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The United States of English

The American Language from Colonial Times to the Twenty-First Century

Rosemarie Ostler

Publication Date - 29 August 2023

ISBN: 9780197647295

304 pages
5 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches


The story of how English became American -- and how it became Southern, Bostonian, Californian, African-American, Chicano, elite, working-class, urban, rural, and everything in between

By the time of the Revolution, the English that Americans spoke was recognizably different from the British variety. Americans added dozens of new words to the language, either borrowed from Native Americans (raccoon, persimmon, caucus) or created from repurposed English (backwoods, cane brake, salt lick). Americans had their own pronunciations (bath rhymed with hat, not hot) and their own spelling (honor, not honour), not to mention a host of new expressions that grew out of the American landscape and culture (blaze a trail, back track, pull up stakes). Americans even invented their own slang, like stiff as a ringbolt to mean drunk. American English has continued to grow and change ever since.

The United States of English tells the engrossing tale of how the American language evolved over four hundred years, explaining both how and why it changed and which parts of the "mother tongue" it preserved (I guess was heard in the British countryside long before it became a typical Americanism). Rosemarie Ostler approaches American English as part of the larger story of American history and culture, starting with what we know about the first colonists and their speech. Drawing on the latest research, she explores the roots of regional dialects, the differences between British and American language use, the sources of American slang, the development of African American English, current trends in political language, and much more. Plentiful examples of the American vernacular, past and present, bring the language to life and make for an engaging as well as enlightening read.


  • Explains how our language came to be distinctly American
  • Traces accents and dialects back to our colonial origins and forwards to the internet, politics, and COVID-19
  • Describes language change clearly and accessibly, without jargon

About the Author(s)

Rosemarie Ostler is a freelance writer with a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Washington. She is the author of five books about the history of American English and numerous articles on language-related topics. Her work has appeared in American History, The Saturday Evening Post, Christian Science Monitor, Time.com, Atlas Obscura, and The Writer, among others.

Table of Contents

    Chapter 1: The Beginnings of American English
    Chapter 2: Early Regional Dialects
    Chapter 3: Building the Vocabulary
    Chapter 4: American Grammar and Usage
    Chapter 5: The Spread of Regional Speech
    Chapter 6: Ethnic Dialects
    Chapter 7: Language Innovation outside the Mainstream
    Chapter 8: The Social Life of American English
    Chapter 9: American English Today
    Afterword: American English Tomorrow
    Appendix: American Vowels
    Select Bibliography