|Region United States|
|Native speakers 225 million, all varieties of English in the United states (2010 census)25.6 million L2 speakers of English in the United states (2003)|
Language family Indo-EuropeanGermanicWest GermanicIngvaeonicAnglo–FrisianEnglishAmerican English
Writing system Latin (English alphabet)Unified English Braille
American English (variously abbreviated AmE, AE, AmEng, USEng, en-US), also called United States English or U.S. English, is the set of varieties of the English language native to the United States. English is the most widely spoken language in the United States and is the common language used by the Federal government, considered the de facto language of the country because of its widespread use. English has been given official status by 32 of the 50 state governments. As an example, while both Spanish and English have equivalent status in the local courts of Puerto Rico, under Federal Law, English is the official language for any matters being referred to the United States district court for the Territory.
- Eastern New England
- New York City
- Inland North
- Other varieties
- Creation of an American lexicon
- 19th century onwards
- English words that survived in the United States and not in the United Kingdom
- Regionally distinct terms within the United States
- Differences between British and American English
The use of English in the United States is a result of British colonization of the Americas. The first wave of English-speaking settlers arrived in North America during the 17th century, followed by further migrations in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since then, American English has been influenced by the Languages of West Africa, the Native American population, German, Dutch, Irish, Spanish, and other Languages of successive waves of immigrants to the United States.
Any American English accent perceived as free of noticeably local, ethnic, or cultural markers is popularly called "General American", described by sociolinguist William Labov as "a fairly uniform broadcast standard in the mass Media", but otherwise there is not a mainstream standard English of the country, according to historical and present linguistic evidence. According to Labov, with the major exception of Southern American English, regional accents throughout the country are not yielding to this broadcast standard. On the contrary, the sound of American English continues to evolve, with some local accents disappearing, but several larger regional accents emerging and advancing.
While written American English is (in general) standardized across the country, there are several recognizable variations in the spoken language, both in pronunciation and in vernacular vocabulary. The regional sounds of present-day American English are reportedly engaged in a complex phenomenon of "both convergence and divergence": some accents are homogenizing and levelling, while others are diversifying and deviating further away from one another. In 2010, William Labov summarized the current state of regional American accents as follows:
Some regional American English has undergone "vigorous new sound changes" since the mid-nineteenth century onwards, spawning relatively recent Mid-Atlantic (centered on Philadelphia and Baltimore), western Pennsylvania (centered on Pittsburgh), Inland Northern (centered on Chicago, Detroit, and the Great Lakes region), Midland (centered on Indianapolis, Columbus, and Kansas City) and Western accents, all of which "are now more different from each other than they were fifty or a hundred years ago." Meanwhile, the unique features of the Eastern New England (centered on Boston) and New York City accents appear to be stable. "On the other hand, dialects of many smaller cities have receded in favor of the new regional patterns"; for example, the traditional accents of Charleston and of Cincinnati have given way to the general Midland accent, and of St. Louis now approaches the sounds of the Inland Northern accent. At the same Time, the Southern accent, despite its huge geographic coverage, "is on the whole slowly receding: younger speakers everywhere in the South are shifting away from the marked features of Southern speech." Finally, the "Hoi Toider" dialect shows the paradox of receding among younger speakers in North Carolina's Outer Banks Islands, yet strengthening in the Islands of the Chesapeake Bay.
Below, eleven major American English accents are defined by their particular combinations of certain characteristics:
Eastern New England
Marked New England speech is mostly associated with Eastern New England, centering on Boston and Providence, and traditionally includes occasional or systematic r-dropping (or non-rhoticity), as well as the back tongue positioning of the /uː/ vowel (to [u]) and the /aʊ/ vowel (to [ɑʊ~äʊ]). In and north of Boston, the /ɑːr/ sound is famously centralized or even fronted. Boston shows a cot-caught merger, while Providence keeps the same two vowels sharply distinct.
New York City
The Potomac River generally divides the Northern and Midland coastal dialects from the geographic beginning of the Southern dialect areas; in between these two rivers several regional variations exist, chief among them being New York City English, which prevails in and around New York City (including Long Island and Northeastern New Jersey), defined by consistent or variable non-rhoticity and a locally unique short-a vowel pronunciation split. New York City English otherwise broadly follows Northern patterns, except that the /aʊ/ vowel is fronted. The cot-caught merger is strongly resisted around New York City. As is well known in popular stereotypes, as in tawwk and cawwfee, the thought vowel is typically tensed in New York City.
