American English is one of the most influential dialects of the English language, to the extent that it now influences the vocabulary of British English. In itself it consists of a variety of different accents and dialects, many of which stem from the original settlers of various regions. Like all languages there is a large amount of social and ethnic variation within the language, but there is also a great deal of variation from British English. It has been shaped by its colonial history in both linguistic and cultural aspects, but the physical separation from England has caused the language to evolve separately. Regional dialects in the United States generally reflect the elements of the language of the nationality of the original settlers, or those who have consisted of a large percentage of immigration to the area since then, particularly in regard to vernacular lexis and pronunciation.
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The first successful English colony was Jamestown, established in 1607, on a small river near Chesapeake Bay. The venture was financed and coordinated by the London Virginia Company, a joint stock company looking for gold. Despite conflicts with the Native Americans of the area, a permanent settlement was soon established. This lead to multiple colonies being set up by English-speaking settlers along the South Atlantic coast. Many of these settlers originated from south-eastern England, and maintain a socio-political link with their mother country for many years after. This in turn resulted in some distinctive features of language that are still present today, such as the non-realization of a postvocalic /r/ sound.
In the seventeenth century there was an influx of settlers from Northern and Western Britain. These settlers were mainly working-class people, and their dialects formed a large part of the foundation for American English. Instances where the word “Mom” rather than “Mum” or “pants” rather than “trousers” can be found in the north-west of England in vernacular speech, although it is unclear whether these distinctions originated in America or England.
Throughout the next few centuries settlers travelled from all over Europe. This resulted in a variety of new customs, ideas and influences in different areas of America, such as French influence in South Carolina and German influences in the Mid-Atlantic. They maintained contact with their home countries, which again provided aspects of dialect to become dominant in their communities. The colonies were all part of the British Empire, which lead to English quickly becoming the dominant language.
However, this was not without opposition. Before British settlers arrived, there were over 1000 indigenous languages and dialects found in various parts of America. To this date only about 200 of those languages survive, and they are in the minority. One of the most established is Navajo, which currently had about 178,000 speakers. Navajo was spoken by Native Americans, mainly in the south-west of America, and was one of the main languages at the time of colonization. However, it was never established as the main language of America. After colonization the political power lay with the settlers, who were mainly English speakers. Many settlers wanted to maintain the link with their home country. As America was at this time largely a part of the British Empire, English was necessary to communicate with the government and ruling forces. Eventually there were more settlers than natives, and the language evolved from there. The Navajo language has since declined, with only 57% of Navajo youths aged 5-17 speaking the language.
The evolution of American English has lead to many distinct differences from British English. For example, many aspects of pronunciation are drastically altered.
There are also many instances of vocabulary and lexis that are altered when British and American English are compared.
There are several reasons for these differences. After the political differences in America in the late 1700s, the citizens formed a new sense of national pride. This could have led to an inclination to diverge from Standard British English in hopes of forming a new national identity. Also, despite the fact that American English shares the same origin as British English in many ways, it has also been exposed to many more external influences in more recent years. When America was first being colonised settlers travelled from many different cultures, and each contributed to the new language that was born.
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Another reason relates to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. In colonising new lands, settlers would have found flora and fauna that they were previously unfamiliar with, and therefore were required to invent entirely new words with which to refer to them. These words were often formed using existing words or phrases, such as ‘bull frog’. A great deal of differences in lexis stem from the late 19th century period, a time of much technological advancement, when Britain and America formed new inventions and industrializations separately. For this reason a great deal of motoring or railroad terms are different between the two dialects, as new terms for these inventions were coined separately, such as ‘gearbox’ and ‘transmission’.
In American English the word ‘fag’ or ‘faggot’ is a pejorative reference for a homosexual male, but in British English it is also a vernacular term for a cigarette or someone who smokes, or an archaic term meaning a bundle of wood. The phrase a ‘public school’ also has opposite meanings in each dialect. In the majority of America this is a government-funded and organised institution supported by taxpayers’ money. In most of Britain the term refers to a group of prestigious private or independent schools funded by students’ fees, although it is often also used to refer to any independent school.
However, David Crystal states “We have to allow for words which have at least one [shared] meaning and one or more additional meanings that are specific to either American English or British English: an example is caravan, which in the sense of ‘group of travellers in the desert’ is common to both varieties; but in the sense of ‘vehicle towed by a car’ it is British English (=American English trailer)” For this reason classifications of differences between the two dialects may be unreliable. Moreover, much of the differences are now familiar to the inhabitants of both regions, due to media influences such as films and music, to the extent that both dialects have influence on the other.
As well as the familiar vocabulary differences, there are also differences between spelling regulations and punctuation between the two dialects. When Britain first colonized America there was no such thing as standardized spelling. This lead to a divergent evolution in some aspects of spelling. For example, the use of “z” instead of “s” in words such as ‘patronizing’ (patronizing). In Britain both of these spellings are often permitted, whereas in America it is considered an error to use the ‘s’ version. Another example is the ommitance of the letter ‘u’ in circumstances where it follow ‘o’. For example, ‘colour’ and ‘color’. Webster’s 1828 dictionary featured only ‘-or’ and is generally given much of the credit for the adoption of this form in the United States, as one of the first influences on standardised spelling in America. Another visible difference is that British English often prefers hyphenated compounds, such as ‘counter-attack’, whereas American English discourages the use of hyphens in compounds where there is no compelling reason, so ‘counterattack’ is much more common.
Despite the separate evolutions of the language there can be said to be very few major differences between American English and British English. Due to its historical status as a member of the British Empire, and its modern status as a worldwide center of trade, media focus and political influence, America remains a majorly influential part of world commerce, and as such it would be detrimental to stray from a version of English that is similar to what is known as Standard English. The minor differences between British and American English are mainly due to America’s multicultural influences throughout the course of its colonization, and its physical distance from settlers’ homelands. These differences do not make the language unintelligible to other dialects, but can lead to miscommunication.
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