Every language allows different kinds of variations: geographical or territorial, perhaps the most obvious, stylistic, the difference between the written and the spoken form of the standard national language and others. It is the national language of England proper, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and some provinces of Canada. It is the official language of Wales, Scotland, in Gibraltar and on the island of Malta. Modern linguistics distinguishes territorial variants of a national language and local dialects. Variants of a language are regional varieties of a standard literary language characterized by some minor peculiarities in the sound system, vocabulary and grammar and by their own literary norms.
Standard English the official language of Great Britain taught at schools and universities, used by the press, the radio and the television and spoken by educated people may be defined as that form of English which is current and literary, substantially uniform and recognized as acceptable wherever English is spoken or understood. Its vocabulary is contrasted to dialect words or dialectisms belonging to various local dialects. Local dialects are varieties of the English language peculiar to some districts and having no normalized literary form. Regional varieties possessing a literary form are called variants. Dialects are said to undergo rapid changes under the pressure of Standard English taught at schools and the speech habits cultivated by radio, television and cinema.
The differences between the English language as spoken in Britain. The USA, Australia and Canada are immediately noticeable in the field of phonetics. However these distinctions are confined to the articulatory-acoustic characteristics of some phonemes, to some differences in the use of others and to the differences in the rhythm and intonation of speech. The few phonemes characteristic of American pronunciation and alien to British literary norms can as a rule be observed in British dialects.
The variety of English spoken in the USA has received the name of American English. The term variant or variety appears most appropriate for several reasons. American English cannot be called a dialect although it is a regional variety, because it has a literary normalized form called Standard American, whereas by definition given above a dialect has no literary form. Neither is it a separate language, as some American authors, like H. L. Mencken, claimed, because it has neither grammar nor vocabulary of its own. From the lexical point of view one shall have to deal only with a heterogeneous set of Americanisms.
An Americanism may be defined as a word or a set expression peculiar to the English language as spoken in the USA. E.g. cookie 'a biscuit'; frame house 'a house consisting of a skeleton of timber, with boards or shingles laid on'; frame-up 'a staged or preconcerted law case'; guess 'think'; store 'shop'.
A general and comprehensive description of the American variant is given in Professor Shweitzer's monograph. An important aspect of his treatment is the distinction made between americanisms belonging to the literary norm and those existing in low colloquial and slang. The difference between the American and British literary norm is not systematic.
The American variant of the English language differs from British English in pronunciation, some minor features of grammar, but chiefly in vocabulary, and this paragraph will deal with the latter.1 Our treatment will be mainly diachronic.
Speaking about the historic causes of these deviations it is necessary to mention that American English is based on the language imported to the new continent at the time of the first settlements, that is on the English of the 17th century. The first colonies were founded in 1607, so that the first colonizers were contemporaries of Shakespeare, Spenser and Milton. Words which have died out in Britain, or changed their meaning may survive in the USA. Thus, I guess was used by Chaucer for I think. For more than three centuries the American vocabulary developed more or less independently of the British stock and, was influenced by the new surroundings. The early Americans had to coin words for the unfamiliar fauna and flora. Hence bull-frog 'a large frog', moose (the American elk), oppossum, raccoon (an American animal related to the bears), for animals; and corn, hickory, etc. for plants. They also had to find names for the new conditions of economic life: back-country 'districts not yet thickly populated', back-settlement, backwoods 'the forest beyond the cleared country', backwoodsman 'a dweller in the backwoods'.
The opposition of any two lexical systems among the variants described is of great linguistic and heuristic value because it furnishes ample data for observing the influence of extra-linguistic factors upon the vocabulary. American political vocabulary shows this point very definitely: absentee voting 'voting by mail', dark horse 'a candidate nominated unexpectedly and not known to his voters', to gerrymander 'to arrange and falsify the electoral process to produce a favorable result in the interests of a particular party or candidate', all-outer 'an adept of decisive measures'.
Many of the foreign elements borrowed into American English from the Indian dialects or from Spanish penetrated very soon not only into British English but also into several other languages, Russian not excluded, and so became international. They are: canoe, moccasin, squaw, tomahawk, wigwam, etc. and translation loans: pipe of peace, pale-face and the. like, taken from Indian languages. The Spanish borrowings like cafeteria, mustang, ranch, sombrero, etc. are very familiar to the speakers of many European languages. It is only by force of habit that linguists still include these words among the specific features of American English.
As to the toponyms, for instance, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Utah (all names of Indian tribes), or other names of towns, rivers and states named by Indian words, it must be borne in mind that in all countries of the world towns, rivers and the like show in their names traces of the earlier inhabitants of the land in question.
Another big group of peculiarities as compared with the English of Great Britain is caused by some specific features of pronunciation, stress or spelling standards, such as [ae] for in ask, dance, path, etc., or Ie] for [ei] in made, day and some other.
The American spelling is in some respects simpler than its British counterpart, in other respects just different. The suffix -our is spelled -or, so that armor and humor are the American variants of armour and humour. Altho stands for although and thru for through. The table below illustrates some of the other differences but it is by no means exhaustive. For a more complete treatment the reader is referred to the monograph by A. D. Schweitzer:
British spellingAmerican spelling
In the course of time with the development of the modern means of communication the lexical differences between the two variants show a tendency to decrease. Americanisms penetrate into Standard English and Britishisms come to be widely used in American speech. Americanisms mentioned as specific in manuals issued a few decades ago are now used on both sides of the Atlantic or substituted by terms formerly considered as specifically British. It was, for instance, customary to contrast the English word autumn with the American fall. In reality both words are used in both countries, only autumn is somewhat more elevated, while in England the word fall is now rare in literary use, though found in some dialects and surviving in set expressions: spring and fall, the fall of the year are still in fairly common use.
Cinema and TV are probably the most important channels for the passage of Americanisms into the language of Britain and other languages as well: the Germans adopted the word teenager and the French speak of Vautomatisation. The influence of American publicity is also a vehicle of Americanisms. This is how the British term wireless is replaced by the Americanism radio. The jargon of American film-advertising makes its way into British usage; i.e. of all time (in "the greatest film of all time"). The phrase is now firmly established as standard vocabulary and applied to subjects other than films.
The personal visits of writers and scholars to the USA and all forms of other personal contacts bring back Americanisms.
The existing cases of difference between the two variants, are conveniently classified into:
1) Cases where there are no equivalents in British English: drive-in a cinema where you can see the film without getting out of your car' or 'a shop where motorists buy things staying in the car'; dude ranch 'a sham ranch used as a summer residence for holiday-makers from the cities'. The noun dude was originally a contemptuous nickname given by the inhabitants of the Western states to those of the Easte