The Atlantic Ocean was an effective barrier to oral communication between the colonists and those who stayed in England, ensuring that their speech would evolve in different directions.
American English settled its roots in three different time periods: the colonial (1607 – 1776), the national (1776 – 1898) and the international (1898 – present) periods. After four centuries, the United States has borne witness to small changes in syntax and pronunciation, but we have seen much more expansive and exciting changes in both vocabulary and the demeanor of its speakers.
Throughout the 17th century, British colonies up and down the Atlantic Coast set the stage for English to become a permanent language in the Americas. But the colonists found themselves set apart from their homeland. With a geographical hurdle the size of the Atlantic Ocean, huge distances left little opportunity to socialize or communicate orally. Therefore, language patterns begin to evolve separately and people on either side of this physical and social chasm begin to speak differently. The broad expanse of the Atlantic Ocean between the colonists and those they had left behind in England ensured that their languages would continue to deviate from their common lineage.
Americans also coexisted and worked alongside “Amerindians” of several linguistic dialects, as well as French and Dutch colonists. New communication strategies became vital to successful relations with their neighbors. Even the settlers themselves were from widely diverse districts and social groups in England, with even more wildly diverse patterns of speech and colloquialisms, so there was a homogenizing effect: those who shared this new world as brothers in arms began to talk more like one another and less like any particular locality in England. All these influences fused together to create the distinct variation we now know as American English.
There are interesting vocabulary changes that we still use today. In England, “corn” referred to any grain intended for human consumption, especially wheat, hence the divisive “Corn Laws.” The colonists transferred this term to use in regards to “Indian corn”…which the Indians called maize. Eventually the “Indian” was dropped and it was simply called corn, while other grains were referred to as “breadstuffs.”
I know that it is close to impossible for my British ex-mother-in-law to communicate with my teenage American daughter. Do you know of any words that have been “lost in translation” between the English language and the newer American English?