How do you pronounce biopic, synod, and Breughel? - and why? Do our cake and archaic sound the same? Where does the stress go in stalagmite? What's odd about the word epergne? As a finale, the author writes a letter to his 16-year-old self.
Review of The Cambridge History of the English Language Volume 6: English in North America
CONTENTS Chapter 1, "External History," John Algeo Chapter 2, "British and American, Continuity and Divergence," John Hurt Fisher Chapter 3, "British and Irish Antecedents," Michael Montgomery Chapter 4, "Contact with Other Languages," Suzanne Romaine Chapter 5, "Americanisms," Frederic G. Cassidy and Joan Houston Hall Chapter 6, "Slang," Jonathan E. Lighter Chapter 7, "Dialects," Lee Pederson Chapter 8, "African-American English," Salikoko S. Mufwene Chapter 9, "Grammatical Structure," Ronald R. Butters Chapter 10, "Spelling," Richard L. Venezky Chapter 11, "Usage," Edward Finegan Chapter 12, "Canadian English," Laurel J. Brinton and Margery Fee Chapter 13, "Newfoundland English," William J. Kirwin Chapter 14, "American English Abroad," Richard W. Bailey
SYNOPSIS John Algeo opens the volume with an overview of the external history of English in the United States, dividing American English into three periods: the Colonial period (1607-1776), the national period (1776-1898), and the international period (1898- present). For his account of the Colonial period, Algeo is indebted to David Hackett Fischer's "Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America" (1989), whose history of early American society and language, "the most ambitious theory of American cultural history ever put forward" (p. 7), has had a profound influence on historians of American English, and factors into the discussion of several other authors in this volume (Cassidy and Hall; Fisher; Montgomery). Fischer's four major waves of immigration from England are (1) "Puritans from eastern England to Massachusetts Bay, 1629-41"; (2) "Gentry and their servants from southern England to Virginia, 1642-75"; (3) "Quakers from the North Midlands and Wales to the Delaware Valley, 1675-1725"; and (4) "Common people from northern England, northern Ireland, and Scotland to the Appalachians, 1717-75" (pp. 7-8). In discussing the national and international periods, Algeo focuses on the key historical events and watersheds impacting on the external history of the language up through the present, such as the spread of American English around the world through commercial advertising.
In chapter 2, "British and American, Continuity and Divergence," John Hurt Fisher assesses the nature and extent of differences between British and American English. As late as the early 1800s, the two national varieties were still so close that Americans traveling in England could pass as Englishmen, and even Noah Webster late into his career continued to regard British and American English as the same language despite numerous variations in spelling and vocabulary; the differences among regional dialects within each country were greater than any differences between British and American English. Meanwhile American regional dialects continued to develop in new directions the dialects brought over by immigrants from England, with however much mixing and leveling among the dialects in the colonies. The most significant divergence that developed between the two national tongues arose in England with the spread of Received Pronunciation (RP) from the late 1700s, the "polite" alternative to London cockney and other local dialects of England, which continued to resemble their descendant dialects in America. Economically privileged Americans from the coastal cities who traveled to England imitated RP and in turn planted new prestige forms in the dialects of New England and the southern states, such as the [r]-dropping (nonrhotacism) that still defines these dialects today. After the Civil War, prestige shifted to the northern and mid-western rhotic dialects and away from regions associated with the British elite, forming the basis of Standard American English in the 20th century. The question of whether American English should be viewed as fundamentally distinct or not from British English, preoccupying scholars to this day, may finally be irresolvable.
