English is the most widely spoken language in the United States and is the common language used by the federal government, to the extent that all laws and compulsory education are practiced in English. Although not an officially established language of the whole country, English is considered the de facto language and is given official status by 32 of the 50 state governments. As an example, while both Spanish and English have equivalent status in the local courts of Puerto Rico, under federal law, English is 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 English and 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. Since then, American English has developed into new dialects, in some cases under the influence of West African and Native American languages, German, Dutch, Irish, Spanish, and other languages of successive waves of immigrants to the United States.
American English varieties form a linguistic continuum of dialects more similar to each other than to English dialects of other countries, including some common pronunciations and other features found nationwide. Any North American English accent perceived as free of noticeably local, ethnic, or cultural markers is popularly called "General" or "Standard" American, a fairly uniform standard of broadcast mass media and the highly educated. Otherwise, according to Labov, with the major exception of Southern American English, regional accents throughout the country are not yielding to this standard, and historical and present linguistic evidence does not support the notion of there being one single "mainstream" American accent. On the contrary, the sound of American English continues to evolve, with some local accents disappearing, but several larger regional accents emerging.
|Region||The United States of America|
225 million, all varieties of English in the United States (2010 census)|
25.6 million L2 speakers of English in the United States (2003)
Latin (English alphabet)|
Unified English Braille
Official language in
While written American English is largely standardized across the country, there are several recognizable variations in the spoken language, both in pronunciation and in vernacular vocabulary. The regional sounds of present-day American English are reportedly engaged in a complex phenomenon of "both convergence and divergence": some accents are homogenizing and levelling, while others are diversifying and deviating further away from one another. In 2010, William Labov summarized the current state of regional American accents as follows:
Some regional American English has undergone "vigorous new sound changes" since the mid-nineteenth century onwards, spawning relatively recent Mid-Atlantic (centered on Philadelphia and Baltimore), Western Pennsylvania (centered on Pittsburgh), Inland Northern (centered on Chicago, Detroit, and the Great Lakes region), Midland (centered on Indianapolis, Columbus, and Kansas City) and Western regional accents, all of which "are now more different from each other than they were fifty or a hundred years ago". Meanwhile, distinguishing features of the Eastern New England (centered on Boston) and New York City accents appear to be stable. "On the other hand, dialects of many smaller cities have receded in favor of the new regional patterns"; for example, the traditional accents of Charleston and of Cincinnati have given way to the Midland regional accent, and of St. Louis now approaches the sounds of an Inland Northern or Midland accent. At the same time, the Southern regional accent, despite the huge population it covers, "is on the whole slowly receding due to cultural stigma: younger speakers everywhere in the South are shifting away from the marked features of Southern speech". Finally, the "Hoi Toider" dialect shows the paradox of receding among younger speakers in the islands of North Carolina's Outer Banks, yet strengthening in the islands of the Chesapeake Bay.
Below, eleven major American English accents are defined by their particular combinations of certain characteristics:
|Accent name||Most populous urban center||Strong /aʊ/ fronting||Strong /oʊ/ fronting||Strong /uː/ fronting||Strong /ɑːr/ fronting||Cot–caught merger||Pin–pen merger||/æ/ raising system|
|New York City||New York City||Yes||No||No||No||No||No||split|
|North-Central (Upper Midwestern)||Minneapolis||No||No||No||Yes||Yes||No||pre-nasal (pre-velar)|
|Northern New England||Boston||No||No||No||Yes||Yes||No||pre-nasal|
Marked New England speech is mostly associated with eastern New England, centering on Boston and Providence, and traditionally includes some notable degree of r-dropping (or non-rhoticity), as well as the back tongue positioning of the /uː/ vowel (to [u]) and the /aʊ/ vowel (to [ɑʊ~äʊ]). In and north of Boston, the /ɑːr/ sound is famously centralized or even fronted. Boston shows a cot–caught merger, while Providence keeps the same two vowels sharply distinct.
New York City English prevails in a relatively small but nationally recognizable dialect region in and around New York City, including Long Island and northeastern New Jersey. The New York accent includes some notable degree of non-rhoticity and a locally unique short-a vowel pronunciation split. New York City English otherwise broadly follows Northern patterns, except that the /aʊ/ vowel is fronted. The cot–caught merger is markedly resisted in the New York metropolitan area, as depicted in popular stereotypes like tawwk and cawwfee, with this THOUGHT vowel being typically tensed and diphthongal.
Most older Southern speech along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts was non-rhotic, though, today, almost all Southern dialects are rhotic, and even "hyper-rhotic", with a very strongly enunciated, "bunched-tongue" r sound. The modern accent is defined most recognizably by the /aɪ/ vowel losing its gliding quality to approach [aː~äː], the initiation event for the Southern Vowel Shift. This vowel shift involves the "Southern drawl" that makes short front vowels into distinct-sounding gliding vowels. The most advanced sub-varieties exist in the southern Appalachian cities and certain areas of Texas. Non-Southern Americans tend to stereotype Southern accents negatively, associating them with slowness, lack of education, bigotry, and religious or political conservatism, with labels for the accent such as "hick" or "hillbilly". Meanwhile, Southerners themselves tend to have mixed judgments of their own accents, some negative but some positively associated with a laid-back, plain, or humble attitude.
