English has long had the largest lexicon, or roster, of vocabulary items, of any language on Earth, in large part because of frequent borrowings from other tongues, especially from Latin, Greek, Old Norse, and French. However, the multicultural nature of the United States, especially from the mid-nineteenth century onward, facilitated the adaptation of borrowed words and phrases into American English at an even greater rate than had been the case in England, the country from which the language derived.
Before the English language was implanted in North America, most of its foreign linguistic influences had been the inadvertent results of military conquests or had come from deliberate attempts at language-engineering by scholars. In the North American colonies and later in the independent United States, changes in the language were more spontaneous and more organic. They were natural outgrowths of the intermingling of peoples from all over the world. The scope of immigrant influences on American English is perhaps best illustrated by examining contributions from the Romance languages of immigrants from countries such as France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and the many Latin American nations and from the Germanic languages of immigrants from German-, Dutch-, and Scandinavian-speaking countries. Most of the words that have entered American English from the Romance languages pertain to folkways, food, and place names of both natural and artificial locations.
Folklorists employ the term “folkways” to encompass a wide array of professions, social roles, lifestyle issues, customs, dress, recreation, and folk beliefs. Many
•voyageur, trapper or trader who travels long distances
•traiteur, folk healer or herbalist
•lagniappe, gift or act of kindness extended to guests as a token of cordiality
•fifolet, spirit or witch manifesting a nighttime phosphorescence
•loup garou, werewolf or similar creature of the night
•gris-gris, protective magic devices
Similar terms from
•quincienera, celebration of a girl’s fifteenth birthday
•buckaroo, term for cowboy adapted from the Spanish vaquero, literally “cattler”
•curandero, folk-healer, the Spanish equivalent of traiteur
Words for items of apparel also feature prominently in Spanish loanwords in American English. Examples include poncho, serape, and “ten-gallon hat.” The latter originated when English-speakers mistook the Spanish word galan for the braid on a hatband for the English word “gallon” for a liquid measurement. Many other words related to the folkways of Spanish-speaking immigrants pertain to items used in ranching, such as “lariat” from Spanish la reata for rope or noose. Folk music also has contributed many words, such as “mariachi” for the exuberant form of
Among the most readily recognized words from
Words from Romance languages denoting foodstuffs and structures have flooded American English since the founding of the United States, but most especially since the nineteenth century. Italian words for pasta dishes such as “macaroni” and “spaghetti” entered the English language in England, but after millions of Italians immigrated to the United States during the nineteenth century, Italian restaurants became so commonplace that such Italian terms become more common in American usage than in British English. During the early twentieth century, “pizza” became an American staple, as did a number of coffee drinks of
As numerous as cuisine-related loanwords are in American English, Romance language names for types of places–both geographical and architectural–are equally common. Mexican
•“hoosegow” (jail), which comes from juzgado (place of the judged ones)
•“arroyo,” a direct Spanish borrowing for a type of dry riverbed common in the Southwest
•“mesa,” a flat, raised area of land from the Spanish word for table
Borrowings into American English from the Germanic languages followed pathways similar to those from Romance languages. Food-related words have been common. From
A surprisingly large number of Germanic borrowings have been words denoting types of people; many of these words are derogatory in nature.
Not all such Germanic borrowings are negative. “Boss” from Dutch and “ombudsman” from Swedish are both neutral. Yiddish’s “mensch” for a good-hearted individual is positive. At the same time, the Romance languages have contributed some insulting terms. American English’s “bimbo” for an attractive but unintelligent person is from bambino,
The Romance and Germanic languages are not the only immigrant languages that have made significant contributions to American English. For example, “egg foo young” and “chow mein” are examples of words derived from Chinese for food dishes that were actually devised by Chinese immigrants in the United States. Likewise, “kolache,” a pastry popular among
Immigration has left traces on facets of American English that go beyond mere items of vocabulary. For example, among English speakers in areas where dialects of
In regions in which many Americans are bilingual English and
Another phrase-structure affected by languages of immigrants may be the tag question–making a statement and immediately adding a brief yes/no question seeking confirmation or denial. In formal English, such questions involve complex formulations. For example, the tag on the simple statement, “Roger is drunk” requires copying over the verb (“is”), choosing the appropriate pronoun (“he”), and reversing the polarity of the statement (positive in this case) to negative, thus yielding, “Roger is drunk, isn’t he?” In contrast, most European languages, including members of the Romance and
American morphology–aspects of English pertaining to roots and stems of words–and pronunciation also bear the imprint of immigration. For example, American English has borrowed the common noun ending -o from Romance languages to append to English roots, yielding such hybrids as “weirdo” and “wino.” During the late 1990’s, the
Baron, Dennis. Grammar and Good Taste. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. Definitive discussion of the trends in what is considered appropriate and inappropriate in American English and the forces that have shaped American concepts of linguistic correctness and propriety. Baugh, Albert, and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Prentice Hall, 2002. Chapter 11 of this book offers a thorough assessment of the forces that have shaped American English and the place of American English in relation to world English. Bryson, Bill. Made in America. New York: Perennial, 1996. Highly enjoyable best-seller about American English with much information about the contributions of various groups of immigrants. Finegan, Edward, and John Rickford, eds. Language Variation in North American English. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Scholarly but accessible overview of variations within North American English. Marckwardt, Albert. American English. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Although originally published during the 1950’s, this book remains the standard study of the English language in the United States. Millward, Celia. A Biography of the English Language. 2d ed. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 1996. Exemplary textbook on the history of the English language. Chapter 9 provides a concise review of the special features of American English.