In chapter 3, "British and Irish Antecedents," Michael Montgomery notes that populations emigrating from the British Isles were often due to previous and ongoing internal migration in England already considerably heterogeneous, multilingual and multidialectal, and this complicates the straightforward linking of American regional dialects to corresponding English regional dialects. This caution has led some scholars to doubt that "regional British English had any significant role in producing varieties of American English as we know them today" (p. 88). Montgomery holds that antecedents can be hypothesized and ultimately proven with improved methodology and data. He proposes that the emigrant group which besides the English exerted the most influence on American English were Protestant Scotch-Irish from Ulster arriving between 1718 and 1776 in Delaware and Pennsylvania and settling over the next two generations mostly in the Upper South. This wave of Scots-Irish immigration was succeeded by a much larger wave of Catholic Irish immigrants in the 19th century who settled in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and other urban centers, but it was the earlier wave that contributed most to American English due to the fact that they were pioneers, while the later Irish found themselves culturally subordinate to the English descendents in the cities. Much of chapter three is devoted to an historical overview of scholarly milestones in the history of American English, notably by Carver (1987), Dillard (1992), Fischer (1989), Krapp (1925), Kurath (1949), Kurath and McDavid (1961), and Mencken (1963) in order to underscore the limitations as well as achievements of much previously gathered linguistic data. Some long-held misconceptions reviewed by Montgomery are the "Colonial lag hypothesis" (Marckwardt, 1958; McKnight, 1925), which assumes American English to be a conservative version of British English, and the "Elizabethan hypothesis," which prizes Appalachian English as a fossil of Shakespearean English (Brown, 1889; Frost, 1899; Wilson, 1929). Too many studies, Montgomery notes, have relied more on settlement history than linguistic evidence. Also assessed are the relative merits of Kurath's (1949) tripartite division of American English into the Northern, Midland and Southern dialect regions and Carver's (1987) binary division into the Upper and Lower North and Upper and Lower South dialect regions, where the Lower North and Upper South correspond to Kurath's Midland (a separate "Western" dialect region is treated in Pederson, this volume, below). Montgomery concludes that an exact understanding of how early American English derived from which British regional dialects "remains elusive because of early settlers, the uncertain social dynamics of colonial settlements, and the intrinsic difficulties of proving dissemination of a linguistic feature" (p. 152).
The next three chapters provide a detailed account of many of the best-known American coinages and expressions. In chapter 4, "Contact with Other Languages," Suzanne Romaine surveys the numerous and often over-looked instances of language contact on the North American continent not only over the centuries of colonization but also in the pre-settlement era among the estimated 350-500 languages of the American Indians, who in order to communicate developed an array of lingua francas. As contact between Indians and Europeans increased, various Spanish, French, and English-based pidgins developed. In the 19th century, attempts by White settlers to domesticate Indian children resulted in "boarding school English" (p. 159). Due to this ongoing contact some 50 Indian nouns and well over 1,000 proper names (states, rivers, cities, etc.) in turn permanently entered American English. Further discussed are the contributions to American English (both the standard and regional varieties) from Dutch, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Yiddish, Slavic, Chinese, Hawaiian, and various African languages. In chapter 5, "Americanisms," Frederic G. Cassidy and Joan Houston Hall review the contributions to a descriptivist definition of "Americanism" (as opposed to pejorative British accounts) by Craigie and Hulbert (1938-44), Mathews (1951), and Algeo (1992); the latter's distinction between "synchronic" Americanisms (existing differences between American and British English not necessarily originating in the U.S.) and "diachronic" Americanisms (coinages and expressions originating in the U.S.) has gained acceptance. The bulk of the chapter is a chronological account of the origins of the best- known Americanisms, from the adoption of American Indian terms as early as the 1620s to the subsequent development of dialectal coinages hand-in-hand with the growing regional self-identity of New England, Appalachia, the South, and elsewhere. The writings of Mark Twain, the lexicography of Noah Webster, and key historical events such as the Civil War, the settlement of the West, urbanization, World War II, and the contributions of African-American culture are also enlisted important sources of Americanisms. In chapter 6, "Slang," Jonathan E. Lighter distinguishes "slang" from "colloquial" discourse by its subversive character, whose purpose is to "lower and disavow the dignity of discourse" (p. 221). He highlights the figurative character of slang, enabling classification through traditional poetic terminology, for example, "son of a bitch" as antiphrasis for "remarkable fellow," "bread" as metaphor for money, and "piece of ass" as synecdoche for "act of copulation" (pp. 224- 25). Lighter traces the complex history of the word "slang" itself and the proliferation of descriptive dictionaries of slang in the 20th century once scholars were able to overcome the negative connotations of slang and recognize it as a valuable object of study in its own right, noting key contributions by Mencken (1963) and Wentworth and Flexner (1975). Lighter finally characterizes slang "as a characteristically American style of speech, recognized and often emulated around the world" (p. 251).
