January 28, 2009
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Background Notes on American and British English
The three original American dialects — New England, Mid-Atlantic and Southern — all had their origins in different areas of England and reproduce many of the characteristics of those areas. The varieties of Southern English, as well as the Midwestern twang, evolved in consequence of these dialects' rubbing together.
Non-English dialects have had relatively little influence, except in semantics and several structures which are clearly marked as non-English in origin (for example, Yiddish influence in the New York area; Black English influence). Languages in contact (as opposed to dialects in contact) rarely interact except in extremes and never in phonology. Rather there may be borrowings, which are eventually integrated into the target language (corduroy, diapers, etc.), or else one language obliterates the other, as in Latin taking over Gaulish, or English taking over Irish. However, the latter case is special, since traces of Irish remain in phonology, familiar syntax, and vocabulary. A standard form evolves when a group speaks such a mixture of dialects that no particular one can be distinguished.
The principles are the same for any language which `emigrates,' as with English, French, Spanish and Portuguese into North America. First the emigrant languages start to evolve from a specific homeland dialect. Then they evolve differently from the homeland because of lack of contact. The less contact, the more different the evolution, because the home dialect also continues to evolve.
The U.S. kept less of a `British' accent because it threw off British dominance at a rather early stage, which Australia and New Zealand did not. The educational system in those countries continued to import teachers and administrators from "home," as the British linguistic model was considered `superior'. Canada is an odd case: it is also British-dominated, but the Maritimes, which were the center of Canada for a significant while (from 1755 until around 1830), were heavily populated with Celtic groups, both Irish and Scots, who emigrated to get away from the British, or were expelled from Britain, and did not particularly want to follow a `superior' linguistic model.
A large group of American Loyalists went to Canada after the Revolution and settled en masse in southern Quebec and southern Ontario, bringing the already-evolved U.S. linguistic model. This model continued to be powerful because of the constant contacts between Canada and the U.S., as opposed to either country's contacts with Britain. Upper-class speech in Canada sounded vaguely British (to U.S. ears, not to British ones) until around the 1950's, when it aligned itself with the American model, keeping only certain particularities in pronunciation (individual words, not phonemes), structure (lack of articles, as in "she's at university") and vocabulary. It is practically impossible to distinguish a Western Canadian from a Northwestern American, because both groups moved west around the same time, with a resultant mix of dialects.
All emigrant languages tend to be linguistically nostalgic, preserving archaic forms of pronunciation: the `hillbillies' really did preserve forms of English which date back to Shakespeare, although what they do with those forms is another question.
Many of the "distinctive" phonetic features of American English are in fact from the British Isles. The feature that most Americans (and some Canadians) recognize as distinctively English is the nearly silent final 'r', making "water" sound like "watuh". This pattern is characteristic of a dialect triangle formed by Cambridge, Oxford and London, and of areas to the east of that triangle. The same pattern is found in areas of the U.S. and Canada which were settled by emigrants from eastern England, such as Boston and Plymouth.
The final 'r' that we associate with American English is quite distinct as a kind of growl produced near the back of the mouth. This sound is standard in the west of England (Shakespeare would have growled his final 'r' sounds), in the north (Wordsworth and the Brontes) and in Ireland. Most of the British settlement in North America in the nineteenth century came from the north and west of England and from Ireland (especially the six northern counties of Ulster). This emigration provided the dominant settlement and the dominant dialect features of Ontario and of the mid-western U.S.
As for the German component, German settlement in western Ontario and both the eastern and mid-western U.S. was heavy enough that German was the second language in these areas. Much of the religious, social and economic fabric of these areas is German in origin. The German sociologist Max Weber studied the Germanization of the growing American cities, especially in the mid-west, in "The Protestant Sects and the Spirit of Capitalism." The American novelist Sinclair Lewis studied similar features in his novels without specifically tracing them back to German roots.
Linguistically, the German influence probably reinforced the clearly articulated final 'r', added some lexemes to the vocabulary, and added a lot of German family names. German last names seem to be as common in positions of power in the United States as Scottish names are in Canada. At one time President Nixon's advisors seemed to be nearly all German by name.
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