The main features of Southern American English can be traced to the speech of the English from the West Country and Southern England who settled in Virginia after leaving England at the Time of the English Civil War. Most older Southern speech along the Eastern seaboard was non-rhotic, though, today, all local Southern dialects are strongly rhotic, defined most recognizably by the /aɪ/ vowel losing its gliding quality and approaching [aː~äː], the initiating event for the Southern Vowel Shift, which includes a "Southern drawl" that makes short front vowels into gliding vowels.
Since the mid-twentieth century, a distinctive new Northern speech pattern has developed near the border between Canada and the United States, centered on the Great Lakes region (but only on the American side). Linguists call this region the "Inland North", as defined by its local vowel shift—occurring in the same region whose "standard Midwestern" speech was the basis for General American in the mid-20th century (though prior to this recent vowel shift). Those not from this area frequently confuse it with the North Midland dialect treated below, referring to both, plus areas to the immediate west of the Great Lakes region, all collectively as "the Midwest": a common but vaguely delineated term for what is now the central or north-Central United States. The so-called '"Minnesotan" dialect is also prevalent in the cultural Upper Midwest, and is characterized by influences from the German and Scandinavian settlers of the region (like "yah" for yes, pronounced similarly to "ja" in German, Norwegian and Swedish). In parts of Pennsylvania and Ohio, another dialect known as Pennsylvania Dutch English is also spoken.
Between the traditional American "North" and "South" is what linguists have long called the "Midland." This geographically overlaps with some states situated in the lower Midwest. West of the Appalachian Mountains begins the broad zone of modern-day "Midland" speech. This has often been divided into two discrete subdivisions, the "North Midland" that begins north of the Ohio River valley area, and the "South Midland" speech, which to the American ear has a slight trace of the "Southern accent" (especially due to some degree of /aɪ/ glide weakening). Sometimes the former region is designated simply "Midland" and the latter is labelled as "Highland Southern". The South Midland or Highland Southern dialect follows the Ohio River in a generally southwesterly direction, moves across Arkansas and Oklahoma west of the Mississippi, and peters out in West Texas. It is a version of the Midland speech that has assimilated some coastal Southern forms.
Modern Midland speech also has no obvious presence or absence of the cot–caught merger. Historically, Pennsylvania was the home of the Midland dialect, however, this state of early English-speaking settlers has now largely split off into new dialect Regions, with distinct Philadelphia and Pittsburgh dialects documented since the latter half of the twentieth century.
A generalized Midland speech continues westward until becoming a somewhat internally diverse Western American English that unites the entire western half of the country. This Western dialect is mostly unified by the cot–caught merger and a conservatively backed pronunciation of the long oh sound in goat, toe, show, etc., but a fronted pronunciation of the long oo sound in goose, lose, tune, etc. Western speech itself contains such advanced sub-types as Pacific Northwest English and California English (with the Chicano English accent also being a sub-type primarily of the Western accent), although, in the immediate San Francisco area, some older speakers do not possess the normal Californian cot–caught merger, which reflects a historical Mid-Atlantic heritage.
Although no longer region-specific, African American Vernacular English, which remains prevalent particularly among working- and middle-class African Americans, has a close relationship to Southern varieties of American English and has greatly influenced everyday speech of many Americans, including in areas such as hip hop Culture. The same aforementioned socioeconomic groups, but among Hispanic and Latino Americans, have also developed native-Speaker varieties of English. The best-studied Latino Englishes are Chicano English, spoken in the West and Midwest, and New York Latino English, spoken in the New York metropolitan area. Additionally, ethnic varieties such as Yeshiva English and "Yinglish" are spoken by some American Jews, and Cajun Vernacular English by some Cajuns in southern Louisiana.
Compared with English as spoken in England, North American English is more homogeneous, and any North American accent that exhibits a majority of the most common phonological features is known as "General American." This section mostly refers to such widespread or mainstream pronunciation features that characterize American English.