In chapter 7, "Dialects," Lee Pederson divides American English into four major dialect areas: Northern (Maine and northern Pennsylvania to the Dakotas), Midland (Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley to the Upper Midwest), Southern (the South Atlantic and Gulf States to Texas), and Western (the Mississippi Valley and the Midwest plains to the Pacific Coast). In their 19th-century westward expansion from St. Louis, the Western dialects preserved essentially Northern features as far as Idaho and Utah, while southern Colorado, upper Texas, New Mexico and Arizona retained Midland characteristics. This expansion did not directly extend to Washington, Oregon, California, and Nevada, but proceeded rather by "parachuting" (when distant areas are settled before intermediate areas) to the Pacific Coast (pp. 281, 286). Crisscrossing settlement patterns in this region thus resulted in a "convoluted" mix of Midland and predominantly Northern dialect features. Over time Northern features began to dominate to the point where Pacific Coast speech became virtually indistinguishable from that of general Midwest Northern dialect as exists in, say, Chicago. In chapter 8, "African-American English," Salikoko S. Mufwene reviews the major scholarship on African-American English (AAE) and African- American Vernacular English (AAVE). One of the important and oft-debated questions is that of the correlation between "participation in street culture and the proportion and frequency of features associated with AAVE" (p. 292); recognizing the internal diversity of AAVE, Mufwene finds the question justified. Next summarized is the scholarship on the phonological, grammatical, semantic, and pragmatic features of AAE. The development and origins of AAE are then examined, beginning with the Gullah-AAVE connection that led to various creole hypotheses argued by Dillard (1972), Fasold (1981), Labov (1982), Stewart (1974), and others. Mufwene favors an alternative creole-connection hypothesis put forward by Winford (1993), which views the convergence of modern AAVE toward English as a rapid shift from a creole-like variety rather than decreolization from a true creole.
In chapter 9, "Grammatical Structure," Ronald R. Butters observes that many of the instances in which the grammar of American English is assumed to have changed from the British (e.g., American "gotten" from British "got") more likely represent change in British English, with American English retaining the older form. Other instances of apparent divergence of American from British English in syntax and inflectional morphology tend to be confined to nonstandard or regional varieties of American English rather than standard American English. American nonstandard grammatical features are reviewed, e.g., invariant "be" of African-American Vernacular English and the intensifier "done" found in both AAVE and Southern dialects. Examples of independent changes in standard American English grammar are "do"-support in "have" questions (e.g., "Do you have any ...?"), never a feature of British English, and the great number of intransitive verbs that have come to be used transitively in American English (e.g. "fly the Atlantic" versus "fly across the Atlantic"). In chapter 10, "Spelling," Richard L. Venezky notes that as a result of the aggressive intervention of lexicographers and orthographers--of greater influence than the printers in this regard--American spelling was regularized and stabilized largely in its modern form by 1700, despite the subsequent 18th-century preference among American educators of the British over American dictionaries as arbiters of spelling. Webster's 1828 Dictionary of American English gained quick success not only as a result of his growing influence and authority but because he astutely chose spellings favored by native printers. Venezky reviews attempts by various American academies, spelling reformers, and the Government itself to regulate spelling and usage, generally to little lasting consequence. While American spelling should be viewed as a system unto itself rather than as a deviation from British spelling, the differences between the two national varieties are relatively few and both show a tendency toward consensus, particularly in the age of electronic communication and multinational publishing.
