American English

American English
RegionUnited States
Native speakers
225 million, all varieties of English in the United States (2010 census)[1]
25.6 million L2 speakers of English in the United States (2003)
Early forms
Latin (English alphabet)
Unified English Braille[2]
Official status
Official language in
Language codes
ISO 639-3
GlottologNone
IETFen-US[3][4]
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English language prevalence in the United States. Darker shades of blue indicate higher concentrations of native English speakers in the corresponding states

American English (AmE, AE, AmEng, USEng, en-US),[5] sometimes called United States English or U.S. English,[6][7] is the set of varieties of the English language native to the United States.[8] American English is considered one of the most influential dialects of English globally, including on other varieties of English.[9][10][11][12][13]

English is the most widely spoken language in the United States and is the de facto common language used by the federal and state governments, to the extent that all laws and compulsory education presume English as the primary language. English is explicitly given official status by 32 of the 50 state governments.[14][15] While the local courts in some divisions of the United States grant equivalent status to both English and another language—for example, English and Spanish in Puerto Rico—under federal law, English is still the official language for any matters being referred to the United States district court for the territory.[16]

The use of English in the United States is a result of British colonization of the Americas. The first wave of English-speaking settlers arrived in North America during the 17th century, followed by further migrations in the 18th and 19th centuries. During the 17th century, dialects from many different regions of England existed in every American colony, allowing a process of extensive dialect mixture and levelling in which English varieties across the colonies became more homogeneous compared with varieties in England.[17][18] English thus predominated in the colonies even by the end of the 17th century's first massive immigrations of non-English speakers from Europe and Africa, and firsthand descriptions of a fairly uniform American English became common after the mid-18th century.[19] Since then, American English has developed into distinct new varieties; its regional dialects in some cases show minor influences from successive waves of immigrants of diverse language backgrounds in the last two centuries,[20] though primarily from Europeans.[11]

American English varieties include many common pronunciations, vocabulary, spelling, and other features found nationwide in comparison to other English dialects around the world.[21] Any North American English accent perceived as free of noticeably local, ethnic, or cultural markers is popularly called "General" or "Standard" American, a fairly uniform standard dialect continuum used in broadcast mass media, highly educated speech, and certain regions. Otherwise, according to William Labov, with the major exception of Southern and some Inland Northern accents, regional accents throughout the country are not yielding to this standard,[22] and historical and present linguistic evidence does not support the notion of there being one single "mainstream" American accent.[23][24] On the contrary, the sound of American English continues to evolve, with some local accents disappearing, but several larger regional accents emerging.[25]

Phonology

Compared with English as spoken in England, North American English[26] is more homogeneous, and any phonologically unremarkable North American accent is known as "General American". This section mostly refers to such General American features.

Conservative phonology

Studies on historical usage of English in both the United States and the United Kingdom suggest that spoken American English did not simply deviate away from period British English, but is conservative in some ways, preserving certain features contemporary British English has since lost.[27]

  • Full rhoticity (or R-fulness): Most American accents are firmly rhotic, pronouncing the phoneme /r/, corresponding to the letter ⟨r⟩ in all environments, including after vowels, such as in pearl, car, and court.[28][29] Non-rhotic American accents, those that do not pronounce ⟨r⟩ in some positions in a word, such as some Eastern New England, New York, or African American vernacular accents, are often quickly noticed by General American listeners and perceived to sound especially ethnic, regional, or "old-fashioned".[28][30][31]
Rhoticity is common in most American accents (yet nowadays rare in England), because, during the 17th-century British colonization, nearly all dialects of English were rhotic, and most North American English simply remained that way.[32] This preservation of rhoticity in North America was also supported by continuing waves of rhotic-accented Scots-Irish immigrants, most intensely during the 18th century (and moderately during the following two centuries), when the Scots-Irish eventually made up one-seventh of the colonial population. Scots-Irish settlers spread from Delaware and Pennsylvania into the larger Mid-Atlantic region, the inland regions of both the South and North, and throughout the West, all American dialect areas that consistently resisted upper-class non-rhotic influences and that consequently remain rhotic today.[33] The pronunciation of ⟨r⟩ is a postalveolar approximant [ɹ̠] (About this soundlisten) or retroflex approximant [ɻ] (About this soundlisten),[34] though a unique "bunched tongue" variant of the approximant r sound is also associated with the United States, and perhaps mostly in the Midwest and the South.[35]
  • Many British accents have evolved in other ways, too, compared to which General American English has remained relatively more conservative, for example, regarding today's widespread British English features of a trap–bath split, H-dropping, non-rhoticity (or R-dropping), fronting of /oʊ/, none of which is typical of General American accents, the former two items being especially rare in American English dialects.

