Skip to content

American Grammar and Dialects

American English is not one homogenous language variety, and nor is it just a product of spellings and lexis. We explored a few accounts of American grammatical difference, then did some research on the major varieties of American dialect regions.

Variations in grammar between US and UK English remain various, and the sands are constantly shifting — usually, as we noted, towards the US variety creeping into UK usage, likely through the influence of Hollywood film and global TV distribution. Amongst the variants we noted were the use of prepositions (strikingly, AmE* on the weekend vs BrE at the weekend), some collocations (like AmE take a bath/shower vs BrE have a bath/shower), the American tendency to use  past simple with recent times and yet/already instead of present perfect (BrE usage): did you eat yet? vs have you eaten yet? and I did my homework already vs I’ve done my homework already.

You’ll find an excellent and entertaining discussion of a whole range of these on the blog of Sussex University linguist ‘Lynne Guist’ (pen name of Lynne Murphy — see what she did there?) called separated by a common language. I also attach thee readings we used here: American English Jigsaw Reading.

American dialects are also a staggeringly varied affair. We can broadly outline dialect areas in the states using isoglosses, but different studies disagree, in part because the dialect areas may be shifting over time, and in part because of different ways of measuring. The following version is as good as any to give the gist:


Southern varieties are distinct, and Midwest varieties are the mainstream. Northern areas become distinctively more Scandinavian influenced/Canadian (which supports a French-speaking population and retains some British spellings and lexis, still being part of the Commonwealth), and in the early-settled east coast regions, particular cities have distinct varieties, especially the non-rhotic New York City and Boston Urban dialects. There are too many for me to list all of them here; a good overview of accent features (remember the distinction between phonetic accent and more broad dialect including grammar and lexis) may be found here;  and a staggeringly thorough collection of audio samples and info built around a clickable map here! For some lexical info and more historical context as well, try this collection.

There are some handy test terms that help carve up these regions, of the US and elsewhere; the word for a carbonated beverage (coke, pop, soda, etc); the word for sports footwear (sneakers, gym shoes, runners) and a few other items can all make regional distinctions.

In an exam, keep an eye peeled for these; you needn’t know all the details, but you could certainly spend a paragraph discussing the possibility of local regionalisms, and you may find one or two explicitly glossed for you by the exam board. This is also of course true of British dialects and other international varieties of English as well! we talk like who we talk with: and as people move, settle, border each other, interact and intermarry, so dialect words can spread, move, fade and fix.

*Note these handy abbreviations: if it wasn’t obvious, AmE = American English and BrE = British English; saves time in an exam and would be recognised by an examiner.


Dictionaries: Webster and the American context

Having looked at the revolutionary dictionary produced by Johnson, taking a descriptivist approach in that it based its definitions on quotations of actual usages of words, and derived its set of meanings from the context in which each word was used, we truned to a later dictionary birthed in a new context: Webster’s American Dictionary (or dictionaries!).

We read a couple of articles by Webster about spelling reform in the new American context. In the late 18th century, in the wake of the war of American Independence from Great Britain, Webster wanted to take the opportunity to distance himself from European spellings (such as –ou– derived from French in words like honour, colour (to become honor, color) or –que-likewise French-influenced (cheque to become check, for instance, or masque – mask); and to dispense with French –re endings, replaced with –er (metremeter, theatre-theater). He wanted to make spelling more accessible and easier to learn by simplifying out double letters and idiosyncrasies (ake to replace ache, for instance, or plow instead of plough).

A few years later (by the publication of his Compendious Dictionary in 1806) he had apparently realised some problems with this and softened his stance. (We might raise questions like whose pronunciation should be reflected in a phonetic spelling system, for example.) But, as you might have noticed, many of these spellings stuck and became markedly American dialect versions of the words. Webster’s most widely spread and influential dictionary was the 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language; in the century after Johnson he had replicated that achievement and helped confirm the independence of the ‘new world’.