In chapter 11, "Usage," Edward Finegan observes that contrary to the belief of linguists that we have surmounted the prejudice of prescriptivism and the only valid criterion of usage is common speech, prescriptivism continues to thrive in subtle forms, even among some of the very linguists who condemn it (e.g., Fromkin and Rodman, 1998; Linguistic Society of America, 1995; Pinker, 1994). Evolving attitudes towards English usage in both America and Britain were bound up with the history of influential grammar texts going back to the pre-Revolutionary era. Webster's A Grammatical Institute of the English Language (1783- 85) was the first American-authored grammar to achieve wide circulation. His goal, however, was contradictorily descriptive and prescriptive: "'to find what the English language is, and not, how it might have been made'" (1789), and at the same time to "campaign ... for a distinct American language" (Webster cited in Finegan, p. 367). As Finegan remarks, "Despite a professed faith in democratic ideals, Webster ... anointed himself as the standard of propriety and elegance and judged nonconformists vulgar and ignorant" (p. 368). In the subsequent history of grammar wars since Webster's time, the descriptivist and relativistic view of linguistic correctness gained respectability and eventually won out, aided by the support of the Modern Language Association, the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary, the phonologically based linguistics of Bloomfield, the progressive educational theory of Dewey, and writings by Matthews (1901), Krapp (1909), and Fries (1927).
The publication of The English Language Arts by the National Council of Teachers of English (1952) and the colloquially weighted Webster's Third New International Dictionary in 1961 saw the triumph of descriptivism, only to experience a backlash by conservative defenders of style, taste and "grammatical correctness" such as Barzun (1959) and Morris (1969). Nunberg (1982) presents a more balanced statement in support of traditional standards: "if the idea that good usage has a rational justification is abandoned, people will return to the doctrine that the correctness of usage is based entirely on the social prestige of the speaker" (cited in Finegan, p. 420).
In chapter 12, "Canadian English," Laurel J. Brinton and Margery Fee offer two competing views of Canadian English, that it is, on the one hand, a mere blend of British and northern American English with little identity of its own, or on the other, in the words of Bailey (1982), "a true national language" (cited in Brinton and Fee, p. 422). In the latter view, the distinctiveness of Canadian English derives not from any unique features but from its unique distribution of features also found in British and American English. For example, an oft-noted Canadian feature, diphthong raising, also occurs in Scots English and in the Virginia-Carolina region in the U.S., but not in the same phonological environments. It is further noted that Canadians are increasingly adopting American spellings and pronunciations. In chapter 13, "Newfoundland English," William J. Kirwin recounts the significance of settlement history along the Newfoundland coast to an understanding of early North American English. These original settlers included thousands of transient fishermen from southwestern England as far back as the 16th century, joined by numerous settlers from Ireland in the 18th century, resulting in the peculiar Anglo-Irish character of Newfoundland English. In chapter 14, "American English Abroad," Richard W. Bailey recounts the history of the spread and impact of American English abroad from the earliest Indian terms brought back to Europe from the New World in the 16th century down to the "triumph" of American English around the world in the present day (p. 493). A turning point occurred during the early 19th century, when the increasingly distinctive American speech engendered anxiety in England over rightful ownership of the language. The dominance of American English was finally conceded by Burchfield (1989), editor emeritus of the Oxford English Dictionary.
CRITICAL EVALUATION Following upon other volumes in the series, volume six of the Cambridge History of the English Language aims to bring together an authoritative collection of articles by leading scholars in the field. As an edited volume, the inevitable result is isolated perspectives on the language rather than the sort of thematically organized narrative or unified chronological account one expects in standard monographs on the history of English. And while the specialties of the experts selected for inclusion tend to give greater attention to the origins and earlier phases of American English rather than to more contemporary developments, a criticism to be returned to below, on balance the volume achieves its objective in putting on display the achievements of so many illustrious scholarly careers.
