Saturday, October 6, 2001

American English

The name America was coined in 1507 by a German map-maker. It was derived from the name of Italian navigator Americus Vespucius, who reached the New World seven years after Columbus. The term first referred to the entire Western hemisphere, its peoples, animals and plants, then to the British colonies, and later to the United States of America. As soon as British settlers arrived in America, a new variety of English took birth. The coming together of several British dialects in one place by itself was a unique situation that altered the sound and form of the English spoken in the New World. The relative isolation of American speech from British speech soon made the differences even greater. Lexicographer Samuel Johnson was the first to refer to this variety as ‘the American dialect’ and Noah Webster, the dean of American dictionary-makers, acknowledged it as ‘American English’. More recently, the terms Americanese and Americanism are also making their presence felt.

September 15, 2001
Foreigners, come to stay
September 1, 2001

Word clusters
August 18, 2001

In the same vein
August 4, 2001
The cyber family
July 21, 2001
Italian friends
July 7, 2001
Random words
June 23, 2001
Mortal practices, immortal words
June 9, 2001
Passage of words
May 26, 2001
Traces of the past
May 12, 2001
April 28, 2001
Lost origins
April 14, 2001
Words and society
March 31, 2001
Origin of expressions
March 17, 2001
Varied origins
March 3, 2001

Like other languages, American English has borrowed extensively from all the cultures and nationalities it has come in contact with. Apart from the usual amount of borrowing from French, German, Spanish and Dutch, one category of borrowing is of special interest. Of the hundreds of different languages once spoken by the native Indians of the USA, most were never recorded and have vanished without a trace. Only a few are now spoken and most of these are also likely to get extinct. But the words from most of these languages live on in American English, which is how loans are beneficial all-round. To mention a few words should be enough to demonstrate the utility of word borrowing: chipmunk, moose, raccoon, moccasin, pow-wow and wigwam.

All of us are familiar with the tales of adventure from the Wild West but we may not be aware that the language of the Wild West has left its unmistakable mark on American English. The words and phrases of western work and play have given some inimitable input: an ace up one’s sleeve, blue-chip, break even, deal, hit the jackpot, pass the buck, shoestring, renege and bluff.

The American is very fond of compounding words; that is, combining existing words to create a new word. Take a look at checkup, fallout, feedback, knockout, lockout, payoff, setup and workout and the propensity is clear. There is a free use of prefixes and suffixes as well. For instance, the adding of ‘de’ makes debunk, demote and demoralise, the adding of ‘ee’ makes escapee, draftee, trainee and addressee and the adding of ‘ette’ makes usherette, dinette and kitchenette. Liberties are frequently taken with grammatical categories to create new words by shifting the function of an existing word. Nouns are used as verbs: to audition, to author a book, to chair a meeting and to captain a team. Verbs are used as nouns: a big push, an athletic meet and a press release. Adjectives are used as nouns: briefs, casuals, formals and hopefuls.


On coming across something new, the language user begins to analyse it in known terms. This gives birth to many new compound words. A glow-worm is an insect shining like a diamond so it becomes kitmani. A root sweet as sugar is named shakkarkandi. At the sight of a bird busy knocking at wood with its beak is created kathphora.

This feature was published on September 29, 2001