As well as spelling reform, we saw that Webster’s dictionary included items newly necessary in the cultural and historical context of America, the progress West absorbing and overtaking Native American territories, and borrowing words for food, places, flora and fauna. Colonists with other languages, notable Spanish but also French and Dutch, also influenced the American lexicon in this sort of way. Looking at a map of place names (proper nouns) in America reveals a pattern of these influences: on a map of Phoenix, Arizona, you can see English imports like Litchfield, Scottsdale, Fort McDowell, Fountain Hills, alongside Native American Apache and Ahwatukee, with Spanish Guadalupe, Casa Blanca, and Palo Verde, and more playful  ‘Surprise’, ‘Carefree’ and further north, ‘Happy Jack’. On the East Coast, where British settlers first landed, lots of reuse of British place names such as New York, Bristol, Hertford, Manchester, Birmingham; and New Amsterdam (Dutch).

Americans also needed to coin words for their legal and political organisations, and all the new things that were built there, from types of settlement and buildings to roadway structures and tools. they might do so by affixations, compounding, constructions from Latin or Greek roots, and all the ways in which new lexical items are created. You can see a sample of lexical items here: Webster Sample.

Even ‘obvious’ items, then, can be explored to uncover possible contexts — histories and cultural experiences that get embedded in the language.


Blogging pause!

I’m well aware that blogging is on hold for a while, with coursework and exam practice marking dominating my time. Normal service will resume shortly.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for revision of material we’ve covered in Language Variation and Change so far, remember that there’s an older version of the course (which took a linear walk through periods and styles of English) available on this blog, starting here:

There’s also a range of articles on variation and change on the Park Language Blog. Wider reading galore, along with revision sites, videos, useful exam links, and more.

The more you read, the more you win!


Dictionaries: from Early Modern to Modern English

We looked at a pair of dictionaries, and considered the practicalities of producing one, and the problems people perceived with language that a dictionary was designed to address.

Our first is commonly hailed at the first monolingual (single-language rather than translating) dictionary in English: Robert Cawdrey’s 1604 A Table Alphabeticall. We read Cawedrey’s introduction to the book, in which he railed at the problem faced by intelligent persons of the day: with the renaissance bringing so many borrowings of foreign words into English, and the free invention of the increasing class of professional writers (like Shakespeare was), coining new words by compounding or from Latin or Greek roots to create what Cawdrey (among others) scathingly describes as ‘inkhorn terms’, which of this growing tide of words is to be considered ‘standard’, accepted English, and which are to be considered as ‘outside’ the English language? Cawdrey compiled a ‘table of hard usuall words’ which he considered common enough that a reader should know them, but unusual enough that they needed explanation.

This is not a full, complete, exhaustive dictionary of the language; many words are beneath notice and get no mention in the Table. The glosses Cawdrey offers aren’t that helpful — he just gives one or two words as synonyms to capture the meaning broadly. he gives some indication of roots, marking French or Greek borrowings,  but since so many are from Latin, he doesn’t trouble to mark them. Dictionaries are so unfamiliar that he has to school his readers in how to use them — to memorise the alphabet, to search within the first-letter terms in order of the second letter, and so on. (And we must remember that for Cawdrey <u> and <v> are one letter, as with other pairings that had not yet split: <I> and <j>, for instance; the long -s letterforms and other printing variants are present in his text too.) But the dictionary is nonetheless an achievement, which marks the (troubling to some) rapid expansion of English lexicon at this time, and the widespread importance of reading, especially for religious purposes — including even listening to sermons. If one could not understand the word of God, how was one to be saved from eternal damnation?

150 years later, people were still appealing for the language to settle down, to be fixed and quantified. The fear was — as it has always been — that later generations will not be able to comprehend earlier ones (Cawdrey complains that people cannot claim to speak their ‘mother tongue’, because their mothers would ‘not be able to tell or understand what they say’!), and this was mixed in with a sense that language would decay if it were not stabilised.

