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AMERICAN ENGLISH [Short forms AmE, AE. Also United States English, short form USE.] The English language as used in the United States of America. The speakers of AmE outnumber all native speakers of English outside the US by about two to one and those of BrE by nearly four to one. This advantage, strengthened by US involvement with world affairs, has given AmE a global importance in the late 20c comparable to that of BrE in the late 19c. The history of the variety falls into three periods, whose dates correspond to political and social events with important consequences for the language: (1) The Colonial Period, during which a distinctive AmE was gestating. (2) The National Period, which saw its birth, establishment, and consolidation. (3) The International Period, during which it has come increasingly under foreign influence and has exerted influence on other varieties of English and on other languages.

The Colonial Period

(1607–1776). English colonization of the Americas came relatively late, as compared for example with Spanish settlement in Central and South America. In 1497, John Cabot explored the coast of what became the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, but no effort was made to establish a colony for nearly another century, when Humphrey Gilbert claimed the island of Newfoundland (1583) and Walter Raleigh attempted his ill-fated settlement at Roanoke, Virginia (1584). Raleigh's ‘lost colony’ did not survive, so the first permanent English settlement on the mainland was at Jamestown in 1607. Both religious and commercial motives prompted the founding of the Plymouth colony of 1620 and the Maryland colony of 1634. Colonization of the Carolinas began in 1663. The Dutch settled Manhattan Island in 1624, but were brought under English rule in 1664. European settlement of Pennsylvania, partly by the Dutch and Swedes, preceded the English chartering of a Quaker colony there in 1681 under William Penn. From the beginning, the colonies were of mixed origin. Because settlers came from a variety of locations, there was no simple transplanting of British dialects, but rather a combination of features in a single colony, resulting in the levelling of divergent features and the apparently random survival of features from disparate sources. The result was more uniform speech in the colonies than in the motherland. The barrier of the Atlantic began the process of divergence of American from British usage almost immediately. Changes in the motherland were slow to reach the colonies, the colonists adapted old uses to new purposes, and borrowed from other groups, especially the Amerindians, Dutch, and French. Although still depending on England for authority and a standard, the colonies were forced to develop their own resources.

The National Period

(1776–1898). The War of Independence (1775–83) brought the Colonial Period to a close. Several of the Founding Fathers of the new republic recognized that political independence would require cultural independence as well. Linguistically, this period faced two related challenges: the evolution and recognition of a separate standard English for the US and the extension of that standard over the whole nation as it expanded westward. Noah WEBSTER is most closely associated with linguistic nationalism in promoting what he called Federal English, but others contributed to it. The Civil War (1861–5) disrupted the fabric of the Union in politics, culture, and language. By the time it began, US sovereignty extended to the Pacific, fulfilling a sense of a mission (the ‘Manifest Destiny’ of the US) which motivated national policy during this period. The assimilation of foreign influences continued, including large numbers of immigrants from Europe and contacts with speakers of Spanish in Florida and the West. Developments which moulded the language of Americans during the 19c included the settlement of the West, the extension of the railroads, the growth of industry, the labour movement, the invention of the telegraph and telephone, the burgeoning of journalism, the expansion of education at all levels, and the publication of textbooks and dictionaries. The establishment of a national identity and its domestic elaboration were the preoccupation of this period, but by the end of the century new directions in national policy began to affect the language. By the 1890s the domestic frontier was exhausted, and expansionism took Americans into territories overseas. The Spanish-American War (1898) lasted barely four months, but was a turning-point in foreign policy. During the 120 years since the founding of the nation, the US had generally observed George Washington's counsel to avoid foreign alliances and followed an isolationist policy concentrating on domestic matters. With this war, however, the US and its English became internationally significant.

