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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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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English in America: A Linguistic History is rated 3.7 out of 5 by 50.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Centering English Fascinating! Suggestion on Latinos and English. Puerto Rican English in New York influence of Black English historically based on both communities arriving in significant numbers in the 1920s and 1950s. Contact with Spanish omits circular migration with the Islands of Puerto Rico in helping extend the life of Spanish. In addition, the role of churches in reinforcing Spanish speaking and literacy. Recommend Toward a Language Policy for Puerto Ricans in the United States (1977), National Puerto Rican Task Force on Educational Policy, Centro de estudios puertorriqueños, Hunter College and the work of Pousada, Poplack, and Alvarez during the 1970s on Puerto Rican code- switching.
Date published: 2020-08-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from English in America: A Linguistic History I already wrote a review and even added an addenda. I'm concerned that this is not in your records.
Date published: 2020-07-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So that's why.... Dear Dr. Schilling: I would like you to know that your course on American English through The Great Courses is a great resource for the semi-foreigner (if that may be an appropriate reference for my background). Please allow me to explain. I grew up in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty With a childhood L1 of Italian from my immigrant parents, which quickly extinguished upon entering the public school system in New Jersey. At seventeen I resided abroad in a series of countries for ten years. During a seven-year period in Italy, my birth language was restored and ameliorated within a few months, but upon returning to the US, numerous cultural/ linguistic peculiarities emerged, especially questions regarding the myriad phonetic and vernacular diversities spoken in the US. For example, I discovered that just because Mexicans in the southwest conversed fluently among their peers, many of them could not read or write Spanish. They exhibited a speaking vocabulary but committed countless errors of literacy when writing. The explanations you provided for these disconcerting curiosities I harbored about American English were clarified through your course presentation on American English, and I am grateful for your research-based sociolinguistic perspective that has ostensibly offered plausible explanations for these ‘mysteries.’ Thank you for your perspicacious enlightenments. Luigi Yannotta
Date published: 2020-06-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good Instructor is excellent and I am learning a great deal
Date published: 2020-04-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Language differences within America This is a very straightforward course, with no drama or fireworks, about language differences within America in historical context. The professor does not have any axe to grind, other than constantly emphasizing that no dialect or accent is better or worse than any other. Each time there is a controversy, she carefully presents two or three competing theories along with the supporting arguments for each. I found her easy to listen to, but I definitely perked up whenever she brought in some samples of people speaking to illustrate particular dialects or accents. I wish there had been more such speech samples. Although I learned a fair amount about the process of language differentiation and change over time, I still have many questions about the topic that her course didn't equip me to answer, such as why there would be such a difference in accent between Providence, Rhode Island and Cranston, RI, which is less than 6 miles away, as well as between Providence and Boston, which are only 50 miles apart. In addition, I did not understand why she lumped together nearly all the states west of New York, when I can distinctly tell when someone is from Minnesota or Chicago, versus Ohio, for example. I had also hoped to understand why people from New Orleans sound so distinctive, and though she did discuss this a bit, what she said didn't add to my understanding. So all in all, I was a bit disappointed in this learning experience.
Date published: 2019-09-21
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Interesting Information Although it too a while to receive the course materials, browsing through them presented new and interesting information. The course is a tad more difficult than my expectations, but more than well worth the money. As a lifelong learner, I can only get more informed by taking the course.
Date published: 2019-09-09
Rated 1 out of 5 by from English in America A Linguistic History The course had very severe audio problems. Apparently Great Courses was aware of this because sub titles were provided. For a course in linguistics that doesn't work. You should be ashamed to ship something that has such poor quality.
Date published: 2019-02-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I wish there were more examples An excellent course, on a subject that interests me. A substantial amount of the material covered dealt with dialects—which made a nice interface with Colin Woodard’s book, American Nations (since the origins of the dialects are very much tied into the ethnic and social origins of his 9 or 11 distinct American cultures). Dr Schilling knows what she’s talking about. She is direct, not particularly animated, but very articulate; she finished 1-2 minutes early on most of the lectures, probably having to do with her rate of reading off a teleprompter versus her anticipated usual lecture style. The presentations do move right along, often covering quite a lot of new terminology and concepts, and I found myself wishing they were just a wee bit slower. Although she presented 4 or 5 audio-taped examples of various dialects being spoken, I am sorry there was not more of this. In fact, in my ideal world these 12 lectures would all be 45 minutes long rather than 30: same topics, same amount of material covered, just with lots more actual examples. I couldn’t help thinking about how much less instructive Robert Greenberg’s courses would be if he were forced to present each lecture in 30 minutes, without all the musical examples that really cement the concepts and augment learning. I think the comparison is apt, since my appreciation of dialect differences in American English rests primarily on differences in what they sound like when spoken, and you can’t really appreciate that fully without hearing them in action.
Date published: 2019-01-06
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