The United States of English: The American Language from Colonial Times to the Twenty-First Century
“From a rich body of literature, Ostler mines material for this special history of the United States with the stories and reasons for creating the uniquely American language.”
Events like COVID-19 and the modern technical revolution have broadened and changed our wordage. Yet we live in a time of text increasingly restricted by artificial intelligence, “grammar guerillas” holding to their graduate school training, and political activism. For other uses, no requirements seem to apply, even intelligibility and relevance.
Rosemarie Ostler’s latest work on American English, The United States of English, discusses the deep historical origins of these changes. The author points out, for example, that the American language “became considerably more open-minded” as the language of pop culture and the otherwise obscure outside of the mainstream has become common usage.
The author begins with the first of many important points that “American English should really be called American Englishes—there just isn’t one version.” Americanisms continue to develop regionally and defy efforts to create a single national language for the United States despite the unifying effects of the media in spreading culture, jargon, and slang.
The South vies with the very different New York City for the most distinctive accent but changes from the Midwest and West are also important. Spanish enters American English in those other regions including Chicano, in many forms and by different means.
Conversely, “Americans as a group sound distinctively different from other English speakers.” The United States of English sometimes chronologically, at other times by theme, examines how “enough times, distance, and isolation” has made that happen. Modern American English, wherever or however spoken, only dates from the 1500s, just as English America was about to begin. The British Empire made English the world's language despite its many complexities. It also gave and took words to and from America.
Changes in vowel usage become most pronounced by local situations and are affected by world events that change the language. Webster compiled the first dictionary of American usage of English, with 12,000 words never in a dictionary before “many, if not most, were American inventions.” With globalization, new pronunciations and words from the New World were also passed to all peoples' languages.
Modern American English has a foundation in the colonial past, including the New England Puritans, Pennsylvania’s religious groups, the Scots-Irish, and the Virginia Cavaliers. The language comes from class as well as culture. It retains sounds and words from foreign countries, provinces, and villages. In that way, it also preserves what might have otherwise been lost.
Some of the classic elements are surprising, such as the development of the Southern drawl and the expression “you guys” are relatively modern. “Americanism,” however, comes from long ago, to John Witherspoon in 1781! Words like “be” and “not” continue to evolve.
African American and Native American words entered the speech, but America’s national language also borrows from the language of many European arrivals. The Dutch, for example, founded America’s and later the world’s great commercial cosmopolitan city of New York and, in the process, added many words to the general population.
Whether grammar guerillas approve of the text or not, The United States of English is an easy, engaging, personable read that educates, is fun, and even gently humorous. It invokes memories of accents and colloquialisms encountered as the exploration of America continues for all of us individually and as a people.
The author does not patronize the reader but carefully explains the technical changes in American English when appropriate but clarity, making grammar rules characters in the story. Research used in The United States of English is supported with annotation, a bibliography, and charts.
Even the history of efforts to establish standardization gets coverage. The artificial intelligence program copy editing this review challenges the quotes of this recognized expert, bringing a smile to this reviewer.
From a rich body of literature, Ostler mines material for this special history of the United States with the stories and reasons for creating the uniquely American language. It “will continue to evolve and grow” from invention, politics, sports, and more.