American English, 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 leveling 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 is typical of American accents, pronouncing the phoneme 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 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, 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 Scotch-Irish immigrants, most intensely during the 18th century, when the Scotch-Irish eventually made up one-seventh of the colonial population. Scotch-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, they have instead retained a – split: a 17th-century split in which certain words 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 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 , a few instances before , and variably by region or speaker in gone, on, and certain other words.
The standard accent of southern England, Received Pronunciation, 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:
- Unrounded : The American phenomenon of the vowel being produced without rounded lips, like the vowel, allows father and bother to rhyme, the two vowels now unified as the single phoneme. This father–bother vowel merger is in a transitional or completed stage nearly universally in North American English. Exceptions are in northeastern New England English, such as the Boston accent, as well as variably in some New York accents.
- Cot–caught merger in transition: There is no single American way to pronounce the vowels in words like cot versus caught , largely due to a merger occurring between the two sounds in some parts of North America, but not others. American speakers with a completed merger pronounce the two historically separate vowels with the exact same sound, but other speakers have no trace of a merger at all and so pronounce each vowel with distinct sounds. Among speakers who distinguish between the two, the vowel of cot, is often a central or advanced back, while is pronounced with more rounded lips and/or phonetically higher in the mouth, close to or, but with only slight rounding. Among speakers who do not distinguish between the two, thus producing a cot–caught merger, usually remains a back vowel,, sometimes showing lip rounding as. Therefore, even mainstream Americans vary greatly with this speech feature, with possibilities ranging from a full merger to no merger at all. A transitional stage of the merger is also common in scatterings throughout the U.S., most consistently in the American Midlands lying between the historical dialect regions of the North and South, while younger Americans in general tend to be transitioning toward the merger. According to a 2003 dialect survey carried out across the United States, about 61% of participants perceive themselves as keeping the two vowels distinct and 39% do not. A 2009 followup survey put the percentages at 58% non-merging speakers and 41% merging.
- in special words: The vowel, rather than the one in or , is used in function words and certain other words like was, of, from, what, everybody, nobody, somebody, anybody, and, for many speakers because and rarely even want, when stressed.
- Vowel mergers before intervocalic : The mergers of certain vowels before are typical throughout North America; the only exceptions exist primarily along the east coast. Such mergers include:
- Mary–marry–merry merger in transition: According to the 2003 dialect survey, nearly 57% of participants from around the country self-identified as merging the sounds , , and . The merger is already complete everywhere except along some areas of the Atlantic Coast.
- Hurry–furry merger: The pre- vowels in words like hurry and furry are merged in most American accents to. Only 10% of English speakers across the U.S. acknowledge the distinct hurry vowel before, according to the same dialect survey aforementioned.
- Mirror–nearer merger in transition: The pre- vowels in words like mirror and nearer are merged or at least very close in most American accents. The quality of the historic mirror vowel in the word miracle is quite variable.
- Americans vary slightly in their pronunciations of R-colored vowels—such as those in and —sometimes monophthongizing towards and or tensing towards and respectively, causing pronunciations like for pair/pear and for peer/pier. Also, is often reduced to, so that cure, pure, and mature may all end with the sound, thus rhyming with blur and sir. The word sure is also part of this rhyming set as it is commonly pronounced.
- Yod-dropping: Dropping of after a consonant is much more extensive than in most of England. In most North American accents, is "dropped" or "deleted" after all alveolar and interdental consonants so that new, duke, Tuesday, assume are pronounced,,, .
- T-glottalization: is normally pronounced as unreleased or as a glottal stop when occurring both after a vowel or and before a consonant or syllabic, as in button. Following a vowel, is also glottalized when before a significant pause or when in absolute final position: thus, what or sit.