The International Period

(from 1898). The Hawaiian Islands were annexed during the course of the Spanish-American War, the island of Puerto Rico was ceded to the US, and the Philippines were bought for $20m. In the following years, the US extended its overseas interests: an Open Door policy was affirmed for China; the US mediated the Russo-Japanese war of 1905; the Panamanian revolution against Colombia was supported (if not actually fomented), so that the US could build a canal across the isthmus of Panama; intervention in Latin American affairs became frequent, to prevent European involvement and secure American interests; the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean were purchased from Denmark; and in 1917 the US entered World War I. Thereafter, Americans played an increasing role in world politics and economics with a consequent effect on AmE usage. In turn, such US institutions as the movie industry in Hollywood, jazz and popular music from the South, participation in World War II, post-war technological developments such as the computer, and the activities and products of major US corporations and publications, from Coca-Cola to Time magazine, have helped disseminate Americanisms throughout the world.


Variation within AmE is far less than within many other national languages. Although Americans are conscious of the odd way their fellow citizens in other communities talk, considering the size and population of the US, its language is relatively homogeneous. Yet there are distinctive speechways in particular communities: the BOSTON Brahmins, the old families of New England who pride themselves on their culture and conservative attitudes and are noted for their haughtiness; the Gullah, who live on the islands off the shore of South Carolina and Georgia and talk with heavy West African influence; the Cajuns of Louisiana, descended from Acadian French immigrants, with folkways, cuisine, and speechways that blend influences from several traditions; the Appalachian mountain people; the TEX-MEX bronco-busters; the laid-back life-stylers of Marin County, California; the Charlestonian Old South aristocracy; the inner-city African Americans; the Minnesota Swedes; the Chicanos of the Southwest; and many others. Beneath the relative uniformity of its standard, edited variety, American English is a rich gallimaufry of exotic and native stuffs.


Underlying the regional accents of the US are some widespread features that are typical of AmE: (1) With the exception of the Southern states, eastern NEW ENGLAND, and NEW YORK City, pronunciation is rhotic, postvocalic /r/ being pronounced in such words as part, four, motor. (2) The AmE /r/ is retroflex, and is often lost after an unstressed vowel if another /r/ follows: the r in govern is pronounced but is dropped in governor. (3) The vowels of words like hoarse and horse are increasingly merged in favour of a vowel of the quality in haw or hoe. (4) In words like path, can't, dance, AmE generally has the vowel of pat and cant. (5) The vowels of the stressed syllables in such words as father and fodder are generally identical. (6) The o-sound of go, note, soap begins with a rounded vowel, while the o-sound in not is unrounded. (7) Generally there is no /j/ glide before a stressed u-vowel in words like tune, duke, new, sue, thews, lute (‘toon’, ‘dook’, ‘noo’, etc.), in which a dental consonant precedes, but the glide is retained in unstressed syllables (the second syllables of menu, value), when the vowel is initial (ewe), and when it is preceded by a labial or velar sound (pew, cute). (8) Among changes already under way and likely to become general is a merger of the vowel sounds in words like caught, cot. The resulting vowel is sometimes lightly rounded but more often unrounded, like the stressed vowel of father. (9) A /d/ typically occurs where the spelling has t or tt in words like latter, atom, metal, bitty which are homophonous with ladder, Adam, medal, biddy. (10) Similarly, /t/ is often lost from /nt/ in winter (‘winner’), anti (‘annie’, though retained when the second vowel has full value and some stress, ‘an-tie’), international (‘innernational’). The t of words like eaten is usually glottalized and is followed by a syllabic n. (11) The l at the end of words and between vowels (bill, pillow) is typically dark: pronounced with the back of the tongue lifted toward the soft roof of the mouth. (12) Secondary stress is normal on the penultimate syllables of words like laboratory and secretary, so that these words end like Tory and Terry. At the same time, syncope is common in words like fam'ly, fed'ral, happ'ning.