Since the mid-twentieth century, a distinctive new Northern speech pattern has developed near the Canadian border of the United States, centered on the central and eastern Great Lakes region (but only on the American side). Linguists call this region the "Inland North", as defined by its Northern Cities Vowel Shift (/æ/ raising, /ɑː/ fronting, and other vowel changes), occurring in the same region whose "standard Midwestern" speech was the basis for General American in the mid-twentieth century, though prior to the full Northern Cities Vowel Shift. The Inland Northern accent was lampooned on the television show Saturday Night Live's "Bill Swerski's Superfans" segments, though the accent's shift may be reversing in certain communities. Many people view the "North Central" or "Upper Midwestern" accent, another Northern accent, from the stereotypical lens of the movie Fargo. The North Central accent is characterized by a more common cot-caught merger and influences from the German and Scandinavian settlers of the region.
Between the traditional American dialect areas of the "North" and "South" is what linguists have long called the "Midland" encompassing states situated in the lower Midwest, beginning west of the Appalachian Mountains. The vocabulary of its older speakers was divided into two discrete subdivisions, the "North Midland" that begins north of the Ohio River valley area, and the "South Midland" speech, which to the average American ear has a slight trace of the "Southern accent" (especially due to some degree of /aɪ/ glide weakening). Modern Midland speech is transitional between a presence and absence of the cot–caught merger. Historically, Pennsylvania was a home of the Midland dialect; however, this state of early English-speaking settlers has now largely split off into new dialect regions, with distinct Philadelphia and Pittsburgh dialects documented since the middle of the twentieth century.
A generalized Midland speech continues westward until becoming a somewhat internally diverse Western American English that unites the entire western half of the country, mostly unified by a firm cot–caught merger and a conservatively backed pronunciation of the long oh sound in goat, toe, show, etc., but a fronted pronunciation of the long oo sound in goose, lose, tune, etc. Western speech itself contains such advanced sub-types as Pacific Northwest English and California English, with the native-speaker English of Mexican Americans also being a sub-type primarily of the Western dialect. The island state of Hawaii, though primarily English-speaking, is also home to a creole language known commonly as Hawaiian Pidgin, and some Hawaii residents speak English with a Pidgin-influenced accent.
Although no longer region-specific, African-American Vernacular English, which remains the native variety of most working- and middle-class African Americans, has a close relationship to Southern dialects and has greatly influenced everyday speech of many Americans, including hip hop culture. Hispanic and Latino Americans have also developed native-speaker varieties of English. The best-studied Latino Englishes are Chicano English, spoken in the West and Midwest, and New York Latino English, spoken in the New York metropolitan area. Additionally, ethnic varieties such as Yeshiva English and "Yinglish" are spoken by some American Jews, Cajun Vernacular English by some Cajuns in southern Louisiana, Pennsylvania Dutch English by some Pennsylvania Dutch in Pennsylvania and the Midwest, and American Indian Englishes have been documented among diverse Indian tribes.
Compared with English as spoken in England, North American English is more homogeneous, and any North American accent that exhibits a majority of the most common phonological features is known as "General American". This section mostly refers to such widespread or mainstream pronunciation features that characterize American English.
Studies 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 retained certain now-archaic features contemporary British English has since lost. One of these is the rhoticity common in most American accents, because in the 17th century, when English was brought to the Americas, most English in England was also rhotic. The preservation of rhoticity has been further supported by the influences of Hiberno-English, West Country English and Scottish English. In most varieties of North American English, the sound corresponding to the letter ⟨r⟩ is a postalveolar approximant [ɹ̠] or retroflex approximant [ɻ] rather than a trill or tap (as often heard, for example, in the English accents of Scotland or India). A unique "bunched tongue" variant of the approximant r sound is also associated with the United States, and seems particularly noticeable in the Midwest and South.
Traditionally, the "East Coast" comprises three or four major linguistically distinct regions, each of which possesses English varieties both distinct from each other as well as quite internally diverse: New England, the New York metropolitan area, the Mid-Atlantic states (centering on Philadelphia and Baltimore), and the Southern United States. The only traditionally r-dropping (or non-rhotic) regional accents of American English are all spoken along the Atlantic Coast and parts of the Gulf Coast (particularly still in Louisiana), because these areas were in close historical contact with England and imitated prestigious varieties of r-dropping London (a feature now widespread throughout most of England) at a time when they were undergoing changes. Today, non-rhoticity is confined in the United States to the accents of eastern New England, New York City, older speakers of the former plantation South, and African-American Vernacular English (though the vowel-consonant cluster found in "bird", "work", "hurt", "learn", etc. usually retains its r pronunciation, even in these non-rhotic accents). Other than these few varieties, American accents are rhotic, pronouncing every instance of the ⟨r⟩ sound.
