Germanic Languages

Germanic Languages, subfamily of the Indo-European languages consisting of around 58 languages. Germanic languages are spoken by more than 480 million people in Northern and Western Europe, North America, South Africa, and Australia. In their structure and evolution they fall into three branches:

1. East Germanic (extinct): the Gothic language and some other extinct languages. Substantial information survives only for Gothic.
2. North Germanic: West Scandinavian group includes—the Icelandic language, the Nynorsk Norwegian language, and Faroese; East Scandinavian group includes—the Danish language, Bokmål Norwegian, and the Swedish language.
3. West Germanic, the largest group in this category: English group—the English language and Scots (See also American English); Frisian group—the Frisian language; Low Saxon-Low Frankonian group-the Dutch Language, the Flemish Language, Low German (Plattdeutsch), and Afrikaans; High German group—the German language or High German, the Yiddish language, and others.

The Germanic languages are grouped together because of the similarities that exist between their phonology, grammar, and vocabulary, and because they are thought to have derived from one ancient language (Proto-Germanic). Their similarities can be attributed to the first Germanic sound shift, which occurred when the Germanic language separated from Indo-European (See Grimm’s Law; Verner’s Law).

In terms of unwritten regional dialects, the Scandinavian languages (North Germanic group) form a single speech area of high mutual intelligibility (except for Icelandic, which was long isolated and retains many archaisms), within which Danish has diverged the most. The West Germanic languages form another dialect continuum. In both areas, speech varies gradually from one village to the next, although over wide distances greater differences accumulate. Also, in both areas more than one literary norm arose, corresponding to political and historical divisions. These norms are what are usually meant by terms such as Swedish language. See also Runes.

Selected statistical data from Ethnologue: Languages of the World, SIL International.

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Deafness, most simply defined as an inability to hear. This definition, however, gives no real impression of how deafness affects function in society for the hearing-impaired person. The condition affects all age groups, and its consequences range from minor to severe. Profoundly deaf people have a hearing loss so severe that they cannot benefit from mechanical amplification, whereas hard-of-hearing people often can benefit, to varying degrees, from the use of such amplification.


Four types of hearing loss may be described. The first, conductive hearing loss, is caused by diseases or obstruction in the outer or middle ear and is not usually severe. Causes of conductive deafness include wax in the ears; infection of the external ear canal; perforated eardrum; glue ear with the loss of free movement of the ossicles (three small bones in the middle ear); otitis media (inflammation of the middle ear); a blockage in the Eustachian tube; and otosclerosis (hereditary form of deafness caused by bone growing into the space separating the middle and inner ear). A person with a conductive hearing loss can generally be helped by a hearing aid. Often conductive hearing losses can also be corrected through surgical or medical treatment. The second kind of deafness, sensorineural hearing loss or nerve deafness, results from damage to the sensory hair cells or the nerves of the inner ear and can range in severity from mild to profound deafness. Such loss occurs at certain sound frequencies more than others, resulting in distorted sound perceptions even when the sound level is amplified. Causes of sensorineural deafness include noise damage (acoustic trauma); ageing; Ménière’s disease; aminoglycoside antibiotics; certain diuretic drugs; aspirin; anti-malarial drugs; and acoustic nerve tumour. The third kind, mixed hearing loss, is caused by problems in both the outer or middle ear and the inner ear. Finally, central hearing loss is the result of damage to or impairment of the nerves of the central nervous system.

Deafness, in general, can be caused by illness or accident, or it may be inherited. Continuous or frequent exposure to sound levels above 85 decibels (dB), such as that produced by loud rock music (where dB can exceed 100 dB), can cause a progressive and eventually severe sensorineural hearing loss. A hearing aid may not help a person with a sensorineural loss.


Until the Middle Ages, most people believed that deaf people were incapable of learning language or of being educated in any way. By the 16th century, however, a few philosophers and educators began to reconsider the condition of deaf people. A Spanish Benedictine monk, Pedro de Ponce, is considered the first teacher of deaf students, and, in 1620, Juan Paulo Bonet, another Spaniard, wrote the first book on educating deaf people. The book contained a manual alphabet similar to the one used today.

During the 18th century, schools were established for deaf children in France by Abbé Charles Michel de l’Épée and, in Germany, by the educator Samuel Heinicke. The conflict that exists to this day as to whether deaf children should be educated by oral (lip-reading and speech) or manual (signs and finger spelling) methods dates from this time. The Abbé de l’Épée was a manualist and Heinicke an oralist; each knew of and studied the other’s methods.

Unless provided early with special training, people profoundly deaf from birth are incapable of learning to speak. Deafness from birth causes severe sensory deprivation, which can seriously affect a person’s intellectual capacity or ability to learn. A child who sustains a hearing loss early in life may lack the language stimulation experienced by children who can hear. The critical period for neurological plasticity is up to age seven. Failure of acoustic sensory input during this period results in failure of formation of synaptic connections and, possibly, an irremediable situation for the child. A delay in learning language may cause a deaf child’s academic progress to be slower than that of hearing children. The academic lag tends to be cumulative, so that a deaf adolescent may be four or more academic years behind his or her hearing peers. Deaf children who receive early language stimulation through sign language, however, generally achieve academically alongside their hearing peers.


Increasingly, the philosophy of total communication is being followed in schools and classes for deaf children. This philosophy encourages the combined use of whatever communication methods are appropriate to the deaf child, including speech, lip-reading, signing, Cued Speech, finger spelling, art, electronic media, mime, gesture, and reading and writing. Finger spelling is a system in which hand shapes and positions correspond to the letters of the written alphabet so that fingerspelling can be called “writing in the air”. Sign language (SL) is a language based on gestures, lip and eyebrow movements, and grammatical rules. Most countries have their own sign language, each as different as the languages spoken by the hearing is, and many with different dialects. Probably the most widely used are American Sign Language (ASL), which has no grammatical similarities with the English language whatsoever and takes a lot of its vocabulary from Old French Sign Language. British Sign Language (BSL) is used in the United Kingdom, Indian Sign Language in India, New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) in New Zealand, and so on (see Sign Language).

The signs in SL are word-like units with both concrete and abstract meanings. Signs are made by either one or both hands, which assume distinctive shapes and movements. Spatial relations, directions, and orientation of the hand movements, as well as facial expressions and body movement, make up the grammar of SL. A number of invented (that is, not native languages) manual communication systems use the sign vocabulary of SL in combination with other hand movements to approximate the syntax and grammar of Standard English (see Paget-Gorman Sign System). Cued Speech is a system in which eight hand movements indicate the pronunciation of every syllable being spoken. It is a speech-based method that supplements lip-reading. Oral communication is the term used by educators to denote the teaching of speech as an expressive skill to deaf children. It means that speech and lip-reading are the only means of communication used for the transmission of thoughts and ideas.


Increasing numbers of deaf students are pursuing post-secondary educational programmes at tertiary education establishments that have special provisions and programmes for deaf students.

Today deaf people are employed in almost every vocation, except those where the good hearing is an obvious requirement—for example, being a commercial pilot. Deaf people are doctors, lawyers, teachers, and members of the clergy, as well as secretaries, accountants, chemists, farmers, and labourers. Discrimination does exist, as it does for other minority groups, but employers are increasingly hiring deaf people and making adjustments for them, such as adding special telephone devices or providing secretary-interpreters or other aids that enable the deaf employee to function effectively in work.




