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English in the United States

Historical outline
Linguistic features
Current sound changes
British and American English
Literature on British and American English
Some regional variants of United States English
Ethnolinguistic groups in the United States
Literature on English in the United States

Traditional division of Anglo-American dialects (without postulated Midland region)

Historical outline

The modern era history of North America begins with the discovery of Central America by Christopher Columbus in 1492 when he landed on the island of Hispaniola. Various parts of the coast of North America were discovered at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Between 1584 and 1586 Sir Walter Raleigh began his attempts to colonise North Carolina (then part of ‘Virginia’ named after Queen Elizabeth I), including the first unsuccessful settlement on Roanoke Island. British colonisation continued in the following years with the firm establishment of British rule at the beginning of the seventeenth century (Jamestown, Virginia 1607; Plymouth, New England, 1620; The Massachusetts Bay Colony (at the site of later Boston), 1630).

Roanoke Islands in North Carolina (then in Virginia) where an unsucessful attempt to found an English colony was made in the mid 1580s.

A painting of the Mayflower (1882) in Plymouth Harbour, Massachusetts, by William Halsall (1841-1919). The Mayflower was the first ship to carry the Pilgrim Fathers (dissenting Protestants from England) to the New World in November 1620.

Among the earliest states were those of the historical area of New England (not the name of a present-day state): Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island (Maine was later formed from northern Massachusetts and Vermont from an area between east New York state and west New Hampshire). New York state occupied an inland area immediately west of New England. Immediately south of New England were the four middle states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware. The remaining states belonged to the South: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. This group formed the original Thirteen Colonies.

Some other European countries were also directly involved in the conquest of America: the French in Canada of course but also the Dutch in New York (the city, founded in 1625, was called New Amsterdam until 1664).

The so-called ‘Castello Plan’ map of New Amsterdam (later New York) made by Jacques Cortelyou in 1660

Map of Lower Manhattan in modern New York.

The Scotch-Irish

The eighteenth century saw the emigration of approximately a quarter of a million Ulster Scots from the north of Ireland to the colonies. These often settled in frontier regions, such as western Pennsylvania and further south in the inland mountainous regions of the colonies, founding varieties later recognisable as Appalachian English.

Declaration of Independence

In 1776 the Thirteen Colonies declared independence in a military struggle against England. British rule ended after a disorganised and uncoordinated campaign against the rebellious Americans in 1777 which led to the Paris peace of 1783 conceding the Americans sovereignty over the entire territory from the Great Lakes in the north down to Florida in the south.

Painting depicting the declaration of independence by John Trumbull (1756-1843)

European possession of North America c.1750

After independence the United States consolidated territories inland from the Atlantic coast and in 1803 purchased over two million square kilometres in central North American from the French for 15 million dollars, the *Louisiana Purchase.

The colonisation of North America proceeded from east to west (for both Canada and the United States). The western states were settled in the nineteenth century, first by pioneers then by farmers. The Gold Rush of 1848 led to the rise of California as a unit within the states; the last of the states to be founded were those in the region immediately east of the Rocky Mountains such as Wyoming (1890) and Utah (1896) and the more southerly states such as Arizona (1912) and Oklahoma (1907). Further territorial extensions were achieved by the annexation of land from Mexico (with the Peace of Guadalupe in 1848), with the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 and with the formation of an American presence on Hawaii in 1878. The development of the states in the nineteenth century suffered a setback with the Civil War of 1861-5, caused by the refusal of the southern states to abolish slavery and their attendant wish to secede from the Union.

Expansion to the west

The position with the mid and western states was somewhat different inasmuch as they were only later conquered, at first by pioneers and later settled by farmers. The Gold Rush of 1848 led to the rise of California as a unit within the states; the last of the states to be founded were those in the region immediately east of the Rocky Mountains such as Wyoming (1890) and Utah (1896) and the more southerly states such as Arizona (1912) and Oklahoma (1907). Further territorial extensions were achieved by the annexation of land from Mexico (with the Peace of Guadalupe in 1848), with the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 and with the formation of an American presence on Hawaii in 1878. The development of the states in the nineteenth century suffered a setback with the Civil War of 1861-4, caused by the refusal of the southern states to abolish slavery and their attendant wish to secede from the Union.