(1) For the verb get, the old past participle gotten occurs alongside the newer got. Americans use both, but differently. Gotten generally occurs when a process rather than a state or condition is intended: I've gotten it means ‘acquired’, whereas I've got it means ‘possess’. Similarly, I've gotten to go means ‘received permission or opportunity’, whereas I've got to go means ‘am obliged’. (2) I will, you will, he will, etc., are usual. Shall is rare in AmE, being largely restricted to formal invitation (Shall we dance?) and emphasis (I shall return). (3) A simple preterite rather than a perfect form is sometimes used for action leading up to the present time, even with adverbs: Did you ever hear that?; I already did it. (4) In formal mandative constructions, with clauses following verbs, adjectives, and nouns of requiring and urging, AmE prefers the present subjunctive form: They insisted that he go with them, It is imperative that you be here on time. (5) When the subject of a clause is a collective noun, there is generally a singular verb, in concord with the form rather than the sense of the subject: The airline insists…; The government is … (6) The use of prepositions is often distinctive: Americans live on a street (BrE in), cater to people (BrE for), do things on the weekend (BrE at), are of two minds about something (BrE in), have a new lease on life (BrE of), and when mentioning dates when things happen, may use or omit on (Jack went home on Monday and came back Thursday).


A distinctive vocabulary developed from the Colonial Period until the present, including: (1) Old words put to new uses: creek for a small stream (compare AusE) rather than an estuary (as in BrE). This use probably arose because the term was first applied to the mouths of streams along coasts settled by the colonists then extended to the whole watercourse. (2) New words made up from old resources: lengthy from length and -y for the marked sense of long (of greater length than usual) as distinct from the unmarked sense (How long is it?), which does not imply great length; Briticism an expression peculiar to Britain; complected in combinations like dark-complected (having a dark complexion). (3) Borrowing from Amerindian languages: chipmunk, hickory, moccasin, pecan, skunk, squash, totem, wigwam. Sometimes such words came through French: caribou, toboggan. (4) Borrowing from other colonial languages: French chowder, prairie; Dutch boss, coleslaw, cookie, Santa Claus, sleigh, snoop, waffle, and probably Yankee; SPANISH corral, lasso, ranch. (5) Borrowing from later immigrant languages: African goober, gumbo, juke, voodoo, zombie; German (especially through Pennsylvania Dutch) dumb stupid, noodle, sauerkraut, snorkel, and the -fest and -burger endings in bookfest, cheeseburger, etc. Among food terms are Mexican Spanish chili (con carne), Chinese chop suey, Czech kolach a kind of sweet bun, Italian pizza, Swedish smorgasbord, Japanese sukiyaki, Nahuatl-Spanish tamale, German wiener. (6) Some typically AmE words with complex histories: lagniappe, a term for a small present given by merchants to their customers, extended to any little extra benefit. Associated with the South, it is from Louisiana French, borrowed from Spanish la ñapa the gift, from Quechua yapa.

A selection of words of American origin indicates the variety and significance of the AmE contribution to English at large: airline, boondoggle, checklist, disco, expense account, flowchart, geewhiz, halfbreed, inner city, junk food, kangaroo court, laser, mass meeting, nifty, ouch, pants, quasar, radio, soap opera, teddy bear, UFO, vigilante, wholehearted, xerox, yuppie, zipper.

Social issues

Through the closing years of the 19c and throughout the 20c, the American concern over correct usage seems to have been more intense than the British. Questions of language engineering have generally been more vigorously considered in the US than in other English-speaking countries. Three issues in particular have powerful and volatile social repercussions: feminist concern for sexist language; the relationship between Black English and the standard language; and the relationship between English and other languages in the US, particularly Spanish:


The question of sexism in language arouses violent partisanship. One of its simpler manifestations is the use of words with masculine implications (man, he) when both sexes are intended or appropriate. Occupational terms like chairman, foreman, policeman, mail man, and airline stewardess, with real or perceived sexual reference, are now being replaced by sexually neutral terms like chair, supervisor, police officer, letter carrier, and flight attendant. A brief fad for the use of person instead of man in such forms seems to have run its course, leaving some words, such as chairperson, in widespread use and others, such as foreperson, as curiosities. Another sore point is the requirement that a woman's social title (Mrs or Miss) specify her marital status, whereas a man's (Mr) does not; as a consequence, the female title Ms has become very widely used, partly because it is handy when the marital status of a woman is unknown even for those who are otherwise indifferent to the problem. A subtler form of SEXISM in language is the use of girls and ladies with reference to mature women; both are thought to be condescending, the first because it labels women as immature and the second because it isolates them socially. In this, as in other matters, however, much depends on one's age and social status. Among many middle-aged clubby women, the girls is the normal way of referring to one's intimates (just as the boys is among men), and ladies is the preferred general term, women sounding abrupt and rude. In general, consciousness of sexism in language is a younger-generation, urban, and politically liberal concern.

Black English.

The terms used for Americans descended from African slaves continue to fluctuate as members of the group change the name by which they prefer to be known. At one time, colored person was the preferred term, enshrined in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It was replaced by Negro (with a first vowel like league, as opposed to the sound in the variant nigra), then by Black, and more recently African American has been favoured. Considerable controversy has existed about AFRICAN-AMERICAN VERNACULAR ENGLISH or AAVE, the language associated with African Americans. There has been argument about whether such usage should be a medium of instruction as an alternative to standard English. Among the strongest opponents of such a development have been older members of the group. The origin and history of BLACK ENGLISH has also been a subject of controversy among scholars, and the very existence of such a discrete dialect has been questioned.

English and Spanish.

There is a similar controversy about the official use of any non-English languages, but particularly of Spanish, as a medium of instruction in public schools, for voting in elections, and for other governmental and official functions. Pressure for such use of other languages comes from immigrant communities desirous of maintaining their identity within US society and has generated a counter-pressure to declare English the official language of the US. Several communities and states have passed laws or resolutions to that effect. The English for US, English First, or Official English movement has been called xenophobic, but can be seen as an extension of the ‘Federal English’ campaign of the early Republic, whose aim was the establishment of a uniform national language.


Regardless of the constitutional or other status of English in the US, the future of AmE is hardly in doubt. The international use of English seems assured for the foreseeable future. The extent to which international English reflects the standards of BrE or AmE, or a mid-Atlantic compromise, is open to speculation, but the question is of no great practical consequence: all national standards of English are close to one another. The growth of ‘New Englishes’ in the nations that have emerged since World War II may diversify the total range of the language, but international use is closely tied to the relatively uniform American–British complex.



The best-known and most exported item in AmE, OK or okay, has a particularly complex history tracked down by Allen Walker Read to two fads of the 1830s in the city of Boston. In the first, the initials of the words in a phrase were used instead of the phrase itself: OFM for our first men; ng for no go/no good. In the second, comic misspellings of words were favoured; oll wright for all right. The two came together to produce initialisms like OW ('oll wright), KY (‘know yuse’: no use), and OK (‘oll korrect’: all correct). OK would probably have gone the way of OFM and OW into the graveyard of forgotten usage, except that it was taken up as a pun on the nickname of the politician Martin Van Buren: Old Kinderhook (after the town in New York state in which he was born). A political organization, the OK Club, was formed to support his political fortunes, and its use of the term in the election campaign of 1840 spread knowledge of the word. Van Buren lost the election, but his catchword endured. (Other etymologies for OK have been proposed, tracing it to French, Finnish, Norwegian, Greek, German, Scots, Cockney, Choctaw, and several African languages, as well as to a number of personal names. All are imaginative, but lack documentary support.)


The place-names of the United States reflect mixed linguistic origins over some 500 years, and fall into three broad types:

1. Adoptions from indigenous languages

The state name Alaska is from Aleut ‘mainland’ (as viewed from the islands), Hawaii is a Polynesian name whose meaning is unknown, and Manhattan is Amerindian, probably meaning ‘island mountain’.