Many British accents have evolved in other ways compared to which General American English has remained relatively more conservative, for example, regarding the typical southern British features of a trap–bath split, fronting of /oʊ/, and H-dropping, none of which typical American accents show. The innovation of /t/ glottaling, which does occur before a consonant (including a syllabic coronal nasal consonant, like in the words button or satin) and word-finally in General American, additionally occurs variably between vowels in British English. On 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:
|/æ/ raising in North American English|
|Consonant after /æ/||Syllable type||Example words||New York City & New Orleans||Baltimore & Philadelphia||Eastern New England||General American, Midland U.S., & Western U.S.||Canadian, Northwestern U.S., & Upper Midwestern U.S.||Southern U.S. & African American Vernacular||Great Lakes|
|/b/, /d/, /dʒ/, /ʃ/, /v/, /z/, /ʒ/||Closed||[eə]||[æ~ɛə]||[æ]|
|/f/, /s/, /θ/||Closed||[eə]|
|All other consonants||[æ]|
Some mergers found in most varieties of both American and British English include:
The process of coining new lexical items started as soon as English-speaking British-American colonists began borrowing names for unfamiliar flora, fauna, and topography from the Native American languages. Examples of such names are opossum, raccoon, squash, moose (from Algonquian), wigwam, and moccasin. The languages of the other colonizing nations also added to the American vocabulary; for instance, cookie, from Dutch; kindergarten from German, levee from French; and rodeo from Spanish. Landscape features are often loanwords from French or Spanish, and the word corn, used in England to refer to wheat (or any cereal), came to denote the maize plant, the most important crop in the U.S.
Most Mexican Spanish contributions came after the War of 1812, with the opening of the West, like ranch (now a common house style). New forms of dwelling created new terms (lot, waterfront) and types of homes like log cabin, adobe in the 18th century; apartment, shanty in the 19th century; project, condominium, townhouse, mobile home in the 20th century; and parts thereof (driveway, breezeway, backyard). Industry and material innovations from the 19th century onwards provide distinctive new words, phrases, and idioms through railroading (see further at rail terminology) and transportation terminology, ranging from types of roads (dirt roads, freeways) to infrastructure (parking lot, overpass, rest area), 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. From the world of business and finance came new terms (merger, downsize, bottom line), 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 (elevator, gasoline) as did certain automotive terms (truck, trunk).
New foreign loanwords came with 19th and early 20th century European immigration to the U.S.; notably, from Yiddish (chutzpah, schmooze) and German (hamburger, wiener). A large number of English colloquialisms from various periods are American in origin; some have lost their American flavor (from OK and cool to nerd and 24/7), while others have not (have a nice day, for sure); many are now distinctly old-fashioned (swell, groovy). 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 nouns as verbs. Examples of nouns that are now also verbs are interview, advocate, vacuum, lobby, pressure, rear-end, transition, feature, profile, spearhead, skyrocket, showcase, bad-mouth, vacation, major, and many others. Compounds coined in the U.S. are for instance foothill, landslide (in all senses), backdrop, teenager, brainstorm, bandwagon, hitchhike, smalltime, and a huge number of others. Some are euphemistic (human resources, affirmative action, correctional facility). 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 (win out, hold up, back up/off/down/out, face up to and many others).
Noun endings such as -ee (retiree), -ery (bakery), -ster (gangster) and -cian (beautician) 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 (locate, fine-tune, curate, donate, emote, upholster and enthuse). 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 (in all senses), sticky (of the weather), through (as in "finished"), 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 ("autumn"), faucet ("tap"), diaper ("nappy"), candy ("sweets"), 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 (past participle of get) 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 ("to employ"), I guess (famously criticized by H. W. Fowler), baggage, hit (a place), and the adverbs overly and presently ("currently"). 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 (and Irish) 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 (but pop in the Great Lakes region and generic coke in the South) for a sweet and bubbly soft drink, you or you guys for the plural of you (but y'all in the South), sneakers for athletic shoes (but often tennis shoes outside the Northeast), and shopping cart for a cart used for carrying supermarket goods.
American English and British English (BrE) 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: different use of some auxiliary verbs; formal (rather than notional) agreement with collective nouns; different preferences for the past forms of a few verbs (for example, AmE/BrE: learned/learnt, burned/burnt, snuck/sneaked, dove/dived) although the purportedly "British" forms can occasionally be seen in American English writing as well; different prepositions and adverbs in certain contexts (for example, AmE in school, BrE at school); and whether or not a definite article is used, in very few cases (AmE to the hospital, BrE to hospital; contrast, however, AmE actress Elizabeth Taylor, BrE the actress Elizabeth Taylor). 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 (for example they preferred programme for program, manoeuvre for maneuver, cheque for check, etc.). AmE almost always uses -ize in words like realize. BrE prefers -ise, but also uses -ize on occasion (see Oxford spelling).
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.
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 (from burglar). 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 [sk] or [ʃ].
en-USis the language code for U.S. English, as defined by ISO standards (see ISO 639-1 and ISO 3166-1 alpha-2) and Internet standards (see IETF language tag).