Today the United States consists of a federation of 48 contiguous states along with Alaska and Hawai‘i (to give 50). It has an area of 9.3 million square kilometres and a population of over 300 million. The ethnic composition is roughly as follows: white 87% (including about 10% Hispanics in increasing numbers), African American 11%. The capital is Washington, District of Columbia (not to be confused with the western state of the same name). English is de facto the official language of the USA but it does not have this status in the federal constitution.

The position of the United States in the twentieth century on the world arena begins with the First World War. Up until 1917 America remained neutral but then joined on the side of the British. This national alliance with England has historical and last but not least linguistic reasons. Since then it has remained a permanent feature of American foreign policy. The size of America and the development of its economy towards an emphasis on export in the interwar years increased America’s position in international politics. During the Second World War and immediately afterwards, America reached the height of its European influence. The desolate state of the European economies led to the strengthening of the American one. Furthermore the adoption of the dollar as a de facto international currency reinforced the standing of the United States. The political polarisation of the world also increased the American position as the United States became the natural counterpart of the (former) Soviet Union during the years of the Cold War (until 1989).


The most general means of referring to English in the United States is American English (which does not include Canadian English). The term The American Language is admittedly the title of a famous book but it is an unnecessary exaggeration to claim (largely for patriotic reasons) that the English of the United States in any way represents a separate language from kinds of British English with which it is mutually intelligible.

There is a further complex of varieties which is a terminologically sensitive area: the English of the African American population. Obviously terms like Negro dialect or Negro English are unacceptable nowadays given the pejorative meaning of ‘negro’ today. American sociolinguists, active as of the mid sixties, came to use the term Black English (BE) or Black English Vernacular (BEV). With the advent of political correctness as a socio-political phenomenon the terminology had to be revised for fear of appearing discriminatory. Afro-American English was used but then the Afro- element was thought to be subordinate to American and so African American English (AAE) came to be employed and is current today, usually with the word Vernacular as an additional qualifier. Occasionally the term Ebonics (from ‘ebony’ where the colour of the wood is sometimes associated with blacks) is found, particularly outside linguistic circles.

Main linguistic features

Starting point 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 (in keeping with a generally observed tendency of peripheral dialects) while British English (at least in its standard form, Received Pronunciation) continued to develop quite rapidly, losing syllable-final /r/ for example. Note that because the varieties of British English which were brought to America differed in themselves an additional process of standardisation set in among the heterogeneous groups in the United States, a linguistic correlate to the demographic melting pot phenomenon. Evidence of the conservative side of American English is found for instance in verb forms: English has simplified the past forms of get to just got (with the verb forget there is both forgot and forgotten) whereas American English still has gotten. In the area of lexis one could cite words like fall for autumn or mail for post where the American terms are more archaic terms than the English ones.

Divisions of American English There are traditionally three main dialects areas in the United States (excluding Canada):

1) Midland, West (General American)
2) North (coastal states on the Atlantic, New England)
3) South (coastal states on South Atlantic + Gulf of Mexico)

Nowadays, this division must be qualified given the presence of many urban sociolects which do not fit neatly into this triadic group. The western section covers a vast area of land and has something of the character of a standard in the United States. It is variously called General American - or in a geographically less specific manner - Network English seeing as how it is used in public life, in the media, politics, etc. The remarks on linguistic structure below apply to General American unless otherwise specified.

The settlement history of America has led to subvarieties or groups of these arising within the United States. For instance the area of the Appalachian mountains, in the south-east somewhat in from the coast, shows a kind of English which is quite distinct from that of the adjoining flatlands, e.g. double modals as in I might could take a course in linguistics are common here. Such structures are only found elsewhere in the Anglophone world in Scotland and Ulster and it is known that large numbers of Scots and Ulster Scots settled in the region as of the late 17th century.

There are further minor varieties of English in America such as Gullah, a remnant of a negro creole spoken by small numbers on islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. French existed up to this century in Louisiana where it derives from former Louisiana French Creole. Various forms of Mexican Spanish have been spoken in those states adjoining on Mexico (above all in California). Chicano English is a term used for the type of English spoken by native speakers of Spanish in the south-west of the United States.