Phonetics, a branch of linguistics concerned with the production, transmission, and perception of speech sounds. The main field of study is articulatory phonetics but other fields are experimental phonetics and acoustic phonetics. Basic phonetic principles are often applied to other linguistics disciplines, including sociolinguistics (for example, when variations in pronunciation according to social motivations are studied) and historical linguistics (for example, when pronunciation changes are investigated).


This describes speech sounds genetical, that is, with respect to the ways by which the vocal organs modify the air stream in the mouth, nose, and throat in order to produce a sound. Articulatory phonetics usually takes into account the following factors when describing a sound: air flow, vocal cords, the position of the soft palate, place of articulation, the manner of articulation, the position of the lips. All the vocal activities involved in a sound need not be described, but only a selection of them, such as the place and manner of articulation. Sounds are represented by phonetic symbols and their articulatory definitions. These are abbreviated descriptions of the selected activities taking place during the production of a certain sound. The symbols most commonly used are those adopted by the International Phonetic Association (IPA) and they are written in square brackets “[k]” (phonemic symbols are written between oblique strokes “/k/”). Diacritics can be added to denote, for example, place of articulation.

The organs of articulation are either movable or stationary. Movable organs such as lips, jaws, tongue, soft palate, or vocal cords are called articulators. Stationary parts include the teeth, the alveolar arch and behind them, the hard palate.

A Air Flow

During the production of a sound, the flow of air (in or out of the lungs) determines the type of sound produced. Most speech sounds are made using pulmonic egressive air (air flowing out of the lungs). However, some languages use sounds that do not involve pulmonic (lung) air. These include the click sounds of the Khoisan languages, and glottalic sounds (where the glottis controls the air flow) common in African and Native American languages.

B Vocal Cords

A sound is also affected by the action of the vocal cords, which can vibrate (or not) during sound production. The vocal cords are located in the larynx. A sound is labelled voiced if the vocal cords are vibrating, and unvoiced or voiceless when the absence of vibration (where the cords stay in an open position) is noted. The contrast between a voiced and voiceless sound can be seen in the difference between [b] and [p]. Another action in the vocal cord area is that of a closed glottis (the vocal cords are tightly closed), used in the production of a glottal stop (as in, for example, the “dropped” [t] sound in Cockney English butter).

C Soft Palate

The position of the soft palate (or velum) during the production of a sound determines whether that sound is nasal or oral. When the soft palate is lowered the air is allowed to pass through the nose thus producing a nasal sound (as in English [n]). If the soft palate is raised the air flows out through the mouth, producing an oral sound (as in most English consonants and all English vowels). Air can also flow out through both the nasal and oral cavities when the velum is lowered. This is done during the production of nasal vowels as in the vowel in French bon.

D Place of Articulation

The lips, teeth and hard palate are all places of articulation: the point at which a sound is produced. Sounds made by touching two articulators, for example, the bilabial [p], which requires both lips, or those made by an articulator and a stationary part of the vocal apparatus, are named according to the organs that make the juncture. Reference to the tongue, when it is an articulator, is not expressed; for example, the [t] sound, which is produced when the tongue touches the alveolar ridge, is called alveolar because this is the place of articulation. The hard palate is the place of articulation in the palatal semivowel sound [j], as in the first sound of English yes.

E Manner of Articulation

The manner of articulation is determined by the way in which the speaker affects the air stream with his or her movable organs. This action may consist of stopping the air completely (plosive, for example, [p]); making contact with the tongue but leaving space on either side of it (lateral, for example, [l]); making merely a momentary light contact (flap, as in the Spanish “r” in pero); leaving just enough space to allow a continuing stream of air to produce friction as it passes through (fricative, for example, [f] or [s]); or permitting the air stream to pass over the centre of the tongue without oral friction (vocal: all vowel sounds).

Vowels of different quality are produced by varying the position of the tongue on its vertical axis (high, mid, low) and on its horizontal axis (front, central, back). The speaker may move the tongue gradually upwards and to the front or upwards and to the back, making diphthongal off-glides. For example, a speaker moves the tongue from low to high in pronouncing the first two vowels of Aïda, and from back to front in pronouncing successively the vowel sounds in “who” and “he”. The tongue positions for the vowel sounds [i:] (as in flee), [a] (as in northern UK English cat), [u:] (as in root), and [ ] (as in pot) are the highest and lowest cardinal points on the left and right of the Cardinal Vowel system quadrangle, a framework of vowels at fixed points that can be used as a starting point to determine where an individual speaker’s vowel sounds lie. The vowel sound is known as schwa (as in the first vowel sound in English ago) has the most central position.

When the speaker gives a strong puff of air after the contact, this is called aspiration. If the hand is placed on the lips, aspiration may be observed in the [ph] sound produced at the beginning of the word pie in English (note that a superscript h is used to represent the quality of aspiration when transcribing sounds). In contrast, French [p] sounds characteristically lack aspiration.

F Position of the Lips

The position of the lips is used to describe some sounds, particularly vowels. The quality of a vowel depends on whether the speaker keeps the lips rounded or unrounded and the degree to which the lips are open or closed (using the jaw). The tip of the tongue can also affect vowel quality, as it can be flat or curled up (retroflex, as in some South Asian languages).


Also referred to as Instrumental Phonetics, this is the physical science that collects measurable data about the production of vocal sounds by recording and analysing speech and vocal organs using instruments such as the kymograph, which traces curves of pressure; the spectrograph, which analyses sound waves and represents them visually; the oscilloscope, which has a function similar to a spectrograph but is technologically more advanced; and the X-ray, which allows physiological study. The amount of detail in the measurement of vocal sounds is limited only by the precision of the instrument. Differences are found in every vocal sound.


This is the study of the physical properties of speech, that is, speech waves as the output of a resonator (the resonator being the vocal tract coupled with other sources). Sound waves are closer than articulations to the essence of communication, for the same auditory impression can be produced by a normal articulation and by an entirely different sound apparatus, like that of parrots. A spectrograph may be used to record significant characteristics of speech waves and to determine the effect of articulatory activities. Parts of this record of speech waves can be cut out experimentally and the rest played back as sound in order to determine which features suffice to identify the sounds of a language.


This is a study of the sounds of speech in their primary function, which is to make vocal signs that refer to different things sound different. It is the focus of the branch of linguistics called phonology, although phonetic analysis contributes to this study. The phonemes of a particular language are those minimal distinct units of sound that can distinguish meaning in that language. In English, the p sound is a phoneme because it is the smallest unit of sound that can make a difference of meaning if, for example, it replaces the initial sound of “bill”, “till”, or “dill”, making the word “pill”. The vowel sound of “pill” is also a phoneme because its distinctness in sound makes “pill”, which means one thing, sound different from “pal”, which means another. Two different sounds, reflecting distinct articulatory activities, may represent two phonemes in one language but only a single phoneme in another. Thus phonetic [r] and [l] are distinct phonemes in English, whereas these sounds represent a single phoneme in Japanese, just as [ph] and [p] in “pie” and “spy”, respectively, represent a single phoneme in English although these sounds are phonetically distinct.


