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The Birth of American English

The use of a word or phrase unique to a historical period can add a memorable touch to a tour. Visitors are always interested to hear a word that is no longer in modem usage but reveals an aspect of early American culture. It not only brings visitors one step closer to the past, it also teaches them an important concept — that language, like history, is continually evolving and never stagnant or isolated.

Visitors come to museums and historic sites with various interests and sometimes limited knowledge of history. Language, however, is a common link between people. Learning that words used every day are the result of the life experiences of early Americans can be enjoyable and can provide insights into their culture and society.

“American-English,” as it would come to be known, was a rich mixture of ethnic terms and simple descriptive idioms that found their way into the English language. Immigrants who found themselves face-to-face with a strange world were at a loss for words to describe their new homeland. They encountered new plants, animals, foods, waterways, landscapes, and weather patterns. Many of these new discoveries did not have an English name, so colonists adapted the language to describe what they saw. Many of their creations are in use today.

A common method of identification was to give an object a short, descriptive name. A bird with blue feathers became a “bluebird.” A bird with an annoying chirp became a “mockingbird.” A bird whose wings made a humming sound while in flight became, of course, a “hummingbird.” The same descriptive method applies to the origin of “redbird,” “catbird,” “mudhen,” “groundhog,” “flying squirrel,” and “bedbug.” When a farmer or hunter came upon an evil, foul-smelling growth, he simply called it “stinkweed.” Watercourse descriptions such as “fork,” “branch,” and “run” had to be created since England lacked such waterways. Our present day sugar maple owes its name to colonial ingenuity; colonists called it a “sugar tree” because of the sap which, when boiled down, was transformed into a sweet-tasting liquid.

Colonists also incorporated words from other languages into their vocabulary. This should come as no surprise when viewing the extraordinary number of nations and languages represented in the colonies. There were more languages spoken on the North American continent in 1776 than at any other time since then.

The Dutch in New Amsterdam (later to become New York) gave the English language such words as “brief (letter). “yacht” (riverboat), and “spook” (ghost). Although the French presence along the Ohio River Valley ended with their defeat in the French and Indian War (1756- 1763), their influence can be seen in such words as “cafe” (barroom), “chowder” which was a modification of “chaudiere” (cauldron), and “gopher,” which comes from the French word used to describe the gopher’s living quarters — “gaufre” (honeycomb). The Spanish along the Florida frontier gave the colonists “el lagarto” (the lizard) which was later modified to “alligator.” They were also the first to use the term “negro” (black), an unusual word since it began as an adjective but was later adopted for use as a noun.

Contact with Native Americans through trade along the frontier provided another valuable source for new words. Colonists found it difficult to pronounce many native words so they simply modified them. “Arathkone” became “raccoon,” “isqoutersuash” was somewhat combined and shortened to “squash,” and “otcheck” evolved into “woodchuck.” Thin griddle cakes of corn meal were called “jonakin” by natives, but settlers preferred “johnny cakes.”

Unlike other ethnic groups that came to America en masse, Africans were unable to choose where they settled. This made it difficult, if not impossible, for those speaking a similar tribal language to stay together. Nonetheless, Africans added another unique dimension to American-English. Words such as “banjo,” “jazz,” and “okay” all originated in the languages of West Africa. And, the commonly used word “tote,” which means “to carry” in the Gullah language, first arrived in America in the early seventeenth century.

Regional dialects within American- English that developed during the colonial period can be identified in the different names colonists assigned to the same object. For example, the Spanish in the Florida territory used “puma” to describe any large cat-like creature, while Virginians preferred “mountain lion,” South Carolinians used “tiger,” and Pennsylvanians used “bobcat.” When considering a staple crop like com, colonists agreed the edible “kernels” were a part of the “corn cob,” but disagreed as to what to call the exterior part. Virginians called the exterior “shuck” whereas those in New England preferred “husk.” Other colonists simply referred to them as “trash.”

A free man who was hired and paid for his labor wanted to be called a “hired hand” to distinguish himself from an indentured servant — one who was “indentured” to work a number of years in exchange for passage to America. “Hired hand” was soon modified to “hand,” and these “hands” came to expect “room and board.” Indentured servants, usually white men and women, brought their regional dialects with them from Great Britain. In 1783, Noah Webster observed that “Every State in America and almost every town in each State, has some peculiarities in pronunciation which are equally erroneous and disagreeable to its neighbors …”

Since the first accounts of life in America began to arrive in London, English literary authorities were concerned about the influence of American dialect on the language. They viewed it as a ludicrous corruption of the King’s English. As early as 1712, Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, lamented about works that “… in an age or two shall hardly be understood without an interpreter.” During a trip to the colony of Georgia in 1735, Englishman Thomas Moore commented that the two-year old village of Savannah “… stands upon the flat of a Hill; the Bank of the River (which they in barbarous English called a “bluff) is steep …” In England, “bluff was originally an adjective describing the bows of a ship when showing almost a vertical front. In America, “bluff described a cliff or bank that resembled the bluff bow of a ship. Like the Spanish word “negro,” “bluff originated as an adjective but was adapted for use as a noun. British writers went so far as to exclude American idioms from their works, considering them crude and unworthy. Colonial records contain rich colloquialisms not found in English literature of the period. Moore’s reference to ” barbarous English” reflected British animosity toward the American dialect.

In the years immediately following the American Revolution, there was a widespread tendency to reject British influence in government as well as culture. A growing national pride fueled anti-British sentiment. Many national leaders realized America’s population and wealth would one day surpass England’s. Others believed America needed cultural independence to retain national solidarity. John Adams recommended an academy be establish by Congress for “correcting, improving, and ascertaining the English language.” He later wrote that “the population and commerce of America will force their language into general use.” In 1788, Dr. Benjamin Rush published “A Plan for a Federal University” to show his support for the American dialect, suggesting that “even modem English books should cease to be models of style in the United States.” That same year, the American Philological Society elected a young linguist named Noah Webster as their prime member. Although the Society lasted less than a year, Webster’s idealism provided the catalyst needed to preserve the ever-evolving American dialect.

Webster sought to standardize America’s language in order to preserve it for future generations. He also knew such work would establish recognition for “American” culture among the world’s cultures. In 1783, he published /I Grammatical Institute of the English Language … Part I: Containing a New and Accurate Standard of Pronunciation. This work became The American Spelling Book, the best-selling book in America next to the Bible. It taught children the proper use of “American-English” for generations and defined American language for the rest of the English-speaking world.

As America grew from infant settlements to a sovereign nation, colonists sought to express their discoveries in a strange new land. The American wilderness forced them to develop new ways to communicate their experiences. By combining Old World expressions, ethnic terms, and simple descriptive idioms, colonists developed a language unique to the world. Through the work of Noah Webster, we are able to share this distinctive language and contribute to its ever-evolving nature. These contributions enable us, as Americans, to understand our cultural heritage.

Kenneth D. Hartsoe is the Curator of Education at the High Point Museum in High Point, North Carolina. He received his B.A. in History from San Jose State University. Mr. Hartsoe’s article was submitted to both The Decent Educator and Early American Life Magazine, where it appeared first. It appears here, therefore, by permission of that magazine’s publisher, the Cowles History Group.

Hartsoe, Kenneth D. “The Birth of American English,” The Docent Educator 4.2 (Winter 1994-95): 16-17.

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