Cultural Anthropology

The Cultural History of American English French Dutch Spanish Algonquin



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It is interesting to note that two thirds of the people whose native language is English reside in the United States. Also of interest is that the U.S. does not have a 'national' language, and yet English is the most commonly used language. It's use is attributed to the first British colonists to settle the East Coast, even though French, Spanish, Dutch, German, Swedish, Russian, Scotch, Gaelic, Welsh, Norwegian, as well as a number of Native American languages were spoke here at the same time.

It seems though to listen to both an American and a Brit speaking English, one has to admit there are sometimes startling differences, almost as if the one language has morphed into two. Where the British drive lorries, the Americans drive trucks. The American car has a hood and trunk where the British automobile has a bonnet and boot. Americans wear boots on their feet, whereas the British wear wellingtons. Americans take vacations and Brits take holidays. Americans ride elevators and Brits ride lifts. The differences in words go on and on. There also seems to be a slight change in pronunciation of some words. Americans say schedule, making the first three letters sound like 'sk', whereas the British pronounce the word using an 'sh' sound. American say aluminum, giving the primary accent to the last syllable whereas the British give the primary accent to the second syllable, and a secondary accent to the next syllable. Again, these aren't the only words affected.

Changes began the moment newly arrived British settlers came in contact with the Native people. The words opossum, raccoon, squash and moose came to us from the Algonquin, which was widely spoken in the East and in the Midwest by the Native Americas. They also added words like wigwam and moccasins.

Those first English settlers came here in the early 1600's. At that time the Dutch had settled in New York. They added words like cookie, cruller, stoop and pit Ilike in the center of a piece of fruit) to the language. French trappers roamed the East Coast and the Midwest, catching wild animals and trading with the Indians. They came into contact with British settlers almost immediately. Words like levee, portage and gopher are thought to come from them, where as words like stevedore, barbecue and rodeo came from the Spanish. The British bordered their territory in the South.

The English themselves drew up little used English words and redefined them to describe topographical features of the American landscape. Words like bottom land, snag, slough, timberline, bluff, neck, watershed, riffle, rapids, trail and divide are a few. The British also took the word corn, which designated any cereal grain to exclusively mean the vegetable the Natives referred to a maze. The word barn represented a building in England where grain was stored. In America it came to mean a place where animals were kept as well.

A wealth of words were created to fit new experiences. After the Revolution, we suddenly had words like gubernatorial and primary election. Our political system has given rise to phrases like lame duck, gerrymandering, exit polls, filibusters and pork belly. As the West opened up to settlement after the War of 1812, we picked up more Spanish words, including buckaroo, ranch, lasso, plaza, etc. After the Civil War we had carpetbaggers. Cowboys taught us about bad men, mavericks and Boot Hill, while the California Gold Rush taught us about hitting pay dirt, and striking it rich.

Changes didn't end there. Capitalism gave us railroading and any manner of transportation words. We have freeways, public transportation, parking lots and overpasses. New housing gave us condominiums, split levels, mobile homes and townhouses. We also picked up new professions. There were morticians, patrolmen, busboys and senior citizens. We had blue and white collar workers, and now we have pink collar workers whose goal it is to break the glass ceiling.

Sports and recreation added a number for words. From poker we learned about having cards up our sleeves and an ace in the hole. We anti up and we lay our cards on the table. We strike out in baseball, and we hit home runs, too. We warm up in the bullpen and we are benched when we fall ill or screw up.

It seems that every new aspect of life changes our language. Some words pass into antiquity while others become the norm. Teenagers take McJobs, and new home buyers bought McMansions. Both words were added because of McDonalds Hamburgers. This year The American Collegiate Dictionary added the word 'Teapartier', referring to the protesters attending this summer's town hall meetings with Senators and Representatives. They retired the phrase information highway as it has fallen into disuse. With the Internet, we have e-mail, spam and a new meaning for the word boot.

Television has become a major influence on the language. Not only has it added phrases like sitcom, or situation comedies, talk shows, newscasts and reality shows, but because of nationally broadcast shows, the profusion of local dialects are slipping away. Accents are becoming less pronounced, and region specific words are falling into disuse. According to sociologists, the only portion of the Country that seems to staying true to the original accent is on the East Coast where the English settlers first landed.

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