English in America: A Linguistic History

Course No. 2274
Professor Natalie Schilling,
Georgetown University
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Course No. 2274
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Learn the difference between a language, a dialect, and an accent - and how these are influenced by region.
  • numbers Examine how the independence of America resulted in new language standards.
  • numbers Take a quiz and see what areas of the U.S. sound like you. Delve into how linguists study dialects.
  • numbers Consider the how languages of the many immigrants gave rise to distinctive ethnic dialects of American English.
  • numbers Discover that regional dialect differentiation is actually increasing, not receding, even in the Internet age.

Course Overview

Think about this: How would you address a group of two or more people? Would your default terminology be: ”you all,” “yous,” ”you lot,” “you guys,” “you’uns,” “yinz,” “you,” “y’all,” or something else? Would that change depending on whom you were talking to or where you were using it? What do you call a long sandwich that contains cold cuts and vegetables? Is it a “sub,” “grinder,” “hoagie,” “hero,” “poor boy,” “bomber,” “Italian sandwich,” or something else? Your answers can provide revealing insights about who you are, where you grew up or live now, and your social, economic, and educational background.

Welcome to the enthralling world of linguistics. If you’ve ever been curious how words like “awesomesauce” ever came to be, let alone made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, or if you’ve ever wondered why you say “firefly” and someone else calls the same insect a “lightning bug,” English in America: A Linguistic History is for you.

There’s an incredibly rich and colorful history behind American English. A profoundly diverse assortment of cultures and heritages has influenced our vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar, and the language continues to grow and shift. Dialect variations are widespread and actually increasing, and the new words, accents, and sentence structures both reflect and shape changes in our culture and society. Investigating these dialects is the domain of sociolinguistics, the study of the intricate interrelation between language variation and cultural, interpersonal, and personal identity. At the forefront of the study of American English dialects is Natalie Schilling, Associate Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University, who guides you on this intriguing and enlightening journey.

The ABCs of American Vocabulary: Absorbing, Borrowing, and Creating

Start by exploring the dialects of English in our first colonies, and learn how settlers adopted many Native American words for locations, foods, and more. As you travel through the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, you’ll see how accents shifted, grammar changed, and new words were coined. These changes were often connected to the cultural, technological, and political phenomena of the time. You’ll delve into the early formative period of American English, when it was influenced by Spanish, French, and Dutch colonists as well as many Native American languages and the West African languages of slaves. You’ll also examine the effects of later immigration, as English speakers absorbed foreign words and sayings to add nuance, color, and expressiveness.

In addition to borrowing and adapting words from other cultures, the founding Americans were notorious for making words up simply to suit their needs—a creative exercise we still practice today. Benjamin Franklin created a plethora of words and phrases in order to describe his inventions, words that are now staples of our language, such as: battery, condenser, conductor, charge, plus, minus, electric shock, and electrician. Thomas Jefferson was credited with generating more than one hundred new words, including: electioneering, indecipherable, odometer, and belittle.

Some of these new words were Americanisms—a term coined by John Witherspoon and referring to words and word usages that became associated with America or the American experience—and often gained international recognition. Some Americanisms we now take for granted include:

  • “raccoon” and “chipmunk,” based on adaptations of Native American words
  • “backwoods” and “bifocal,” new words made up of existing English word stock, including what were originally bits of Latin
  • “filibuster,” which appears to come from Dutch via French and Spanish influences

Americanisms were not always widely accepted, especially during the colonial era and the first decades of nationhood, as this period in history was rife with conflict over independence and identity. Even Witherspoon himself, who enjoyed collecting and documenting Americanisms, called some of the terms “improprieties and vulgarisms.” Acceptance grew as the American dialect became more stable and its speakers more confident.

