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Dictionary Information

Dictionaries generally give some or all of the following types of information:

(1) Headword and any variants, sometimes with syllabication marked and homograph status indicated.

(2) Pronunciation in a system of respelling or phonetic symbols.

(3) Grammatical information and usage labels (often in the form of abbreviations or codes).

(4) Number of senses as necessary.

(5) Explanations proper.

(6) Illustrative phrases or sentences.

(7) Compounds, derivatives, phrasal verbs and idioms.

(8) Etymology.

(9) Points of usage.

(10) Synonyms and antonyms.

Dictionaries are often characterized by the type of information on which they concentrate, e.g. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1966).



14.1.The status of American English.

14.2.Historical causes of lexical divergences between British English and American English.

14.3.Classification of lexical divergences between British English and American English.

14.4.The future of American English.


14.1. What is American English?

American leaders began to talk about “American language” in 1802. At that time, there were 4.5 mil Americans, 90% of them came from the families of British settlers.

Even today, some American linguists support this theory of “American language”. They speak of two different languages (BrE and AmE), with a steady flow of linguistic influence first from Britain to America (up to 1914), and then, from America to Britain. It is argued that the American influence is so great that there will come a time when the American standard will be established in Britain.

This theory is open to criticism. BrE and AmE have essentially the same grammar, phonetic system and vocabulary, thus they can’t be regarded as two different languages.

Some linguists regard the language in the USA as a dialect of English. But dialects are varieties of a language used as a means of oral communication in small localities; they have no normalized literary form. AmE is not a local dialect, for it serves all spheres of verbal communication in society; it has dialects of its own; it has its own literary standard.

There is another point of view originally developed in this country: AmE is a regional variant of English. Variants of a language are regional varieties of a standard literary language characterized by some peculiarities in their phonetic systems, grammar and vocabulary and possessing their own literary norms. They serve all spheres of communication in society and they have dialects of their own.

In his book, Peter Strevens gives the following diagram:

English is also spoken in many other countries: South Africa, India, etc.

Despite the great distances separating English-speaking communities, and the social and cultural differences between them, the form of English which they use remains mutually intelligible to a remarkable degree. Partly, this is because all English-speaking communities have held to a standard spelling system.

There are a number of points of difference between AmE and BrE (the other communities follow the British mode, except that many US spellings are usual or acceptable in Canada), but these are relatively minor,

e.g. color/colour, center/centre, traveled/travelled, reflexion/reflection, catalog/catalogue, etc.

In grammar, we can find few divergences between BrE and AmE,

e.g. 1. There is a tendency to substitute the Past Indefinite for the Present Perfect, esp. in oral communication: Did you ever go to Madrid?

2. The Present Subjunctive is formed without “should”: I suggest we go there now.

3. AmE retains old forms of participle II of some verbs: gotten, proven, etc.

4. AmE has different forms of the Past Indefinite of some verbs: dive-dived (BrE), dove (AmE).

American pronunciation of individual words and forms may significantly differ from the British,

e.g. lieutenant [lef 'tenənt] // [lu: 'tenənt] AmE,

advertisement [æd 'və:tismənt] // [,ædvə 'taizmənt].

There are certain “constant features” of “General American” pronunciation,

e.g. r is sounded wherever it is written: the sound [h] is pronounced, as in why, which, etc.

Yet, the main differences between AmE and BrE are found in the vocabulary.


14.2. Let us look at the historical causes of lexical divergences between AmE and BrE.

1) The first English colonists to settle in America in the early 17th century were contemporaries of Shakespeare, Spencer, Milton. They spoke Early New English, the language of Shakespeare. The barrier of the Atlantic began the process of divergence of American from British usage: changes in the motherland were slow to reach the colonies. So words that died out in Britain have survived in America.

e.g. to guess ”to think”, fall “autumn”.

2) The vocabulary was influenced by the new surroundings in the New World: the colonists needed to name numerous new objects (animals, plants, new conditions of political and social life, etc.) To fill this need, the colonists had to develop their own resources:

a) adapted old words to new uses,

e.g. creek for a small stream rather than an estuary as in BrE;

bluff, corn, lumber;

b) made up new words from existing morphemes after familiar patterns,

e.g. eggplant, catbird, lengthy, etc.

