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The American Language

The language that Americans use to communicate with each other has many facets, and is in a constant state of evolution. English is the primarily language of American life, although not legally the official language of American government. Spanish is the country’s second most widespread language, counting at least 11-12% of the population as primary speakers. Chinese is a very distant third, followed by French, German, Italian, Tagalog and Vietnamese. Among Native American languages, Navajo, with over 200,000 speakers, is most widely spoken.

Beginning in the 17th century, English-speaking settlers arrived on the eastern shores of the North American continent, forming the core culture of what would later become the United States. The English spoken in North America almost immediately began to differentiate itself from the English of the British Isles. From the beginning, settlers from different regions of the British Isles colonized widely divergent regions of America. In the era before electronic communications and rapid transportation, speech patterns that varied at the outset became even more idiosyncratic. Influences from Native American languages, the languages of European settlers, and the languages of Africa came into play. Broad national differences of speech evolved, for example, between north and south, but within these larger regions, many local dialects of American English developed; the state of Tennessee alone has four.

American cities and metropolitan areas have often developed dialects and accents that vary from those of the larger regions. The New York City accent is unique, as is the manner of speaking in Boston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, Chicago, and Memphis. African-Americans, depending on region, have their own linguistic and dialect patterns, largely related to forms of English that are spoken in the south.

In the United States, radio and television announcers tend to favor a widely intelligible and somewhat flat accent that is often associated with the American Midwest. The various families of this accent cover a broad geographic area from the Ohio River Valley through the Great Plains, and westward to California and the Pacific Northwest, leading some analysts to call it “General American” or “Standard Midwestern” speech.

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