English in America Becomes American English

Linguist Edgar Schneider has studied the historical development of a variety of English dialects around the world. He found that these dialects typically pass through similar stages of development, despite the very different end results. These five stages are:

  • Foundation: The founders bring their dialects to the new location. There is dialect mixing among the founders and contact with indigenous languages in the new land.
  • Exonormative Stabilization: Dialects continue to mix and speakers begin to creatively innovate, but they still look to the home country for norms.
  • Nativization: Dialect mixing and borrowing from other languages continues, and there is an explosion of linguistic creativity that widens the gulf between the new dialect and the old world variety.
  • Endonormative Stabilization: The dialect begins to set its own language standards, looking inward to create norms of usage, codified in dictionaries, grammars, and spelling books, rather than relying on those set by the ancestral country.
  • Differentiation: As speakers of the dialect become secure in their linguistic identity, they can turn then their focus from presenting a united political and linguistic front, to considering their own intra-national cultural and linguistic diversity.

You’ll trace the arc of the development of American English through each of these stages, up to its current state—and projected future development. The Endonormative Stabilization stage is of particular interest to many people, as that period featured many pivotal advocates of American English whose works have become immortalized today: Noah Webster, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain, among others.

Noah Webster was a political activist and educational reformer as well as a lexicographer. He firmly believed that the separation of the United States from England required a “system of our own, in language as well as government,” which motivated him to publish dictionaries and spelling books of the English language that focused on American vocabulary, spellings, and usages. He advocated for spelling reforms such as dropping the “u” from the British spelling of words such as “color” and “labor,” as well as more straightforward spellings for words such as “tire.” Although he cataloged hundreds of new words and Americanisms, he himself claimed to contribute only one new entry: “demoralizing.”

The Influence of Ethnicity and Technology

Throughout the course, you’ll encounter a wide range of ethnic and social groups that have shaped the course of the development of American English over the centuries: English speakers from all over the British Isles; speakers of West African languages, who were enslaved; immigrants from western Europe, particularly Germans; people hailing from Eastern Europe; speakers of languages from Asia; and Spanish speakers from all over the world.

In considering the contributions of these groups, you’ll also gain deep insights into the perceptions—and misperceptions—about language and dialect variation. For example, when Americans hear a British accent, we might still think of the speaker as “better” than us: more educated, more cultured, or at least more linguistically adept. You’ll discover how often-changing beliefs about “proper” usages have been used to elevate some groups and discriminate against others. And you’ll take an in-depth look at how writers such as Mark Twain have used depictions of dialects to both perpetuate and dispel linguistic stereotypes, as well as to define and distinguish American literature. Twain in particular had an amazing ear for linguistic details and could capture the dialects of people of various regions, races, and classes without relying on exaggerated stereotypes.

Two ethnic dialects, African American English and Latino English, have been particularly stigmatized by speakers of other dialects. Contrary to common misconceptions, both of these dialects are governed by consistent and intricate rules and capably convey a rich variety and depth of expression. With time and cultural contact, stigma associated with ethnic dialects often diminishes; for example, Jewish American English has left a deep impact on General American English, especially its lexicon, and African American English is emulated by young people all over the world.

Throughout the 20th century in particular, advances in technology have left their mark on American English. Our methods of communication changed drastically with the advent and increasingly widespread use of radio, television, telephones, the Internet, and more. In many ways, this led to greater connections between diverse Americans, which would seemingly reduce the number of regional dialects. However, instead, new dialects and dialect features arose out of these advancements. Sometimes, as different people intercommunicate more frequently, the fear of loss of cultural distinctiveness serves to promote increasing dialect differentiation.

In leading you through these centuries of change, Professor Schilling is an engaging and authoritative guide. She specializes in the study of language variation and change in American English dialects, including regional, ethnic, and gender-based language varieties, and is the author and coauthor of three books that are standards in sociolinguistics. Bringing to bear her main expertise in stylistic variation (how and why individuals use different language styles as they shape and reshape personal, interpersonal, and group identities and relations), the concluding lectures take a penetrating look at modern dialects and where American English is heading.

