Happy 4th of July! Thoughts on the birth of American English

When the first colonists from the Virginia Company of London began settling in North America, they invented (through necessity) new English words to describe the unfamiliar landscape, weather, plants and animals they encountered. These early settlers spoke dialects that were around during the Early Modern English period, which lasted in England from the late 1400s until the late 1600s. For historical context, Shakespeare’s plays were written between 1590 and 1612, and Jamestown was founded in 1607. The vast distance from England and relative isolation from British society and culture contributed to the creation of distinct dialects, customs and cultures in Virginia and the other twelve original colonies. In other words, American Englishes were beginning to take shape well before the colonies would break from their parent nation.

The fourth of July this Wednesday will mark the 242nd anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. After the American colonists won a hard-fought revolution against Great Britain in 1783 and became an independent nation, American English dialects began to diverge even more drastically from their parent varieties spoken in England. The ties between language and identity are extremely strong, so the marked departures from British Englishes served as tools to construct independent, uniquely American identities. Speakers of American Englishes have always been perceived as more relaxed and loose when compared to their British counterparts.

I’ve always heard that America is a melting pot of peoples and cultures. So too are our American dialects. Not only do we tend to pronounce words differently than our British cousins, American Englishes contain forms of speech that are now obsolete in England (i.e. the verb form gotten is not found in British English today). Our dialects also contain words that are novel coinages such as belittle (made up by Thomas Jefferson in the late 1700s), eel grass, lightning bug, and bullfrog.

The Native Americans gave us our first borrowings, which were mainly words that had no natural counterparts in England (i.e. plants and animals). For example, the word raccoon is from an Algonquin language spoken by Powhatan’s people. John Smith first called it a rahaugcum in 1608, and by 1672 it was the raccoon that we’re familiar with today. There are also words that have been borrowed from other languages such as Dutch, where we get the words bunker (i.e. menhaden), scow, coleslaw (a July 4th favorite), and Santa Claus. Going to a July 4th barbecue? Thank the Spanish for that word. Don’t fill up on pretzels, one of many German borrowings.

Then there are words that came to have different meanings in America, such as corn and barn. In England, corn refers to grain in general, whereas in America it refers specifically to maize or Indian corn. A barn in England is a place to store crops, but in America it is a place to store both crops and cattle.

I’ll close with a few more Americanisms that I thought were relevant to the Eastern Shore:

A marsh is called a bog in England.

A bluff is a steep cliff or bank (i.e. Butler’s Bluff).

A neck is a long, narrow tract of land projecting from a main body (i.e. Wilsonia Neck).

A creek is an inlet in a shoreline, a channel in a marsh, or another narrow, sheltered waterway in America, but in England it is a small inlet or bay that isn’t necessarily narrow.

Backwoods means a remote or sparsely inhabited region away from big towns and the influence of modern life.

A shell road is a route on land that is comprised of mollusk shells (i.e. clams or oysters).

More Americanisms can be found in a book by H.L. Mencken called The American Language: an inquiry into the development of English in the United States. It can be located in the language section of Accomac library. Thanks for reading and have a happy 4th of July!

P.S. I refer to Englishes in the plural because English is not really a single, monolithic entity. That is, there are many different varieties (i.e. dialects) of English across the globe that are situated for the particular groups who speak them.


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