Innovative phonology

On the other hand, General American is more innovative than the dialects of England, or English elsewhere in the world, in a number of its own ways:

  • LOT: The American phenomenon of the LOT vowel (often spelled ⟨o⟩ in words like box, don, clock, notch, pot, etc.) being produced without rounded lips, like the PALM vowel, allows father and bother to rhyme, the two vowels now unified as the single phoneme /ɑ/. This father–bother vowel merger is in a transitional or completed stage nearly universally in North American English. Exceptions are in northeastern New England English, such as the Boston accent, as well as variably in some New York accents.[36][37]
  • Cot–caught merger in transition: There is no single American way to pronounce the vowels in words like cot /ɑ/ (the ah vowel) versus caught /ɔ/ (the aw vowel), largely due to a merger occurring between the two sounds in some parts of North America, but not others. American speakers with a completed merger pronounce the two historically separate vowels with the exact same sound (especially in the West, northern New England, West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, and the Upper Midwest), but other speakers have no trace of a merger at all (especially in the South, the Great Lakes region, southern New England, and the Mid-Atlantic and New York metropolitan areas) and so pronounce each vowel with distinct sounds (About this soundlisten).[38] Among speakers who distinguish between the two, the vowel of cot (usually transcribed in American English as /ɑ/), is often a central [ä] (About this soundlisten) or advanced back [ɑ̟], while /ɔ/ is pronounced with more rounded lips and/or phonetically higher in the mouth, close to [ɒ] (About this soundlisten) or [ɔ] (About this soundlisten), but with only slight rounding.[39] Among speakers who do not distinguish between the two, thus producing a cot–caught merger, /ɑ/ usually remains a back vowel, [ɑ], sometimes showing lip rounding as [ɒ]. Therefore, even mainstream Americans vary greatly with this speech feature, with possibilities ranging from a full merger to no merger at all. A transitional stage of the merger is also common in scatterings throughout the U.S., most consistently in the American Midlands lying between the historical dialect regions of the North and South, while younger Americans in general tend to be transitioning toward the merger. According to a 2003 dialect survey carried out across the United States, about 61% of participants perceive themselves as keeping the two vowels distinct and 39% do not.[40] A 2009 followup survey put the percentages at 58% non-merging speakers and 41% merging.[41]
    • LOTCLOTH split: A 17th-century split has occurred in which certain words (labeled as the CLOTH lexical set) separate away from the LOT set. Remaining in American English but not usually in British English, this split simultaneously produces a merger of this relatively recent CLOTH set with the THOUGHT (caught) set, even among modern speakers who do not merge cot and caught (the lexical sets LOT and THOUGHT). Having taken place prior to the unrounding of the cot vowel, this results in lengthening and perhaps raising, merging the more recently separated vowel into the caught vowel in the following environments: before many instances of /f/, /θ/, and particularly /s/ (as in Austria, cloth, cost, loss, off, often, etc.), a few instances before /ŋ/ (as in strong, long, wrong), and variably by region or speaker in gone, on, and certain other words.[42]
  • STRUT in special words: The STRUT vowel, rather than the one in LOT or THOUGHT (as in Britain), is used in function words and certain other words like was, of, from, what, everybody, nobody, somebody, anybody, and, for many speakers because and rarely even want, when stressed.[43][44][45][46]
  • Vowel mergers before intervocalic /r/: The mergers of certain vowels before /r/ are typical throughout North America; the only exceptions exist primarily along the east coast. Such mergers include:
    • Mary–marry–merry merger in transition: According to the 2003 dialect survey, nearly 57% of participants from around the country self-identified as merging the sounds /ær/ (as in the first syllable of parish), /ɛr/ (as in the first syllable of perish), and /ɛər/ (as in pear or pair).[47] The merger is already complete everywhere except along some areas of the Atlantic Coast.[48]
    • Hurry–furry merger: The pre-/r/ vowels in words like hurry /ʌ/ and furry /ɜ/ are merged in most American accents to [ə~ɚ]. Only 10% of English speakers across the U.S. acknowledge the distinct hurry vowel before /r/, according to the same dialect survey aforementioned.[49]
    • Mirror–nearer merger in transition: The pre-/r/ vowels in words like mirror /ɪ/ and nearer /i/ are merged or at least very close in most American accents. The quality of the historic mirror vowel in the word miracle is quite variable.[50]