- Flapping: or becomes a flap when occurring both after a vowel or and before an unstressed vowel or a syllabic consonant other than, including water, party and model. This results in pairs such as ladder/latter, metal/medal, and coating/coding being pronounced the same. Flapping of or before a full stressed vowel is also possible, but only when that vowel begins a new word or morpheme, as in what is it? and twice in not at all. Other rules apply to flapping too, to such a complex degree in fact that flapping has been analyzed as being required in certain contexts, prohibited in others, and optional in still others. For instance, flapping is prohibited in words like seduce, retail, and monotone, yet optional in impotence.
- Both intervocalic and may commonly be realized as or simply, making winter and winner homophones in fast or non-careful speech.
- L-velarization: England's typical distinction between a "clear L" and a "dark L" is much less noticeable in nearly all dialects of American English; it is often altogether absent, with all "L" sounds tending to be "dark," meaning having some degree of velarization, perhaps even as dark as . The only notable exceptions to this velarization are in some Spanish-influenced U.S. English varieties and in older, moribund Southern speech of the U.S., where "L" is clear in an intervocalic environment between front vowels.
- Weak-vowel merger: The vowel in unstressed syllables generally merges with, so effect is pronounced like affect and abbot and rabbit rhyme. The quality of the merged vowels varies considerably, though it is typically closer to when before a consonant; otherwise it is closer to.
- Raising of pre-voiceless : Many speakers split the sound based on whether it occurs before a voiceless consonant or not, so that in rider it is pronounced but in writer it is raised to . Thus, words like bright, hike, price, wipe, etc. with a following voiceless consonant use a more raised vowel sound compared to bride, high, prize, wide, etc. Because of this sound change, the words rider and writer, for instance, remain distinct from one another by virtue of their difference in height of the diphthong's starting point. The sound-change also applies across word boundaries, though the position of a word or phrase's stress may prevent the raising from taking place. For instance, a high school in the sense of "secondary school" is generally pronounced ; however, a high school in the literal sense of "a tall school" would be pronounced. This sound change began in the Northern, New England, and Mid-Atlantic regions of the country, and is becoming more common across the nation.
- Many speakers in the Inland North, Upper Midwestern, and Philadelphia dialect areas raise before voiced consonants in certain words as well, particularly, and. Hence, words like tiny, spider, cider, tiger, dinosaur, beside, idle, and fire may contain a raised nucleus. The use of rather than in such words is unpredictable from phonetic environment alone, though it may have to do with their acoustic similarity to other words that do contain before a voiceless consonant, per the traditional Canadian-raising system. Hence, some researchers have argued that there has been a phonemic split in these dialects; the distribution of the two sounds is becoming more unpredictable among younger speakers.
- Conditioned /æ/ raising : The raising of the or vowel occurs in specific environments that vary widely from region to region, though nationwide most commonly before and. With most American speakers, for whom the phoneme operates under a somewhat continuous system, has both a tense and a lax allophone. In these accents, is overall realized before nasal stops as more tense, while other environments are more lax. In some American accents though, specifically those from Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City, and are indeed entirely separate phonemes, for example, in planet vs. plan it. These are called Mid-Atlantic split-a systems. Note that these vowels move in the opposite direction in the mouth when compared to the backed Standard British "broad a", though the two nation's a systems are probably related phonologically if not phonetically; a British-like phenomenon occurs among some older speakers of the eastern New England area for whom changes to before alone or when preceded by a homorganic nasal.
- "Short o" before r before a vowel: In typical North American accents, the historical sequence is realized as, thus further merging with the already-merged set. In the U.S., four words usually contain the sound instead, and merge with the set.
- Horse–hoarse merger: This merger makes the vowels and before homophones, with homophonous pairs like horse/hoarse, corps/core, for/four, morning/mourning, war/wore, etc. homophones. Many older varieties of American English still keep these sets of words distinct, particularly in the extreme Northeast, the South, and the central Midlands, but the merger is evidently spreading and younger Americans rarely show it.
