The Past, Present And Future of American English Essay

The first section of the essay will focus on how American English (AE) has developed, the differences between American English and British English, including lexis, grammar, style and spelling and to suggest reasons as to why this divergence happened. The second section is attempting to show how British English (BE) has been influenced by American English (AE) including some of my own research.

According to author Bill Bryson, when the British pilgrims arrived in America, firstly in 1607, founding the first English settlement of Jamestown, and secondly in 1620 on board the Mayflower, both bringing with them the language of an Elizabethan England (Bryson, 1998). For the next 200 hundred years the immigrants were predominantly British, 90% of the first 4 million settlers were of British origin, hence why the English language has prevailed (Bryson, 1998).

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It is worth noting however that America still to this day has no official language, creating fears amongst the pro-English language that Spanish could overtake English to become the predominate language (Kovecses, 1999). The British settlers came in contact with many other languages, the first being that of the Native Americans, then the Spanish who were already in America and then Dutch, German and Italian. The British settlers were required to communicate with these other settlers for trade and to manage to live together. This resulted in a number of new words being borrowed from these languages for example ‘moccasin’ from Native American, ‘boss’ from Dutch, ‘ranch’ from Spanish, and ‘prairie’ from French (Kovecses, 1999).

The pilgrims landed on the east coast of America and then later moved westward to places such as California, known as the movement to the frontier, the frontier being any area of land beyond the region of existing European occupation (Kovecses, 1999). Life on the frontier again had a profound effect on the language as it produced new activities and new ways of life, words such as ‘the gold rush’ were coined as a result of the influx of people to California in the hope of finding gold. Cowboys who were most prominent during the mid 19th century also offered their own input into the language with phrases such as ‘holding a job down’ (Kovecses, 1999). It is partly these differences in the history of the two countries that has lead to there being the divergence of the languages. America’s history not only shaped their lexis but also their conception of America as a whole, hence why Americans can say’ she went back east’ even if ‘she’ had never actually been east of where she is now, in BE this phrase would only be appropriate if she had (Kovecses, 1999). This was due to the westward expansion of America and east was where they all came from.

Another reason for the divergence is that America had a desire to have a language that was separate from BE, after the War of Independence in 1783 there was a great sense of national pride in the country. As a country that was no longer dependant on Britain politically, they did not want to be dependent on their former masters for language either. It was a sign of national identity. AE has a tendency to retain the use of words that have become archaic in BE with words such as ‘fall’. Kovecses suggest the reason for this may be because of the American tendency towards economy so ‘use what words you already have available to you’ (Kovecses, 1999). More evidence of this is shown when pilgrims frequently used words that were already known to them in the BE to describe new items that were similar to the British version, this includes words such as ‘robin’ as it had similar physical features to the British robin but is actually from an entirely different family of birds (Kovecses, 1999).

Advances in technology have often developed independently in the two countries which meant especially in the area of transport i.e. the car, different words are used for the same part for example ‘windshield’ (AE) and ‘windscreen’ (BE). In more recent developments such as computing this has not been the case, due to globalization companies no longer simply have a domestic market but an international one. Inventions like the internet are linked worldwide so there is a need for the same terminology otherwise this link would not work, for example in the coding of websites which is universal. New coinages tend to be the same in both BE and AE for example RAM (Random Access Memory).

One prominent figure in the development of AE was Noah Webster, born in 1758 and probably most famous for producing the first American Dictionary in 1806. Prior to this he produced ‘A Grammatical Institute of the English Language’, a form of text book designed to teach children to read and write. Up until this time most spellers had come from England and perpetuated the English spellings and pronunciation. (Noah Webster Bio , 2008). This also meant that educational institutions could now source text books from within the country as it was more economical and practical (Kovecses, 1999). It is in spelling that we find some distinctive differences as a result of this. The revised AE spellings were first set out in Noah Webster’s speller section of the text book series mentioned previously, which included ‘color’ for ‘colour’, ‘center’ for ‘centre’ and ‘defense’ for ‘defence’ . He also proposed a number of other spellings which have not been retained today such as ‘thru’ however this spelling has started being used in informal situations (Bryson, 1998).

Noah Webster claimed the reasons for these changes were firstly that it made the printing process more economical, by omitting the ‘u’ and a few other letters from words he found that he could save 6 pages for every 300 page book printed (Kovecses, 1999). Secondly because is more logical to spell ‘center’ as such instead of retaining the original French spelling and is the phonetic spelling, it is more consistent with our spelling system as cluster ‘tre’ is not found in the English spelling system apart from these borrowed words. The benefit of this being that it makes it easier for learners of the language (Kovecses, 1999).

Society is very much reflected through language, I will not focus too much on the accents within America as this a vast topic that would require too much space and time to study in the one essay however I will comment on the subject briefly. Where as in Britain the dialect of prestige, RP, is only spoken by 5% of the population, the US is a stark contrast with around 60% of the country speaking the equivalent ‘Network Standard American English’ (Kovecses, 1999). Another reason for Webster’s spelling revisions was because he felt that BE was made for the British aristocracy showing that language in America is more democratic (Kovecses, 1999).