Enter gregarious lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who embarked on the project even he initially underestimated, of compiling a complete and secure Dictionary of the entire English language. He compiled this dictionary, initially alone, and later with the help of a team of clerks, by painstakingly collecting quotations (many from his favourite authors, which is one reason why Shakespeare has had such an influence on English) which exemplify the meanings, usage and spellings of a word; on the basis of these, and with supporting quotations included in the dictionary, Johnson wrote ordered, separated definitions of all the sense of all the words in the language. He defined the closed class words as well as the open class ones (Cawdrey’s selection perforce didn’t include any closed class items), and even offered discussions of the letters and sounds of English themselves, as well as a potted grammar of the language appended to the dictionary. He included some guide to pronunciation (indicating stressed syllables with a trailing apostrophe in the headword), grammatical class and a detailed etymology with earlier forms given in their original, whether Greek or Old English, including original letterforms; he included commentary on the register of the word and its social status, often failing to refrain from passing his own judgement on words or their meanings — see the playful definitions for oats, lexicographer, and excise (a tax). Finally, sometimes, he gave up.

This was exhausting work, and took a full decade to complete. He published his Plan for it in 1747, and it wasn’t complete until 1755. It did indeed help to settle the language (though from a broadly descriptivist, rather than prescriptivist, point of view), and its publication is considered the turning point when Early Modern English begins to settle into Modern English. (Notice that you can’t really describe Johnson’s Modern English as ‘early Modern English’ because that sounds like another period entirely! You might distinguish 20th century English as ‘late Modern’ and today’s English as ‘Contemporary’ or just ’21st Century’ English.)

Later dictionaries built on Johnson’s achievement; notably the Oxford English Dicitonary completed in the 20th century, and Webster’s American Dictionary 50 or so years later in the states.



Language and Colonisation: Pidgins and Creoles

There’s some argument that English is a Creole language. You’ll remember that Middle English was formed when Norman French invaders conquered (southern) England in 1066, and took over government, radically simplifying the Anglo-Saxon language and layering it over with a ‘higher class’ stratum of French and Latinate lexis. Well, this is similar to what happened to create new languages/language varieties from around the renaissance period and onward, when European empires took over regions of the world and brought together speakers of varied (usually African) tongues to undertake forced work — slavery — to support Western commerce.

In the first exam text we looked at, alongside an extract from Caxton, we had a story told in a version of Jamaican dialect. We explored the history and language of Jamaica, and found some interesting key features:

  • A mixed group of peoples were brought together, segregated with deliberately heterogeneous (mixed-up) languages, and set to work under order given in English
  • These people then had to adopt English as the lingua franca in order to do what was required (under threat of brutality) and communicate together
  • This creates a pidgin form of English — simplified in vocabulary and grammar, unstable, improvised from person to person
  • Tense markers fall away in the morphology (inflectional suffixes disappear), pronunciation simplifies with phonemes shifting to easier-to-articulate locations (eg th-forms become stopped to /t/ and /d/), unstressed syllables and ending consonants may be deleted, clusters reduced — as with children’s speech.
  • On that subject: when the first generation of children grows up in this language environment, they grow up speaking a form of language which does have a fixed (if simple) grammar: this is called a creole. (It’s remarkable that this happens, and seems strong evidence for Chomsky’s innateness theory that people have a built-in ‘template’ for language evolved into their brains.)
  • That creole, which may be called by its speakers ‘Patois’ or even ‘pidgin’ (as in Tok Pisin) by its speakers, bears traces of its colonial history: enshrining the pronunciation of the British, for example, (/h/ dropping in Jamaica), or even lexis (Tok Pisin’s verbs bagarapim = to damage (‘bugger up’)) and suffixes, eg –pela (‘fella’, a typical noun which would be premodified by an adjective — pela has become an adjective marker). So a more complex grammar may re-appear.
  • There may be borrowings (such as a version of ‘piccaninny’ for ‘child) from African languages, or other colonial languages like Spanish or Dutch, or words surviving from the indigenous peoples of the territories (who may have been enslaved, dispersed or killed when the new peoples enter to work over the land).