    • Americans vary slightly in their pronunciations of R-colored vowels—such as those in /ɛər/ and /ɪər/—sometimes monophthongizing towards [ɛɹ] and [ɪɹ] or tensing towards [eɪɹ] and [i(ə)ɹ] respectively, causing pronunciations like [pʰeɪɹ] for pair/pear and [pʰiəɹ] for peer/pier.[51] Also, /jʊər/ is often reduced to [jɚ], so that cure, pure, and mature may all end with the sound [ɚ], thus rhyming with blur and sir. The word sure is also part of this rhyming set as it is commonly pronounced [ʃɚ].
  • Yod-dropping: Dropping of /j/ after a consonant is much more extensive than in most of England. In most North American accents, /j/ is "dropped" or "deleted" after all alveolar and interdental consonants (i.e. everywhere except after /p/, /b/, /f/, /h/, /k/, and /m/) so that new, duke, Tuesday, presume are pronounced [nu], [duk], [pʰɹɪˈzum] (compared to standard British /nju/, /djuk/, /pɹɪˈzjum/).[52]
  • T-glottalization: /t/ is normally pronounced as unreleased or as a glottal stop [ʔ] when occurring both (1) after a vowel or /r/ and (2) before a consonant or syllabic [n̩], as in button [ˈbʌʔn̩] (About this soundlisten). Following a vowel, /t/ is also glottalized when before a significant pause or when in absolute final position: thus, what [wʌʔ] or sit [sɪʔ]. (The innovation of /t/ glottal stopping also occurs variably between vowels in British English.)
  • Flapping: /t/ or /d/ becomes a flap [ɾ] (About this soundlisten) when occurring both (1) after a vowel or /r/ and (2) before [ə], unstressed [ɪ], or a syllabic consonant other than [n̩], as in water [ˈwɔɾɚ] (About this soundlisten), party [ˈpʰɑɹɾi] and model [ˈmɑɾɫ̩]. Flapping before a full stressed vowel is also possible, but only when the /t/ or /d/ begins a word or morpheme, as in what is it? [wʌɾˈɪzɪʔ] and not at all [nɑɾəɾˈɔɫ] (but not in reduce [ɹəˈdus] or monotone [ˈmɑnətʰoʊn]). Other minor rules apply to flapping, to such a complex degree in fact that flapping has been analyzed as being required in certain contexts, optional in others, and prohibited in still others.[53] Flapping results in pairs such as ladder/latter, metal/medal, and coating/coding being pronounced the same.
    • Both intervocalic /nt/ and /n/ may commonly be realized as [ɾ̃] (a nasalized lateral flap) or simply [n], making winter and winner homophones in fast or non-careful speech.
  • L-velarization: England's typical distinction between a "clear L" (i.e. [l] (About this soundlisten)) and a "dark L" (i.e. [ɫ] (About this soundlisten)) is much less noticeable in nearly all dialects of American English;[54] it is often altogether absent,[55] with all "L" sounds tending to be "dark," meaning having some degree of velarization,[56] perhaps even as dark as [ʟ] (About this soundlisten) (though in initial position, perhaps less dark than elsewhere among some speakers).[57] The only notable exceptions to this velarization are in some Spanish-influenced U.S. English varieties (such as East Coast Latino English, which typically shows a clear "L" in syllable onsets) and in older, moribund Southern speech of the U.S., where "L" is clear in an intervocalic environment between front vowels.[58]
  • Weak-vowel merger: The vowel /ɪ/ in unstressed syllables generally merges with /ə/, so effect is pronounced like affect and abbot and rabbit rhyme. The quality of the merged vowels varies considerably, though it is typically closer to [ɪ] when before a consonant; otherwise it is closer to [ə].[59]
  • Raising of pre-voiceless /aɪ/: Many speakers split the sound /aɪ/ based on whether it occurs before a voiceless consonant or not, so that in rider it is pronounced [äɪ] but in writer it is raised to [ʌɪ] (because [t] is a voiceless consonant while [d] is not). Thus, words like bright, hike, price, wipe, etc. with a following voiceless consonant (such as /t, k, θ, s/) use a more raised vowel sound compared to bride, high, prize, wide, etc. Because of this sound change, the words rider and writer (About this soundlisten), for instance, remain distinct from one another by virtue of their difference in height (and length) of the diphthong's starting point (unrelated to both the letters d and t being pronounced in these words as alveolar flaps [ɾ]). The sound-change also applies across word boundaries, though the position of a word or phrase's stress may prevent the raising from taking place. For instance, a high school in the sense of "secondary school" is generally pronounced [ˈhɐɪskuɫ]; however, a high school in the literal sense of "a tall school" would be pronounced [ˌhaɪˈskuɫ]. This sound change began in the Northern, New England, and Mid-Atlantic regions of the country,[60] and is becoming more common across the nation.
    • Many speakers in the Inland North, Upper Midwestern, and Philadelphia dialect areas raise /aɪ/ before voiced consonants in certain words as well, particularly [d], [g] and [n]. Hence, words like tiny, spider, cider, tiger, dinosaur, beside, idle (but sometimes not idol), and fire may contain a raised nucleus. The use of [ʌɪ] rather than [aɪ] in such words is unpredictable from phonetic environment alone, though it may have to do with their acoustic similarity to other words that do contain [ʌɪ] before a voiceless consonant, per the traditional Canadian-raising system. Hence, some researchers have argued that there has been a phonemic split in these dialects; the distribution of the two sounds is becoming more unpredictable among younger speakers.[61]