Phonetics is one of the oldest branches of linguistics. The earliest contributions to phonetics were made more than 2,000 years ago by Sanskrit scholars such as the grammarian Panini, who dealt with articulation to keep the pronunciation of ancient rituals unchanged. The first phonetician of the modern world was the Dane J. Matthias, author of De Litteris (1586). The English mathematician John Wallis, who instructed deaf-mutes, was the first (1653) to classify vowels according to their place of articulation. The vowel triangle, the precursor to the quadrangle, was invented in 1781 by the German C. F. Hellwag. The Cardinal Vowel system was laid out by the British phonetician Daniel Jones. Ten years later, the Austrian mechanician Wolfgang von Kempelen invented the machine that produced speech sounds. The German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, who wrote Sensations of Tone (1863), inaugurated the study of acoustical phonetics; the Frenchman Abbé Jean Pierre Rousselot was a pioneer of experimental phonetics. Late in the 19th century, the theory of the phoneme was advanced by the Pole Jan Baudouin de Courtenay and the Swiss Ferdinand de Saussure. In the United States, the linguist Leonard Bloomfield and the anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir contributed greatly to phonetic theory. The linguist Roman Jakobson developed a theory of the universal characteristics of all phonemic systems.

See also Language.


English Language


English Language, chief medium of communication of people in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and numerous other countries. It is the official language of many nations in the Commonwealth of Nations and is widely understood and used in all of them. It is spoken in more parts of the world than any other language and by more people than any other tongue except Mandarin Chinese.

English belongs to the Anglo-Frisian group within the western branch of the Germanic languages, a subfamily of the Indo-European languages. It is related most closely to the Frisian language, to a lesser extent to Netherlandic (Dutch-Flemish) and the Low German (Plattdeutsch) dialects, and more distantly to Modern High German. Its parent, Proto-Indo-European, was spoken around 5,000 years ago by nomads who are thought to have roamed the south-eastern European plains.


The English vocabulary has increased greatly in more than 1,500 years of development. The most nearly complete dictionary of the language, the Oxford English Dictionary (13 vols., 1933), a revised edition of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (10 vols., 1884-1933; supplements), contains 500,000 words. It has been estimated, however, that the present English vocabulary consists of more than 1 million words, including slang and dialect expressions and scientific and technical terms, many of which only came into use in the middle of the 20th century. The latest edition of the New Oxford Dictionary of English was published in 1998, after 6 years’ revision by a team of 30 editors. The publication caused much controversy as it describes how people speak English today, rather than how prescriptivists believe English should be used. It contains over 2,000 new words, including such 1990s phenomena as Prozac, Tamagotchi, and eye candy; new guidelines for acceptable usage are also included, such as the non-sexist generic singular pronoun they.

The English vocabulary is more extensive than that of any other language in the world, although some other languages—Chinese, for example—have a word-building capacity equal to that of English. It is approximately half Germanic (Old English and Scandinavian) and half Italic or Romance (French and Latin) and extensive, constant borrowing from every major language, especially from Latin, Greek, French, and the Scandinavian languages, and from numerous minor languages, accounts for the great number of words in the English vocabulary. From Old English have come cardinal and ordinal numbers, personal pronouns, and numerous nouns and adjectives; from French have come intellectual and abstract terms, as well as terms of rank and status, such as duke, marquis, and baron. In addition, certain processes have led to the creation of many new words as well as to the establishment of patterns for further expansion. Among these processes are onomatopoeia, or the imitation of natural sounds, which has created such words as burp and clink; affixation, or the addition of prefixes and suffixes, either native, such as mis- and -ness, or borrowed, such as ex- and -ist; the combination of parts of words, such as in branch, composed of parts of breakfast and lunch; the free formation of compounds, such as bonehead and downpour; back formation, or the formation of words from previously existing words, the forms of which suggest that the later words were derived from the earlier ones—for example, to jell, formed from jelly; and functional change, or the use of one part of speech as if it were another, for example, the noun shower used as a verb, to shower. The processes that have probably added the largest number of words are affixation and especially functional change, which is facilitated by the peculiarities of English syntactical structure.


English is said to have one of the most difficult spelling systems in the world. The written representation of English is not phonetically exact for two main reasons. First, the spelling of words has changed to a lesser extent than their sounds; for example, the k in knife and the gh in right were formerly pronounced (see Middle English Period below). Second, certain spelling conventions acquired from foreign sources have been perpetuated; for example, during the 16th century the b was inserted in doubt (formerly spelled doute) on the authority of dubitare, the Latin source of the word. Outstanding examples of discrepancies between spelling and pronunciation are the six different pronunciations of ough, as in bough, cough, thorough, thought, through, and rough; the spellings are kept from a time when the gh represented a back fricative consonant that was pronounced in these words. Other obvious discrepancies are the 14 different spellings of the sh sound, for example, as in anxious, fission, fuchsia, and ocean.


Theoretically, the spelling of phonemes, the simplest sound elements used to distinguish one word from another, should indicate precisely the sound characteristics of the language. For example, in English, at contains two phonemes, mat three, and mast four. Very frequently, however, the spelling of English words does not conform to the number of phonemes. Enough, for example, which has four phonemes (enuf), is spelled with six letters, as is breath, which also has four phonemes (breθ) and six letters. See Phonetics.

The main vowel phonemes in English include those represented by the italicized letters in the following words: bit, beat, bet, bate, bat, but, botany, bought, boat, boot, book, and burr. These phonemes are distinguished from one another by the position of articulation in the mouth. Four vowel sounds, or complex nuclei, of English, are diphthongs formed by gliding from a low position of articulation to a higher one. These diphthongs are the i of bite (a glide from o of botany to ea of beat), the ou of bout (from o of botany to oo of boot), the oy of boy (from ou of bought to ea of beat), and the u of butte (from ea of beat to oo of boot). The exact starting point and ending point of the glide vary within the English-speaking world.


Other ways of differentiating meaning in English, apart from the pronunciation of distinct vowels and consonants, are stress, pitch, and juncture. Stress is the sound difference achieved by pronouncing one syllable more forcefully than another, for example, the difference between ‘record (noun) and re’cord (verb). Pitch is, for example, the difference between the pronunciation of John and John? Juncture or disjuncture of words causes such differences in sound as that created by the pronunciation of blackbird (one word) and black bird (two words). English employs four degrees of stress and four kinds of juncture for differentiating words and phrases.


Modern English is a relatively uninflected language. Nouns have separate endings only in the possessive case and the plural number. Verbs have both a strong conjugation—shown in older words—with internal vowel change, for example, sing, sang, sung, and a weak conjugation with dental suffixes indicating past tense, as in play, played. The latter is the predominant type. Only 66 verbs of the strong type are in use; newer verbs invariably follow the weak pattern. The third person singular has an -s ending, as in does. The structure of English verbs is thus fairly simple, compared with that of verbs in similar languages, and includes only a few other endings, such as -ing or -en; but verb structure does involve the use of numerous auxiliaries such as have, can, may, or must. Monosyllabic and some disyllabic adjectives are inflected for degree of comparison, such as larger or happiest; other adjectives express the same distinction by compounding with more and most. Pronouns, the most heavily inflected parts of speech in English, have objective case forms, such as me or her, in addition to the nominative (I, he, we) and possessive forms (my, his, hers, our).


