cognates in Lowland Scots) either remained as regionalisms or were later brought back, to various extents, especially in the second half of the 20th century; these, for instance, include: mad "angry," hire "to employ," quit "to stop" (witness quitter), smart "intelligent," dirt "loose soil," guess "to suppose," dampen, oftentimes, supplemental, overly, presently "currently," meet with "to have a meeting with," baggage, hit (a place), and the verbs squire and loan. Others are no longer in common use in Britain and are often regarded as Americanisms; for example, fall "autumn," gotten ( past participle of get), sick (in general use meaning "ill"), obligate, acclimate, doghouse, broil, rider " passenger," sidewalk, pavement "road surface," 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, wastebasket, skillet, raise (a child), and diaper; some of these originated in 19th century Britain.

The mandative subjunctive (as in "the City Attorney suggested that the matter not be tabled") is livelier in North American English than it is in British English; it appears in some areas as a spoken usage, and is considered obligatory in more formal contexts.

Regional differences

While written American English is standardized across the country, there are several recognizable variations in the spoken language, both in pronunciation and in vernacular vocabulary. General American is the name given to any American accent that is relatively free of noticeable regional influences. It enjoys high prestige among Americans, but is not a standard accent in the way that Received Pronunciation is in England.

After the Civil War, the settlement of the western territories by migrants from the Eastern U.S. led to dialect mixing and leveling, so that regional dialects are most strongly differentiated along the Eastern seaboard. The Connecticut River is usually regarded as the southern/western extent of New England speech, which has its roots in the speech of the Puritans from East Anglia who settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Potomac River generally divides a group of Northern coastal dialects from the beginning of the Coastal Southern dialect area; in between these two rivers several local variations exist, chief among them the one that prevails in and around New York City and northern New Jersey, which developed on a Dutch substratum after the British conquered New Amsterdam. The main features of Coastal Southern speech can be traced to the speech of the English from the West Country who settled in Virginia after leaving England at the time of the English Civil War, and to the African influences from the African Americans who were enslaved in the South.

Although no longer region-specific, African American Vernacular English, which remains prevalent amongst African Americans, has a close relationship to Southern varieties of American English.

A distinctive speech pattern was also generated by the separation of Canada from the United States, centered on the Great Lakes region. This is the "Inland North" dialect—the "standard Midwestern" speech that was the basis for General American in the mid-20th Century (although it has been recently modified by the northern cities vowel shift). Those not from this area frequently confuse it with the North Midland dialect treated below, referring to both collectively as "Midwestern."

In the interior, the situation is very different. West of the Appalachian Mountains begins the broad zone of what is generally called "Midland" speech. This is divided into two discrete subdivisions, the North Midland that begins north of the Ohio River valley area, and the South Midland speech; sometimes the former is designated simply "Midland" and the latter is reckoned as "Highland Southern." The North Midland speech continues to expand westward until it becomes the closely related Western dialect which contains Pacific Northwest English as well as the well-known California English, although in the immediate San Francisco area some older speakers do not possess the cot-caught merger and thus retain the distinction between words such as cot and caught which reflects a historical Mid-Atlantic heritage. Mormon and Mexican settlers in the West influenced the development of Utah English.

The South Midland or Highland Southern dialect follows the Ohio River in a generally southwesterly direction, moves across Arkansas and Oklahoma west of the Mississippi, and peters out in West Texas. It is a version of the Midland speech that has assimilated some coastal Southern forms (outsiders often mistakenly believe South Midland speech and coastal South speech to be the same).

The island state of Hawaii has a distinctive Hawaiian Pidgin.

Finally, dialect development in the United States has been notably influenced by the distinctive speech of such important cultural centers as Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; New York, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Charleston, South Carolina; and New Orleans, Louisiana; Detroit, Michigan; which imposed their marks on the surrounding areas.

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