Speaking American: A History of English in the United States

Speaking American: A History of English in the United States

Speaking American: A History of English in the United States

Speaking American: A History of English in the United States


When did English become American? What distinctive qualities made it American? What role have America's democratizing impulses, and its vibrantly heterogeneous speakers, played in shaping our language and separating it from the mother tongue?

A wide-ranging account of American English, Richard Bailey's Speaking American investigates the history and continuing evolution of our language from the sixteenth century to the present. The book is organized in half-century segments around influential centers: Chesapeake Bay (1600-1650), Boston (1650-1700), Charleston (1700-1750), Philadelphia (1750-1800), New Orleans (1800-1850), New York (1850-1900), Chicago (1900-1950), Los Angeles (1950-2000), and Cyberspace (2000-present). Each of these places has added new words, new inflections, new ways of speaking to the elusive, boisterous, ever-changing linguistic experiment that is American English. Freed from British constraints of unity and propriety, swept up in rapid social change, restless movement, and a thirst for innovation, Americans have always been eager to invent new words, from earthy frontier expressions like "catawampously" (vigorously) and "bung-nipper" (pickpocket), to West African words introduced by slaves such as "goober" (peanut) and "gumbo" (okra), to urban slang such as "tagging" (spraying graffiti) and "crew" (gang). Throughout, Bailey focuses on how people speak and how speakers change the language. The book is filled with transcripts of arresting voices, precisely situated in time and space: two justices of the peace sitting in a pumpkin patch trying an Indian for theft; a crowd of Africans lounging on the waterfront in Philadelphia discussing the newly independent nation in their home languages; a Chicago gangster complaining that his pocket had been picked; Valley Girls chattering; Crips and Bloods negotiating their gang identities in LA; and more.

Speaking Americanexplores--and celebrates--the endless variety and remarkable inventiveness that have always been at the heart of American English.


American English has often been seen, particularly in Britain, as an imperfect language, mainly derived from the survival of expressions that have become archaic in England, borrowings from other languages encountered here in North America, or even errors and mistakes that Americans didn’t know enough to correct. But American English, from the beginning, began to take its own course, shaped by the new landscape and the various human languages found in it. Early in the seventeenth century, English observers noticed that words like maize and canoe had become English words and were valuable additions to the language. From that time forward, American expressions were recognized even if they were sometimes demeaned.

The history of American English does not consist, however, of what Britons (and anglophiles) thought about the language, but of the language itself as it evolved over four centuries. Most attention in the past has centered on New England, largely because the written records are most abundant there. Other places were also prominent and influential in shaping the evolution of the language, as this book details.

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