Имя материала: Лексикология английского языка

Автор: Антрушина Галина Борисовна

Chapter 14 do americans speak english or american?


In one of his stories Oscar Wilde said that the English "have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language."

Bernard Shaw, on the contrary, seemed to hold a different opinion on the point, but he expressed it in such an ambiguous way that, if one gives it some thought, the idea is rather the same as that of Wilde. Shaw said that America and England are two great nations separated by the same language.

Of course, both these statements were meant as jokes, but the insistence on a certain difference of the language used in the United States of America to the language spoken in. England is emphasized quite seriously.

Viewed linguistically, the problem maybe put in this way: do the English and the Americans speak the same language or two different languages? Do the United States of America possess their own language?

The hypothesis of the so-called "American language" has had several champions and supporters, especially in the United States (H. L. Mencken. The American Language. N.-Y., 1957).

Yet, there are also other points of view. There are scholars who regard American English as one of the dialects of the English language. This theory can hardly be accepted because a dialect is usually opposed to the literary variety of the language whereas American English possesses a literary variety of its own. Other scholars label American English "a regional variety" of the English language.

Before accepting this point of view, though, it is necessary to find out whether or not American English, in its modern stage of development, possesses those characteristics which would support its status as an independent language.

A language is supposed to possess a vocabulary and a grammar system of its own. Let us try and see if American English can boast such.


Vocabulary of American English


It is quite true that the vocabulary used by American speakers, has distinctive features of its own. More than that: there are whole groups of words which belong to American vocabulary exclusively and constitute its specific feature. These words are called Americanisms.

The first group of such words may be described as historical Americanisms.

At the beginning of the 17th c. the first English migrants began arriving in America in search of new and better living conditions. It was then that English was first spoken on American soil, and it is but natural that it was spoken in its 17th c. form. For instance, the noun fall was still used by the first migrants in its old meaning "autumn", the verb to guess in the old meaning "to think", the adjective sick in the meaning "ill, unwell". In American usage these words still retain their old meanings whereas in British English their meanings have changed.

These and similar words, though the Americans and the English use them in different meanings, are nevertheless found both in American and in British vocabularies.

The second group of Americanisms includes words which one is not likely to discover in British vocabulary. They are specifically American, and we shall therefore call them proper Americanisms. The oldest 01 these were formed by the first migrants to the American continent and reflected, to a great extent, their attempts to cope with their new environment.

It should be remembered that America was called "The New World" not only because the migrants severed all connections with their old life. America was for them a truly new world in which everything was strikingly and bewilderingly different from what it had been in the Old Country (as they called England): the landscape, climate, trees and plants, birds and animals.

Therefore, from the very first, they were ;faced with a serious lack of words in their vocabulary with which to describe all these new and strange things. Gradually such words were formed. Here are some of them.

Backwoods ("wooded, uninhabited districts"), cold snap ("a sudden frost"), blue-grass ("a sort of grass peculiar to North America"), blue-jack ("a small American oak"), egg-plant ("a plant with edible fruit"), sweet potato ("a plant with sweet edible roots"), redbud ("an American tree having small budlike pink flowers, the state tree of Oklahoma"), red cedar ("an American coniferous tree with reddish fragrant wood"), cat-bird ("a small North-American bird whose call resembles the mewing of a cat"), cat-fish ("called so because of spines likened to a cat's claws"), bull-frog ("a huge frog producing sounds not unlike a bull's roar"), sun-fish ("a fish with a round flat golden body").

If we consider all these words from the point of view of the "building materials" of which they are made we shall see that these are all familiarly English, even though the words themselves cannot be found in the vocabulary of British English. Yet, both the word-building pattern of composition (see Ch. 6) and the constituents of these compounds are easily recognized as essentially English.

Later proper Americanisms are represented by names of objects which are called differently in the

United States and in England. E. g. the British chemist's is called drug store or druggist's in the United States, the American word for sweets (Br.) is candy, luggage (Br.) is called baggage (Amer.), underground (Br.) is called subway (Amer.), lift (Br.) is called elevator (Amer.), railway (Br.) is called railroad (Amer.), carriage (Br.) is called car (Amer.), car (Br.) is called automobile (Amer.).

If historical Americanisms have retained their 17th-c. meanings (e. g. fall, п., mad, adj., sick, adj.), there are also words which, though they can be found both in English and in American vocabulary, have developed meanings characteristic of American usage. The noun date is used both in British and American English in the meanings "the time of some event"; "the day of the week or month"; "the year". On the basis of these meanings, in American English only, another meaning developed: an appointment for a particular time (transference based on contiguity: the day and time of an appointment > appointment itself).


* * *


American vocabulary is rich in borrowings. The principal groups of borrowed words are the same as were pointed out for English vocabulary (see Ch. 3). Yet, there are groups of specifically American borrowings which reflect the historical contacts of the Americans with other nations on the American continent.

These are, for instance, Spanish borrowings (e. g. ranch, sombrero, canyon, cinch), Negro borrowings (e. g. banjo) and, especially, Indian borrowings. The latter are rather numerous and have a peculiar flavour of their own: wigwam, squaw, canoe, moccasin, toboggan, caribou, tomahawk. There are also some translation-loans of Indian origin: pale-face (the name of the Indians for all white people), war path, war paint, pipe of peace, fire-water.

These words are used metaphorically in both American and British modern communication. A woman who is too heavily made up may be said to wear war paint, and a person may be warned against an enemy by: Take care: he is on the war path (i. e. he has hostile intentions).

Many of the names of places, rivers, lakes, even of states, are of Indian origin, and hold, in their very sound, faint echoes of the distant past of the continent. Such names as, for instance, Ohio [qV`haiqV], Michigan [`mISIgqn], Tennessee [tene`sJ], Illinois [IlI`noI(s)], Kentucky [ken`tAkI] sound exotic and romantic. These names awake dim memories of those olden times when Indian tribes were free and the sole masters of the vast unspoiled beautiful lands. These words seem to have retained in their sound the free wind blowing over the prairie or across the great lakes, the smokes rising over wigwams, the soft speech of dark-skinned people. It seems that Longfellow's famous lines about Indian legends and tales could well be applied to words of Indian origin:


Should you ask me, whence the stories?

Whence these legends and traditions,

With the odour of the forest,

With the dew and damp of meadows,

With the curling smoke of wigwams,

With the rushing of great rivers ...


(From Hiawatha Song)


* * *


One more group of Americanisms is represented by American shortenings. It should be immediately pointed out that there is nothing specifically American about shortening as a way of word-building (see Ch. 6). It is a productive way of word-building typical of both British and American English. Yet, this type of word structure seems to be especially characteristic for American word-building. The following shortenings were produced on American soil, yet most of them are used both in American English and British English: movies, talkies, auto, gym (for gymnasium), dorm (for dormitory), perm (for permanent wave, "kind of hairdo"), то (for moment, e. g. Just а то), circs (for circumstances, e. g. under the circs), cert (for certainty, e. g. That's a cert), n. g. (for no good), b. f. (for boyfriend), g. m. (for grandmother}, okay. (All these words represent informal stylistic strata of the vocabulary.)


* * *


More examples could be given in support of the statement that the vocabulary of American English includes certain groups of words that are specifically American and possesses certain distinctive characteristics. Yet, in all its essential features, it is the same vocabulary as that of British English, and, if in this chapter we made use of the terms "the vocabulary of American English" and "the vocabulary of British English", it was done only for the sake of argument. Actually, they are not two vocabularies but one. To begin with, the basic vocabulary, whose role in communication is of utmost importance, is the same in American and British English, with very few exceptions.

On the other hand, many Americanisms belong to colloquialisms and slang, that is to those shifting, changeable strata of the vocabulary which do not represent its stable or permanent bulk, the latter being the same in American and British speech.

Against the general extensive background of English vocabulary, all the groups of Americanisms look, in comparison, insignificant enough, and are not sufficiently weighty to support the hypothesis that there is an "American language".

Many Americanisms easily penetrate into British speech, and, as a result, some of the distinctive characteristics of American English become erased, so that the differentiations seem to have a tendency of getting levelled rather than otherwise.


The Grammar System of American English


Here we are likely to find even fewer divergencies than in the vocabulary system.

The first distinctive feature is the use of the auxiliary verb will in the first person singular and plural of the Future Indefinite Tense, in contrast to the British normative shall. The American I will go there does not imply modality, as in the similar British utterance (where it will mean "I am willing to go there"), but pure futurity. The British-English Future Indefinite shows the same tendency of substituting will for shall in the first person singular and plural.

The second distinctive feature consists in a tendency to substitute the Past Indefinite Tense for the Present Perfect Tense, especially in oral communication. An American is likely to say I saw this movie where an Englishman will probably say I've seen this film, though, with the mutual penetration of both varieties, it is sometimes difficult to predict what Americanisms one is likely to hear on the British Isles. Even more so with the substitution of the Past Indefinite for the Present Perfect which is also rather typical of some English dialects.

Just as American usage has retained the old meanings of some English words (fall, guess, sick), it has also retained the old form of the Past Participle of the verb to get: to get — got — gotten (cf. the British got).

That is practically the whole story as far as divergencies in grammar of American English and British English are concerned.

The grammatical system of both varieties is actually the same, with very few exceptions.


* * *


American English is marked by certain phonetic peculiarities. Yet, these consist in the way some words are pronounced and in the intonation patterns. The system of phonemes is the same as in British English, with the exception of the American retroflexive [r]-sound, and the labialized [h] in such words as what, why, white, wheel, etc.


* * *


All this brings us to the inevitable conclusion that the language spoken in the United States of America is, in all essential features, identical with that spoken in Great Britain. The grammar systems are fully identical. The American vocabulary is marked by certain peculiarities which are not sufficiently numerous or pronounced to justify the claims that there exists an independent American language. The language spoken in the United States can be regarded as a regional variety of English.

Canadian, Australian and Indian (that is, the English spoken in India) can also be considered regional varieties of English with their own peculiarities.




I. Consider your answers to the following.


1. In what different ways might the language spoken in the USA be viewed linguistically?

2. What are the peculiarities of the vocabulary of English spoken in the USA?

3. Can we say that the vocabulary of the language spoken in the USA supports the hypothesis that there is an "American language"? Give a detailed answer.

4. What are the grammatical peculiarities of the American variety of English?

5. Describe some of the phonetic divergencies in both varieties of English.

6. What other regional varieties of English do you know?


II. Read the following extract and give more examples illustrating the same group of Americanisms. What do we call this group?


M: — Well, now, homely is a very good word to illustrate Anglo-American misunderstanding. At any rate, many funny stories depend on it, like the one about the British lecturer visiting the United States; he faces his American audience and very innocently tells them how nice it is to see so many homely faces out in the audience.

Homely in Britain means, of course, something rather pleasant, but in American English 'not very good looking'. This older sense is preserved in some British dialects.

(From A Common Language by A. H. Marckwardt and R. Quirk1)


III. Read the following extract. What are the three possible ways of creating names for new species of plants and animals and new features of the landscape? Give more examples of the same. What do we call this group of Americanisms?


Q: ... I think that this time we ought to give some attention to those parts of the language where the differences in the vocabulary are much more noticeable.

M: Yes, we should. First, there are what we might call the 'realia' — the real things — the actual things we refer to in the two varieties of the language. For example, the flora and fauna — that is to say the plants and animals of England and of the United States are by no means the same, nor is the landscape, the topography.

Q: All this must have created a big problem for those early settlers, mustn't it?

M: It surely did. From the very moment they set foot on American soil, they had to supply names for these new species of plants and animals, the new features of landscape that they encountered. At times they made up new words such as mockingbird, rattlesnake, egg-plant. And then occasionally they used perfectly familiar terms but to refer to different things. In the United States, for example, the robin is a rather large bird, a type of thrush.

Q: Yes, whereas with us it is a tiny little red-breasted bird.

M: And a warbler, isn't it?

Q: Yes.

M: It sings. Corn is what you call maize. We never use it for grain in general, or for wheat in particular.

Q: Or oats. Well, wouldn't foreign borrowings also be important in a situation like this?

M: Oh, they were indeed. A good many words, for example, were adopted from the American Indian languages — hickory, a kind of tree, squash, a vegetable; moccasin, a kind of footwear. We got caribou and prairie from the early French settlers. The Spanish gave us canyon and bronco.

(From A Common Language by A. H. Marckwardt and R. Quirk)


IV. Read the following passage. Draw up a list of terms denoting the University teaching staff in Great Britain and in the USA. What are the corresponding Russian terms?


Q: But speaking of universities, we've also got a different set of labels for the teaching staff, haven't we?

M: Yes, in the United States, for example, our full time faculty, which we call staff incidentally — is arranged in a series of steps which goes from instructor through ranks of assistant professor, associate professor to that of professor. But I wish you'd straighten me out on the English s37-stem. Don for example, is a completely mysterious word and I'm never sure of the difference, say, between a lecturer and a reader.

Q: Well, readers say that lecturers should lecture and readers should read! But seriously, I think there's more similarity here than one would imagine. Let me say, first of all, that this word don is a very informal word and that it is common really only in Oxford and Cambridge. But corresponding to your instructor we've got the rank of assistant lecturer, usually a beginner's post. The assistant lecturer who is successful is promoted, like your instructor and he becomes a lecturer and this lecturer grade is the main teaching grade throughout the university world. Above lecturer a man may be promoted to senior lecturer or reader, and both of these — there's little difference between them — correspond closely to your associate professor. And then finally he may get a chair, as we say — that is a professorship, or, as you would say, a full professorship. It's pretty much a difference of labels rather than of organization, it seems to me.

(From A Common Language by A. H. Marckwardt and R. Quirk)


V. Give the British equivalents for the following Americanism.


Apartment, store, baggage, street car, full, truck, elevator, candy, corn.


VI. Explain the differences in the meanings of the following words in American and British English.


Corn, apartment, homely, guess, lunch.



VII. Identify the etymology of the following words.


Ohio, ranch, squash, mosquito, banjo, toboggan, pickaninny, Mississippi, sombrero, prairie, wigwam.


VIII. Comment on the formation of the following' words.


Rattlesnake, foxberry, auto, Americanism, Colonist, addressee, ad, copperhead, pipe of peace, fire-water.


IX. Translate the following words giving both the British and American variant.


Каникулы, бензин, осень, консервная банка, радио, трамвай.


X. Give the synonyms for the following American shortenings. Describe the words from the stylistic point of view.


Gym, mo, circs, auto, perm, cert, n. g., b. f., g. m., dorm.


XI. In the following sentences find the examples of words which are characteristic of American English. State whether they belong to the group of a) historical Americanisms; b) proper Americanisms; c) American shortenings; d) American borrowings. Take note of their spelling peculiarities.


1. As the elevator carried Brett downward. Hank Kreisel closed and locked the apartment door from inside. 2. A raw fall wind swirled leaves and dust in small tornadoes and sent pedestrians scurrying for indoor warmth. 3. Over amid the bungalows a repair crew was coping with a leaky water main. 4. We have also built, ourselves, experimental trucks and cars which are electric powered. 5. In a plant bad news travelled like burning gasoline. 6. May Lou wasn't in; she had probably gone to a movie. 7. The bank was about equal in size to a neighbourhood drugstore, brightly lighted and pleasantly designed. 8. Nolan Wainwright walked towards the apartment building, a three-storey structure probably forty years old and showing signs of disrepair. He guessed it contained two dozen or so apartments. Inside a vestibule Nolan Wainwright could see an array of mail boxes and call buttons. 9. He's a barber and one of our bird dogs.1 We had twenty or so regular bird dogs, Smokey revealed, including service station operators, a druggist, a beauty-parlor operator, and an undertaker. 10. Barbara put a hand to her hair — chestnut brown and luxuriant, like her Polish Mother's; it also grew annoyingly fast so she had to spend more time than she liked in beauty salons. 11. He hadn't had an engineering degree to start, having been a high school dropout before World War II. 12. Auto companies regularly invited design school students in, treating them like VIP's,1 while the students saw for themselves the kind of aura they might work in later.


XII. Read the following joke and find examples of words which are characteristic of American English.


The Bishop of London, speaking at a meeting recently, said that when he was in America he had learned to say to his chauffeur, "Step on the gas, George," but so far he had not summoned sufficient courage to say to the Archbishop of Canterbury, "О. К., Chief."


XIII. Bead the following extract. Explain the difference in the meanings of the italicized words in American and British English.


In America just as in English, you see the same shops with the same boards and windows in every town and village.

Shopping, however, is an art of its own and you have to learn slowly where to buy various things. If you are hungry, you go to the chemist's. A chemist's shop is called a drugstore in the United States. In the larger drugstores you may be able to get drugs, too, but their main business consists in selling stationery, candy, toys, braces, belts, fountain pens, furniture and imitation jewellery. You must be extremely careful concerning the names of certain articles. If you ask for suspenders in a man's shop, you receive a pair of braces, if you ask for a pair of pants, you receive a pair of trousers and should you ask for a pair of braces, you receive a queer look.

I should like to mention that although a lift is called an elevator in the United States, when hitch-hiking you do not ask for an elevator, you ask for a lift. There's some confusion about the word flat. A flat in America is called an apartment; what they call a flat is a puncture in your tyre (or as they spell it, tire). Consequently the notice: Flats Fixed' does not indicate an estate agent where they are going to fix you up with a flat, but a garage where they are equipped to mend a puncture.

(From How to Scrape Skies by G. Mikes)


XIV. Read the following passage. Do you share Professor Quirk's opinion about neutralizing the differences between the two forms of English? If so, give your own examples to prove it.


M: ... and finally I notice that although we used to think that baggage was somehow an American term and luggage an English term, we have now come to adopt luggage much more, especially in connection with air travel.

Q: Well, I think it is equally true that we in Britain have more and more to adopt the word baggage. I have certainly noticed that on shipping lines, perhaps chiefly those that are connected with the American trade. But this blending of our usage in connection with the luggage and baggage would seem to me to be rather typical of this trend that we've got in the twentieth century towards neutralizing the differences between our two forms of English.

(From A Common Language by A. H. Marckwardt and R. Quirk)


XV. Look through the following list of words and state what spelling norms are accepted in the USA and Great Britain so far as the given words are concerned.


1. favour — favor

honour — honor

colour — color


2. defence — defense

practice — practise

offence — offense


3. centre — center

metre — meter

fibre — fiber


4. marvellous — marvelous

woollen — woolen

jewellery — jewelry


5. to enfold — to infold

to encrust — to incrust

to empanel — to impanel


6. cheque — check


programme — program


7. Judgement — judgment

abridgement — abridgment

acknowledgement — acknowledgment


XVI. Write the following words according to the British norms of spelling.

Judgment, practise, instill, color, flavor, check, program, woolen, humor, theater.


XVII. Write the following words according to the American norms of spelling.


Honour, labour, centre, metre, defence, offence, catalogue, abridgement, gramm, enfold, marvellous.


XVIII. Read the following passage. Give some more examples illustrating the differences in grammar between the two varieties of English.


Q: I thought Americans always said gotten when they used the verb get as a full verb. But you did say I've got your point, didn't you?

M: Yes, I did. You know, it's a common English belief — almost a superstition — about American usage, but it does turn out on examination, as many other things do, that we are closer together than appears on the surface. Actually, we, Americans, use gotten only when our meaning is "to acquire" or "to obtain". We've gotten a new car since you were here last. Now, when we use get to mean "possess" or "to be obliged to" we have exactly the same forms as you do. I've got a pen in my pocket. I've got to write a letter.

(From A Common Language by A. H. Marckwardt and R. Quirk)


XIX. Bead the following extract. What is a citizen of the USA called? Analyse the suggested variants of names from the point of view of word-building.


It is embarrassing that the citizens of the United States do not have a satisfactory name. In the Declaration of Independence the British colonists called their country the United States of America, thus creating a difficulty. What should the inhabitant of a country with such a long name be called?

For more than 150 years those living in the country have searched in vain for a suitable name for themselves. In 1803, a prominent American physician, Dr. Samuel Mitchill, suggested that the entire country should be called Fredonia or Fredon. He had taken the English word freedom and the Latin colonies, and from them coined Fredonia or Fredon. Dr. Mitchill thought that with this word as the name for the country as a whole, the derivative Fredish would follow naturally, corresponding to British, etc. In the same way, he thought, Frede, would be a good name for the inhabitant of Fredonia. But his fellow-citizens laughed at the doctor's names.

Such citizen names as United Statesian, shortened to Unisian and United Statian were proposed but quickly forgotten. No better success has greeted Usona (United States of North America) as a name for the country and Usonian — for a citizen.

Usage overwhelmingly favours American, as a name for an inhabitant of the USA, though all Americans realize it covers far too much territory.

(From American Words by M. Mathews)


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