Although many grammarians still cling to the Graeco-Latin tradition of dividing words into eight parts of speech, efforts have recently been made to reclassify English words on a different basis. The American linguist Charles Carpenter Fries, in his work The Structure of English (1952), divided most English words into four great form classes that generally correspond to the noun, verb, adjective, and adverb in the standard classification. He classified 154 other words as function words, or words that connect the main words of a sentence and show their relations to one another. In the standard classification, many of these function words are considered pronouns, prepositions, and conjunctions; others are considered adverbs, adjectives, or verbs.


Three main stages are usually recognized in the history of the development of the English language. Old English, known formerly as Anglo-Saxon, dates from ad 449 to 1066 or 1100. Middle English dates from 1066 or 1100 to 1450 or 1500. Modern English dates from about 1450 or 1500 and is subdivided into Early Modern English, from about 1500 to 1660, and Late Modern English, from about 1660 to the present time.

A Old English Period

Old English, a variant of West Germanic, was spoken by certain Germanic peoples (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) of the regions comprising present-day southern Denmark and northern Germany who invaded Britain in the 5th century ad; the Jutes were the first to arrive, in 449, according to tradition. Settling in Britain (the Jutes in Kent, southern Hampshire, and the Isle of Wight; the Saxons in the part of England south of the Thames; and the Angles in the rest of England as far north as the Firth of Forth), the invaders drove the indigenous Celtic-speaking peoples, notably the Britons, to the north and west. As time went on, Old English evolved further from the original Continental form, and regional dialects developed. The four major dialects recognized in Old English are Kentish, originally the dialect spoken by the Jutes; West Saxon, a branch of the dialect spoken by the Saxons; and Northumbrian and Mercian, subdivisions of the dialects spoken by the Angles. By the 9th century, partly through the influence of Alfred, king of the West Saxons and the first ruler of all England, West Saxon became prevalent in prose literature. The Latin works of St Augustine, St Gregory, and the Venerable Bede were translated, and the native poetry of Northumbria and Mercia were transcribed in the West Saxon dialect. A Mercian mixed dialect, however, was preserved for the greatest poetry, such as the anonymous 8th-century epic poem Beowulf and the contemporary elegiac poems.

Old English was an inflected language characterized by strong and weak verbs; a dual number for pronouns (for example, a form for “we two” as well as “we”), two different declensions of adjectives, four declensions of nouns, and grammatical distinctions of gender. These infections meant that word order was much freer than in the language today. There were two tenses: present-future and past. Although rich in word-building possibilities, Old English was sparse in vocabulary. It borrowed few proper nouns from the language of the conquered Celts, primarily those such as Aberdeen (“mouth of the Dee”) and Inchcape (“island cape”) that describe geographical features. Scholars believe that ten common nouns in Old English are of Celtic origin; among these are bannock, cart, down, and mattock. Although other Celtic words not preserved in literature may have been in use during the Old English period, most Modern English words of Celtic origin, that is, those derived from Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, or Irish, are comparatively recent borrowings.

The number of Latin words, many of them derived from the Greek, which was introduced during the Old English period has been estimated at 140. Typical of these words are the altar, mass, priest, psalm, temple, kitchen, palm, and pear. A few were probably introduced through the Celtic; others were brought to Britain by the Germanic invaders, who previously had come into contact with Roman culture. By far the largest number of Latin words was introduced as a result of the spread of Christianity. Such words included not only ecclesiastical terms but many others of less specialized significance.

About 40 Scandinavian (Old Norse) words were introduced into Old English by the Norsemen, or Vikings, who invaded Britain periodically from the late 8th century onwards. Introduced first were words pertaining to the sea and battle, but shortly after the initial invasions other words used in the Scandinavian social and administrative system—for example, the word law—entered the language, as well as the verb form are and such widely used words as taking, cut, both, ill, and ugly.

B Middle English Period

At the beginning of the Middle English period, which dates from the Norman Conquest of 1066, the language was still inflectional; at the end of the period, the relationship between the elements of the sentence depended basically on word order. As early as 1200 the three or four grammatical case forms of nouns in the singular had been reduced to two, and to denote the plural the noun ending -es had been adopted.

The declension of the noun was simplified further by dropping the final n from five cases of the fourth, or weak, declension; by neutralizing all vowel endings to e (sounded like the a in Modern English sofa), and by extending the masculine, nominative, and accusative plural ending -as, later neutralized also to -es, to other declensions and other cases. Only one example of a weak plural ending, oxen, survives in Modern English; kine and brethren are later formations. Several representatives of the Old English modification of the root vowel in the plural, such as man, men, and foot, feet, also survive.

With the levelling of inflections, the distinctions of grammatical gender in English were replaced by those of natural gender. During this period the dual number fell into disuse, and the dative and accusative of pronouns were reduced to a common form. Furthermore, the Scandinavian they, them were substituted for the original hie, hem of the third person plural, and who, which, and that acquired their present relative functions. The conjugation of verbs was simplified by the omission of endings and by the use of a common form of the singular and plural of the past tense of strong verbs.

In the early period of Middle English, a number of utilitarian words, such as egg, sky, sister, window, and get, came into the language from Old Norse. The Normans brought other additions to the vocabulary. Before 1250 about 900 new words had appeared in English, mainly words, such as baron, noble, and feast, that the Anglo-Saxon lower classes required in their dealings with the Norman-French nobility. Eventually, the Norman nobility and clergy, although they had learned English, introduced from the French words pertaining to the government, the Church, the army, and the fashions of the court, in addition to others proper to the arts, scholarship, and medicine. Another effect of the Norman Conquest was the use of Carolingian script and a change in spelling. Norman scribes write Old English y as u and ū as ou. Cw was changed to qu, hw to wh, and ht to ght.

Midland, the dialect of Middle English derived from the Mercian dialect of Old English, became important during the 14th century, when the counties in which it was spoken developed into centres of university, economic, and courtly life. East Midland, one of the subdivisions of Midland, had by that time become the speech of the entire metropolitan area of the capital, London, and probably had spread south of the River Thames into Kent and Surrey. The influence of East Midland was strengthened by its use in the government offices of London, by its literary dissemination in the works of the 14th-century poets Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and John Lydgate, and ultimately by its adoption for printed works by William Caxton. These and other circumstances gradually contributed to the direct development of the East Midland dialect into the Modern English language.

During the period of this linguistic transformation, the other Middle English dialects continued to exist, and dialects descending from them are still spoken in the 21st century. Lowland Scottish, for example, is a development of the Northern dialect.

C The Great Vowel Shift

The transition from Middle English to Modern English was marked by a major change in the pronunciation of vowels during the 15th and 16th centuries. This change, termed the Great Vowel Shift by the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen, consisted of a shift in the articulation of vowels with respect to the positions assumed by the tongue and the lips. The Great Vowel Shift changed the pronunciation of 18 of the 20 distinctive vowels and diphthongs of Middle English. Spelling, however, remained unchanged and was preserved from then on as a result of the advent of printing in England in about 1475, during the shift. (In general, Middle English orthography was much more phonetic than Modern English; all consonants, for example, were pronounced, whereas now letters such as the l preserved in walking are silent).

