The article reviews and analyzes the past, present, and future of American English as a young and rapidly developing variant of the English language.
Keywords: English, English language, British English, American English, variant, divergence.
The English language is known for having a number of relatively independent variants widely spoken in different parts of the world. By variants of English in this case we understand its regional varieties possessing a literary norm, i.e. historically determined aggregates of linguistic means in common use and the rules that govern the choice and use of such means and that have become generally accepted by a specific linguistic community during a specific historical period . Linguists usually distinguish between the variants existing on the territory of the United Kingdom (British English, Scottish English and Irish English) and the variants existing outside the British Isles (American English, Canadian English, Australian English, New Zealand English, South African English and Indian English) [14, p. 145].
Among the mentioned variants of the English language the most important ones are British English and American English. These variants undoubtedly share some common features but are at the same time quite different. The existing differences were sometimes exaggerated by academic and public figures. For instance, in 1919
H. L. Mencken, a German-American journalist, satirist and cultural critic, published his book «The American Language», in which he on the basic of some observations tries to show that the differences between American English and British English are considerable enough to treat these variants as separate independent languages, the American language being the dominant one. Similar thoughts can be found in the works by world-famous writers. For example, Oscar Wilde once said that «We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language». There is another popular aphorism of this kind widely ascribed to Bernard Shaw: «The English and the Americans are two nations divided by a common language» [9; 2, p. 259].
Such statements and the like obviously did not appear out of nowhere and have some validity. Our task within this paper is to trace the history of the American variant of the English language, point out and explain its most significant distinctive characteristics, define its position and role in the modern world, outline the possible ways of its future development and finally make a conclusion about its being a separate language or not.
§1. History of American English
The emergence of different variants of the English language was caused by England’s colonial expansion and, consequently, penetration of the English language to other parts of the world where it underwent some changes according to the local circumstances. This penetration began mainly in the 16th century which was an age of great adventurers and England’s tremendous progress in the discovery and colonizing field. For example, it is in the 16th century that Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe, the East India Company was established and English seamen left their mark in many parts of the world.
The 16th century also marked the beginning of England’s colonial expansion to the so-called New World — the first colonies were set up in Newfoundland in 1583. But the real start came a little later. In 1607 the first permanent settlements were founded in Jamestown, and in 1620 the famous ship Mayflower brought a group of English settlers to what became known as New England. These fugitives from the Old World came from the London area, from East Anglia and Yorkshire. This was the first period in the history of American English, it can also be called the colonial period. Some scholars consider this the linguistically most important period, since this was the time when the settlement of the original thirteen colonies along the Atlantic seaboard took place, and thus the first speakers of what would later become American English appeared on the North American continent. At this stage the degree of divergence between American English and British English was very low, because American English had just begun its existence, had not yet undergone any considerable changes and thus was almost absolutely identical with British English. The first period in the development of American English closes with the ratification of the federal constitution in 1789, in the wake of the War of Independence [11, p. 70; 10, p. 182; 7, p. 20].
When the War of Independence ended, the long process of westward movement began. Tens of thousands of settlers moved west of the seaboard area toward and beyond the Mississippi River. This «march» opens the second major period in the history of American English, sometimes called the national period. As new settlers arrived, there was an increasing demand for new, unexplored, and unoccupied territories. The main feature of the period that seems to be assumed by most scholars is that this is the time when the English spoken in the United States became and, as a result of the efforts of men like Noah Webster, was made the national language of the new country. Noah Webster, a famous lexicographer, was the first person to claim American English to be an independent language. He worked in the period when the Americans were fighting for their independence and for their rights. They tried to create their own culture, and getting their own independent language was a very important part of that strategy. At that time such a behavior had a progressive political meaning not only in terms of getting rid of England’s domination, but also in terms of uniting thirteen separate colonies into one nation that later formed the USA. In his thesis on the English language Noah Webster wrote that it was a matter of honor for the Americans to have both their own system of government and system of language. Noah Webster’s patriotic activities were crowned by publishing «American Dictionary of the English Language» (1828) [3, p. 256; 7, p. 20].