2. Transfers and inventions by British settlers

Transfers from the original homeland include Birmingham Alabama, from Birmingham in the English Midlands, and New York from old York (replacing the Dutch Nieuw AmsterdamNew Amsterdam’). Inventions include Pikes Peak (named for the explorer Zebulon Peak) and Cedar Rapids (identifying a place by its fast-flowing water and trees). There are at least six categories of such names (with some overlap among them): (1) Commemorative names: either nostalgically transferring a name without adaptation (as in Boston, Burlington, Montgomery, Swansea) or incorporating new to suggest a kind of recreation (as in New England, New London, New Orleans, New York). (2) Classical names, transferred for purposes of inspiration and aggrandizement, as in Athens, Cicero, Olympia, Parnassus, Rome, Syracuse. (3) Pseudo-classical names, intended to give a place dignity and grace, as in the Anglo-Latin Georgia (named for King George II) and Indiana (from the Indiana Company of land developers), suggesting the opening up and civilizing of untamed lands (applied to a territory that in due course became a state). (4) Names commemorating people: Jamestown (for James I) and Washington (both city and state: for George Washington). The classical-style Atlanta, Georgia may have been named after either the Western Atlantic Railroad, of which it was the terminus, or Martha Atalanta Lumpkin, daughter of a Georgia governor (an earlier local settlement being called Marthasville). (5) Descriptive names: The Black Hills, Dakota; Long Island, New York; the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Appalachians; Long Island, New York; the Red River, Texas; the Rocky Mountains/the Rockies. (6) Associative names: Hog Island, Michigan; Paper Mill Creek, California; Newspaper Rock, Arizona (so named because the Amerindian petroglyphs found there were wryly regarded as the journalism of their day).

3. Names from other European settler languages

Mainly Spanish, French, and Dutch: (1) Spanish names include saints' names in the West and South-West, such as San Luis Obispo (‘Saint Louis the Bishop’), San Francisco (‘Saint Francis’), and Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles (‘Our Lady of the Angels’), now simply Los Angeles (and L.A.), and such descriptive names as Boca Raton ‘rat's mouth’ and Rio Grande ‘great river’. (2) French names of settlements and landmarks include St Louis (a city) and Grand Teton (‘great teat’, a mountain). (3) Dutch names, concentrated in the North-East, include Brooklyn, an anglicization of Breukelyn, and the Catskill mountains (from Kats kill ‘cat's stream’), both in New York State.

The names of states.

Of the 50 states of the Union, 25 have Amerindian names (adopted directly or through various European languages), 9 are from French, Spanish, or another language, and 16 are English or Anglo-Latin. Names taken directly from Amerindian include Connecticut (‘at the long river’), Massachusetts (‘at the big hills’), Kentucky (‘meadowland’), Michigan (‘big lake’), Missouri (‘people of the big canoes’), and Oklahoma (‘red people’). Names from Amerindian through French include: Arkansas (a tribal name) and Illinois (‘men’, a tribal name). Names from Amerindian through Spanish include Arizona (‘place of the small spring’) and Texas (‘friends/allies’). State names from English or Anglo-Latin or a hybrid of the two include New Hampshire and New York (after old Hampshire and old York in England), Carolina (‘Charlesland’, North and South, after Charles I), Maryland (associated with both the Virgin Mary and Henrietta Maria, Charles I's queen), Pennsylvania (named for the Quaker William Penn, adding sylvania, ‘forest land’ in Latin), and Virginia (named for Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen).


The misunderstanding and displacement of names have often occurred, as for example in: (1) The Amerindian Meche-weami-ing (‘at the big flats’), originally the name of a valley in Pennsylvania. A condensed Anglicized version of the name was popularized in 1809 in Thomas Campbell's poem ‘Gertrude of Wyoming’. Because of its romantic associations, the name was given to a territory (which later became a state) far to the west of the region where the original words were used. (2) An early name for the Wisconsin River was Wisconsink, which a French map of 1715 misspelt as two words, printing them on separate lines as Ouaricon sint. Various forms of the first element, including Ourigan and Ouragon, were used for a legendary river flowing into the Pacific. When the Columbia River was found and named, it was linked with this legend, as a result of which the surrounding territory (and later state) was called Oregon.

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