A former associate editor of the Oxford Companion to the English Language identifies eight major centers of influence on American English and describes how each has helped shape the tongue of today.
Bailey (Rogue Scholar: The Sinister Life and Celebrated Death of Edward H. Rulloff, 2001, etc.), who died in April 2011, is a genial host in his tour of linguistic history. In his introduction, he places fresh daggers in the heart of the idea that language can somehow be perfected and standardized and celebrates the ability of English to change, adapt, adopt, steal and transform. Then he offers a series of succinct chapters, each focusing on a certain region whose influence on the language has been profound. He begins on the Chesapeake Bay, where the English, American Indians and enslaved Africans converged. He moves on to 17th-century Boston, where he notes the Puritans’ fondness for words of Germanic origin and mentions some Algonquin words that linger in the language (“wigwam,” “squaw”). Next: Charleston, S.C., where the Spanish influence was immense, and “the vocabulary of slavery was deeply embedded.” Philadelphia, writes Bailey, brought together English, Swedes, Germans and Scots-Irish. New Orleans in the early 19th century was “the most compactly multilingual place in the country.” Bailey quotes liberally from English visitor Fanny Trollope, whose 1832 Domestic Manners of the Americans sniffed disdainfully at our linguistic and other inelegancies. In his New York segment, the author revisits the deadly 1849 Shakespeare Riots (should Macbeth speak like an American or Brit?) and cites the influence of journalist/poet William Cullen Bryant. Then it’s Chicago and Los Angeles and the effects of the underworld and pop culture—from Gidget to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Swift, informative and not too scholarly for general readers.