As we can see, this is a dark history. The languages capture some of it, and they often become a badge of pride today for the speakers, growing new complexity and invention. (A favourite Tok Pisin word is gras bilong fes, = beard.) Jamaican Patois was spoken proudly by victorious competitors in the recent Olympics, for example.

However, as we saw, there are variations within creoles: an acrolect, a version of the language that is spoken by the more educated and powerful which cleaves closely to the standardised forms of English that frequently survive as official language, language of education and government; a basilect, a quite distant and heavily -modified version of the language, ‘pure creole’, often spoken at home by people who may also use a more acrolectal version elsewhere; and a range of possible mesolects in between those.

Finally, there is a ‘post-creole continuum’, whereby a creole may gradually fade out — as speakers accommodate to each other (recall Giles’ communication accommodation theory), often converging upward to make creoles fade away and leaving a more standardised acrolect behind. It is also possible to diverge, however, and for the language to split and sustain its own identity.

There are many possible creoles, though they share similar traits. Any could come up in the exam (but only English-based). Look at their forms on their own merits; read the context given to you; look for features which might be shared with creoles you’re familiar with, and consider how their colonial histories may have led to certain forms being as they are.

English isn’t quite a creole, since its history and outcomes are rather different, but that principle of stratification of language due to contact with other cultures, and the profound  influence of trade and colonisation of countries on the language which they speak, is striking to consider as a central rather than peripheral feature of language change. Creoles just have it writ especially large.


Middle English: Caxton & printing

The beginning of the end of Old English was when the French invaded in 1066. With William the Conqueror taking over as king, the upper classes, the courts and landowners, were taken over in large measure by speakers of French (often exclusively so). As we saw briefly in the first year, this meant that English acquired, on top of the Germanic/Scandinavian Old English, a layer of French (and Latin via French), used when discussing government (gouvernement) and parliament (parle = talk), the meat you dine off (dîner) such as beef (boeuf) and mutton (mouton) and pork (porc) — famously opposed to the words for these creatures in the farm and field: cow (Old English cu), sheep (we use lamb now from the word for the young), and swine (compare Germanic schwein) for pig — and other lexis for the courtly and sophisticated life led by the ruling classes.

This blend of Old English and French is known as Middle English. The complex system of inflectional endings fell off the Anglo-Saxon words; flexible word order remained, but really a stricter SVO word order was now needed to separate subject and object and show what word went with what. Some old endings survived for a while (eg, –en ending for plurals, surviving in children and oxen for example), but many became a rudimentary stump, a trailing -e which was sounded in early forms but gradually became silent.

Geoffrey Chaucer, who we had met in our sequencing of figures from English writing at the start of our studies, became one of the most famous writers in Middle English, with his Canterbury Tales. Middle English is marked by its mixed French Latinate/Germanic lexis, its drastically simplified morphology, and its flexible syntax. The poetry often retains some Old English pattern (alliteration was the main way to remember verses) whilst acquiring newer, continental forms (the rhyming patterns that most distinctively mark poetry up till today).

One of the reasons Chaucer is so well remembered is that he was a favourite author of one William Caxton. We researched Caxton’s life, the features of which are important because of the effect he was to have on English. Born in Kent, a merchant travelling around Europe, he adopted from Bruges in Belgium a fantastic new invention, which had emerged in Gutenberg in Germany (having originally developed in China): The printing press. This revolutionary contraption made it possible, once the mirror-image of a page of text had been assembled out of little lead moulds of letters (a typeface), by hand, by a team of artisans, to rapidly reproduce many copies of a text, and much more easily mass-produce books. Until then, books had to be hand-copied and the only people willing and able to devote the time to that tended to be monks; and the book they so reproduced was, of course, the bible. (In Latin, for the use of catholic priests who would disseminate it.) But as Chaucer points out in the caricatures of the clergy he presents in The Canterbury Tales, this priesthood had become corrupt, and many, including kings like Henry VIII, were very suspicious of the power held by the Church and the Pope, since they hold the keys to heaven in the form of God’s word in the bible. A movement had begun in Europe to change the nature of the church — the Reformation, which led to a movement of protest against the Catholic church (Protestantism), and the new idea that worshippers should read the word of god in their own native tongue. To be able to do this, the bible needed to be translated into these tongues, and mass produced. Printing provided the technology to enable that, and so a whole generation of readers, and an industry of book creation and dissemination took off. (This is a ‘just-so story’, but it’ll do for our purposes.)

Caxton was England’s first printer. He set up shop in London, employing London typesetters and compositors to make his books. This helped enshrine SE English as the standard form; now books were being distributed that reproduced one form of English and spread it across the land. Caxton himself speaks of the problems of deciding whose dialect to use, in the widely varied conditions of Middle English; inevitably, he would choose that which he preferred and heard around him — London, South-Eastern, mercantile English, with a European flavour (he had been a merchant himself).

Of course, once printers had sold all the bibles they could, there was still a working press on which to create and sell product and a newly-minted readership who might buy more. Caxton printed Chaucer, histories translated from French (by himself), Latin texts sometimes in translation, histories of England and Arthurian legends, and much more. This new discovery and dissemination of texts and learning other than the bible was part of what is known now as the renaissance, the ‘re-birth’ (French again) of learning and culture from the 15th century onward. People rediscovered old works of Latin and Greek philosophy, and this rekindled an interest in science and thought.

This marked the end of the Middle English period and the start of Early Modern English, the variety of the language in which Shakespeare would write, in which the (King James version) bible would be most widely known, and the huge lexical explosion which the earliest dictionaries would try to contain.

Old English: the roots of the tree

We met a ‘mystery text’, and the challenge was to use language features of it to work out where it might have come from:

 Fæder ure

þu þe eart on heofonum

si þin nama gehalgod

tobecume þin rice

gewurþe þin willa

on eorðan swa swa on heofonum

urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us to dæg

and forgyf us ure gyltas

swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum

and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge

ac alys us of yfele


It helped to hear it aloud, which gave us some clarity about the phonology.

We noted:

  • it’s a little like Latin, with lots of word endings like –um
  • it has some unfamiliar letters like <þ> and <ð> and <æ>, some of which we recognise from the phonemic chart
  • it’s a bit like German, with ge– prefixes like some German verbs
  • it uses the <x> sound, like German or Scots or other languages
  • there are some English words, especially function words like preposiitons’on’, ‘of’ or conjunction ‘and’
  • when we recognised what the text was, we recognised words that were cognate with English too: faeder matched to ‘father’ or German ‘vater’; heofonum ‘heaven’, forgyf ‘forgive’, and even gyltas (‘sins, trespasses’, like ‘guilt’) and hlaf for ‘bread’ (‘loaf’!).

What’s missing here is French-based words or Latinate lexis.

This is the very root of English — English as it was before the period you will be expected to write about (your earliest texts will be from about 1500), but carrying much that still survives today, sometimes exactly as it was, often in transformed versions. Barry Rawling’s pages give an excellent overview, making a link to Yorkshire dialect — it’s a great site to read and listen to. Elsewhere in the site he makes a link to Middle English too — which is the next stop in the development of the language. You might also like Martin Hilpert’s videoblog lecture connecting this language to the earliest material you’ll meet in the exam — he has some other videos too that give excellent intros to the history of English.

One last note: be very sure not to use ‘Old English’ to refer to anything other than Anglo-Saxon. Distinguish between Middle English, Early Modern English, Late Modern/twentieth-century English, and so on.