July 21, 2015

We All Speak Americano


How do you speak American?

How do you speak American?

New York City is in the midst of another hot, tourist-filled summer. As visitors from the world over descend onto this relatively tiny island, the city’s linguistic soundscape explodes. French, Japanese, and Arabic mix with traditional American English to create hybrid languages and the brogue of our cousins in the UK reminds us of the difference sameness can create. Midway through July in NYC, pure American English can seem mysteriously hard to find – heard only on the evening news.

Yet, what is “American English?” If age is the thing that counts, then New York City should be awash in a form of pidgin English, widely used by native tribes and Europeans in the area to communicate with each other.

In his 1992 book, A History of American English, the late linguist J.L. Dillard, who specialized in African American Vernacular English, demonstrates that the most originally American form of English was a pidgin, originating with sailor’s language. Early explorers of North America, he argues, would have used nautical pidgins and passed those on to native people. By the time the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts, there were people here—most famously the men the new arrivals called Samoset and Squanto—who already spoke a version of English that Puritans could understand.

Not to mention American English is a misnomer in and of itself. Words that conjure up quintessentially American images like “cookie,” “sleigh,” or “poppycock” are actually Dutch in origin. And of course pizza, the most American of all foods—which just happens to be Italian.

There’s also the way Americans speak. The rhythm of the language has changed dramatically throughout the years, for one thing. Jimmy Stewart’s cadence in It’s A Wonderful Life would hardly be recognizable on today’s NYC streets.

And then there are the words themselves—established words which now hold an undisputed place in the dictionary were make-believe a few centuries ago:

Thomas Jefferson, who described himself as “a friend to neology,” created the word “belittle.” British writers despaired over it; he simply made up more. And ever since, speaking American has meant enjoying the use of a whole vocabulary that originated here.

So to all the tourists and newly arrived immigrants to NYC and beyond, “if Thomas Jefferson can make up words, so can you.” Speaking American is to speak a language which dares to change and adapt with you.