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How Do You Speak American?

2 February 2016

From Atlas Obscura:

Nearly a century ago, just after World War I had ended, there was a groundswell of linguistic patriotism in America. All of a sudden, scholars, writers and politicians were interested in studying, defining and promoting a distinctly “American” version of English.

In 1919, H.L. Mencken published the first edition of what would become one of his more popular books, The American Language. In the early 1920s, some of the country’s leading linguists started work on the “Linguistic Atlas of New England”, one of the first attempts to systematically document a regional dialect; in 1925, the journal American Speech published its first issue.

By 1922, Rep. Washington J. McCormick had introduced a bill to Congress proposing that the country’s “national and official language” be “declared to be the American language.” States followed suit, and while most of these bills failed, in 1923 Illinois actually did declare the state’s official language to be “American.”

But what is American, exactly? In every place that people speak English, whether it’s Scotland, Ireland, Australia, Ghana, South Africa, or Canada, the language has its own essential character, sometimes so distinct that people from one place can hardly understand people from another. In this mish-mash of Germanic and Latinate forms, what distinguishes the language that’s used in this country? How do you speak American?

English in America has always been different than the English spoken in the British metropole. In his 1992 book, A History of American English, the late linguist J.L. Dillard, who specialized in African American Vernacular English, demonstrates that the most originally American form of English was a pidgin, originating with sailor’s language. Early explorers of North America, he argues, would have used nautical pidgins and passed those on to native people. By the time the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts, there were people here—most famously the men the new arrivals called Samoset and Squanto—who already spoke a version of English that Puritans could understand.

. . . .

It’s more correct to say, for instance, that people living in England developed a new accent than that Americans “lost” their British way of speaking. Not long after the Revolutionary War, it became common among British people to drop r sounds—”card” became “caahd”—while Americans held onto their r-pronouncing rhoticity.

It was around this time, too, that Americans first started feeling a little bit nativist about their English. As Mencken reports, in 1778, one political directive advised that “all replies or answers” to a minister of England should be “in the language of the United States.”

It’s not clear exactly what that meant. Only recently had English emerged as the dominant language in New York City, which had been a polyglot town for centuries, and where Dutch held on as a major form of communication through the mid-1700s. Pidgin English was widely used by native tribes to communicate with people of European origin. Enslaved people had brought with them a version of English from the nautical, slave-trading regions of West Africa, and that had been developing for centuries, too.

. . . .

Residents of the United States hung on to words that dropped out of British English: guess, gotten, cabin, junk, molasses. We also began using words lifted from native languages—maize, canoe. But, mostly, Americans would just make words up. Thomas Jefferson, who described himself as “a friend to neology,” created the word “belittle.” British writers despaired over it; he simply made up more.

For starters, just think about some words we borrowed from Dutch and decided to keep: boss, cookie, stoop, scow, sleigh, snoop, waffle, poppycock, pit, when used to describe the seed of a stone fruit. Dumb might be Dutch, or it might be German, or it might be a bit of both, but it’s a uniquely American bit of English.

There’s so much more. In his book, Mencken amasses piles of particularly American words: rubber-neck, rough-house, has-been, lame-duck, bust, bum, scary, classy, tasty, lengthy, alarmist, capitalize, propaganda, whitewash, panhandle, shyster, sleuth, sundae, alright, go-getter, he-man, goof. Only in America can you go upstate for the weekend. Here, we engineer, stump, hog, and squat on a piece of land. We’ve stolen loads from Spanish: corral, ranch, alfafa, mustang, canyon, poncho, plaza, tornados, patio, bonanza, vigilante, mosey, and buckaroo. Americans are very talented coiners of words—including of “talented,” another new one that sent British writers into spasms of horror.

Link to the rest at Atlas Obscura and thanks to Maggie for the tip.


16 Comments to “How Do You Speak American?”

  1. Which sort of begs the question of how Amazon will define, and enforce, their new standards of spelling, and sooner or later, maybe even grammar and usage.

    • I think Amazon is well aware of the differences. When you upload a book using ‘British English’ to Amazon UK, they don’t query the spelling or even usages such as alright for all right (which is perfectly alright here in the UK!) – only the odd foreign or unusual word. It will, however, be interesting to see what they make of Scots, with words such as ‘dreich’ – the grim weather we’re having right now – or ‘blowing a hoolie’ which it did outside my house all last night – or ‘wean’, for child or any number of other lovely words.

  2. Thomas Jefferson, who described himself as “a friend to neology,” created the word “belittle.” British writers despaired over it; he simply made up more.

    My hero.

  3. Me ain’t no college grad, if me were me’d use aren’t …

  4. Hey, I speak American. Just not the way Sarah Palin does.

    • Nobody speaks the way Palin does. She invented her own language, much like some twins do.

      • @ Sheila

        I’m thankful she’s not twins! 🙂

      • Or you could look up some reputable linguistic sources, and discover that Palin’s accent and word choice are typical for people who live in the Wasilla area. (It was settled by a lot of Minnesota farmers, among others.)

        It is amazing how often that people love colorful speech from 1780 and say they wish people today were equally creative… and then go on to denigrate local accents and colorful word choices among their contemporaries.

        For example, people just today claimed to wuv Jefferson making up his own words… but if he had used belittle for the first time today, I think most of those people should admit that they would have belittled him for it.

  5. The article’s discussion rhoticity is fairly shallow. If you are interested in that phenomenon (which should interest writers, I would think), you can find a good intro here:


  6. Speaking is mostly about being heard and understood in the language you are communicating in. Sadly, most people these days don’t speak clearly. They were not taught this in school or in their home. They mutter and mumble, with their heads down. Not surprising nobody can hear them properly.

    I am slightly hearing impaired so this is hugely important for me.

    Elocution lessons (or debate lessons) would be helpful in today’s curricula.

    • Me, too! All of the above. Imperfect hearing is not well served by speed-taking mumblers.

      • Speaking “clearly” is not a natural way to talk. I was just instructing a non-native speaker on this the other day. Nobody could understand her, because (in addition to hanging a strong accent) she was pronouncing the T’s in certain syllables as T’s, instead of as D’s (or rather, as a dental sound somewhere between T and D). So people heard the name of her employer, Kettering, as “catering.”

        If you want to sound like a native speaker of any language, you have to slur and elide, mumble and hesitate like the natives do. That is also why it can be so hard to differentiate words correctly in another language or under less than perfect conditions.

  7. In light of this article, I propose that we stop calling the language accepted in the United States of America “English”, and proudly proclaim that we speak “American”!

    By golly.

  8. He forgot my favorite verb: to buffalo.

    • Buffalo is the Mandelbrot fractal of sentences:

      Buffalo! (commanding you to intimidate or confuse)
      Buffalo buffalo. (American bison confuse)
      Buffalo buffalo buffalo. (American bison from the city of Buffalo New York confuse)
      Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo. (American bison from Buffalo confuse other American bison)
      Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. (American bison from Buffalo confuse other American bison from Buffalo, NY)

      … I could go on but I’ll leave you to work out what this means:

      Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

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