The Magazine

American Speak

This tongue has many colors.

Aug 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 46 • By SARA LODGE
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In the musical My Fair Lady, snooty dialectician Henry Higgins searches in vain for “purity” of expression in English; he winces at the Scots and the Irish, shudders at the Cockney London accent. His parting shot is, however, fired across the Atlantic: There even are places where English completely disappears, / In America they haven’t used it for years! sings the Englishman.

Navajo code talkers during the battle for Bougainville, 1943

Navajo code talkers during the battle for Bougainville, 1943


Higgins’s prejudice is absurd, but his identification of American parlance as quite distinct from his own is correct. The difference between American English and British English is considerable—at least as wide as the difference between an American and an English muffin. Both are made from similar ingredients, but they feel very different on the palate. American English (it seems to my British ears) has greater rise and bounce. “Awesome!” was a word I first encountered at university, spoken by an American friend whose optimism was legendary. “You rock! I’m psyched,” he would exclaim when I left homemade cake in the communal kitchen. “That sucks!” he commiserated when misfortune befell me. 

All of these expressions were new and exciting. They had the ring of Walt Whitman’s poetic “whoop” and “holler”: the language of a nation that celebrates its own physical vigor. British people, it goes without saying, do not whoop. British English is a flatter language, of deadpan irony, subtle hint, and withering understatement. In a comic Internet “translation guide to Britspeak,” an anonymous American source explains that when British people say “With the greatest respect” they mean “I think you are an idiot.” This is true. Americans talk turkey. British people mince their words.

In Speaking American, Professor Richard W. Bailey traces the development of a distinct “American English” from the 16th to the 21st century. The book takes a series of case studies of particular towns at particular periods in history to illustrate some of the mechanisms that have affected the changing use and perception of language in the United States.

In 1643, Roger Williams published (in London) A Key into the Language of America. His book described the languages spoken by the Native Americans in Rhode Island. He introduced words from Algonquian into English, but his project was also to introduce European intellectuals to the rich mesh of languages and dialects of the new continent. Communication was crucial for early settlers who relied on their contact with Native Americans. In this era, “linkisters”—bilinguals who could act as links between communities speaking different languages—were highly valued.

It was not long, however, before setting limits on acceptable language became a tool for asserting power in the new colony. The Puritans in Massachusetts enacted a law to require deferential speaking. Quakers, whose leveling system of belief was reflected in universally using “thee” and “thou,” rather than the gradations of status involved in distinguishing “you” (respectful) from “thou” (familiar), faced punishments ranging from whipping to execution. Women might also fall foul of patriarchal linguistic rules. In 1637, Anne Hutchinson was banished for striving to address the male ministers in equal terms. “Speaking up” in early American history could constitute a criminal offense in ways unthinkable today. Yet the speech community was already distinctive for the “cluster of various ways of speaking” in which diverse groups could communicate across racial, educational, and linguistic lines.

Just as geology shapes landscape, so social geography shapes language. For example, Charleston, South Carolina, was, in the early 18th century, a sharply divided community. Only 12 percent of the residents in 1710 were white;
22 percent were black slaves and 66 percent were Native American. Most of the white planters hailed from Barbados and, in the face of relative isolation, felt a very strong connection to England. They persisted in sending their sons to England to be educated at British public schools and universities, and maintaining “correct” English usage was important to them. 

Thus, they continued using “prestige” forms of British English pronunciation much longer than other areas of America. Words like “calm,” “palm,” and “psalm” were pronounced “cam,” “pam,” and “sam.” The “r” sound in many words was genteelly omitted while the final “g” in verbs was politely dropped. Well into the 19th century, the eminent citizens of Charleston were goin’ on speakin’ at smaaht paahties in a fashion that would be associated with upper-class Britons.