  • Conditioned /æ/ raising (especially before /n/ and /m/): The raising of the /æ/ or TRAP vowel occurs in specific environments that vary widely from region to region, though nationwide most commonly before /n/ and /m/. With most American speakers, for whom the phoneme /æ/ operates under a somewhat continuous system, /æ/ has both a tense and a lax allophone (with a kind of "continuum" of possible sounds between those two extremes, rather than a definitive split). In these accents, /æ/ is overall realized before nasal stops as more tense (approximately [eə̯]), while other environments are more lax (approximately the standard [æ]); for example, note the vowel sound in [mæs] for mass, but [meə̯n] for man). In some American accents though, specifically those from Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City, [æ] and [eə̯] are indeed entirely separate (or "split") phonemes, for example, in planet [pʰlænɪ̈ʔ] vs. plan it [pʰleənɪ̈ʔ]. These are called Mid-Atlantic split-a systems. Note that these vowels move in the opposite direction (high and forward) in the mouth when compared to the backed Standard British "broad a", though the two nation's a systems are probably related phonologically if not phonetically; a British-like phenomenon occurs among some older speakers of the eastern New England (Boston) area for whom /æ/ changes to /a/ before /f/, /s/, /θ/, /ð/, /z/, /v/ alone or when preceded by a homorganic nasal.
æ/ raising in North American English[62]
Environment Dialect
Consonant after /æ/ Example words New York City & New Orleans Baltimore & Philadelphia General American, Florida, Midland U.S., New England, & Western U.S. Canadian, Northern Mountain U.S., & Upper Midwestern U.S. Southern U.S. & African American Vernacular Great Lakes
/m/, /n/
Alexander, answer, ant, band, can (the noun), can't, clam, dance, ham, hamburger, hand, handy, man, manly, pants, plan, planning, ranch, sand, slant, tan, understand, etc.; in Philadelphia, began, ran, and swam alone remain lax
[eə] [eə~ɛə] [ɛə~æ] [ɛə~eə] [eə]
free
amity, animal, can (the verb), Canada, ceramic, family (varies by speaker),[63] gamut, hammer, janitor, manager, manner, Montana, panel, planet, profanity, salmon, Spanish, etc.
[æ]
/ɡ/
checked
agriculture, bag, crag, drag, flag, magnet, rag, sag, tag, tagging, etc.
[eə] [æ] [æ] [e~ɛ~æ] [ɛ(j)ə~æ] [ɛə~æ]
free
agate, agony, dragon, magazine, ragamuffin, etc.
[æ]
/b/, /d/, /dʒ/, /ʃ/, /v/, /z/, /ʒ/
checked
absolve, abstain, add, ash, as, bad, badge, bash, cab, cash, clad, crag, dad, drab, fad, flash, glad, grab, had, halve (varies by speaker), jazz (varies by speaker), kashmir, mad, magnet, pad, plaid, rag, raspberry, rash, sad, sag, smash, splash, tab, tadpole, trash, etc. In NYC, this environment, particularly, /v/ and /z/, has a lot of variance and many exceptions to the rules. In Philadelphia, bad, mad, and glad alone in this set become tense. Similarly, in New York City, even free vowels of the /dʒ/ set are often tense, such as in magic, imagine, etc.
[eə] [æ~ɛə] [æ] [eə~ɛə]
/f/, /s/, /θ/
checked
ask, bask, basket, bath, brass, casket, cast, class, craft, crass, daft, drastic, glass, grass, flask, half, last, laugh, laughter, mask, mast, math, pass, past, path, plastic, task, wrath, etc.
[eə]
Other consonants
act, agony, allergy, apple, aspirin, athlete, avid, back, bat, brat, café, cafeteria, cap, cashew, cat, Catholic, chap, clap, classy, diagonal, fashion, fat, flap, flat, gap, gnat, latch, magazine, mallet, map, mastiff, match, maverick, Max, pack, pal, passive, passion, pat, patch, pattern, rabid, racket, rally, rap, rat, sack, sat, Saturn, savvy, scratch, shack, slack, slap, tackle, talent, trap, travel, wrap, etc.
[æ]
Key
Here, [eə] represents a very tense vowel, [ɛə] a somewhat tense (or intermediate) vowel, and [æ] a non-tense (or lax) vowel, and the symbol "~" represents a continuous system in which the vowel may vary between two pronunciations.
Footnotes
  1. Nearly all American English speakers pronounce /æŋ/ somewhere between [æŋ] and [eɪŋ], though Western speakers specifically favor [eɪŋ].
  2. The Great Lakes dialect traditionally tenses /æ/ in all cases to at least some degree, but reversals of that tensing before non-nasal consonants (while often maintaining some of the other vowel shifts of the region) has been observed recently where it has been studied (in Lansing and Syracuse).
  3. In American phonology, /æ/ before /r/ is often transcribed as /ɛ/ due to the prevalence of the Mary–marry merger. However, a distinct /æ/ before /r/ remains in much of the Northeastern U.S. (strongest in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Baltimore) and some of the Southern U.S.