All long vowels, with the exception of /i:/ (pronounced in Middle English somewhat like ee in need) and /u:/ (pronounced in Middle English like oo in food), came to be pronounced with the jaw position one degree higher. Pronounced previously in the highest possible position, the /i:/ became diphthongized to “ah-ee”, and the /u:/ to “ee-oo”. The Great Vowel Shift, which is still in progress, caused the pronunciation in English of the letters a, e, i, o, and u to differ from that used in most other languages of Western Europe. The approximate date when words were borrowed from other languages can be ascertained by means of these and other sound changes. Thus it is known that the old French word dame was borrowed before the shift, since its vowel shifted with the Middle English /e:/ from a pronunciation like that of the vowel in calm to that of the vowel in name.

D Modern English Period

In the early part of the Modern English period the vocabulary was enlarged by the widespread use of one part of speech for another and by increased borrowings from other languages. The revival of interest in Latin and Greek during the Renaissance brought new words into English from those languages. Other words were introduced by English travellers and merchants after their return from journeys to continental Europe. From Italian came cameo, stanza, and violin; from Spanish and Portuguese, alligator, peccadillo, and sombrero. During its development, Modern English borrowed words from more than 50 different languages.

In the late 17th century and during the 18th century, certain important grammatical changes occurred. The formal rules of English grammar were established during that period. The pronoun it came into use, replacing the genitive form his, which was the only form used by the translators of the King James Bible (1611). The progressive tenses developed from the use of the participle as a noun preceded by the preposition on; the preposition gradually weakened to a and finally disappeared. Thereafter only the simple ing form of the verb remained in use. After the 18th century, this process of development culminated in the creation of the progressive passive form, for example, “The job is being done”.

The most important development begun during this period and continued without interruption throughout the 19th and 20th centuries concerned vocabulary. As a result of the colonial expansion, notably in North America but also in other areas of the world, many new words entered the English language. From the indigenous peoples of North America, the words raccoon and wigwam were borrowed; from Peru, llama, and quinine; from the Caribbean, barbecue and cannibal; from Africa, chimpanzee and zebra; from India, bandanna, curry, and punch; and from Australia, kangaroo and boomerang. In addition, thousands of scientific terms were developed to denote new concepts, discoveries, and inventions. Many of these terms, such as neutron, penicillin, and supersonic, were formed from Greek and Latin roots; others were borrowed from modern languages, as with blitzkrieg from German and sputnik from Russian.

E Present-Day English

In Great Britain there exists an accent that is not region-specific, known as Received Pronunciation (RP). A class dialect rather than a regional dialect (it used to be exclusively associated with the educated and rich), it is based on the type of speech cultivated at public schools and at such older universities as Oxford and Cambridge. Many English people who speak regional dialects in their childhood acquire Received Pronunciation while attending school and university. Its influence became even stronger in the recent past because of its use by public media such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (RP is also known as “BBC English”).

RP is not intrinsically superior to other varieties of English and is, itself, only one particular accent with its own system of phonological rules (just as, say, Scouse, which has an equally valid set of rules). RP is estimated to be spoken by less than 4 percent of the population of Great Britain.

Widely differing regional and local dialects are still employed in the various counties of Great Britain. Other important regional dialects have also developed; for example, the English language in Ireland has retained certain individual characteristics of pronunciation, such as the pronunciation of lave for leave and fluther for flutter; certain syntactical characteristics, such as the use of after following forms of the verb be; and certain differences in vocabulary, including the use of archaic words such as adown (for down) and Celtic borrowings such as banshee. The Lowland Scottish language, sometimes called Scots, first made known throughout the English-speaking world by the songs of the 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns, contains differences in pronunciation also, such as neebour (“neighbour”) and guid (“good”), and words of Scandinavian origin peculiar to the dialect, such as braw and bairn that have influenced the English spoken in Scotland. Australian English, with its marked diphthongization of vowels, also makes use of special words, retained from English regional dialect usages, or taken over from indigenous Australian terms.

F American English

An important development of English outside Great Britain occurred with the colonization of North America. American English may be considered to include the English spoken in Canada, although the Canadian variety retains some features of British pronunciation, spelling, and vocabulary. The most distinguishing differences between American English and British English are in pronunciation and vocabulary. There are slighter differences in spelling, pitch, and stress as well. Written American English also has a tendency to be more rigid in matters of grammar and syntax, but at the same time appears to be more tolerant of the use of neologisms. Despite these differences, it is often difficult to determine—apart from context—whether serious literary works have been written in Great Britain or the United States/Canada—or, for that matter, in Australia, New Zealand, or South Africa.

G English Around the World

Since the mid 20th century, the English language has become so widespread it is often considered the world language. The fast spread of English was facilitated by a number of factors, including the dominance of the United States as a world power and the remnants of British colonial power around the world. Nowadays, the English spoken around the world is quite different from that spoken in the UK where it originated, with many different varieties existing and evolving across the globe. The majority of World English speakers use English as a second or third language, and live in an environment where multilingualism is the norm, although English may be the official language. In many countries, including Singapore and Nigeria, English is the main language of instruction in schools (especially after primary education level) and is used in business and other official transactions. Just as UK English differs from US English, Indian English, Singaporean English, Nigerian English, and others are all varieties of English that have individual syntactic, lexical, and phonological systems, often influenced by the other languages in daily use. In fact some of these varieties are so distinct that some linguists suggest that they are separate, although related, languages.

H Basic English

A simplified form of the English language based on 850 keywords was developed in the late 1920s by the English psychologist Charles Kay Ogden and publicized by the English educator I. A. Richards. Known as Basic English, it was used mainly to teach English to non-English-speaking people and promoted as an international language. The complexities of English spelling and grammar, however, were major hindrances to the adoption of Basic English as a second language.

The fundamental principle of Basic English was that any idea, however complex, may be reduced to simple units of thought and expressed clearly by a limited number of everyday words. The 850-word primary vocabulary was composed of 600 nouns (representing things or events), 150 adjectives (for qualities and properties), and 100 general “operational” words, mainly verbs and prepositions. Almost all the words were in common use in English-speaking countries; more than 60 percent were one-syllable words. The abbreviated vocabulary was created in part by eliminating numerous synonyms and by extending the use of 18 “basic” verbs, such as make, get, do, have, and be. These verbs were generally combined with prepositions, such as up, among, under, in, and forward. For example, a Basic English student would use the expression “go up” instead of “ascend”.

I Pidgin English

English also enters into a number of simplified languages that arose among non-English-speaking peoples. Chinese Pidgin English, spoken in the Melanesian islands, New Guinea, Australia, the Philippines, and Hawaii and on the Asian shores of the Pacific Ocean, developed as a means of communication between Chinese and English traders. The Chinese adopted many English words and a few indispensable non-English words and created a means of discourse, using a simple grammatical apparatus. Chinook Jargon, used by a small number of Canadians and North Americans contains English, French, and Native American words; its grammatical structure is based on that of the Chinook language. West African Pidgin English (WAPE) is spoken in various West African countries (from Gambia to Cameroon). It is mutually intelligible across some of these countries and has become a creole in some areas. WAPE arose in the 16th century through contact between West Africans and English traders.