Two main reservations follow. First, readers seeking an answer to the question, What exactly is American English?, or likewise, At what historical juncture does "American English" merit the term?, will find upon finishing the volume that they are no nearer to an answer than at the start. Two opposing views are possible. In one view--what might be called the "nationalist history" of English (Leith, 1997)--Algeo in the opening chapter locates the starting point of "American English" at the Jamestown settlement of 1607, despite the fact that the identity of the settlers' native British tongue would in no way have altered in the passage across the Atlantic, nor would any significant changes in their way of speaking have occurred for several generations. But it is in the interest of nationalist historians, as Milroy (1992) reminds us, to project such an unwarranted "unilinear" conception of the language backwards in time. In the other view, the notion of "the American language" is challenged (by two American historians, one of them the very same author) as a "misnomer," there being in our present day "no essential difference between the English of America and that of Great Britain," isolated differences aside (Pyles and Algeo, 1993, p. 212). While on the one hand John Witherspoon was noticing "Americanisms" in 1781, his contemporaries Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin idealized the British variety, scarcely recognizing anything "American" about the English they spoke (Fisher pp. 61-67 and Bailey p. 480, this volume). Noah Webster, as we have seen, was ambivalent and contradictory on regarding "American" English as essentially any different from British English (Finegan, this volume, pp. 366ff). It was not until the Revolutionary period and the birth of the nation proper--close to two centuries after the first English settlers arrived--that a self-conscious American style first began to be propositioned, despite scarcely discernible differences in speech and accent between Americans and Englishmen generally at the time (Fisher, this volume, pp. 71-73). It is to the credit of the authors in this volume that they invite future debate by leaving these questions open-ended, yet one is left with the impression that the Cambridge series favors an overly cautious approach, leaving scholars such as Fischer (1989) to advance more adventurous and over-arching, if controversial, theses that are more interesting to read and may ultimately do more to shape the historical trajectory of the scholarship.
The second reservation is the volume's bias toward coverage of the earlier phases of the language. There is a great deal of overlap on the earlier periods in the chapters by Algeo, Fisher, Montgomery, and Pederson. We should be thankful for such meticulous scholarship, but it begins to taper off in the 20th century, as if American English were undergoing language death. Algeo does provide an overview of key historical events up to the present day for his external history of the language, but these events are not linked in any systematic way to the language itself. Lighter provides a thorough account of American slang down through the early decades of the 20th century yet scarcely a word on the proliferating youth subcultures that are a vibrant and inexhaustible source of slang in our own time. Bailey devotes only four pages to the worldwide dissemination of American English in modern times. What trends are currently discernible in American English? What about the oft-observed role of women as initiators of linguistic change (consider for example the intriguing question of the so-called "Valspeak" and "mallspeak" phenomena); the power of political events to impact the language in unforeseeable ways (Lakoff, 2000); the role of technology, the Internet, commercialism, and the media generally on U.S. English and therefore on English worldwide (Crystal, 2001)? We have Mufwene on African-American English, but nothing on Chicano English, surely a worthy object of study, or the English of numerous other minority groups whose demographics are changing the composition of American society. That the contemporary state of the language is less well understood than the past should not discourage historians of English from charting this territory. Expanding the volume with several more articles by experts already working in these areas would have been one solution, and if the resulting volume were larger and more unwieldy than anticipated, it would deservingly be so, given the comparative importance of North American English today.
A final issue is the mystifying absence of maps and illustrations. The series editor evidently has a reason, but it is a disservice to the reader, particularly with the emphasis on regional dialects and varieties in so many of the chapters. Maps and figures serve an important function in recent monographs on the subject (e.g., Wolfram and Schilling-Estes, 1998); their function should be hardly less important in an edited volume.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Algeo, John. (1992). "What is a Briticism?" In Old English and New: Studies in Language and Linguistics in Honor of Frederic G. Cassidy, ed. Joan H. Hall, Nick Doane, and Dick Ringler, 287- 304. New York: Garland.
