American English

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American English (AmE) is the form or dialect of the English language used mostly in the United States of America. As of 2005, it is estimated that more than two thirds of native speakers of English use various forms of American English. American English is also sometimes called United States English or U.S. English.



English was inherited from British colonization. The first wave of English-speaking immigrants was settled in North America in the 17th century. In that century, there were also speakers in North America of the Dutch, French, German, myriad Native American, Spanish, Swedish, Scots, Welsh, Irish, Scottish gaelic and Finnish languages.


In many ways, compared to British English, American English is conservative in its phonology. The conservatism of American English is largely the result of the fact that it represents a mixture of various dialects from the British Isles. Dialect in North America is most distinctive on the East Coast of the continent; this is largely because these areas were in contact with England, and imitated prestigious varieties of British English at a time when those varieties were undergoing changes. The interior of the country was settled by people who were no longer closely connected to England, as they had no access to the ocean during a time when journeys to Britain were always by sea. As such the inland speech is much more homogeneous than the East Coast speech, and did not imitate the changes in speech from England.

The red areas are those where non-rhotic pronunciations are found among some whites in the United States. AAVE-influenced non-rhotic pronunciations may be found among blacks throughout the country.
The red areas are those where non-rhotic pronunciations are found among some whites in the United States. AAVE-influenced non-rhotic pronunciations may be found among blacks throughout the country.

Most North American speech is rhotic, as English was everywhere in the 17th century. Rhoticity was further supported by Hiberno-English, Scottish English, and West Country English. In most varieties of North American English, the sound corresponding to the letter "R" is a retroflex semivowel rather than a trill or a tap. The loss of syllable-final r in North America is confined mostly to the accents of eastern New England, New York City and surrounding areas, South Philadelphia, and the coastal portions of the South. Dropping of syllable-final r sometimes happens in natively rhotic dialects if r is located in unaccented syllables or words and the next syllable or word begins in a consonant. In England, lost 'r' was often changed into [ə] (schwa), giving rise to a new class of falling diphthongs. Furthermore, the 'er' sound of (stressed) fur or (unstressed) butter, which is represented in IPA as stressed [ɝ] or unstressed [ɚ] is realized in American English as a monophthongal r-colored vowel. This does not happen in the non-rhotic varieties of North American speech.

Some other British English changes in which most North American dialects do not participate:

  • The shift of [æ] to [ɑ] (the so-called "broad A") before [f], [s], [θ], [ð], [z], [v] alone or preceded by [n]. This is the difference between the British Received Pronunciation and American pronunciation of bath and dance. In the United States, only linguistically conservative eastern-New-England speakers took up this innovation.
  • The shift of intervocalic [t] to glottal stop [ʔ], as in /bɒʔəl/ for bottle. This change is not universal for British English (and in fact is not considered to be part of Received Pronunciation), but it does not occur in most North American dialects. Newfoundland English and the dialect of New Britain, Connecticut are notable exceptions.

On the other hand, North American English has undergone some sound changes not found in Britain, at least not in standard varieties. Many of these are instances of phonemic differentiation and include

  • The merger of [ɑ] and [ɒ], making father and bother rhyme. This change is nearly universal in North American English, occurring almost everywhere except for parts of eastern New England, like the Boston accent.
  • The replacement of the lot vowel with the strut vowel in what, was, of, from, everybody, nobody, somebody, anybody, because, and in some dialects want.
  • Vowel merger before intervocalic /r/. Which (if any) vowels are affected varies between dialects.
  • The merger of [ʊɹ] and [ɝ] after palatals in some words, so that cure, pure, mature and sure rhyme with fir in some speech registers for some speakers.
  • Dropping of [j] after [n], [d], [t], [s], [z], and [l], so that new, duke, Tuesday, suit, resume, lute are pronounced /nuː/, /duːk/, /tuːzdeɪ/, /suːt/, /ɹɪzuːm/, /luːt/.
  • Æ-tensing in environments that vary widely from accent to accent. In some accents, particularly those from Philadelphia to New York City, [æ] and [eə] can even contrast sometimes, as in Yes, I can [kæn] vs. tin can [keən].
  • Laxing of /e/, /i/ and /u/ to /E/, /I/ and /U/ before /r/, causing pronunciations like /pEr/, /pIr/ and /pjUr/ for pair, peer and pure.
  • The flapping of intervocalic [t] and [d] to alveolar tap [ɾ] before non-initial reduced vowels. The words ladder and latter are mostly or entirely homophonous, possibly distinguished only by the length of preceding vowel. For some speakers, the merger is incomplete and 't' before a reduced vowel is sometimes not tapped following [eɪ] or [ɪ] when it represents underlying 't'; thus greater and grader, and unbitten and unbidden are distinguished. Others distinguish the sounds if they are preceded by the diphthongs [ɑɪ] or [ɑʊ]; these speakers tend to pronounce writer with [əɪ] and rider with [ɑɪ]. This is called Canadian raising; it is general in Canadian English, and occurs in some northerly versions of American English as well.
  • The dropping of [t]s that occur between [n] and an unstressed vowel, making winter and winner sound the same. This does not occur when the t after the n belongs to a second stress syllable, as in entail.