Various immigrant groups have to a greater or lesser extent retained their original languages, e.g. Italians, Jews (Yiddish). Immigrants vary greatly in the degree of language maintenance they exhibit, the Estonians show a very high degree while the Ukrainians and the Irish have little or none. Of more recent origin are the many immigrants from Asiatic countries, for instance the large Chinese population in California.

American orthography The spelling of American English has been a matter of central interest since the late 18th century when Noah Webster, the father of American lexicography, brought out his Dissertations on the English Language (1789) in which he suggested separating America from Britain linguistically. Webster’s major work is his An American Dictionary of the English Language of 1828. With its 70,000 entries is was larger than Samuel Johnson’s English Dictionary (1755). Certain spelling changes of Webster are older forms, such as -er for -re (cf. theater) or -or for -our (cf. honour). Many of the changes suggested by Webster were not adopted permanently into American English and he can not free himself entirely from the accusation of having tinkered with the language (e.g. in his proposal that one write oo for ou in words like soup, group). Note that the letter z is pronounced /zi:/ in American and /zed/ in British English.


1) Presence of (retroflex) syllable-final /r/ (in General American). This /r/ may be absent in the South and conservative varieties in the North East.

2) Raising, lengthening and frequent nasalisation of /æ/ is very common. The lexical distribution of /æ/ and /ɑ:/ is different from British English: e.g. cancel, dance, advance all have /æ/ in American English.

3) Lowering of /ɔ/ to /a/ as in pot /pat/.

4) Flapping of /t,d/ to /ſ/, e.g. writer /raiſər/.

5) Alveolar /l/ in syllable-final position, e.g. ill [ɪl]

6) Not so much diphthongisation of mid long vowels as in RP, e.g.
home is pronounced /houm/ and not /həʊm/

7) Partial retention of /ʍ/ where RP has /w/, e.g. which /ʍɪtʃ/

8) Many cases of varying word stress compared with British English.

a ˡdult ˡadult ˡdirect di ˡrect
ˡaddress ad ˡdress ˡinquiry in ˡquiry

Current sound changes

Perhaps the most significant change in the pronunciation of American English is the shift of short vowels which has taken place in the large cities of the inland north. Dubbed the Northern Cities Shift, this is a chain shift in which vowel values are shifted in a quasi-circular fashion. This shift was first described by the American sociolinguist William Labov.

The Northern Cities Shift

Another prominent change is labelled the ‘Southern Vowel Shift’ and refers to retractions and frontings which typically occur in rural varieties of English in the southern states.

Maximum area of southern American English (no ethnic distinctions considered)

For instance, the /i:/ sound in meet and the /e:/ sound in mate are retracted and lowered which the /ɪ/ sound in bid and the /ɛ/ sound in bed are shifting upwards and to the front, going through diphthongisation in the process. The mid and high back vowels /u:/ and /o:/, as in boot and boat are experiencing fronting.

The Southern Vowel Shift

Morphology and syntax

The differences between American and British English are not so often a question of presence or not of a certain feature as one of statistical frequency; the following characteristics should be understood in this light.

1) Increased use of adjectives for adverbs. Hes awful tall. Thats real funny. I near finished it.

2) Strong verb forms which are either a) archaic or b) generalisations from other strong verbs. do - done - done; get - got - gotten; see - seen - seen; bring - brang - brung (non-standard in the United States).

3) Use of do is widespread in American English for questions and negative sentences. Did he have a chance to do it? (Had he a chance to do it?) Have you enough money? No, I dont (No, I havent) He hasnt a driving licence, sure he doesnt? (, hasnt he?) Did he use to smoke (Used he to smoke?)

4) Suppression of verb leaving a) a preposition The cat wants in. She wants off. b) a past participle He ordered him replaced. They wanted a conference held.

5) Large number of phrasal verbs in American English: hold off (= restrain); figure out (= understand); check out (= leave); get through (= finish); count in (= include); stop by (= visit briefly).

6) Differences among prepositions: aside from (= besides); in back of (= behind); for (= after), e.g The school was named for him. on (= in), e.g I live on George Street. in (= into), e.g. He ran in the kitchen. than (= from), e.g. She is different than her sister. through (= from ... to) Monday through Friday.

7) Lack of prepositions with expressions of time: I met him (on) Tuesday. I wrote (to) her last week.

8) Pronominal usage: American English allows ‘he’ after ‘one’ which is not found in British English. One never does what he should. One always deceives himself.

Cross influences of American and British English The influence of American English on British English has its roots in the economic development in the 19th century which lead directly to American words for technical and specialised objects being adopted into British English and, indirectly with the coming of age of American culture, to a general and pervasive infiltration of the British word stock by Americanisms, the more general of which co-exist with their British counterparts.

movie/film; mailman/postman; mental/insane; can/tin; garbage/rubbish; window shade/blind; gas/petrol; mad/angry; raise/rise; filling station/garage; pitcher/jug; elevator/lift; reel/spool; trailer/caravan; I guess/I think; truck/lorry; lumber/timber; installment buying/hire purchase; chips/crisps; French fries/chips.

The influence of American on British English has been almost entirely in the sphere of lexis. The degree of awareness of Americanisms varies greatly from item to item. In some cases the American term has successfully ousted the British one as in the case of radio for wireless; okay (which is of uncertain origin, turning up in the early 19th century) is now ubiquitous.

Some prepositional verbs have become part of British English without its users realizing their origin: to put sth. over; to get sth. across; to stand up to; to go back on.

Word formation

This sphere of lexicology is arguably the most innovative of American English, especially in the last few decades. For all the phenomena of our industrialised society the Americans have coined a term. The use of derivational suffixes is notable in this respect. -ster: gangster, oldster; -ician: beautician, cosmetician; -ee: escapee, returnee; -ette: roomette; drum-majorette; -ite: socialite, sub-urbanite; -ize; to winterize, to itemize, to fictionalize. Conversion as a word formational process is also exceedingly common; a bug - to bug; thumb - to thumb; commercial (adj.) commercial (noun); hike (verb) - hike (noun).

In this connection one should take note of back-formations such as jelly > to jell; enthuasiasm > to enthuse; bachelor > to bach. Added to these are a variety of reductions: ad < advertisement; demo < demonstration; exam < examination which are also common in British English.

British and American English


honor honour realize realise theater theatre
favour favour criticize criticise center
centre odor odour idealize idealise meter

traveled travelled defense defence program programme
labeled labelled offense offence dialog dialogue
woolen woollen license licence sulfur sulphur

inquiry enquiry cozy cosy draft draught
inclosure enclosure check cheque plow plough


Note that in the following list the words on the left of the colon are typical of American usage and those on the right of British. However one must emphasise that there is much overlapping in usage particularly with American terms which are in use in British English.

apartment:flat; trash can:dustbin; attorney:solicitor,barrister; baby buggy: pram; bartender:barman; bug:insect; bus:coach; cab:taxi; candy:sweets; check: bill; chips : (potato) crisps; preacher:clergyman; clerk:shop assistant; coed:female student; cooky: biscuit; store:shop; corporation:company; diaper:nappy; dishpan: washing-up basin; eraser : rubber; bowl; corn:maize; drugstore:chemist; dumb:silly; elevator:lift; fall : autumn; first floor: ground floor; gas station:petrol station; first name:Christian name; flash- light:torch; French fries:chips; freshman:first year student; garbage:rubbish; grade:gradient; jelly : jam; liquor:spirits; highway patrolmen:mobile police; high school: secondary school; hood:bonnet; kerosene: paraffin; lumber:timber; mail:post; movie:film, pictures; movies (building) : cinema, pictures; muffler:silencer; doctors office:surgery; pacifier:dummy; parking lot:car park; penitentiary:prison; period:full stop; pitcher:jug; realtor:estate agent; roadster:two seater; roomer:lodger; section:district; sedan:saloon; quarter:term; sidewalk: pavement; sophomore:second year student; slingshot:catapult; highway:motorway; streetcar: tram; subway:underground; suspenders:braces; taffy:toffee; trillion:billion; truck:lorry; trunk:boot; turtleneck:poloneck; undershirt:vest; vacation:holidays; weather bureau:met office; school : college; ride : drive; rise : raise; cookie : biscuit; faucet : tap.

Literature on British and American English


Some regional variants of United States English

Ocracoke English


Appalachian English


Ozark English

Ethnolinguistic groups in the United States

N.B. There are separate modules on African American English and on Chicano English, see the options on the tree on the left.

Amish communities

Cajun English


Literature on English in the United States