So why have some AE words come over to BE while others have not? AE is a very inventive and imaginative language often using very visual words or phrases such as ‘skyrocket’ for rise and ‘brush off’ for ‘rejection’. It is always easier to understand something if it can be visualised, they seem to have a closer link to our physical experiences and hence theses words became very attractive to the British speaker (Kovecses, 1999). Additionally when there is no equivalent in BE, words tend to come over for example the word ‘stunt’ to mean an act display some sort of skill which originated in America in the 19th century (Kovecses, 1999). The third reason could be that the words have a more richer and more specific meaning, for example ‘foolproof’ for ‘simple’ Kovecses states ‘foolproof implies that something is so simple that even a fool cannot mishandle or misunderstand it; that is the meaning of simple is enriched by the aspect of intensity’ (Kovecses, 1999).

Language is required to be functional to the user. America required very different functions of their language to us, it needed to reflect their specific experiences while also being representative of their beliefs and character. AE is a result of the close interaction with many other languages, a need to create words for new flora, wildlife, activities and ways of life and a reflection of the imaginative American nature. Words of American origin have been coming over to British English for centuries, with words such as ‘commuter’, this is not to say the reverse process is not going on with words such as ‘weekend’ and ‘miniskirt’ coming from BE to AE however there is much greater transference from the former process (Kovecses, 1999). The differences between the two languages and the reasons behind them given here are by no means exhaustive, I have simply selected out the major ones.

There are still words, spellings and phrases that today or at least recently have been considered items with predominantly American usage. The next section is to challenge this and to see if they should still be regarded in this way.

Section Two

For this research section I am doing a questionnaire, an interview with a primary school teacher and an analysis of the programmes aired over one week on popular television channel. These will help give me an idea of how big an influence AE has become on BE while also suggesting some reasons as to why this is. Peter Trudgill in his article on the BBC website states that the influence the American language has on people through the media is minimal in terms of their grammar and accent as he states this requires speakers to interact with one another i.e. for a British speaker to emigrate to America and through interaction is the most productive way of changing grammar and accents, however lexical terms can still be picked up (Trudgill). For this reason i have chosen to focus on the influence of lexical terms on BE.

Firstly I will look at my interview with a primary school teacher; the transcript is in appendix 1. I have chosen to use a year 5 primary school teacher, so that is children of around 9 to 10 years old. I have chosen this age group because they were old enough to have started moving on from the basics of learning the alphabet and basic vocabulary which is largely the same between AE and BE but are still in the process of fully developing their vocabulary and have begun writing pieces of their own. The main findings of the interview was that American spellings are not often found, attributable to the fact that this is the way they have been taught, if it is found it is usually because the children assumed it was this way as they spell out in their heads. The teacher highlighted ‘favourite’ as a word the children found difficult to spell. In terms of the usage of American lexis, words such as ‘fall’ are not found however ‘kids’ is often used by the children.

The reasons behind this could be that ‘fall’ has an equivalent in BE, ‘autumn’ however ‘kids’ has a wider meaning than ‘children’, it can be used for a larger age group without sounding patronising, hence BE has somewhat of a need for the word. Jackie admitted that she uses the word herself, the children hear this and they start using it also. She believed there were more phrases that were used but could not recall any at the time. As to whether she believes these spellings are ‘better’, she concentrated on whether it was ‘correct’ and being ‘matter of national pride’ rather than ‘easier’ however agreed that having phonetic spellings would be beneficial. In order to learn the spelling ‘of ‘colour’ not only do you have to remember the patterns, i.e. that the letter combination ‘or’ is associated with the sound /?r/, but also the exceptions, that is to include the ‘u’.

For the questionnaire I asked 20 people around The University of Kent three questions, all of the completed questionnaires along with the results can be found in appendix 3. The problem with the questionnaire is that the participants were actively thinking about how they spell and what phrases they use however if they are not focusing on it, it may sometime feel natural to them to spell a word using the American spelling. The focus group was also very limited with all the participants being students and in the 18 – 23 age range, I would have got a greater variety of responses had I expanded focus group. These participants were chosen firstly due to lack of time and resources but secondly so that it tied in with my TV schedule as this is the target audience of the station, so it could help provide me with some reasons behind my findings. The main aims of the questionnaire were to see how AE spelling system is having an effect on BE (for the spellings i have chosen 1 word to be representative of each pattern of spelling i.e. ‘center’ for the general ‘er’ replacement or ‘re’) and see how the general public and more specifically the youth feel about the American influence. Finally for words for which there is an equivalent in both AE and BE to see which was becoming the dominant version.

