American EnglishAmerican English (AmE, AE, AmEng, USEng, en-US), sometimes called United States English or U.S. English, is the set of varieties of the English language native to the United States. Currently, American English is the most influential form of English worldwide.
English is the most widely spoken language in the United States and is the de facto common language used by the federal and state governments, to the extent that all laws and compulsory education presume English as the primary language. English is explicitly given official status by 32 of the 50 state governments. While the local courts in some divisions of the United States grant equivalent status to both English and another language—for example, English and Spanish in Puerto Rico—under federal law, English is still the official language for any matters being referred to the United States district court for the territory.
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. During the 17th century, dialects from many different regions of England existed in every American colony, allowing a process of extensive dialect mixture and levelling in which English varieties across the colonies became more homogeneous compared with varieties in England. English thus predominated in the colonies even by the end of the 17th century's first massive immigration of non-English speakers from Europe and Africa, and firsthand descriptions of a fairly uniform American English became common after the mid-18th century. Since then, American English has developed into some new varieties, including regional dialects that, in some cases, show minor influences in the last two centuries from successive waves of immigrant speakers of diverse languages, primarily European languages.
American English varieties include many patterns of pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and particularly spelling that are unified nationwide but distinct from other English dialects around the world. Any American or Canadian accent perceived as free of noticeably local, ethnic, or cultural markers is popularly called "General" or "Standard" American, a fairly uniform accent continuum native to certain regions of the U.S. and associated nationally with broadcast mass media and highly educated speech. However, historical and present linguistic evidence does not support the notion of there being one single "mainstream" American accent. The sound of American English continues to evolve, with some local accents disappearing, but several larger regional accents having emerged in the 20th century.
PhonologyCompared with English as spoken in the United Kingdom, North American English is more homogeneous and any phonologically unremarkable North American accent is known as "General American". This section mostly refers to such General American features.
Conservative phonologyStudies 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 is conservative in some ways, preserving certain features contemporary British English has since lost. *
Full rhoticity (or R-fulness) is typical of American accents, pronouncing the phoneme (corresponding to the letter ) in all environments, including after vowels, such as in pearl, car, and court. Non-rhotic American accents, those that do not pronounce except before a vowel, such as some Eastern New England, New York, a specific few (often older) Southern, and African American vernacular accents, are often quickly noticed by General American listeners and perceived to sound especially ethnic, regional, or "old-fashioned".
Rhoticity is common in most American accents (yet nowadays rare in England), because, during the 17th-century British colonization, nearly all dialects of English were rhotic, and most North American English simply remained that way. This preservation of rhoticity in North America was also supported by continuing waves of rhotic-accented Scots-Irish immigrants, most intensely during the 18th century (and moderately during the following two centuries), when the Scots-Irish eventually made up one-seventh of the colonial population. Scots-Irish settlers spread from Delaware and Pennsylvania throughout the larger Mid-Atlantic region, the inland regions of both the South and North and throughout the West, all American dialect areas that consistently resisted upper-class non-rhotic influences and that consequently remain rhotic today. The pronunciation of is a postalveolar approximant or retroflex approximant , though a unique "bunched tongue" variant of the approximant r sound is also associated with the United States, and perhaps mostly in the Midwest and the South.
For those American accents that have not undergone the cot–caught merger (the lexical sets and ), they have instead retained a – split: a 17th-century split in which certain words (labeled as the lexical set) separated away from the set. This split, which has now reversed in most British English, simultaneously shifts this relatively recent set into a merger with the (caught) set. Having taken place prior to the unrounding of the cot vowel, this results in lengthening and perhaps raising, merging the more recently separated vowel into the vowel in the following environments: before many instances of , , and particularly (as in Austria, cloth, cost, loss, off, often, etc.), a few instances before (as in strong, long, wrong), and variably by region or speaker in gone, on, and certain other words.
The standard accent of southern England, Received Pronunciation (RP), has evolved in other ways too, compared to which General American English has remained relatively more conservative, for example, regarding today's RP features of a trap–bath split and the fronting of , neither of which is typical of General American accents. Moreover, American dialects do not participate in H-dropping, an innovative feature that now characterizes perhaps a majority of the regional dialects of England.