3) New words to express new concepts were borrowed from the languages with which English came into contact in North America:

a) Amerindian languages: chipmunk, hickory, skunk, raccoon, opossum, moccasins, wigwam, tomahawk, etc., and a lot of geographical names: Ohio, Michigan;

b) other colonial languages:

e.g. French: prairie, chowder;

Dutch: boss, cookie, sleigh, snoop, waffle, and, probably, Yankee;

Spanish: corral, lasso, ranch, rodeo, cafeteria;

c) later immigrant languages:

e.g. German: noodle, snorkel, frankfurter, semester, seminar;

Italian: pizza, pasta;

d) the languages of Negro slaves, brought from Africa,

e.g. jazz, hippie, juke, zombie, voodoo.


14.3. With the development of modern means of communication, the lexical differences between the two variants tend to decrease. Most British people are familiar with many American equivalents for British terms. Many Americanisms have been introduced into standard British usage: cocktail, radio, electrocute, brainstorm, quiz, disco, laser, wholehearted, seafood, etc.

And yet, many words and phrases used every day in the USA, are unknown, or nearly so, in Britain.

English word-stock may be divided into: general English, i.e. lexical units common to all the variants of English, used in all English-speaking countries, which make up the bulk of the vocabulary, and locally marked vocabulary, used in one variant only (Briticisms, Americanisms, etc.)

Vocabulary differencies between AmE and BrE can be classified into different groups. Lexical differences may be divided into the exclusive (such as BrE windscreen, AmE windshield) and the non-exclusive. The non-exclusive differences subdivide into those in which the shared variant coexists with an exclusive usage (such as the shared editorial, BrE leader) and those in which a shared variant coexists with both BrE variant and an AmE variant (shared socket, BrE power point, AmE outlet).

1) Some American words have no British equivalents as they denote American realia, characteristic of US life: a drive-in, a drug-store, supermarket.

2) Different words are used for the same referents in Britain and the US: lorry/truck, tin/can, sweets/candy, nappy/diaper, caravan/trailer, etc.

3) Words used in AmE and BrE may have different semantic structures, which is the most typical case,

e.g. shoulder 1. part of the human body (both in BrE and AmE);

2. AmE the shoulder of the road - strip of land adjacent to metalled surface of road.

4) A word may have a different meaning in AmE from BrE: jelly, mad, nervy, corn, etc.

5) The same word used in AmE and BrE may have different connotations and stylistic reference,

e.g. nasty is mildly derogatory in BrE and strongly derogatory in AmE,

homely expresses in a positive evaluation in BrE and in a negative one in AmE.

6) There are functional differencies, for example: words may have different lexical distributions,

e.g. in BrE to ride a horse/a bike, but in AmE also to ride in a boat, on a train, on a bus.

Words may be used in different prepositional phrases

e.g. to live in a street in BrE and on a street in AmE,

or a prepositional phrase in BrE may have an equivalent non-prepositional one in AmE

e.g. to leave on Monday/to leave Monday.

7) There are also differences in frequency characteristics of lexical units,

e.g. both time-table and schedule are used in AmE and BrE, but schedule is more frequent in AmE, while time-table in BrE.


14.4. The speakers of AmE outnumber all native speakers of English outside the US by about two to one, and those of BrE by nearly four to one. This advantage, as well as US economic, political and technological prominence in the world, gave AmE a global importance in the late 20th century comparable to that of BrE in the late 19th century.

The US and AmE have become one of the greatest forces for change and expansion of English: Americanisms have been disseminated throughout the world. Anyway, there is so much communication between the varieties that items of language pass easily and quickly from one to the other, often without clear identification as primarily belonging to one or the other or to some other variety.

The language remains essentially common, esp. in terms of standard usage: the similarities between the two standards are greater than the differences, and the gap is narrowing.

Regardless of the status of English in the US, the future of AmE is hardly in doubt. The international use of English seems assured for the foreseeable future. The extent to which international English reflects the standards of BrE and AmE, or a mid-Atlantic compromise, is open to speculation, but the question is of no great practical consequence: all national standards of English are close to one another. International use is closely tied to the relatively uniform American-British complex.



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