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The Quirks of US English

English is one of the most widely spoken languages. 1,500 million people worldwide speak English, of whom only 375 million are native speakers. It is also one of the most sought-after skills. Fluency in English is considered an essential qualification for many candidates, especially if applying to a multinational firm. The language originated in Great Britain, but is spoken in many countries, either as a first language, second language and, in many cases, as an official language. 

Immigrants arrived at Ellis Island speaking many different languages. However, the first wave of settlers to the US were mostly British, and of course, until 1776 the States were a British colony. With the result that in the early years of the nation the English language was dominant. However, US English is essentially an amalgamation of a number of different Native American, West African and European languages (primarily German, Dutch, Irish and Spanish). The make up, as well as the history, of the early societies determined how the language came to be spoken.

The first new arrivals adopted some useful Native American vocabulary – such as opossum, raccoon, squash, moose (from Algonquian), and wigwam and moccasin. But there are equally many loan words from Europe – such as cookie (Dutch), kindergarten (German), levee (French) and rodeo (Spanish). In fact, US English differs dramatically from one state to another. So without further ado, let’s jump into the different ways English is spoken in the land of the free and brave!

 

The New York version

New York English is a small but nationally recognised dialect region centred around New York City. The city was originally called New Amsterdam, and it was colonised by the Dutch. This has had a considerable influence on the way they speak English. Some Dutch words like stoop and teeter-totter are still in common usage. While one of their popular pastries is a Dutch favourite, called a cruller. It is also worth noting that doughnuts are originally a Dutch creation. The accent features a locally unique short-a vowel pronunciation split. Which has led to depiction in popular stereotypes like tawwk and cawwfee!

 

Southern Drawl

Perhaps because it is one of the earliest British colonies, a number of old, and obsolete, English words are still used in the south. There are some delightfully esoteric terms such as a hoppergrass (yes, that’s what they call a grasshopper) and weskit (a vest or waistcoat)! With regard to the accent, this region has an unusual usage of the letter R. If it comes after a vowel, it’s pronounced as uh, which is why Virginia is pronounced V-uh-rginia. Also, the sound aw is pronounced as ah-aw, so fog would be pronounced as fah-awg. Often referred to as the Southern Drawl, this accent makes short front vowels into distinct-sounding gliding vowels.

 

Great Gullah dialects

You may not recognise the name, but these dialects have had a lot of influence on popular culture and language on the East coast. Most particularly in predominantly African-American communities, such as Georgia and South Carolina. Also known as Geechee, Gullah combines English with a multitude of West African languages, including Wolof, Kongo, Twi, Vai and Hausa. The name itself is derived from the Gola tribe in Liberia.

Words such as guba (peanut), gumbo (okra), juju (magic), samba (dance) and juke (wicked) are still used in daily exchanges. This dialect is also one of the most distinctive in the country, so it is very easy to recognise.

 

Emerging dialects

The Great Gullah dialects have led to a native speaker African American dialect. Although no longer region-specific, African-American Vernacular English, is commonly used among most working- and middle class African Americans. It has had, and continues to have, an enormous impact on US culture, particularly in modern music – where it has become the lingua franca of Hip Hop, Rap and Urban R&B.

The most common Latino dialect is Chicano, spoken in the West and Midwest. As Latin-Americans continue to dominate key states such as California it seems likely to grow. Chicano English is sometimes mistakenly considered to be “Spanglish”, which is a simplified mix of Spanish and English; however, Chicano English is a fully formed and native dialect of English, not a “learner English” or interlanguage.

 

Conclusion

The USA is often regarded as a “melting pot”, because of the wealth of customs, people, languages and culture it comprises. This has resulted in a wonderful and cosmopolitan variety of dialects and accents. This can be challenging for translation agencies like us! But for visitors to the country, it often ends up being one of the highlights of the trip!

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