Innovative phonologyOn 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:
The process of coining new lexical items started as soon as English-speaking British-American colonists began borrowing names for unfamiliar flora, fauna, and topography from the Native American languages. Examples of such names are opossum, raccoon, squash, moose (from Algonquian), wigwam, and moccasin. The languages of the other colonizing nations also added to the American vocabulary; for instance, cookie, from Dutch; kindergarten from German, levee from French; and rodeo from Spanish. Landscape features are often loanwords from French or Spanish, and the word corn, used in England to refer to wheat (or any cereal), came to denote the maize plant, the most important crop in the U.S.
Most Mexican Spanish contributions came after the War of 1812, with the opening of the West, like ranch (now a common house style). Due to the Mexican culinary influence, many Spanish words are incorporated in general use when talking about certain popular dishes: cilantro (instead of coriander), queso, tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas, tostadas, fajitas, burritos, and guacamole. These words don't really have an English equivalent and are found in popular restaurants. New forms of dwelling created new terms (lot, waterfront) and types of homes like log cabin, adobe in the 18th century; apartment, shanty in the 19th century; project, condominium, townhouse, mobile home in the 20th century; and parts thereof (driveway, breezeway, backyard). Industry and material innovations from the 19th century onwards provide distinctive new words, phrases, and idioms through railroading (see further at rail terminology) and transportation terminology, ranging from types of roads (dirt roads, freeways) to infrastructure (parking lot, overpass, rest area), to automotive terminology often now standard in English internationally. Already existing English words—such as store, shop, lumber—underwent shifts in meaning; others remained in the U.S. while changing in Britain. Science, urbanization, and democracy have been important factors in bringing about changes in the written and spoken language of the United States. From the world of business and finance came new terms (merger, downsize, bottom line), from sports and gambling terminology came, specific jargon aside, common everyday American idioms, including many idioms related to baseball. The names of some American inventions remained largely confined to North America (elevator, gasoline) as did certain automotive terms (truck, trunk).
New foreign loanwords came with 19th and early 20th century European immigration to the U.S.; notably, from Yiddish (chutzpah, schmooze) and German (hamburger, wiener). 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.
American English has always shown a marked tendency to use words in different parts of speech and nouns are often used as verbs. Examples of nouns that are now also verbs are interview, advocate, vacuum, lobby, pressure, rear-end, transition, feature, profile, hashtag, head, divorce, loan, estimate, X-ray, spearhead, skyrocket, showcase, bad-mouth, vacation, major, and many others. Compounds coined in the U.S. are for instance foothill, landslide (in all senses), backdrop, teenager, brainstorm, bandwagon, hitchhike, smalltime, and a huge number of others. Other compound words have been founded based on industrialization and the wave of the automobile: five-passenger car, four-door sedan, two-door sedan, and station-wagon (called an estate car in England). Some are euphemistic (human resources, affirmative action, correctional facility). Many compound nouns have the verb-and-preposition combination: stopover, lineup, tryout, spin-off, shootout, holdup, hideout, comeback, makeover, and many more. Some prepositional and phrasal verbs are in fact of American origin (win out, hold up, back up/off/down/out, face up to and many others).
Noun endings such as -ee (retiree), -ery (bakery), -ster (gangster) and -cian (beautician) are also particularly productive in the U.S. Gotten (past participle of get) is often considered to be largely an Americanism. Other words and meanings were brought back to Britain from the U.S., especially in the second half of the 20th century; these include hire ("to employ"), 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 adjectives mad meaning "angry," smart meaning "intelligent," and sick meaning "ill" are also more frequent in American (and Irish) English than British English.
Linguist Bert Vaux created a survey, completed in 2003, polling English speakers across the United States about their specific everyday word choices, hoping to identify regionalisms. The study found that most Americans prefer the term sub for a long sandwich, soda (but pop in the Great Lakes region and generic coke in the South) for a sweet and bubbly soft drink, you or you guys for the plural of you (but y'all in the South), sneakers for athletic shoes (but often tennis shoes outside the Northeast), and shopping cart for a cart used for carrying supermarket goods.
