Regional variation and the rise

of the national standard in early American English


Radosław Dylewski (Poznań)


There are many arguments positing the relative homogeneity of early American English which are preponderantly based upon the commentaries made by British travelers (journalists, explorers and, occasionally, by natives) who cited with either wonder or admiration the striking uniformity and purity of the colonial and federal language. This uniformity of speech of the settlers on the North American continent almost automatically implies a deficiency of dialectal variation. Read, who collected a number of such commentaries and published them in his 1933 article, makes reference to this phenomenon operating in the language of early American: “This absence of dialect, so puzzling to the commentators, is now accepted as normal to any colonial speech. In the jostling of speech characteristics imported from many regions, the peculiarities are very soon worn away and a state approaching homogeneity ensues” (1933: 325).


Nonetheless, the insistence upon the uniformity of American English taking place in the earliest years of the American republic undermines the above-mentioned homogeneity theory and accounts for the existing dialectal diversity. The eighteenth century witnesses an urge to standardize the newly born American language in pronunciation, spelling, and grammar, which is to give Americans a unity upon their own soil and encumber the fear of disintegration (Krapp 1925 [1960], 1). On the whole, such a situation stems from an increasing Anglophobia, the need to differentiate the Colonial form the Mainland language as well as the feeling of linguistic patriotism. Since the British standard is rejected because of both patriotic and practical reasons, the advocacy of a national and literary standard for American speech becomes a logical response to the novel conditions in the new country. This call for a national standard finds many supporters, to name but a few: Webster, Cooper or Franklin.


This paper aims at tracing the early incipience of a national standard by means of presenting the complicated linguistic situation of Early American English, the contradictory assertions indicating both national uniformity and regional diversity of colonial and federal American English, and, finally, the voices opting for and molding the rise of a national standard.


Selected references:


Algeo, John (ed.). 2001. The Cambridge history of the English language. Volume VI: English in North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Malone, K. 1926. “A linguistic patriot”, American Speech, 1. 26-31.

Mathews, M. M. 1931 [1973]. The beginnings of American English. Chicago-Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Mencken, H. L. 1919 [1923]. The American language. Third Edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Krapp, G. P. 1925 [1960]. The English language in America. Two volumes. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.

Read, A. W. 1933. “British recognition of American speech in the eighteenth century”, Dialect Notes 6. 313-334.