How Early Americans Pioneered Their Own Brand of English
Author Rosemarie Ostler
Narrated by Erin Bennett
Publication date Nov 27, 2018
Running time 9 hrs
I voluntarily reviewed an readers/listeners copy of this book. No remuneration was exchanged and all opinions presented herein are my own except as noted.
What does it mean to talk like an American? According to John Russell Bartlett’s 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms, it means indulging in outlandish slang—splendiferous, scrumptious, higgeldy piggedly—and free-and-easy word creation—demoralize, lengthy, gerrymander. American English is more than just vocabulary, though. It’s a picturesque way of talking that includes expressions like go the whole hog, and the wild boasts of frontiersman Davy Crockett, who claimed to be “half horse, half alligator, and a touch of the airthquake.” Splendiferous Speech explores the main sources of the American vernacular—the expanding western frontier, the bumptious world of politics, and the sensation-filled pages of popular nineteenth-century newspapers. It’s a process that started with the earliest English colonists (first word adoption—the Algonquian raccoon) and is still going strong today. Author Rosemarie Ostler takes listeners along on the journey as Americans learn to declare linguistic independence and embrace their own brand of speech. For anyone who wonders how we got from the English of King James to the slang of the Internet, it’s an exhilarating ride. https://tantor.com/splendiferous-speech-rosemarie-ostler.html
I really enjoyed Splendiferous Speech by Rosemarie Ostler; it’s an easy-to-listen-to (but not dumbed-down) book about how and why American English developed. It may be written by a language specialist, but it is filled with anecdotes, and relevant links between history and language. The book doesn’t read like fiction, but is so engaging and conversational, that it is a fun listen. As I have been typing, I’m using many words created here in the US. The book is arranged from the beginning of American English, possibly, even, at Jamestown but it does not hold to strictly linear examples.
Ostler discusses how new experiences, animals, peoples require new words. Some people didn’t like our new words — how we turned nouns into verbs. It also looks at how Native Americans often provided the names of things new to the colonials — “Raccoon” probably derived from John Smith’s meeting up with a Algonquin chief wearing a “great Covering of Rahaughcums.“
As the country developed, pronunciation changed – not just on either side of the pond, but also regionally in America (Southern Accents, Bostonians dropping their “Rs”). I was amused by the etymology of a certain words came to exist because of a newspaper joke. I guess that’s no funnier than “friending” coming out of Facebook. The Lewis and Clark expedition brought many words, and Ostler notes how they decided upon names for new species.
The narration is both competent and engaged with good pronunciation. In a sense, it is a neutral narration as there are no characters, but Bennett is obviously interested in the book.
This is a well-researched explanation of how American language diverged and differs from British English. How could such an endeavor as the conquest of another land and the birth of a new, diverse country not result in changes to the language? Language is not dead, it is old and new, inventive and adaptive. This book brings it to life in an entertaining, and educational way. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys etymology, language, and history.