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.
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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.
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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.