Bailey, Richard W. (1982). "The English Language in Canada." In English as a World Language, ed. Richard W. Bailey and Manfred Goerlach, 134-76. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Barzun, Jacques. (1959). The House of Intellect. New York: Harper and Row.
Brown, Calvin S. (1889). "Dialectal Survivals in Tennessee." Modern Language Notes 4: 205-9.
Burchfield, Robert. (1989). Unlocking the English Language. London: Faber and Faber.
Carver, Craig M. (1987). American Regional Dialects: A Word Geography. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Craigie, William A., and James R. Hulbert. (1938-44). Dictionary of American English. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Crystal, David. (2001). Language and the Internet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dillard, Joey L. (1972). Black English: Its History and Usage in the United States. New York: Random House.
Dillard, Joey L. (1992). A History of American English. London: Longman.
Fasold, Ralph. (1981). "The Relationship between Black and White Speech in the South." American Speech 56: 163-89.
Fischer, David H. (1989). Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Fries, Charles C. (1927). The Teaching of the English Language. New York: Thomas Nelson.
Fromkin, Victoria, and Robert Rodman. (1998). An Introduction to Language, 6th ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.
Frost, William G. (1899). "Our Contemporary Ancestors." Atlantic Monthly 83: 311-19.
Krapp, George P. (1909). Modern English: Its Growth and Present Use. New York: Scribner's.
Krapp, George P. (1925). The English Language in America. 2 vols. New York: Century.
Kurath, Hans. (1949). A Word Geography of the Eastern United States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Kurath, Hans, and Raven I. McDavid, Jr. (1961). The Pronunciation of English in the Atlantic States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Labov, William. (1982). "Objectivity and Commitment in Linguistic Science: The Case of the Black English Trial in Ann Arbor." Language in Society 11: 165-201.
Lakoff, Robin T. (2000). The Language War. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Leith, Dick. (1997). A Social History of English, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.
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Marckwardt, Albert H. (1958). American English. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mathews, Mitford M. (1951). Dictionary of Americanisms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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McKnight, George H. (1925). "Conservatism in American Speech." American Speech 1: 1-17.
Mencken, Henry L. (1963). The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States. 4th edition. New York: Knopf.
Milroy, James. (1992). Linguistic Variation and Change: On the Historical Sociolinguistics of English. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell.
Morris, William, ed. (1969). The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. New York: American Heritage; Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
National Council of Teachers of English, Commission on the English Curriculum. (1952). The English Language Arts. NCTE Curriculum Series, no. 1. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Nunberg, Geoffrey. (1982). "English and Good English." In The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd college ed., ed. William Morris, 34-6. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Pinker, Steven. (1994). The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: Morrow.
Pyles, Thomas, and John Algeo. (1993). The Origins and Development of the English Language, 4th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Stewart, William A. (1974). "Acculturative Processes and the Language of the American Negro." In Language and Its Social Setting, ed. William W. Gage, 1-46. Washington, DC: Anthropological Society of Washington.
Webster, Noah. (1789). Dissertations on the English Language. Boston: Isaiah Thomas. Reprint, English Linguistics 1500-1800, no. 54. Menston, Yorks.: Scolar, 1967.
Wentworth, Harold, and Stuart B. Flexner. (1975). Dictionary of American Slang. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell.
Wilson, Charles M. (1929). "Elizabethan America." Atlantic 144: 238-44.
Winford, Donald. (1993). "Back to the Past: The BEV/Creole Connection Revisited." Language Variation and Change 4: 311-57.
Wolfram, Walt, and Natalie Schilling-Estes. (1998). American English: Dialects and Variation. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER David Cahill's research areas are the history of the English language, English Renaissance literature, the history and theory of rhetoric, Chinese language and rhetoric, the sociolinguistics of English in China, and second-language writing.