Studies on historical usage of English in both the United States and the United Kingdom suggest that spoken American English did not simply deviate away from period British English, but retained certain now-archaic features contemporary British English has since lost. One of these is the rhoticity common in most American accents, because in the 17th century, when English was brought to the Americas, most English in England was also rhotic. The preservation of rhoticity has been further supported by the influences of Hiberno-English, West Country English and Scottish English. In most varieties of North American English, the sound corresponding to the letter ⟨r⟩ is a postalveolar approximant [ɹ̠] or retroflex approximant [ɻ] rather than a trill or tap (as often heard, for example, in the English accents of Scotland or India). A unique "bunched tongue" variant of the approximant r sound is also associated with the United States, and seems particularly noticeable in the Midwest and South.
Traditionally, the "East Coast" comprises three or four major linguistically distinct Regions, each of which possesses English varieties both distinct from each other as well as quite internally diverse: New England, the New York metropolitan area, the Mid-Atlantic states (centering on Philadelphia and Baltimore), and the Southern United States. The only r-dropping (or non-rhotic) regional accents of American English are all spoken along the East Coast, except the Mid-Atlantic region, because these areas were in close historical contact with England and imitated prestigious varieties of English at a time when these were undergoing changes; in particular, the London prestige of non-rhoticity (or dropping the ⟨r⟩ sound, except before vowels) from the 17th century onwards, which is now widespread throughout most of England. Today, non-rhoticity is confined in the United States to the accents of eastern New England, the former plantation South, New York City, and African American Vernacular English (though the vowel-consonant cluster found in "bird", "work", "hurt", "learn", etc. usually retains its r pronunciation today, even in these non-rhotic accents). Other than these varieties, American accents are rhotic, pronouncing every instance of the ⟨r⟩ sound.
Many British accents have evolved in other ways compared to which General American English has remained relatively more conservative, for example, regarding the typical southern British features of a trap–bath split, fronting of /oʊ/, and H-dropping. The innovation of /t/ glottaling, which does occur before a consonant (including a syllabic coronal nasal consonant, like in the words button or satin) and word-finally in General American, additionally occurs variably between vowels in British English. On the other hand, General American is more innovative than the dialects of England, or English Elsewhere in the world, in a number of its own ways:
Some mergers found in most varieties of both American and British English include:
North America has given the English lexicon many thousands of words, meanings, and phrases. Several thousand are now used in English as spoken internationally.
Creation of an American lexicon
The process of coining new lexical items started as soon as the colonists began borrowing Names for unfamiliar flora, fauna, and topography from the Native American languages. Examples of such Names are opossum, raccoon, squash and moose (from Algonquian). Other Native American loanwords, such as wigwam or moccasin, describe articles in common use among Native Americans. The languages of the other colonizing nations also added to the American vocabulary; for instance, cookie, cruller, stoop, and pit (of a fruit) from Dutch; angst, kindergarten, sauerkraut from German, levee, portage ("carrying of boats or goods") and (probably) gopher from French; barbecue, stevedore, and rodeo from Spanish.
Among the earliest and most notable regular "English" additions to the American vocabulary, dating from the early days of colonization through the early 19th century, are terms describing the features of the North American landscape; for instance, run, branch, fork, snag, bluff, gulch, neck (of the woods), barrens, bottomland, notch, knob, riffle, rapids, watergap, cutoff, trail, timberline and divide. Already existing words such as creek, slough, sleet and (in later use) watershed received new meanings that were unknown in England.
Other noteworthy American toponyms are found among loanwords; for example, prairie, butte (French); bayou (Choctaw via Louisiana French); coulee (Canadian French, but used also in Louisiana with a different meaning); canyon, mesa, arroyo (Spanish); vlei, skate, kill (Dutch, Hudson Valley).
The word corn, used in England to refer to wheat (or any cereal), came to denote the plant Zea mays, the most important crop in the U.S., originally named Indian corn by the earliest settlers; wheat, rye, barley, oats, etc. came to be collectively referred to as grain. Other notable farm related vocabulary additions were the new meanings assumed by barn (not only a building for hay and grain storage, but also for housing livestock) and team (not just the horses, but also the vehicle along with them), as well as, in various periods, the terms range, (corn) crib, truck, elevator, sharecropping and feedlot.
ranch, later applied to a house style, derives from Mexican Spanish; most Spanish contributions came after the War of 1812, with the opening of the West. Among these are, other than toponyms, chaps (from chaparreras), plaza, lasso, bronco, buckaroo, rodeo; examples of "English" additions from the cowboy era are bad man, maverick, chuck ("food") and Boot Hill; from the California Gold Rush came such idioms as hit pay dirt or strike it rich. The word blizzard probably originated in the West. A couple of notable late 18th century additions are the verb belittle and the noun bid, both first used in writing by Thomas Jefferson.
With the new continent developed new forms of dwelling, and hence a large inventory of words designating real estate concepts (land office, lot, outlands, waterfront, the verbs locate and relocate, betterment, addition, subdivision), types of property (log cabin, adobe in the 18th century; frame house, apartment, tenement house, shack, shanty in the 19th century; project, condominium, townhouse, split-level, mobile home, multi-family in the 20th century), and parts thereof (driveway, breezeway, backyard, dooryard; clapboard, siding, trim, baseboard; stoop (from Dutch), family room, den; and, in recent years, HVAC, central air, walkout basement).
Ever since the American Revolution, a great number of terms connected with the U.S. political institutions have entered the language; examples are run (i.e, for office), gubernatorial, primary election, carpetbagger (after the Civil War), repeater, lame duck (a British term used originally in Banking) and pork barrel. Some of these are internationally used (for example, caucus, gerrymander, filibuster, exit poll).
19th century onwards
The development of industry and material innovations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries were the source of a massive stock of distinctive new words, phrases and idioms. Typical examples are the vocabulary of railroading (see further at rail terminology) and transportation terminology, ranging from names of roads (from dirt roads and back roads to freeways and parkways) to road infrastructure (parking lot, overpass, rest area), and from automotive terminology to public transit (for example, in the sentence "riding the subway downtown"); such American introductions as commuter (from commutation ticket), concourse, to board (a vehicle), to park, double-park and parallel park (a car), double decker or the noun terminal have long been used in all dialects of English.
Trades of various kinds have endowed (American) English with household words describing jobs and occupations (bartender, longshoreman, patrolman, hobo, bouncer, bellhop, roustabout, white collar, blue collar, employee, boss [from Dutch], intern, busboy, mortician, senior citizen), businesses and workplaces (department store, supermarket, thrift store, gift shop, drugstore, motel, main street, gas station, hardware store, savings and loan, hock [also from Dutch]), as well as general concepts and innovations (automated teller machine, smart card, cash register, dishwasher, reservation [as at hotels], pay envelope, movie, mileage, shortage, outage, blood bank).
Already existing English words—such as store, shop, dry goods, haberdashery, lumber—underwent shifts in meaning; some—such as mason, student, clerk, the verbs can (as in "canned goods"), ship, fix, carry, enroll (as in school), run (as in "run a business"), release and haul—were given new significations, while others (such as tradesman) have retained meanings that disappeared in England. From the world of business and finance came break-even, merger, delisting, downsize, disintermediation, bottom line; from Sports terminology came, jargon aside, Monday-morning quarterback, cheap shot, game plan (football); in the ballpark, out of left field, off base, hit and run, and many other idioms from baseball; gamblers coined bluff, blue chip, ante, bottom dollar, raw deal, pass the buck, ace in the hole, freeze-out, showdown; miners coined bedrock, bonanza, peter out, pan out and the verb prospect from the noun; and railroadmen are to be credited with make the grade, sidetrack, head-on, and the verb railroad. A number of Americanisms describing material innovations remained largely confined to North America: elevator, ground, gasoline; many automotive terms fall in this category, although many do not (hatchback, sport utility vehicle, station wagon, tailgate, motorhome, truck, pickup truck, to exhaust).
In addition to the above-mentioned loans from French, Spanish, Mexican Spanish, Dutch, and Native American languages, other accretions from foreign languages came with 19th and early 20th century Immigration; notably, from Yiddish (chutzpah, schmooze, tush) and German—hamburger and culinary terms like frankfurter/franks, liverwurst, sauerkraut, wiener, deli(catessen); scram, kindergarten, gesundheit; musical terminology (whole note, half note, etc.); and apparently cookbook, fresh ("impudent") and what gives? Such constructions as Are you coming with? and I like to Dance (for "I like dancing") may also be the result of German or Yiddish influence.
Finally, a large number of English colloquialisms from various periods are American in origin; some have lost their American flavor (from OK and cool to nerd and 24/7), while others have not (have a nice day, for sure); many are now distinctly old-fashioned (swell, groovy). Some English words now in general use, such as hijacking, disc jockey, boost, bulldoze and jazz, originated as American slang. Among the many English idioms of U.S. origin are get the hang of, bark up the wrong tree, keep tabs, run scared, take a backseat, have an edge over, stake a claim, take a shine to, in on the ground floor, bite off more than one can chew, off/on the wagon, stay put, inside track, stiff upper lip, bad hair day, throw a monkey wrench/monkeywrenching, under the weather, jump bail, come clean, come again?, it ain't over till it's over, and what goes around comes around.
American English has always shown a marked tendency to use nouns as verbs. Examples of verbed nouns are interview, advocate, vacuum, lobby, pressure, rear-end, transition, feature, profile, spearhead, skyrocket, showcase, service (as a car), corner, torch, exit (as in "exit the lobby"), factor (in mathematics), gun ("shoot"), author (which disappeared in English around 1630 and was revived in the U.S. three centuries later) and, out of American material, proposition, graft (bribery), bad-mouth, vacation, major, backpack, backtrack, intern, ticket (traffic violations), hassle, blacktop, peer-review, dope and OD, and, of course verbed as used at the start of this sentence.
Compounds coined in the U.S. are for instance foothill, flatlands, badlands, landslide (in all senses), overview (the noun), backdrop, teenager, brainstorm, bandwagon, hitchhike, smalltime, deadbeat, frontman, lowbrow and highbrow, hell-bent, foolproof, nitpick, about-face (later verbed), upfront (in all senses), fixer-upper, no-show; many of these are phrases used as adverbs or (often) hyphenated attributive adjectives: non-profit, for-profit, free-for-all, ready-to-wear, catchall, low-down, down-and-out, down and dirty, in-your-face, nip and tuck; many compound nouns and adjectives are open: happy hour, fall guy, capital gain, road trip, wheat pit, head start, plea bargain; some of these are colorful (empty nester, loan shark, ambulance chaser, buzz saw, ghetto blaster, dust bunny), others are euphemistic (differently abled (physically challenged), human resources, affirmative action, correctional facility).
Many compound nouns have the form verb plus preposition: add-on, stopover, lineup, shakedown, tryout, spin-off, rundown ("summary"), shootout, holdup, hideout, comeback, cookout, kickback, makeover, takeover, rollback ("decrease"), rip-off, come-on, shoo-in, fix-up, tie-in, tie-up ("stoppage"), stand-in. These essentially are nouned phrasal verbs; some prepositional and phrasal verbs are in fact of American origin (spell out, figure out, hold up, brace up, size up, rope in, back up/off/down/out, step down, miss out, kick around, cash in, rain out, check in and check out (in all senses), fill in ("inform"), kick in or throw in ("contribute"), square off, sock in, sock away, factor in/out, come down with, give up on, lay off (from employment), run into and across ("meet"), stop by, pass up, put up (money), set up ("frame"), Trade in, pick up on, pick up after, lose out).
Noun endings such as -ee (retiree), -ery (bakery), -ster (gangster) and -cian (beautician) are also particularly productive. Some verbs ending in -ize are of U.S. origin; for example, fetishize, prioritize, burglarize, accessorize, itemize, editorialize, customize, notarize, weatherize, winterize, Mirandize; and so are some back-formations (locate, fine-tune, evolute, curate, donate, emote, upholster, peeve and enthuse). Among syntactical constructions that arose in the U.S. are as of (with dates and times), outside of, headed for, meet up with, back of, convince someone to, not about to and lack for.
Americanisms formed by alteration of some existing words include notably pesky, phony, rambunctious, pry (as in "pry open", from prize), putter (verb), buddy, sundae, skeeter, sashay and kitty-corner. Adjectives that arose in the U.S. are for example, lengthy, bossy, cute and cutesy, grounded (of a child), punk (in all senses), sticky (of the weather), through (as in "through train", or meaning "finished"), and many colloquial forms such as peppy or wacky. American blends include motel, guesstimate, infomercial and televangelist.
