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Review of  Speaking American

Reviewer: Jessie Sams
Book Title: Speaking American
Book Author: Richard W. Bailey
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 27.2098

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Typically, books that focus on the history of the English language are wider in scope and investigate language change from pre-English through historical stages, which are often divided into Old, Middle, and Modern English (e.g., Mugglestone 2012, Algeo 2010, Freeborn 2006). Within the Modern English section, the author might devote a chapter or section to the innovation and spread of American English, perhaps briefly discussing the differences between British and American English (e.g., Baugh and Cable 2013). However, Richard W. Bailey, the author of “Speaking American: A history of English in the United States,” narrows his focus to four centuries (roughly 1600-2000) and solely discusses the history of the English language as it pertains to American English. In the preface, Bailey writes that his book “tells the history of [American English] from the perspective of eight centers of influence, all of which have affected the present shape of the language” (xvi) and, in the introduction, he mentions that the larger theme running through the content is America’s “search for authority” (7). The content, language, and style used throughout the book indicate that the book is intended for a general audience. The book is organized into nine chapters: an introductory chapter followed by eight chapters that focus on the eight “centers of influence” (xvi) of American English in 50-year increments. In other words, each of those eight primary chapters focuses on a particular location within a specific 50-year time frame, so that the book is organized both chronologically and geographically. Those chapters are followed by a brief epilogue, references, and index.

Chapter 1, “Introduction,” justifies the book’s content and organization; Bailey’s framework is heavily influenced by the work and ideas of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French historian who wrote about his visit to America in the early 1800s and his views on the American people. Tocqueville noticed drastic differences between American and European societies, and Bailey summarizes a main point of Tocqueville’s work that affects both American society and language: “Americans constantly yearned for change; they would not stay put” (6). Bailey also draws a divide between aristocratic and democratic languages, writing, “Aristocratic languages yearned for precision and stability, democratic ones for exuberance and innovation” (7). Throughout the book, he returns to the idea that American English is a democratic language; however, he does not limit his focus to language. In fact, this work is as much a book about the ideology of the American people as it is a book about language. He highlights how “[r]apid social change, restless movement of population, thirst for innovation, and struggles with issues of diversity and instability have all characterized our settlement history from the beginning” (15). He continues those introductory thoughts in Chapter 2, “Chesapeake Bay, before 1650,” which sets the stage for the multiple stories of American English that will follow in subsequent chapters. The main theme of the second chapter is how immigration and language contact led to blurred lines of social stratification (one of the first major impacts of separating American from European society).

Chapter 3, “Boston, 1650-1700,” and Chapter 4, “Charleston, 1700-1750,” discuss how the overlap of social classes led to a search for new social stratification. In Boston, the rise of literacy led to an increase in documentation, showing how language could be used to wield power, especially in court cases. Thus, the power belonged to the literate. On the other hand, Charleston’s residents in the early 1700s were isolated from other English-speaking communities in the state and maintained its ties to England, leading to a community that strove to conserve English’s aristocratic society. However, “[w]ith the economic decline of the city…, the speech of the elite was increasingly recognized as eccentric and hardly worthy of imitation” (71). And so, the search for authority continued, with a focus on those communities that offered diversity.

The next two chapters, “Philadelphia, 1750-1800” and “New Orleans, 1800-1850,” showcase the roles of diversity and language contact in the shaping of American English. Philadelphia became an influential center for the American people as its residents led the revolt against British rule and became a center of American independence. Although American culture became characterized by cultural diversity, its language was, surprisingly, uniform when compared to the English in Britain. New Orleans, another center of diversity, was described as the “most compactly multilingual place in the country” (100) with no “single cultural identity” (119) and a “hotbed of linguistic change” (109). The influence of New Orleans dwindled, though, when it lost its status as a major port.

The uniformity of American English is integral to Chapter 7, “New York, 1850-1900,” and Chapter 8, “Chicago, 1900-1950,” where there was a great deal of population growth, cultural diversity, and scientific innovation. In these cities, young people and gangs began to more heavily influence the language. Though New York and Chicago dominated other cities in size and wealth, their language was not necessarily emulated; in fact, their dialects were often “despised and scorned” (137) and people looked to grammar guides and dictionaries to standardize their language.

Still searching for a linguistic authority, speakers turned their attention to California, where “what was forbidden elsewhere … was tolerated” (163); the final chapter, “Los Angeles, 1950-2000,” demonstrates the “power of the entertainment industry” (170) in the shaping of American English. The one-page epilogue that follows that chapter suggests that the search for authority continues and the locus of the next major language movement will not be specific to a geographic area but will instead be influenced by media and the Internet.


Bailey successfully provides a history of American English through the eight cities described, and anyone with an interest in language, history, and/or American society will be able to read and enjoy the book. He appeals to a wide audience by avoiding the use of highly academic terms and goes to great lengths to explain language features. For example, when writing about sounds specific to dialects, rather than relying solely on IPA, he provides example words to demonstrate how those sounds are pronounced. He takes an honest approach to historical events and injects humor in unexpected places to keep readers engaged. For instance, when discussing the colony at Chesapeake Bay, he writes, “The colonists thought [Namontacke] was a spy for Powhatan, and he likely was one. It was not necessarily a bad thing for Powhatan to discover that the English were improvident and incompetent” (20). In the Charleston chapter, he describes why the English spoken in Charleston did not influence surrounding dialects: “Charleston was left elegant, genteel, and poor” (69).

On the whole, the book is well-written and very thoroughly researched; however, a couple oversights in information and organization may leave readers wanting more. While Bailey provides justification for the organization of the book, he does not include specific justification for how he selected those particular eight centers and time frames—information that could help the reader better understand the impact of those centers on language and the potential impact of other locations. Within the chapters, information is organized chronologically so that content that logically goes together becomes separated; for instance, Chapter 3, the focus shifts from legal actions and documents to King Philip’s war and then back to legal documents and pronunciation. However, even though the organization is at times a bit scattered, the chapters remain valuable resources due to their breadth of sources, topics, and specific examples.

The way in which Bailey highlights cities at their peak and then provides information about their subsequent fall from high cultural status provides readers with thought-provoking insights to American culture and migration.


Algeo, John. 2010. The Origins and Development of the English Language (6th ed.). Boston: Wadsworth.

Baugh, Albert C. and Thomas Cable. 2013. A History of the English Language (6th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Freeborn, Dennis. 2006. From Old English to Standard English: A Course Book in Variation across Time (3rd ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mugglestone, Lynda (Ed.). 2012. The Oxford History of English (Updated Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jessie Sams is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Stephen F. Austin State University. Her primary research interests include the interface of syntax and semantics, especially the intersection of the two within written English quotatives; history of the English language and English etymology; and constructed languages.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780190232603
Pages: 240
Prices: U.K. £ 12.99