Some mergers found in most varieties of both American and British English include:

  • Horse–hoarse merger: This merger makes the vowels /ɔ/ and /o/ before /r/ homophones, with homophonous pairs like horse/hoarse, corps/core, for/four, morning/mourning, war/wore, etc. homophones. Many older varieties of American English still keep these sets of words distinct, particularly in the extreme Northeast, the South (especially along the Gulf Coast), and the central Midlands,[64] but the merger is evidently spreading and younger Americans rarely show it.
  • Wine–whine merger: This produces pairs like wine/whine, wet/whet, Wales/whales, wear/where, etc. homophones, in most cases eliminating /ʍ/, also transcribed /hw/, the voiceless labiovelar fricative. However, scatterings of older speakers who do not merge these pairs still exist nationwide and perhaps most strongly in the South.[65]
Other Languages
azərbaycanca: Amerikan ingiliscəsi
Bân-lâm-gú: Bí-kok Eng-gí
brezhoneg: Saozneg SUA
한국어: 미국 영어
Bahasa Indonesia: Bahasa Inggris Amerika
interlingua: Anglese american
Nederlands: Amerikaans-Engels
norsk nynorsk: Angloamerikansk
português: Inglês americano
Simple English: American English
српски / srpski: Američki engleski jezik
Tiếng Việt: Tiếng Anh Mỹ
粵語: 美國英文
中文: 美国英语