In summary, the influence of spellings in words such as ‘ageing’ and ‘favourite’ the BE version remains dominant, ‘analyze’ is the only spelling were the AE version is dominant. It should be noted that in this Microsoft Word document the spell check, which is set to BE, does not bring this spelling up as an error, with people not being corrected on the issue this could be a reason behind its dominance. For t he other words ‘Analogue ‘and ‘Defence’ the BE spelling is dominate however the AE spelling is encroaching. The participants are generally not bothered by this American influence. Of the synonyms the AE versions ‘Airplane’ and ‘Instalment plan’ are the dominant versions over ‘Aeroplane’ and ‘hire purchase’ respectively where as the BE versions’ timetable’ and ‘lorry’ are still dominant over their AE counterparts schedule and truck respectively.

I have analysed the TV schedule of the British TV channel E4 over the space of a week from 19.00 until 01.00 which is their prime time viewing slots. The channel is currently available on Freeview, Sky and FreeSat and is aimed at the 15- 25 age market. The channel achieves high viewing ratings with 1.3% share of the viewing population, compare this with 6.9% of the more major channel 4 (based on the figures given by BARB for Mar ’09) bearing in mind channel 4 is also available on terrestrial television which is the standard reception people will receive in the UK. I will be looking at the schedule to see the percentage of shows of an American origin and that of British origin. This will give an idea of how much the American Language is part of our lives through the media and give some reasons behind the influence of American English on British English. The results were that in one week an overwhelming 72% of the shows were from an American origin.

This is not just ‘standard American’ either, for example in the show ‘My Name is Earl’ the characters possess a strong southern accent. The reasons for having so many shows are as follows, this is what the audience want, purchasing syndicate rights on popular shows which means they can show them as often as they want, while there is also the fact it is often much cheaper for channels to source the shows from America . As America has such a large population and hence much more money from advertising while also having less strict regulations on the production of TV show s means that they have the money to produce a greater number of better television shows. This gives evidence that this trend of purchasing American shows is set to continue and even increase.

The opinion of the British public on the influx of Americanisms into BE seems to be divided. From the results of my questionnaire it would seem that they are not at all concerned with the influx and if anything welcome the additions however there does also seem to be a lot of opposition to it with many comments from the BBC website being negative, giving reasons largely based on a matter of national pride for example one comment was; ‘Language is changing from our english to an american slang version. The young people of the world are writing, typing and pronouncing words wrong. ‘My opinion on the matter is that we should be liberal with it, it can make our language much richer and will be a great benefit in literature with the visual element of a lot of the Americanisms coming over and some of the spelling reforms do appear logical. I feel not accepting these simply as a matter of national pride would be shooting oneself in the foot.

Of course for my research i was very much limited in my time and resources. One interesting study of how style differs between BE and AE was done in 1987 by Douglas Biber over 9 different genres using the Lancaster-Oslo-Bergen corpus for BE and the Brown corpus for AE, together containing 1,600,000 words (Biber, 1987). Biber found that throughout the 9 genres AE had a greater use of the personal pronouns I/you. From this research Biber came to the conclusion that AE was more interactive and informal than BE. One possible investigation would be to re create this study and compare the results to get an idea of how our language is changing.

In the 20 years since the original interview was conducted many things have changed for example further development of television and the internet which has allowed BE speakers to easily interact with AE speakers over instant messaging, chat rooms and social sites. It should also be noted that by default the Google search engine will attempt to correct the spelling of your search term to reflect the AE spelling. There are also many other technological advances since then, more people are travelling long distances with plane journeys rising from 18 million international flights to 69 million meaning people are integrating with many more languages and culture (UK statistics report a quadrupling of passengers and trebling of aviation emissions since 1980, 2009)

The research shows the there is defiantly a large American influence on BE and if this trend continues which people seem to be willing to let continue, then in 20 years we could see a near identical vocabulary between the two languages. Media does play a part in this AE influence with a large proportion of TV programmes being of American origin. At a primary school level teachers at least are preserving our language and at a younger age there does seem to be so much of an American influence

Bibliography

Algeo, J. (. (2001). The Cambridge History of the English language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bryson, B. (1998). Made in America. Black Swan.

Biber, D. (1987) A textual comparison of British and American writing. American Speech. 62.2, 99-119.

Dillard, J. (1992). A History of American English. Longman.

Jefferson, B. (n.d.). Language Change Comments. Retrieved from BBC.co.uk: http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/yourvoice/language_change_comments.shtm

Kovecses, Z. (1999). American English: an Introduction. Canada: Broadview Press.

Spears, R. A. (2002). Common American Phrases in Everyday Contexts: A Detailed Guide to Real-Life Conversation and Small Talk. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Trudgill, P. P. (n.d.). Language And Place. Retrieved from BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/yourvoice/feature1_7.shtml

(1991). Webster’s New World Dictionary. New York: Prentice Hall.

Monthly Multi-Channel Viewing Summary. (2009, March). Retrieved from Broadcasters Audience Review Board: http:/ /www.barb.co.uk/report/monthlyViewingSummary?_s=4

UK statistics report a quadrupling of passengers and trebling of aviation emissions since 1980. (2009, February 14). Retrieved from Green Air Online: http://www.greenaironline.com/news.php?viewStory=381

Noah Webster Bio . (2008, June 16). Retrieved from The Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society: http://www.noahwebsterhouse.org/anoahwebsterbio.html

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