Differences between American and British EnglishAmerican 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: typically a lack of differentiation between adjectives and adverbs, employing the equivalent adjectives as adverbs he ran quick/he ran quickly; 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 ("like this") over single ('as here').
Vocabulary differences vary by region. For example, autumn is used more commonly in the United Kingdom, whereas fall is more common in American English. Some other differences include: aerial (United Kingdom) vs. antenna, biscuit (United Kingdom) vs. cookie/cracker, car park (United Kingdom) vs. parking lot, caravan (United Kingdom) vs. trailer, city centre (United Kingdom) vs. downtown, flat (United Kingdom) vs. apartment, fringe (United Kingdom) vs. bangs, and holiday (United Kingdom) vs. vacation.
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 "schedule" can be pronounced with either or .
While written American English is largely standardized across the country and spoken American English dialects are highly mutually intelligible, there are still several recognizable regional and ethnic accents and lexical distinctions.
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.
Having been settled longer than the American West Coast, the East Coast has had more time to develop unique accents, and it currently comprises three or four linguistically significant regions, each of which possesses English varieties both different from each other as well as quite internally diverse: New England, the Mid-Atlantic States (including a New York accent as well as a unique Philadelphia–Baltimore accent), and the South. As of the twentieth century, the middle and eastern Great Lakes area, Chicago being the largest city with these speakers, also ushered in certain unique features, including the fronting of the vowel in the mouth toward and tensing of the vowel wholesale to . These sound changes have triggered a series of other vowel shifts in the same region, known by linguists as the "Inland North". The Inland North shares with the Eastern New England dialect (including Boston accents) a backer tongue positioning of the vowel (to ) and the vowel (to ) in comparison to the rest of the country. Ranging from northern New England across the Great Lakes to Minnesota, another Northern regional marker is the variable fronting of before , for example appearing four times in the stereotypical Boston shibboleth Park the car in Harvard Yard.Several other phenomena serve to distinguish regional U.S. accents. Boston, Pittsburgh, Upper Midwestern, and Western U.S. accents have fully completed a merger of the vowel with the vowel ( and , respectively): a cot–caught merger, which is rapidly spreading throughout the whole country. However, the South, Inland North, and a Northeastern coastal corridor passing through Rhode Island, New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore typically preserve an older cot–caught distinction. For that Northeastern corridor, the realization of the vowel is particularly marked, as depicted in humorous spellings, like in tawk and cawfee (talk and coffee), which intend to represent it being tense and diphthongal: . A æ tensing|split of into two separate phonemes, using different a pronunciations for example in gap versus gas , further defines New York City as well as Philadelphia–Baltimore accents.
Most Americans preserve all historical sounds, using what is known as a rhotic accent. The only traditionally r-dropping (or non-rhotic) regional U.S. accents are spoken in eastern New England, New York City variably, and some of the former plantation South primarily among older speakers (and consequently African-American Vernacular English variably across the country), though the vowel-consonant cluster found in "bird," "work," "hurt," "learn," etc. usually retains its r pronunciation, even in these non-rhotic American accents. Non-rhoticity among such speakers is presumed to have arisen from their upper classes' close historical contact with England, imitating London's r-dropping, a feature that has continued to gain prestige throughout England from the late 18th century onwards, but which has conversely lost prestige in the U.S. since at least the early 20th century. Non-rhoticity makes a word like car sound like cah or source like sauce.
The most prominent and stigmatized regional accents of the country are New York City and Southern accents. Southern speech, strongest in southern Appalachia and certain areas of Texas, is commonly identified among Americans as a "country" accent, and is defined by the vowel losing its gliding quality: , the initiation event for a complicated Southern vowel shift, including a "Southern drawl" that makes short front vowels into distinct-sounding gliding vowels. The fronting of the vowels of , , , and tends to also define Southern accents as well as the accents spoken in the "Midland": a vast band of the country that constitutes an intermediate dialect region between the traditional North and South. Western U.S. accents mostly fall under the General American spectrum.
Below, ten major American English accents are defined by their particular combinations of certain vowel sounds: