7 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About American English
Aside from the fact that we mean different things when we talk about “football,” how much do you actually know about American English, especially insofar as it’s claimed its independence from the Brits?
Most people can rattle off the subtle differences between the colors of Americana and the colours of a London fog, but there’s more to it than that.
Without getting too deep into the more mundane differences between American and British English, here are a few facts about American English that may honestly surprise you — or at the very least, entertain you.
1. American English is the official language of nowhere. Despite what you may have heard, the United States doesn’t have an official language, even if at least 231 million of its residents speak English. And this was after Rep. Washington J. McCormick unsuccessfully attempted to pass a bill that would officialize “the American language” in 1922, though it did briefly catch on in the state of Illinois.
2. American English began as a means to communicate with native peoples. The first ways of speech that could truly be considered “American” were actually the nautical pidgins that early explorers used to communicate with native people in pre-colonial times. Slaves also had their own version of English from the nautical regions of West Africa.
3. American English isn’t the only dialect to blame for the differences across the pond. British English also continued changing post-1776, most notably by dropping the “r” sounds from words like “car” and “hard.” This de-rhotacization led to what we know of today as the posh British accent. This means the rhotic pronunciation we often associate with American speech didn’t come from Americans — but rather the Brits of yore.
4. If one man got his way, we would write “wimmen” instead of “women.” In 1806, Noah Webster published the first American dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, which was full of laughable suggestions for streamlining American spelling. He eventually arrived to a standardization of American English that was palatable enough to stick (such as our beloved “color” and “theater”), but a lot of his earliest attempts earned him the title of “prostitute wretch.” His biggest crime? Wanting America to form a unique cultural identity — one in which “tung” meant “tongue.”
5. American English is also unique because of the cultural melting pot that came to inform it. Due to the unique history of migrations to the United States, American English now contains loan words and linguistic influences from various Native American languages, Dutch, German, Yiddish, French, European Spanish, Mexican Spanish and more.
6. Most of our state names aren’t “English” at all. Approximately half of U.S. state names have linguistic ties to the Native American tribes that once inhabited the land.
7. The United States isn’t actually all that “united” linguistically. The United States is so vast, it’s possible to identify at least 10 distinct geographical accents across the country. Though to be fair, you could claim “General American” as a national accent and call it a day.