The influence of the mass media appears likely to result in a more standardized pronunciation, more uniform spelling, and eventually a spelling closer to actual pronunciation. Despite the likelihood of such standardization, a unique feature of the English language remains its tendency to grow and change. Despite the warnings of linguistic purists, new words are constantly being coined and usages modified to express new concepts—change is inherent in language so this is an infinite process that can never be halted. The vocabulary of the English language is constantly enriched by linguistic borrowings, particularly by cross-fertilizations from American English. Global media, the Internet, and ever-improving technology are just some of the reasons why English is fast becoming a world language, but as predictions about language are very difficult to make, this situation could easily change very quickly.





Communication, the process of transmitting and receiving ideas, information, and messages. The rapid transmission of information over long distances and ready access to information have become conspicuous and important features of human society, especially in the past 150 years, and in the past two decades, increasingly so.


Communication between two people is an outgrowth of methods developed over centuries of expression. Gestures, the development of language, and the necessity to engage in joint action all played a part.

A Communication Among Animals

Charles Darwin pointed up the importance of communication and expressiveness in biological survival. Recent studies have dealt with the range of animal communication. For example, when bees discover a source of nectar, they reveal its location to the other bees on returning to the hive. They communicate the distance to the source by means of a dance; the direction is indicated by the angle of the axis of the dance, and the amount of nectar by the vigorousness of the dance. Scientists have recorded and identified birdcalls for courting, mating, hunger, food bearing, territoriality, warning, and distress. Research into the behaviour of whales and dolphins has revealed that they have relatively elaborate vocal signals and that they communicate over long distances underwater. See Animal Behaviour.

B Language

The origin of language is subject to considerable speculation. Some words may be imitative of natural sounds. Others may have come from expressions of emotion, such as laughter or crying. Language, some theorists believe, is an outgrowth of group activities, such as working together or dancing. Another theory holds that language developed from basic sounds that accompanied gestures.

Although it is difficult to quantify the world’s languages, it is estimated that almost 7,000 are spoken in the world today, most of them grouped in families. As some languages grow, others decline and disappear. The changes in language reflect class, gender, profession, age group, and other social forces, such as the effects of technology on everyday life.

C Symbols and Alphabets

Early peoples sought the means by which to record language. They drew and painted on cave walls to convey messages and they used signs and symbols to designate tribe or ownership. As human knowledge expanded, writing became necessary in order to transmit information. The earliest writing was pictographic, with symbols representing objects. The first pictographic writing was cuneiform, by which wedge-shaped characters were inscribed with a stylus on a clay tablet. Cuneiform later developed ideographic elements; the symbol came to represent not only the object but also ideas and qualities associated with it.

Writing, however, continued to convey only the meaning, not the sound, of words. Eventually, cuneiform incorporated phonetic elements, that is, signs that represented certain sounds. Egyptian hieroglyphs underwent a similar development. This system progressed from pictograms to ideograms; it incorporated signs for consonants, but it never developed into an alphabet. The alphabet, invented in the Middle East, was carried by the Phoenicians to Greece, where vowel sounds were added to it. The Cyrillic alphabet was adapted from the Greek; the Latin alphabet developed in countries farther to the west where the Roman culture was dominant.


With the growth of civilization and the development of written languages came the need to communicate regularly at longer distances as well, so as to conduct the trade and other affairs of nations and empires.

A Paper and Printing

The Egyptians discovered that a kind of writing material could be made from strips of the stem of the papyrus plant. A later discovery was parchment, which was made by preparing both sides of a sheet of animal tissue for writing uses. Meanwhile, in China, about 105 ads, the method of papermaking was discovered. It took over 1,000 years for the technique to travel to Europe, and it came at a time when a great demand for books began to appear. In the middle of the 15th century, the German printer Johann Gutenberg used movable type for the first time in Europe to print the Bible. This technique expanded the opportunities for learning and led to radical changes in the way people lived. It contributed to the growth of individualism, the Reformation, rationalism, scientific inquiry, and regional literature that reflected the rise of nationalism. Newssheets called corantos began to appear in Europe in the 17th century. At first devoted to trade and other business news, they eventually developed into the first true newspapers and magazines providing the dissemination of current information to the public at large.

Printing techniques and applications developed rapidly in general over the next centuries, especially following the growth of steam power and its use for driving presses in the early 19th century and, somewhat later, the invention of typesetting machines. The first such device, called the Linotype, was patented in 1884 by the German-American Ottmar Mergenthaler; a wide range of increasingly rapid and large-scale printing techniques appeared in succeeding decades. By the late 20th century both typesetting and the printing process itself relied largely on computer technology (see also Desktop Publishing).

B Postal Services

Among the many kinds of communication services in ancient times, the most notable were the relay system of the Persian empire. People on horseback could transfer written messages at one relay station to fresh carriers who could then transport it to another station. From this system, the Romans developed their own system of posts (Latin, positus, the origin of the term “postal service”). Similar systems were also employed in the Far East.

Although the postal services of medieval Europe were largely privately owned, the rise of nationalism that followed the Renaissance also resulted in the growth of government-owned postal systems. Private operations had largely come to an end by the 17th and 18th centuries.

C Speedier Long-Distance Communication

Since their inception, modern postal systems have continued to develop along with the growth of railways, motor vehicles, aircraft, and other carriers; recent years have also seen the introduction of electronic mail services. Over the centuries, however, people have also sought means for communicating more rapidly over long distances than conventional modes of transport would allow. Early methods included drumbeats, fire, smoke signals, and instruments such as a ram’s horn. In time, bugle calls and drums came to play an important role in communicating military commands. During the Middle Ages, homing pigeons were used to transmit messages. In the early 1790s, Claude Chappe, a French scientist, and engineer, began the construction of a system of semaphore stations, a visual telegraph capable of sending a message many kilometres in a few minutes. Some of these tall towers, similar to later rail semaphore towers, were as far as 32 km (20 mi) apart. The system was copied in Britain and the United States. Such semaphore systems, which variously used telescopes and sun-reflecting mirrors, remained slow because each signal had to be repeated at each station to verify the accuracy of transmission.

D Telegraph

With the beginnings of a modern understanding of the phenomenon of electricity in the 18th century, inventors started to search for ways in which electrical signals might be employed for the rapid relay of messages over long distances. The first practical telegraph system, however, was not produced until the 19th century, when two such inventions were announced in the same year of 1837: one, in Britain, by Charles Wheatstone and William F. Cooke, and the other, in America, by Samuel F. B. Morse. Morse also developed the code system of dots and dashes—Morse code—that was universally adopted for the new medium. Morse code was in worldwide use until February 1, 1999, when it was replaced by the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, which uses satellite and terrestrial radio communication. Various refinements of telegraphy appeared in later decades. For example, in 1874 Thomas Edison developed quadruplex telegraphy, by which two messages could be transmitted simultaneously in two directions. Modern offshoots of telegraphy are seen in teletype, telex, and facsimile transmission.

E Telephone

Although telegraphy marked a great advance in rapid long-distance communication, early telegraph systems could convey messages only letter by letter. The search was therefore also on for some means of voice communication by electricity as well. Early devices that appeared in the 1850s and 1860s were capable of transmitting sound vibrations but not true human speech. The first person to patent the electric telephone in the modern sense was the American inventor Alexander Graham Bell, in 1876. At the same time, Edison was also in the process of finding a way to record and then reproduce sound waves, paving the way for the invention of the record player. By the late 20th century, such developments as transoceanic cable, fibre optics, and satellite technology had revolutionized the use of the telephone. Mobile telephones (see Cellular Radio) are increasingly in use.

