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The Grammar System of American English


Here we are likely to find even fewer divergencies than in the vocabulary system.

The first distinctive feature is the use of the auxiliary verb will in the first person singular and plural of the Future Indefinite Tense, in contrast to the British normative shall. The American I will go there does not imply modality, as in the similar British utterance (where it will mean "I am willing to go there"), but pure futurity. The British-English Future Indefinite shows the same tendency of substituting will for shall in the first person singular and plural.

The second distinctive feature consists in a tendency to substitute the Past Indefinite Tense for the Present Perfect Tense, especially in oral communication. An American is likely to say I saw this movie where an Englishman will probably say I've seen this film, though, with the mutual penetration of both varieties, it is sometimes difficult to predict what Americanisms one is likely to hear on the British Isles. Even more so with the substitution of the Past Indefinite for the Present Perfect which is also rather typical of some English dialects.

Just as American usage has retained the old meanings of some English words (fall, guess, sick), it has also retained the old form of the Past Participle of the verb to get: to get — got — gotten (cf. the British got).

That is practically the whole story as far as divergencies in grammar of American English and British English are concerned.

The grammatical system of both varieties is actually the same, with very few exceptions.


* * *


American English is marked by certain phonetic peculiarities. Yet, these consist in the way some words are pronounced and in the intonation patterns. The system of phonemes is the same as in British English, with the exception of the American retroflexive [r]-sound, and the labialized [h] in such words as what, why, white, wheel, etc.

* * *


All this brings us to the inevitable conclusion that the language spoken in the United States of America is, in all essential features, identical with that spoken in Great Britain. The grammar systems are fully identical. The American vocabulary is marked by certain peculiarities which are not sufficiently numerous or pronounced to justify the claims that there exists an independent American language. The language spoken in the United States can be regarded as a regional variety of English.

Canadian, Australian and Indian (that is, the English spoken in India) can also be considered regional varieties of English with their own peculiarities.



I. Consider your answers to the following.


1. In what different ways might the language spoken in the USA be viewed linguistically?

2. What are the peculiarities of the vocabulary of English spoken in the USA?

3. Can we say that the vocabulary of the language spoken in the USA supports the hypothesis that there is an "American language"? Give a detailed answer.

4. What are the grammatical peculiarities of the American variety of English?

5. Describe some of the phonetic divergencies in both varieties of English.

6. What other regional varieties of English do you know?

II. Read the following extract and give more examples illustrating the same group of Americanisms. What do we call this group?


M: — Well, now, homely is a very good word to illustrate Anglo-American misunderstanding. At any rate, many funny stories depend on it, like the one about the British lecturer visiting the United States; he faces his American audience and very innocently tells them how nice it is to see so many homely faces out in the audience.

Homely in Britain means, of course, something rather pleasant, but in American English 'not very good looking'. This older sense is preserved in some British dialects.

(From A Common Language by A. H. Marckwardt and R. Quirk1)


III. Read the following extract. What are the three possible ways of creating names for new species of plants and animals and new features of the landscape? Give more examples of the same. What do we call this group of Americanisms?


Q: ... I think that this time we ought to give some attention to those parts of the language where the differences in the vocabulary are much more noticeable.

M: Yes, we should. First, there are what we might call the 'realia' — the real things — the actual things we refer to in the two varieties of the language. For example, the flora and fauna — that is to say the plants and animals of England and of the United States are by no means the same, nor is the landscape, the topography.

Q: All this must have created a big problem for those early settlers, mustn't it?

M: It surely did. From the very moment they set foot on American soil, they had to supply names for these new species of plants and animals, the new features of landscape that they encountered. At times they made up new words such as mockingbird, rattlesnake, egg-plant. And then occasionally they used perfectly familiar terms but to refer to different things. In the United States, for example, the robin is a rather large bird, a type of thrush.

Q: Yes, whereas with us it is a tiny little red-breasted bird.

M: And a warbler, isn't it?

Q: Yes.

M: It sings. Corn is what you call maize. We never use it for grain in general, or for wheat in particular.

Q: Or oats. Well, wouldn't foreign borrowings also be important in a situation like this?

M: Oh, they were indeed. A good many words, for example, were adopted from the American Indian languages — hickory, a kind of tree, squash, a vegetable; moccasin, a kind of footwear. We got caribou and prairie from the early French settlers. The Spanish gave us canyon and bronco.

(From A Common Language by A. H. Marckwardt and R. Quirk)

IV. Read the following passage. Draw up a list of terms denoting the University teaching staff in Great Britain and in the USA. What are the corresponding Russian terms?

Q: But speaking of universities, we've also got a different set of labels for the teaching staff, haven't we?

M: Yes, in the United States, for example, our full time faculty, which we call staff incidentally — is arranged in a series of steps which goes from instructor through ranks of assistant professor, associate professor to that of professor. But I wish you'd straighten me out on the English s37-stem. Don for example, is a completely mysterious word and I'm never sure of the difference, say, between a lecturer and a reader.

Q: Well, readers say that lecturers should lecture and readers should read! But seriously, I think there's more similarity here than one would imagine. Let me say, first of all, that this word don is a very informal word and that it is common really only in Oxford and Cambridge. But corresponding to your instructor we've got the rank of assistant lecturer, usually a beginner's post. The assistant lecturer who is successful is promoted, like your instructor and he becomes a lecturer and this lecturer grade is the main teaching grade throughout the university world. Above lecturer a man may be promoted to senior lecturer or reader, and both of these — there's little difference between them — correspond closely to your associate professor. And then finally he may get a chair, as we say — that is a professorship, or, as you would say, a full professorship. It's pretty much a difference of labels rather than of organization, it seems to me.

(From A Common Language by A. H. Marckwardt and R. Quirk)


V. Give the British equivalents for the following Americanism.


Apartment, store, baggage, street car, full, truck, elevator, candy, corn.


VI. Explain the differences in the meanings of the following words in American and British English.


Corn, apartment, homely, guess, lunch.


VII. Identify the etymology of the following words.


Ohio, ranch, squash, mosquito, banjo, toboggan, pickaninny, Mississippi, sombrero, prairie, wigwam.


VIII. Comment on the formation of the following' words.


Rattlesnake, foxberry, auto, Americanism, Colonist, addressee, ad, copperhead, pipe of peace, fire-water.


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