Some mergers found in most varieties of both American and British English include:

  • The horse-hoarse merger of the vowels [ɔ] and [oʊ] before 'r', making pairs like horse/hoarse, corps/core, for/four, morning/mourning etc. homophones.
  • The wine-whine merger making pairs like wine/whine, wet/whet, Wales/whales, wear/where etc. homophones. Many older varieties of southern and western American English still keep these distinct, but the merger appears to be spreading.

Differences in British English and American English

Main article: American and British English differences

American English has both spelling and grammatical differences from British English (or Commonwealth English), some of which were made as part of an attempt to rationalize the English spelling used by British English at the time. Unlike many 20th century language reforms (for example, Turkey's alphabet shift, Norway's spelling reform) the American spelling changes were not driven by government, but by textbook writers and dictionary makers.

The first American dictionary was written by Noah Webster in 1828. At the time America was a relatively new country and Webster's particular contribution was to show that the region spoke a different dialect from Britain, and so he wrote a dictionary with many spellings differing from the standard. Many of these changes were initiated unilaterally by Webster.

Webster also argued for many "simplifications" to the idiomatic spelling of the period. Somewhat ironically, many, although not all, of his simplifications fell into common usage alongside the original versions, resulting in a situation even more confused than before.

Many words are shortened and differ from other versions of English. Spellings such as center are used instead of centre in other versions of English. Conversely, American English sometimes favors words that are morphologically more complex, whereas British English 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).

English words that arose in the U.S.

A number of words that arose in the United States have become common, to varying degrees, in English as it is spoken internationally. Although its origin is disputed, the most famous word is probably OK, which is sometimes used in other languages as well. Other American introductions include "belittle," "gerrymander" (from Elbridge Gerry), "blizzard", "teenager", and many more.

English words obsolete outside the U.S.

A number of words that originated in the English of the British Isles are still in everyday use in North America, but are no longer used in most varieties of British English. The most conspicuous of these words are fall, the season; to quit, as in "to cease an activity" (as opposed to "to leave a location" as still used in most other Anglophone countries); and gotten as a past participle of get. Americans are more likely than Britons to name a stream whose breadth or volume is judged insufficient for it to be a river or a creek. The word diaper goes back at least to Shakespeare, and usage was maintained in the U.S. and Canada, but was replaced in the British Isles with nappy.

Some of these words are still used in various dialects of the British Isles, but not in formal standard British English. Many of these older words have cognates in Lowland Scots.

The subjunctive mood is livelier in North American English than it is in British English; it appears in some areas as a spoken usage, and is considered obligatory in more formal contexts in American English. British English has a strong tendency to replace subjunctives with auxiliary verb constructions.

Regional differences

Main article: American English regional differences

Spoken American English is not homogeneous throughout the country, and various regional and ethnic variants exist. These differences affect both pronunciation and the lexicon, and can make one accent a little difficult for speakers of another accent to understand.

See also

Further reading

  • The American Language 4th Edition, Corrected and Enlarged, H. L. Mencken, Random House, 1948, hardcover, ISBN 0394400755
  • How We Talk: American Regional English Today, Allan Metcalf, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000, softcover, ISBN 0618043624
    • 1st and 2nd supplements of above.
  • Craig M. Carver. American Regional Dialects: A Word Geography. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1987. ISBN 0472100769

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