Although Webster’s statements about American English being an independent language were overconfident and mainly politically and ideologically motivated, they in a way reflected the objective state of things. The matter is that the communities speaking American English were cut off from the land where British English was actively spoken and could not but develop step by step. There was no regular communication between the two territories, and the contacts that did take place were rather scarce and could not provide any considerable linguistic interaction. This geographical division contributed to the increasing of differences between the two variants of English — British English was developing the way it had done before, while American English after, we can say, making a short pause in its development was beginning a new life. So, in this period the two variants of English were already going separate ways and the number of differences between them started to grow.
This final period that can be termed as the international period stretches from the late 19th century to the present time. This period is characterized by new waves of immigration. The new immigrants came to the United States from all parts of the world, but several categories of immigrants stand out in number and importance. Thus, the first wave of immigrants was formed especially by Northern European immigrants. Later a large number of Southern and Eastern Europeans chose the United States as their new home. The latest, but one of the most important, wave of immigration came from Spanish-speaking countries — Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba [7, p. 21–22]. These contacts with other languages have played a very important role in the development of American English, which will be elucidated in this paper later. At this stage the same factors that increase the number of discrepancies — geographical isolation from British English and contacts with other languages — continue to be in power, which results in a still greater degree of divergence.
So, what we have speaking about the history of American English in general is that a group of British English speakers moved from their homeland to a different part of the world where in the course of time the language they brought gradually grew different from the language they left back in Europe, thus forming a new variant of the English language. This new variant, American English, has its own historically determined peculiarities and differs from its British counterpart in some aspects of phonetics, vocabulary and grammar. The next paragraph of the paper is dedicated to the description and analysis of these very differences that can be observed nowadays.
§2. Differences between American English and British English viewed historically
Since American English can be treated as a relatively young offshoot of British English, the latter will constitute the basis for comparison. It should also be noted that the differences to be analyzed are rather numerous, but at the same time they are often very specific, unimportant and unsystematic. That is why we are going to shed light only on the most significant and noticeable divergences.
The presence of rhotic accent
The presence of rhotic accent is one of the most noticeable and recognizable differences between British and American English. Rhotic accent refers to the manner the letter r is pronounced after a vowel in such words as bar, hard, here, etc. In American English it is pronounced distinctly and is never left unread. It is documented that up to 1776, when the American Revolution broke out, there was no such thing as British and American accents, both were indistinguishable and both were rhotic. But towards the end of the 18th century the upper classes of Southern England started to remove the rhotic accent as a way of marking their class distinction. Gradually the new version of pronunciation spread all over Britain, while over the ocean it remained the same in the absence of reason to introduce any changes. As we can see, this difference is the result of the loss of direct connection between the two variants. It is not even of much importance what exactly caused a particular historical change in British English — the thing is that this change was not reflected in its American counterpart, which added one more point to the list of differences.
The sound /uː/ in such words like new instead of the classical /juː/
A similar process is observed in the following case. As is known, American English is characterized by the sound /u:/ in words like new and knew, where British English has /ju:/. This pronunciation was typical of speech in East Anglia at the time the first settlers left England and it is still recognizable in some rural parts of eastern England. However, the Americans preserved the /j/-less pronunciation, while the pronunciation with /j/ became the standard in British English.
Reading of the letter a in words like fast
It can be pointed out that the use of /æ/ in words such as fast and path was abandoned in Southern England, that is, the speech area influenced by London, at the end of the 18th century. The sound corresponding to the letter a was mainly flat in England, even in words like father. This means that it was pronounced unrounded, with the lips slightly spread. There are about 150 common words in American English that have this vowel, instead of the vowel used in British English today. The /æ/ is present in American pronunciation in words in which the letter a is followed by the so-called voiceless fricatives f, s, and th. This flat a, pronounced /æ/, was common throughout England until the 18th century.
The analyzed differences show that American English sounds preserve qualities that were found in the English of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Elizabethan stress patterns were different from those of today. The words secretary and necessary had secondary stress on the penultimate syllable in Shakespeare’s time. This is general American practice today, a practice which has changed in British English, where the pronunciation of these words has only primary stress on the first syllable. The same applies to the stress pattern of words like circumstance, where American English has secondary stress on the final syllable.
Loanwords from French were adapted by American English in a different way than they were by British English. Change of stress is the most noticeable difference. In American English French loanwords have a final-syllable stress, while British English stresses an earlier syllable. It seems that the American English phonology has respected the fixed accent of the French language, which in most cases falls on the last syllable, while British English speakers tried to adapt the new words for their accentuation system. A few examples of this change of stress are as follows: adult, baton, brochure, etc.
There was a great deal of accent leveling in the speech of the first Americans. For example, the people from East Anglia and the West Country mixed freely in the new colonies. As a result, the children of the first generation in all probability spoke a kind of English that was the merger of accents from of variety of English dialects. The process already started on the ships and continued in the closely-knit colonies of the New World. We can consider this process of accent leveling as a major force in the shaping of American English. In particular, it must have had an impact on the relative uniformity of American English [7, p. 25–26].
As it is easy to see, many of the phonetic differences can be explained historically either by the relative geographical isolation of the newly discovered lands and the loss of connection between American English and British English or by specific characteristics of the process of exploration of these lands.
The vocabulary used by American speakers, has distinctive features of its own. There are whole groups of words which belong to the American vocabulary exclusively and constitute its specific features. These words are calledAmericanisms.
The first group of such words may be described as historical Americanisms. In American usage these words still remain their old meanings whereas in British English their meanings have changed or fell out of use.
Let us take a look at some examples. The word mad is perhaps the most frequently used American word for angry today, as in I am mad at him. This goes back to Elizabethan times, when Shakespeare used it in the sense of angry. In modern British English usage mad simply means insane, although many British people would also recognize the American meaning of the term. Sick originally meant ill in general in the 17th century. It is this meaning that survives in such expressions as sickbed, sick-note, homesick, and lovesick in both British and American English. The meaning of the word was not limited to nausea alone, which is the predominant meaning in Britain today. When used predicatively (i.e., with verbs like to be or to feel), the new British sense of the term is ready to vomit, to feel nauseated. American English still retains the earlier, more general sense of the word, and it is used to speak of illness in general. Guess is another American English word that has captured the attention of those dealing with British-American differences. This is because, many observers find, it is overused as a verb by Americans. The specifically American meaning of the verb is suppose or consider, and it occurs in sentences such as I guess you are feeling tired after your long journey. The important point about it here is that its use goes back to Chaucer in the 14th century, and it was used up to the 17th century, when it died out in standard British English (although it survives in some British dialects). As a final example, we can mention the word bloody. Originally, the word bloody simply meant covered with blood in English. This is the meaning which was carried over to America, where the word is used in this non-taboo sense. In British English, however, it became a taboo word for the expression of anger, or other negative feelings. This is why it could create an uproar in England when it was used in G. B. Shaw’s Pygmalion at the beginning of the century. This use of the word has not carried over to American English.
So, historical Americanisms retain their obsolete meanings, while the meanings of these words in British English have already undergone more or les significant changes.
The second group of Americanisms includes words which are not likely to be discovered in British vocabulary. These words may be calledproper Americanisms. They were coined by the early Americans who had to find names for the new environment (flora and fauna) and new conditions of life, e.g.redbud, bluegrass, etc. It is clear that these lexical units are specifically American ones and were brought to life due to the necessity to adapt to the new environment.
Another group of Americanisms consists of words which may be described as specificallyAmerican borrowings. These borrowings reflect historical contacts of the Americans with other nations on the American continent.
The first languages with which the English-speaking settlers came into contact in the 17th and 18th centuries include various native Indian languages, as well as Spanish, French, etc.
The first and real «owners» of the American continent were the various native American Indian tribes, speaking a large number of different Indian languages. Roughly fifty American Indian words have established themselves in the lexicon of American English. The first English-speaking settlers called these words «wigwam» words, wigwam being one of the earliest borrowings into the English language in North America. Many of the words borrowed came from the domain of trees, plants, fruits, and animals (sequoia, moose, skunk, etc.) In many cases, the Indian words were perceived by the settlers as too long or too difficult to pronounce. As a result, they have simplified the original Indian words, which often meant making them shorter. Thus, today American English has the word raccoon for the animal from aracouns, which ultimately derives from the Indian word raughroughouns.
The French influence came later than the native Indian influence. The settlers met the French as they moved inland. The contact resulted in borrowings such as toboggan, crevasse, depot, etc. As we have already mentioned, in American English such words often retained their original stress position. One of the best-known American English words of French origin is prairie. This word has been «immortalized» by Western movies.
The early Spanish influence on American English is the most extensive of all the colonial languages. To this influence the English language owes such common words as barbecue, chocolate, and tomato, which were, incidentally, all borrowed from various Indian languages by the Spanish themselves. The settlers referred to the Spanish as dagoes, which is derived from the Spanish name Diego. The Spanish influence continues even today.
One more group of Americanisms is represented by American shortenings. These are shortenings which were produced on American soil, but may be used in other variants of English as well, e.g.dorm(dormitory),mo(moment),cert(certainty) [7, p. 27–32; 14, p. 148–149].
This shortening tendency is extremely important for understanding the new settlers’ psychology, the psychology of their descendants — today’s Americans, and the development of American English in general. As Z. Kovecses points out, the personal qualities of the colonists, their inner spirit found their reflection in the characteristics of the language that they actively used while exploring the new territories. The most important of these features are as follows: economical, regular, direct, informal, inventive. It means that the observed historical changes of American English and its mainstream tendencies are the result of manifestation of these personal qualities [7, p. 13].
One more distinctive feature of American English, directly connected with the psychological disposition of the settlers described above, is its orthography. The spelling reform in America began in the latter part of the 18th century and was promoted by Noah Webster, in particular. The purpose of this reform was 1) to create additional distinctive features of American English so that it looks like a really independent language; 2) to decrease the number of discrepancies between spelling and pronunciation — i.e. to make the language system more normalized, regular and convenient to use.
The list of the introduced changes is well-known: o instead of ou; -er instead of -re; -yze instead of -ise; -ction instead of -xion, etc. [12, p. 353–356].
Here we are likely to find fewer divergences than in the vocabulary system, but many of these divergences are very interesting, because they are bright manifestations of the Americans’ psychology, their historically formed world view as the settlers who in the 17th century came to a new land and had to overcome a lot of difficulties to stay alive and prosper.
For example, the historically determined need for economy, regularity and convenience explains the Americans’ unwillingness to use some irregular verbs in the way the British do and their attempts to simplify paradigms of such verbs. For example, these forms, irregular in British English, are regular in American English: kneel — kneeled — kneeled; saw — sawed — sawed; lean — leaned — leaned.
Simplification and informality of American English also manifest themselves in the usage of adjective instead of adverbs after verbs: She did it good; He walked quick. The same refers to the tendency to substitute the Past Indefinite Tense for the Present Perfect Tense, especially in oral communication. An American is likely to sayI saw this moviewhere an Englishman will probably sayI’ve seen this film. There is also a point of view that this feature was brought to American English by immigrants who had no complex perfect tenses in their native languages.
Just as American usage has retained the old meanings of some English words(fall, guess, sick),it has also retained the old form of the Past Participle of the verbto get: to get — got — gotten(cf. the Britishgot). In the 19th century, prestigious speakers in England began to drop the -en ending, while most Americans continued to use the old form.
One more noticeable distinctive feature of American English grammar is the usage of collective nouns with a singular verb (The government is saying …) The use of the singular verb with these nouns is older, and American English maintained this usage, whereas British English departed from it in the first half of the 19th century [7, p. 27].
That is practically the whole story as far as divergences in grammar of American English and British English are concerned. As G. B. Antrushina puts it, the grammatical system of both varieties is actually the same, with very few exceptions [2, p. 265–266].
§3. Status of American English and its future
American English is relatively young. But this did not prevent it from developing very quickly and successfully. Nowadays it is unanimously recognized that the American variant of the English language is the dominant one in the whole world.
The roots of this situation are to be found in the extralinguistic history of the USA. For instance, 1) the first radio program was broadcast in English from America; 2) the world movie industry based on English originated in the USA; 3) today’s popular music is mainly produced in the USA; 4) the world’s leading advertising agencies are the property of the USA; 5) English is the main language of the Internet that was invented in the USA [5, p. 41]. It is enough to use any word processor to realize how powerful American English is nowadays — the matter is that almost all computer programs mark British spelling variants as incorrect ones.
So, today the American English variant is the dominating variant. But is it just a variant or maybe really a separate independent language as Noah Webster thought it to be? It is not an easy problem to solve. The matter is that in modern linguistics there are many criteria of differentiating between languages and variants (mutual understanding of speakers, common origin, presence of a codified norm, etc.), but all of them are more or less inconsistent and cannot make us feel absolutely sure if we deal with a separate language or just a variant. It seems that one of the approaches that can be successfully applied here is a subjective linguopsychological or linguopolitical one, including a complex of factors [4, p. 20].
Nevertheless, taking into consideration the following facts:
1) American English is a relatively new offshoot of British English;
2) the phonetic, lexical and grammatical base of American English and British English is the same;
3) there exist some slight differences between American English and British English at the phonetic, lexical and grammatical levels;
4) American English and British English serve as a means of communication for two different nations;
5) American English has a literary norm ,
we can conclude that American English is a variant of the English language.
But scientists are interested not only in characteristics and status of today’s American English — they are also eager to know what it will be like in the future. There are a lot of theories on this point. E. A. Anchimbe writes that in the future different variants of the English language will lose their peculiar features and blend into one language [1, p. 8]. D. Crystal is sure that there will appear a new universal form of the English language that will make it possible to overcome all the difficulties connected with different variants of English. The scientist thinks that this new form will be created on the basis of American English [8, p. 227–230]. At the same time
D. Graddol says that we should not forget the British English variant, because it is still very popular, widely spoken and has a huge potential [6, p. 57].
So, within the frames of this paper we analyzed the history of American English, pointed out and explained its modern peculiarities, had a look at its position in the today’s world and also got acquainted with some general theories concerning the future perspectives of American English.
American English came into existence due to England’s colonial expansion. Europeans moved to the New World, settled there, and step by step the language they spoke got quite different from the language they had spoken, thus forming a new variant of English — American English. This process of gradual divergence took place due to the following reasons: relative isolation from England and, consequently, from British English (fixation of older and obsolete norms in American English), contacts with other languages (borrowings), special spirit of the brave and rational first settlers (language economy, regularity, informality, etc.) All these facts and processes left their marks in phonetics, vocabulary and grammar of American English, making them peculiar and different from those of British English.
Nowadays American English is the dominating variant of English, contributing very much to the international communication. The future of American English is an object of discussion, different linguists propound their theories, but none of them gives us an exhaustive and well-based picture of its perspectives. So, it just remains to be seen, if American English will gain in importance, lose its power or blend with some other variant of English. But there is no doubt that it depends on how powerful the American nation will be.
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