English words that survived in the United States and not in the United Kingdom
A number of words and meanings that originated in Middle English or Early Modern English and that have been in everyday use in the United States dropped out in most varieties of British English; some of these have cognates in Lowland Scots. Terms such as fall ("autumn"), faucet ("tap"), diaper ("nappy"), candy ("sweets"), skillet, eyeglasses and obligate are often regarded as Americanisms. Fall for example came to denote the season in 16th century England, a contraction of Middle English expressions like "fall of the leaf" and "fall of the year".
During the 17th century, English Immigration to the British colonies in North America was at its peak and the new settlers took the English language with them. While the term fall gradually became obsolete in Britain, it became the more common term in North America. Gotten (past participle of get) is often considered to be an Americanism, although there are some areas of Britain, such as Lancashire and North East England, that still continue to use it and sometimes also use putten as the past participle for put (which is not done by most speakers of American English).
Other words and meanings, to various extents, were brought back to Britain, especially in the second half of the 20th century; these include hire ("to employ"), quit ("to stop", which spawned quitter in the U.S.), I guess (famously criticized by H. W. Fowler), baggage, hit (a place), and the adverbs overly and presently ("currently"). Some of these, for example monkey wrench and wastebasket, originated in 19th century Britain.
The mandative subjunctive (as in "the City Attorney suggested that the case not be closed") is livelier in American English than it is in British English. It appears in some areas as a spoken usage and is considered obligatory in contexts that are more formal. The adjectives mad meaning "angry", smart meaning "intelligent", and sick meaning "ill" are also more frequent in American (these meanings are also frequent in Hiberno-English) than British English.
Regionally distinct terms within the United States
Linguist Bert Vaux created a survey, completed in 2003, polling English speakers across the United States about the specific words they would use in everyday speech for various concepts. This 2003 study concluded that:
Differences between British and American English
American English and British English (BrE) often differ at the levels of phonology, phonetics, vocabulary, and, to a much lesser extent, grammar and orthography. The first large American dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language, known as Webster's Dictionary, was written by Noah Webster in 1828, codifying several of these spellings.
Differences in grammar are relatively minor, and do not normally affect mutual intelligibility; these include: different use of some auxiliary verbs; formal (rather than notional) agreement with collective nouns; different preferences for the past forms of a few verbs (for example, AmE/BrE: learned/learnt, burned/burnt, snuck/sneaked, dove/dived) although the purportedly "British" forms can occasionally be seen in American English writing as well; different prepositions and adverbs in certain contexts (for example, AmE in school, BrE at school); and whether or not a definite article is used, in very few cases (AmE to the hospital, BrE to hospital; contrast, however, AmE actress Elizabeth Taylor, BrE the actress Elizabeth Taylor). Often, these differences are a matter of relative preferences rather than absolute rules; and most are not stable, since the two varieties are constantly influencing each other, and American English is not a standardized set of dialects.
Differences in orthography are also minor. The main differences are that American English usually uses spellings such as flavor for British flavour, fiber for fibre, defense for defence, analyze for analyse, license for licence, catalog for catalogue and traveling for travelling. Noah Webster popularized such spellings in America, but he did not invent most of them. Rather, "he chose already existing options [...] on such grounds as simplicity, analogy or etymology". Other differences are due to the francophile tastes of the 19th century Victorian era Britain (for example they preferred programme for program, manoeuvre for maneuver, cheque for check, etc.). AmE almost always uses -ize in words like realize. BrE prefers -ise, but also uses -ize on occasion (see Oxford spelling).
There are a few differences in punctuation rules. British English is more tolerant of run-on sentences, called "comma splices" in American English, and American English requires that periods and commas be placed inside closing quotation marks even in cases in which British rules would place them outside. American English also favors the double quotation mark over single.
AmE sometimes favors words that are morphologically more complex, whereas BrE uses clipped forms, such as AmE Transportation and BrE transport or where the British form is a back-formation, such as AmE burglarize and BrE burgle (from burglar). However, while individuals usually use one or the other, both forms will be widely understood and mostly used alongside each other within the two systems.
British English also differs from American English in that in that "schedule" can be pronounced with either [sk] or [ʃ].