F Radio

Early telegraph and telephone systems depended on the physical medium of wires for message transmission, but scientific developments indicated other possibilities. The theory of the electromagnetic nature of light was advanced by the British physicist James Clerk Maxwell in 1873 in his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. The theories of Maxwell were validated by the German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz. In 1887 Hertz discovered electromagnetic waves, thus laying the technical foundation for wireless telegraphy.

During the following decade, much experimentation was conducted with the sending of wireless signals. In 1896, the Italian inventor Marchese Guglielmo Marconi transmitted a wireless signal from Penarth to Weston-super-Mare in England, and in 1901 sent a wireless signal across the Atlantic Ocean, from Cornwall. The vacuum tube with two elements was invented by the British physicist John Ambrose Fleming in 1904. A valuable improvement was made a few years later by the American inventor Lee De Forest, who invented a three-element vacuum tube that provided the basis for many electronic devices. The first radio broadcast was made in 1906, in the United States. The first broadcast of opera, from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, was transmitted by De Forest in 1910. By 1920 several radio stations began transmitting in the United States, and by 1923 the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was transmitting in the United Kingdom; by 1925 there were 600 radio stations worldwide. Nowadays almost every home in Britain and other countries has a radio.

G Picture Communication

Early manuscripts were illuminated with intricately drawn pictures. In the late 15th century woodcuts for illustrations came into use in printed books. At the end of the 18th-century lithography was invented, permitting the mass reproduction of artwork. In 1826, using sensitized metal plates exposed for eight hours, the French physicist Joseph Nicéphore Niépce produced the world’s first photograph. Building on Niépce’s work, the French painter and inventor Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre discovered a chemical developing process that permitted a greatly reduced exposure time, producing the photograph known as the daguerreotype.

As the 19th century progressed, various methods were devised to give photographs and photography the illusion of motion. In 1891 Edison patented the kinetoscope, a machine for projecting moving pictures that he had first demonstrated in 1889. In 1895 the French chemist and industrialist Louis Jean Lumière and his brother Auguste Marie Lumière, also a chemist, demonstrated and patented the cinematography, which successfully projected moving pictures. In the late 1920s sound was added to films.

H Television

The system of transmitting moving images has many roots. One is the invention of a scanning disc by the German television pioneer Paul Gottlieb Nipkow in 1884. Another landmark in the development of television was the invention in 1923 by the Russian-American electronics engineer Vladimir Kosma Zworykin of the iconoscope for transmitting and the kinescope for receiving images over a distance. In 1926 John Logie Baird used this system to demonstrate the first electrical transmission of moving images. This stimulated further developments in the United States, Britain, and Germany. In Britain, the BBC began television broadcasts in 1927, using Baird’s system, and by 1937 had begun the world’s first high-quality public broadcasting service.

At the end of World War II, television captured the popular imagination in the United States. By the end of the 20th century, watching television was Britain’s most popular leisure activity, with 94 percent of households having a colour television; 98 percent of all American households have at least one television receiver. The advent of cable, satellite, and digital television have increased dramatically the number of channels and services available.

Television has expanded worldwide; the communications satellite makes possible the transmitting of programmes between continents and events can be shown simultaneously as they happen in most parts of the world. Closed-circuit television is used by banks to identify cheques, by airlines to present flight information, by doctors to study techniques used in operations, and in numerous other ways. The development of video recording has also revolutionized the capacity to store, retrieve, and transmit information.

I Computers

One of the most dramatic advances in communication potential—data communications—is found in the field of computer technology. Since the first development of the modern electronic digital computers in the 1940s, computerization has infiltrated almost every area of society in nations with advanced technology. Computers are available in many formats for use in industries, businesses, hospitals, schools, transport networks, and individual homes—and computer networks and auxiliary devices provide a means for people with the use of a personal computer for the rapid transmission of a wide range of data. Use of the Internet has revolutionized access to information for the business world, libraries, education, and individuals. Publishing is increasingly happening in electronic form (see Electronic Publishing).

J Laser Technology

The laser is also of great potential importance for the future of communications. Modulated beams of the coherent light produced by lasers can transmit a much larger number of messages at a time than can ordinary telephone systems. Prototype laser communications networks are already in operation, and they may eventually replace to a large degree the use of radio waves in telephony. Laser beams are also ideal for use in space for satellite communications systems.

K Communications and Education

Films on various subjects and other forms of audio-visual education can be a vital element in classroom instruction and audio-visual devices are used in many schools in developed industrial nations. These include pictures, posters, charts, models, mock-ups, slides, filmstrips, and videos. Tape recorders are used extensively in the teaching of languages.

Educational broadcasting has widened enormously access to education through such establishments as the Open University in Britain and School of the Air in Australia. Schools are increasingly linking into the Internet and incorporating the use of satellite data and CD-ROM technology. Rapid advances in computer technology are likely to have a dramatic impact on education (see Information Technology in Education and National Grid for Learning).

L Communications and Cultural Change

Historically, the means of communicating have grown alongside the increased power of people to shape their physical world as well as with their increasing interdependence. With the telecommunications and data communications revolutions has been the evolution of the world as a “global village”. The influence of the new communications media has increased the study of their effects. It is believed by some that the individual media tend to reinforce personal views rather than to convert people to other views, and by others that political conversion and influence, depending on who controls which medium of transmitting information, is prevalent. None the less, the changing communications media have proven to have long-term effects, which bring subtle but very important changes to views and perceptions of the audience.



American English


American English English spoken in the United States. It differs from English spoken elsewhere in the world not so much in particulars as in the total configuration. That is, the dialects of what is termed Standard American English share enough characteristics so that the language as a whole can be distinguished from Received Standard (British) English or, for example, Australian English. See English Language.

The differences in pronunciation and cadence between spoken American English and other varieties of the language are easily discernible. In the written form, however, despite minor differences in vocabulary, spelling, and syntax, and apart from context, it is often difficult to determine whether a work was written in England, the United States, or any other part of the English-speaking world.

The American lexicographer Noah Webster was among the first to recognize the growing divergence of American and British usages. His American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) marked this difference with its inclusion of many new American words, indigenous meanings attached to old words, changes in pronunciation, and a series of spelling reforms that he devised (-er instead of British -re, -or to replace -our, check instead of cheque). Webster went so far as to predict that the American language would one day become a distinct language. Some later commentators, notably H.L.Mencken, compiler of The American Language (3 vols., 1936-1948), have also argued that it is a separate language, but most authorities today agree that it is a dialect of British English.


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the study of American English was concerned mainly with identifying Americanisms and giving the etymologies of Americanisms in the vocabulary: words borrowed from Native American languages (mugwump, caucus); words retained after having been given up in Great Britain (bug, to mean insects in general rather than bedbug specifically, as in Great Britain); or words that developed a new significance in the New World (corn, to designate what the British call maize, rather than grain in general). Large numbers of American terms (elevator, truck, hood [of an car], windshield, garbage collector, drugstore) were shown to differ from their British counterparts (respectively: lift, lorry, bonnet, windscreen, dustman, chemist’s). Such lexical differences between Standard American and British English still exist; but as a result of modern communications, speakers of English everywhere have little trouble in understanding one another. More recently, linguistic researchers have turned their attention to the study of variation patterns in American English and to the social and historical sources of these patterns.