As you’ll discover, American English is simply an umbrella term for many different EnglishES. This glorious linguistic variety reflects who we are, and have always been, as a nation: e puribus unum—out of many, one.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    Defining American English Dialects
    Begin with a big-picture overview of the American English dialect map, asking as we explore: What is the difference between a language, a dialect, and an accent? Discover the intricate rules governing all linguistic systems, and consider how and why some varieties of language become valued standards and others are stigmatized. x
  • 2
    The Foundations of American English
    The main English dialect hubs in the new American colonies were centered on Jamestown, New England, and Philadelphia. See how these were influenced by contact with Native American languages, Spanish, French, Dutch, and the West African languages of slaves, and learn about the five stages of development English dialects typically undergo everywhere English is spoken in the world. x
  • 3
    From English in America to American English
    Explore how the English settlers gradually transformed themselves from colonists to American citizens, and how English in America became American English. Myriad dialects began to coalesce, and there was an explosion of linguistic creativity, especially in the creation of dialect words - Americanisms like raccoon" and "bifocal". " x
  • 4
    The Rise of American Language Standards
    In the 1800s, America began looking inward, not to England, for its language standards. The new norms were recorded in dictionaries, spelling books, and grammars, and celebrated in a profusion of distinctly American literary works. Noah Webster, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain are all key figures in this stage in the historical development of American English. x
  • 5
    Where Is General American English?
    Our journey continues with the westward expansion of American English, as the New England dialect spreads across the North, the South extends to the Southwest, and people in the middle increasingly intermingle. Along the way, dialect mixing and leveling lead to increasing standardization, or at least the ideal of a single, uniform standard, and General American English" is born. But where is it, and who speaks it?" x
  • 6
    Mapping American Dialects
    What do you call a big road where you drive fast: highway, parkway, freeway, or something else? How do you pronounce the word been": with the vowel in "sit," "see," or "set"? Take a quiz and see where your linguistic usages place you on the American dialect map. Delve into how linguists who study dialects - sociolinguists, dialectologists, and dialect geographers - get data to make their dialect maps, and how they decide where to draw dialect lines." x
  • 7
    Ethnicity and American English
    America has always been a land of immigrants, and American English has been shaped since its earliest days by contact among immigrants from all over the British Isles and from around the world. Consider how the languages of the many immigrants who poured into America in the 19th and early 20th centuries gave rise to distinctive ethnic dialects of American English, and how they left their mark on American English more generally. x
  • 8
    African American English
    Explore the indelible linguistic effects of the peoples of African descent who were brought to America as slaves, who went on to develop a richly expressive language variety that today is emulated by young people across the world - African American English. Contrary to common misunderstandings, this well-studied dialect is governed by intricate and consistent rules. x
  • 9
    Mobility, Media, and Contemporary English
    Moving into 20th-century America, examine how changes in movement patterns of peoples, and of information, have affected language change. Consider population movements from rural to urban to suburban - and then back to the city again; the Civil Rights Movement; and the increasing influence of Hollywood media and the dawn of the Internet age. x
  • 10
    The History of American Language Policy
    What's the official language of the United States? What should it be? See how American language policies and language attitudes have shifted back and forth over the centuries, from periods of relative tolerance for non-English languages in the U.S., to times of heightened fear for the safety" of English in America, and concurrent attempts at stricter language legislation. Is there reason to worry? " x
  • 11
    Latino Language and Dialects in America
    In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, America has seen an upsurge in immigration, much as it did at the dawn of the 20th. Investigate the effects of immigrants from Latin America on American English, and confront a fear facing some native speakers of American English: Is Spanish taking over, and do we need language policies to prevent this? Also explore the native English varieties developed by people of Latin American descent in the U.S. x
  • 12
    Where Is American English Headed?
    Secure as a major player on the world stage, the U.S. can now look inward and focus on the intra-national linguistic and cultural diversity that's been there since English speakers first arrived on the American continent. Discover that regional dialect differentiation is actually increasing, not receding, even in the Internet age, and consider the development of English as it continues to spread across the world. x

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Video DVD
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  • Download 12 video lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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Instant Audio Includes:
  • Download 12 audio lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
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DVD Includes:
  • 12 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • 106-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 106-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested Readings
  • Questions to Consider
  • Defining Terms

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Your professor

Natalie Schilling

About Your Professor

Natalie Schilling
Georgetown University
Dr. Natalie Schilling is an Associate Professor of Linguistics and head of a research project at Georgetown University called Language and Communication in Washington, DC. She earned a doctorate in Linguistics from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she also received a bachelor’s degree in English, and she holds a master’s degree in English from North Carolina State University. Dr. Schilling has...
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