Tracing the origins of American English.
February 9, 2011 3:31 AM   Subscribe

I'm interested in learning more about the history of American English. What books will help me get a grounding in this subject?

Principally, the following topics are the ones I'd like to investigate:
-A historical overview, tracing the evolution of American English
-Dialects and regional speaking patterns
-Etymology of words and the origin of slang and proverbs
-Comparisons between American and British English

And so on. I'm looking for books on this topic that are comprehensive, and also engaging. Any favorite volumes that you can recommend? Of course, I'm looking for recommendations on websites and blogs on the topic as well.
posted by Gordion Knott to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Bill Bryson's "Made in America" - is an interesting read - and I believe it makes many links to his primary sources of information.
posted by rongorongo at 3:45 AM on February 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Bryson's "Mother Tongue", even moreso.
posted by Decani at 3:56 AM on February 9, 2011

Mencken's multi-volume The American Language is the seminal work on the subject.
posted by meadowlark lime at 4:07 AM on February 9, 2011

Check out DARE - Dictionary of American Regional English and the journal American Speech
posted by knile at 4:08 AM on February 9, 2011

Also, I had a comment in a previous thread related to this.
posted by knile at 4:10 AM on February 9, 2011

The Story of English is the companion book to the PBS series that ran in the early 90s. It's fun, accessible, too.
posted by Room 641-A at 4:16 AM on February 9, 2011

You may also want to check out the language portions of Albion's Seed, which traces 4 different waves of immigration, each from a different part of England, and each to a different part of America, thereby maintaining dialect differences (along with culture, naming conventions, religion, family structure, etc.).
posted by timepiece at 6:22 AM on February 9, 2011

American English: Dialects and Variations by Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes is an academic text written by linguists. It gets into the nuts and bolts of linguistic analysis, but it is accessible.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:54 AM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

DO NOT READ BILL BRYSON FOR INFORMATION. (For laughs is OK; he's a funny guy.) Anything he gets right he got from some more accurate source which you should be reading instead. Mencken is fun but amateurish and (obviously) way out of date.

The Story of English (mentioned by Room 641-A) is OK for a popular book, but it's not focused on American English. DARE and American Speech (mentioned by knile) are superb but academic; is academic OK? You can check out this site for phonology. There's actually a good bibliography at the Wikipedia article.

posted by languagehat at 10:55 AM on February 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

'hat beat me, and as always, listen to the 'hat.

But for the interested lay person's input: Seriously, both of those Bryson books have tons of really obvious errors in them. Mencken is lots of fun to read but it is full of folk etymologies; like Bryson, he's an editor and not an actual scholar, but Mencken didn't pretend to be a scholar.

I think that the Wolfram and Schilling-Estes book is absolutely readable for an interested lay person. I also like the "English in North America" volume of the Cambridge History of the English Language, but presumably you'll want to get that on Inter-Library Loan from your local library rather than buy it.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:26 AM on February 9, 2011

I third languagehat's far more expert opinion about Bryson. Bryson is funny, but either gullible or full of it. Mother Tongue was at about a stand-up comedy level of reliability. (And people dis Wikipedia ... )

I strongly recommend against the North America section in The Oxford Guide to World English. Well, the author has worked in Canada and may know something about it, but he doesn't seem to know anything about the US. It really set my teeth on edge--at this point I'm planning to write a cranky blog post and then not finish the rest of it lest similarly incorrect information about the rest of the world infect my head. Sigh.
posted by wintersweet at 1:24 PM on February 9, 2011

Not to derail the thread (I'm a big fan of the question, Gordion Knot), but could some of the Bryson naysayers give a few examples? I've read both Bryson books, and have no scholarly opinion, much of what I recall are some of the big takeaway ideas--that early settlers from Britain got a lot of botanic names wrong, which are used to this day; that much of what US English has contributed to the language is slang. Would you say these sorts of concepts are misguided?
posted by Violet Blue at 7:47 PM on February 9, 2011

Regarding why not to trust Bryson on language:
Bryson gets swear words wrong in The Mother Tongue. A reader on run by MetaFilter's own languagehat points us to reviews of The Mother Tongue.
posted by knile at 2:46 AM on February 10, 2011

I've also seen a recommendation for "How To Talk American" by Jim Crotty, though I have not read it myself.
posted by timepiece at 7:18 AM on February 10, 2011

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