A Regional Dialects

Regionally oriented research before 1940 distinguished three main regional dialects of Standard American English, each of which has several subdialects. The Northern (or New England) dialect is spoken in New England and New York State; one of its subdialects is the “New Yorkese” of New York (city). The Midland (or General American) dialect is heard along the coast from New Jersey to Delaware, with variants spoken in an area bounded by the Upper Ohio Valley, West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and eastern Tennessee. The Southern dialect, with its varieties, is spoken from Delaware to South Carolina. From their respective focal points these dialects, according to this theory, have spread and mingled across the rest of the country.

B Social/Cultural Dialects and Languages

Social/cultural dialects vary both the vocabulary and grammar of Standard American English and are not always intelligible to speakers of the standard language, so are often classed as languages in their own right. Sea Island English Creole (Gullah) is a contact language, or creole, spoken by blacks in the Georgia-South Carolina low country, but also as far away as south-east Texas. Gullah, combining 17th- and 18th-century Black English and several West African languages, has given to American English such words as goober (peanut), gumbo (okra), and voodoo. It is the language used in the novel Porgy (1925) by the American writer DuBose Heyward. “Me beena shum” (I was seeing him/her/it) is barely intelligible to a speaker of Standard American English, and almost all Gullah speakers shift to more standard usage when conversing with outsiders.

Pennsylvania German, another distinguishable American language, is a mixture of several German dialects (from German settlers in Pennsylvania) with English. In this language such a construction as “He may come back bothsides, ain’t?” (He might come back on either side, mightn’t he?) is possible. Most Pennsylvania German speakers are bilingual with Standard American English.

C (American) Black English

There are a number of varieties of (American) Black English (a controversial term for the English spoken by Americans of African origin, also called BEV (Black English Vernacular), AAVE (African-American Vernacular English, or, more recently, Ebonics). Black English is normally categorized as a (social, rather than geographical) dialect of English, though some refer to it as a separate language altogether. Black English developed over several hundred years from the languages of late 16th-century African slaves and the pidgins and creoles that developed as a consequence of slavery. Black English varies with Standard American English in that it has different intonation and a distinct phonological, syntactic, and morphological system. It has such locutions as “He busy” (He is busy) as opposed to “He be busy” (He is busy indefinitely) and “She been said that” to express action markedly in the past (She had said that).

In the 1960s Black English became a topic of linguistic controversy in educational circles because of misconceptions about its supposed deficiencies, which led to poor performance in schools among Black English speakers. It became the subject of legislative action (along with other languages) under the Bilingual Education Act (1968), which promoted equal educational opportunity for children whose first language was not English, through bilingual pedagogy in schools. However, this act expired in January 2002, to be replaced by “No Child Left Behind” school reform policies, in which the teaching of English is central and little funding is allotted for bilingual education.

Black English has made its own rich contributions to American English vocabulary, especially through jazz—from the word jazz itself, to such terms as nitty-gritty, uptight, bad (to mean good), and O.K. The last, now thought to be of African origin, is also the Americanism most widely diffused throughout the world.


English commentators in the 18th century noted the “astounding uniformity” of the language spoken in the American colonies, excepting the language spoken by the slaves. (Subvarieties of English, however, were spoken by Native Americans and other non-British groups.) The reason for this uniformity is that the first colonists came not as regional but as social groups, from all parts of England, so that dialect levelling was the dominant force.

A Grammatical Formality

Against this background of uniformity, deviations from Standard American English have frequently met with disapproval from those who promulgate “correct” English. Grammatical formality is the most notable feature of Standard American English, and particular stigma is attached to the use of non-standard verb forms. Rigidity in grammar and syntax in written Standard American English is greater than in British English in part because large numbers of immigrants acquired English as a second language according to formal rules. Also, social mobility in the United States has produced certain anxieties and confusion about “correct” usage as an indication of status. What is considered Standard American English is today spoken for business and professional purposes by people in all parts of the country, many of whom speak very differently in private. In writing, however, many feel constrained to use formal, Latinate locutions even when addressing close friends.

B Regional Variations

In earlier times, the dialect of New England, with its British form of pronunciation (ah for a in path, dance; loss of the r sound in barn, park), was considered prestigious, but such pronunciations failed to inspire nationwide emulation and in fact, a pioneering study by William Labov, an American linguist, showed that the r sound in words like barn is the variant considered prestigious by New Yorkers. Indeed, no single regional characteristic has ever been able to dominate the language. (One of the reasons that some linguists define Black English as a language rather than a dialect is that its vocabulary, pronunciation, and syntax are similar in all parts of the country, rural and urban.)

Today, the concept of so-called Network Standard, promoted by radio and television, provokes some argument from dialectologists, who champion diversity and richness of speech; but regional variations have by no means been obliterated. The Midland (or General American) distinct r sound persists (car), and even educated speakers in the South do not differentiate pen from pin.

C Growth of the American Vocabulary

The uniformity of the English spoken by the British colonists up to about 1780 was soon disrupted by non-English influences. First, many Native American words were taken over directly to describe indigenous flora and fauna (sassafras, raccoon), food (hominy), ceremonies (powwow), and, of course, geographical names (Massachusetts, Susquehanna). Phrasal compounds, translated or adapted from the Native American, were also added to English: warpath, peace pipe, bury the hatchet, fire water. Other borrowings came in time from the Dutch (boss, poppycock, spook), German (liverwurst, noodle, coleslaw, semester), French (levee, chowder, prairie), Spanish (hoosegow, from juzgado, “courtroom”; mesa, ranch[o]; tortilla), or Finnish (sauna).

Other modifications in vocabulary came about presumably because of lack of education or because of confusion on the part of explorers and settlers who applied incorrect names to things encountered in the New World—for example, partridge, used indiscriminately for quail, grouse, or other game birds, and buffalo, applied to the American bison.

American English vocabulary has been and still is enriched with jargon, terms coming from trades and professions. The social sciences, law, and the academic disciplines in particular are accused of contributing gobbledygook (an Americanism referring to verbal obfuscation). Slang, argot, and even certain euphemisms have also been a constant source of language enrichment, although some terms die out before they are admitted to the standard vocabulary. In the 19th century prudishness influenced the language; legs were called “limbs”, and pregnant “in the family way”. Similarly, in the 20th century, Americans, in their reluctance to confront reality, coined such euphemisms as “senior citizen” or “golden ager” for old people and “nursing home” for old folks’ home and poorhouse.

As might be expected in a nation originating from 13 maritime colonies, a great admixture of nautical expressions has been in the language since early times: freight (used as a verb), slush fund, shove off, hail from. Baseball took over skipper (to mean manager), on deck, and in the hole (originally hold) from the nautical vocabulary and contributed many of its own colourful idiomatic expressions to the general language (for example, get to first base).

Spread by films, books, and television, Americanisms—especially American slang—have in large numbers found their way to Great Britain, more and more blurring the distinctions between the two forms of the English language. Although non-standard phrases, such as “met up with” or “try out” (in the sense of test), may still encounter objections from purists, the very force of their objections shows how influential such words have been on everyday British English speech.