Essay on the Controversies Surrounding American English

Most people who shared Franklin’s views about British usage seemed to think that instead of coining new words, Americans should use English the way it had been stabilized by Dr. Johnson. But Jefferson objected to this attitude. He himself coined a number of new words, the word belittle, for example, and encouraged innovations and new coinages by others.

Talking about linguistic innovations in America, he said the following:

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… should the language of England continue stationery, we shall probably enlarge our employment of it, until its new character may separate it in name, as well as in power, from the mother tongue.

Webster, the champion of American English, strongly protested against the American imitation of British usage and said:

New words will be formed and used, if found necessary or convenient, without a license from England.

John Witherspoon, one of the early presidents of Princeton University, was the person who used the word Americanism for the first time. He was himself a man of Scottish origin but pleaded that American English should be treated not as an unwanted deviation but as an independent and respectable variety of English in its own rights.

It does not follow from a man’s using these that he is ignorant, or his discourse upon the whole inelegant; nay, it does not follow in every case, that the terms or phrases used are worse in themselves, but merely that they are of American and not of English growth.

In this connection Henry Bradley made a sensible observation and said the following:

Americans have acquired the right to frame their own standards of correct English on the usage of their best writers and speakers.

These conflicting opinions are now only matters of historical interest, however. American English has now firmly established itself as an independent variety and is being widely used in books, journals, films, radio and TV broadcasts.

The important thing to do for students of the history of the English language is to have a clear idea of the ways in which American English differs from other established varieties of English, particularly from British English.