In the second part of this discussion and explanation on the concept of Standard English, Tim Bowen focuses on American English.
In the first part of this article we looked at British English. We concluded that there were many varieties of Standard English in the United Kingdom and that the old notion of Received Pronunciation (or Oxford English) is now probably in the process of being replaced by so-called "Estuary English" (in a vast swathe of England south-east of a line from the Solent to the Wash). The growing influence of mid-Atlantic, a hybrid of American and British English much-favoured by British radio disc-jockeys, was also considered. In this part we will examine American English and attempt to identify whether there is a "standard", and whether there are any dialectical trends that are likely to emerge as American English develops.
As a starting-point we should distinguish between the notions of accent and dialect. Accent refers solely to distinctive pronunciation, whereas dialect additionally incorporates differences in grammar, syntax and lexis. It is common to refer to a "British accent" or an "American accent" and here we are concerned exclusively with aspects of pronunciation that distinguish these two general types of accent. Likewise, we could also refer to someone speaking with a South African accent or an Australian accent. Within American English itself, however, there are numerous dialects and also different accents. To those of us raised on a diet of American films and television programmes, three distinct accents tend to emerge: the slow, measured "twang" of the Southern states of the USA, the distinctive New York accent and "the rest". No doubt there are numerous sub-divisions within these general categories and a native of Kentucky would argue that he or she could easily distinguish between the accent of his or her native state and that of neighbouring Tennessee, for example. But, in general, as far as accent alone is concerned, American English can be grouped into these three general areas. Having said that, it is interesting to note the development of other accents and dialects within this general framework.
One of the most notable is the growth of Black English Vernacular, a dialect that has grown along with the urban ghettos in major US cities. Another addition to the melting pot that is American English has been the similarly rapid rise of Hispanic American English with its own distinctive accent and lexis. If we add to this the millions of immigrants from a huge variety of linguistic backgrounds from around the world, each bringing their own pronunciation and lexis to the world’s most cosmopolitan society (food vocabulary is a good example of the latter), it is clear that the influences on American English are incredibly wide-ranging. Yet, broadly speaking the pronunciation of American English has remained fairly constant. If we are looking for any significant changes in American English in the near future these are more likely to be in the form of lexical items either imported by new immigrants to the USA or borrowed from the Black and Hispanic populations. At this stage, American English is extremely unlikely to be influenced by other external varieties of English, such as British English, although it is interesting to note that the non-rhotic (where the ‘r’ is not pronounced in words like ‘farm’) accent typical of British RP is regarded as "posh" when used by Americans. Indeed, a survey of reactions of Boston shop assistants to different accents found that they were more polite and subservient to customers who spoke with non-rhotic accents – an interesting echo of the UK!
As the world’s most powerful economy and the world’s most active media base, it is clear that the USA plays a significant role in the development of English. Many neologisms (for example the tendency to verbalize nouns as in "to downsize") originate in the USA and rapidly find their way, usually via the media and films, into other varieties of English. Whereas in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was British English that spread around the world as a result of the power of the British Empire, in the second half of the 20th century and now in the early years of the 21st century, it is American English that is the increasingly dominant influence.