The Way You Say It: Impacts On American Dialect From Old English To The Twittersphere

There are approximately 7,000 languages in the world today.  By the turn of the next century, that number is expected to drop to 1,000, in no small part due to the immense grip and growth of the English language – in particular American English.  Different dialects continue to blend alongside diminishing accents.  But just what is it that goes into the mix?  Landscape, climate, industry, technology and the Great Vowel Shift all played their part before, during and indeed long after colonisation.

As the third most widely spoken language in the world, English also incorporates almost two billion people who speak it as a second language.  Since its early Sanskrit and Celtic pollination, it has on British soil absorbed Roman Latin, Germanic Jute, Angle, Saxon, Old Norse and Norman French.  In fact it was Norman French, the official language of nobility over a period of three centuries following the 1066 Norman conquest of England, which allowed the unsupervised, rogue dialect of the English masses to drop formality and gender at the same time as gaining words from the ruling classes.  Consequently, Old English flourished and metamorphosed into Middle English.  Variations in old Germanic words had their endings dropped or fused.  Every day things could be referred to by dual words, the lower class Anglo-Saxon and upper class French, respective examples being Fall and Autumn, Freedom and Liberty.

Modern English grew out of a period that stretches from the mid-14th to the early 18th century via the elaborate intricacies of the Great Vowel Shift.  This was undoubtedly a revolution in vocabulary, having its wicked way with all the vowels, turning monophthongs into diphthongs and providing a double vowel slide between consonants.  Change in inflection and spelling were theoretically symbiotic due to a combination of potential factors, compact migration to Southern England in the wake of the 14th century bubonic plague and the subsequent dismantling of feudalism, contact with other languages, the rise of the middle class and the powerful reach of the printing press, which promoted literacy as well as standardised spelling.  The English/French wars and the emergence of the Church of England further established the English language as being ruthlessly determined and non-partisan.

American English, long after the exploration, settlement, and colonization of the New World, is a powerful force that alters, modifies and riffs according to the tempo of its own playful measures.  It is precocious, animated, and wanton.  Through music, film, television and advertising, its influence, be it good or bad, knows no bounds.  This potent global seduction, to the consternation of many, infiltrates other languages as much as it does English spoken in other countries.

American English is peppered with Native American words for – by and large – terrains, customs and wildlife with which the Mayflower pilgrims and the masses of other colonizing European countries were unfamiliar.  Elsewhere, words such as Candy, Diaper, and the aforementioned Fall were transported over as cargo, only to be replaced with Sweets, Nappy, and Autumn in the UK.  So too did the English bring rhotacism, the prominent R, before again, losing it in their native land amid alleged upper class snobbery against the Industrial Revolution’s nouveau rich.  Dropping the R, particularly after the humiliation of the American War of Independence, set a precedent for the English with regards to self-distinction.

Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, old settlement patterns together with the flow of immigration are a continuous contributor to the patois pot.  New Netherlands Dutch, despite the 1664 surrender of New Amsterdam to the English, continued to be spoken in Dutch New York circles for at least two centuries afterwards.  Despite the many influences on vocabulary and phrases arriving via British, Irish, Italian, Polish, Russian, Yiddish, and German migration, the Dutch stamp on the New York dialect formed the basis for its recognizable and much imitated sound, prime examples being coffee (kawfee) and talk (tawk).

Tidewater English arrived in the main via Southern and South West England.  Their descendants in areas such as the Chesapeake island of Tangier, continue to sound like the closest thing America has to the original settlers, similar to West Country English on the Cornwall and Devonshire coastline.

Further South, the evidence of early modern English is in the drawl, a common example of the influence of landscape.  Generally speaking, in a hotter climate abuzz with insects, there is muscle transference from the front to the back of the mouth.  Speech slows down, but if you speed up that Southern drawl, a UK English accent begins to emerge, just as if one were to accelerate Bayou Cajun to French, or elements of the Appalachian dialect to Scots-Irish Ulster.  The further south one travels, the richer the sound.  To add to which, the division between North and South are – pre and post-Civil War, marked by their differences in tenets and politics, attributing notions of class to geographically opposite accents.

The West African effect on the rhythm and inflection in American English is immense.  Vigorously diversified via the slave-trade’s brute-force insistence on mixing ethnic groups so as to curtail the chances of rebellion, the resulting Pidgin English lent itself to standard vocabulary and slang with a force that keeps on giving.  The cause and effect on American popular culture, in particular the dominant genres of music and accompanying lyrical styles, can only be measured when taking into account its geographical and cultural impact on the rest of the world.

Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1828 was to play a hugely significant role in creating General American pronunciations.  In a determined and thorough fashion, lexicographer Webster swapped the preceding UK English vowels where necessary – as in theatre versus theater, while shedding unnecessary vowels, in particular – U, as in humour versus humor.  This defiant seal on American English spelling, promoted the US tendency to stress on all the vowels including those at the end of a word that UK English had hitherto tended to quash amid consonants.

Over time, new words sprung from American culture, some with dubious origins.  Jazz for instance, is said to have its etymology rooted in – amusingly – jism – or jizz, meaning energetic and a whole lot more in much the same way as spunk.  And while words like cool, bangs, and dude have their origins and erstwhile definitions rooted in areas older than the United States, their common usage and current meanings are unmistakably American.

The celerity of modern life insists on putting a price upon the pause, now plugged at every juncture with the word ‘like’ with such rigorous repetition that to the majority of ears younger than thirty-five, its regularity fades into inaudibility.  To those over thirty-five however, the word is a strange incongruous beat that detracts from the crux of the narrative in between.

Just prior to modernity and long before the discourse particle ‘like’, the advancement of technology played its own part in language change and adaptation.  The long lasting presence of mechanical industry throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, in some instances responsible for the employment of entire towns, infiltrated the spoken word with two major factors: socioeconomics and the powerful similarities formed within that construct, as well as levels and techniques in voice projection born of working life against the backdrop of deafening machinery.

More recently of course, the World Wide Web and its bootleg breed of children, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and the rest, give us similar symptoms indicative of the modern age.  Convenient written acronyms translate to speech, LOL, OMG etc.  These days, social media allows individuals to regularly communicate with a greater number of people whom they know or may not know.  The modern daily grind appears to give us less hours in which to waste valuable time on fully constructed sentences.  So too is it perfectly normal to pluck words already in existence and to redistribute and redefine them: viral, hashtag, trending.  This is certainly not a new phenomenon, but the pace of it is faster than ever.

If mass communication among the greatest amount of people is done via multimedia touch screen formats, then are we not to consider that online communication is a language on a par with speech?  Messaging hosts for acronyms, emoticons, photos, and sophisticated graphics make it possible to convey an idea and emotion within a fraction of the time it takes to stutter and verbalize it, reaching the recipient even before the train of thought is complete, a practice which can expose casual messages to great vulnerability.

Within the broad General American sound – a debatable premise to begin with – regional US accents continue to evolve and mutate.  Within the realms of social media and abbreviated communication, the sheer speed of transmitting new words or terminologies encourage and promote competitive proficiency.  As the world turns, the words roll on, but the way we say them can be switched off just as easily.