- Wine–whine merger: This produces pairs like wine/whine, wet/whet, Wales/whales, wear/where, etc. homophones, in most cases eliminating, also transcribed, the voiceless labiovelar fricative. However, scatterings of older speakers who do not merge these pairs still exist nationwide and perhaps most strongly in the South.
Most Mexican Spanish contributions came after the War of 1812, with the opening of the West, like ranch. Due to the Mexican culinary influence, many Spanish words are incorporated in general use when talking about certain popular dishes: cilantro, 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 ' and types of homes like log cabin, adobe in the 18th century; apartment, in the 19th century; project, condominium, townhouse, mobile home in the 20th century; and parts thereof . Industry and material innovations from the 19th century onwards provide distinctive new words, phrases, and idioms through railroading and transportation terminology, ranging from types of roads to infrastructure , 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, 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 as did certain automotive terms.
New foreign loanwords came with 19th and early 20th century European immigration to the U.S.; notably, from Yiddish and German. A large number of English colloquialisms from various periods are American in origin; some have lost their American flavor, while others have not ; many are now distinctly old-fashioned . 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, , teenager, brainstorm,, 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. Some are euphemistic . 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.
Noun endings such as -ee, -ery, -ster and -cian are also particularly productive in the U.S. Several verbs ending in -ize are of U.S. origin; for example, fetishize, prioritize, burglarize, accessorize, weatherize, etc.; and so are some back-formations . Among syntactical constructions that arose are outside of, headed for, meet up with, back of, etc. Americanisms formed by alteration of some existing words include notably pesky, phony, rambunctious, buddy, sundae, skeeter, sashay and kitty-corner. Adjectives that arose in the U.S. are, for example, lengthy, bossy, cute and cutesy, punk, sticky, through, and many colloquial forms such as peppy or wacky.
A number of words and meanings that originated in Middle English or Early Modern English and that have been in everyday use in the United States have since disappeared in most varieties of British English; some of these have cognates in Lowland Scots. Terms such as fall, faucet, diaper, candy, skillet, eyeglasses, and obligate are often regarded as Americanisms. Fall for example came to denote the season in 16th century England, a contraction of Middle English expressions like "fall of the leaf" and "fall of the year." Gotten 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, I guess, baggage, hit, and the adverbs overly and presently. 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 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 for a sweet and bubbly soft drink, you or you guys for the plural of you, sneakers for athletic shoes, and shopping cart for a cart used for carrying supermarket goods.
Grammatical and other differences between American and British EnglishAmerican English and British English 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 agreement with collective nouns; different preferences for the past forms of a few verbs although the purportedly "British" forms can occasionally be seen in American English writing as well; different prepositions and adverbs in certain contexts ; and whether or not a definite article is used, in very few cases. 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. AmE almost always uses -ize in words like realize. BrE prefers -ise, but also uses -ize on occasion.
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 over single.
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 vs. antenna, biscuit vs. cookie/cracker, car park vs. parking lot, caravan vs. trailer, city centre vs. downtown, flat vs. apartment, fringe vs. bangs, and holiday 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. 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.
VarietiesWhile 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.
Regional accentsThe regional sounds of present-day American English are reportedly engaged in a complex phenomenon of "both convergence and divergence": some accents are homogenizing and leveling, 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, 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 a backer tongue positioning of the vowel and the vowel 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 : 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, which intend to represent it being tense and diphthongal:. A 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 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, 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.
New York City and Southern accents are the most prominent regional accents of the country, as well as the most stigmatized in terms of perceived "incorrectness". Southern speech, strongest in southern Appalachia and certain areas of Texas, is often identified by 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:
|Accent name||Most populous urban center||Strong fronting||Strong fronting||Strong fronting||Strong fronting||Cot–caught merger||Pin–pen merger||/æ/ raising system|
|New York City||New York City||split|
|North-Central||Minneapolis||pre-nasal & pre-velar|
|New England English|||Boston||pre-nasal|