Forms and Functions of American English in Dreiser's "An American Tragedy"

Seminar Paper 2009 16 Pages

American Studies - Literature



1 Introduction

2 General characteristics of American English
2.1 Introduction
2.2 British English versus American English
2.3 Foreign influences
2.4 Social, regional and ethnic varieties
2.5 Conclusion

3 American English in An American Tragedy
3.1 Introduction
3.2 French influences
3.3 Social and ethnic varieties
3.4 Business and legal language
3.5 Dreiser‟s personal style
3.6 Conclusion

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

An American Tragedy is a novel about a murder that not only illuminates the dark regions of the criminal mind, but plays a searchlight across the landscape of American society. — Richard Lingeman, Introduction to An American Tragedy

Theodore Dreiser‟s An American Tragedy1 was published in 1925 and is today considered one of his most important works. It is a powerful novel that deals with the struggles of protagonist Clyde Griffiths, a young man who tries to move up in society in order to escape the miserable life his parents lead due to their mission work. However, he is finally sentenced to death for the murder of Roberta Alden, his pregnant lover, of whom he has been trying to rid himself while maintaining a relationship with the socially prestigious Sondra Finchley. Therefore, An American Tragedy is mainly concerned with the social hierarchy in the America of the 1920s as well as the murder trial of a young man suffering from the constraints of society.

These main topics are also the predominant aspects when analyzing the forms and functions of American English in the novel. Thus, I have chosen to put the main emphasis of my paper on them. Additionally, I will take a closer look at French influences and Dreiser‟s personal style in An American Tragedy. For the sake of comprehensibility, I will start with a theoretical approach of American English and then continue with an analysis of the forms and functions as they appear in the novel.

2 General characteristics of American English

2.1 Introduction

There are of course numerous characteristics of American English, few of which I will be able to mention here. Instead, I will try to give a rather general overview of American English, including the differences to British English, the influence of foreign languages as well as the social, regional and ethnic varieties. When comparing American English to British English, I will focus on the spelling and vocabulary since these features are more important than the different pronounciation or stress in British English when analyzing a literary work. Concerning the foreign influences, I will limit myself to the influences of the Native American languages and the languages of the colonists and early immigrants as these are the most important. Finally, dealing with the social, regional and ethnic varieties of American English, I will concentrate on the social varieties that are at the core of the novel, a novel about social ambition and the almost omnipresent class structures in early twentieth- century America.

2.2 British English versus American English

Apart from the well-known contrast between British and American speech, there are two probably even more important differences in writing. These are a different spelling and a different vocabulary.2

The different spelling in American English (AE) may not be a very drastic contrast to British English (BE), yet it is a feature that cannot be excluded when describing American English. American spelling is mostly systematic and particularly affects the ending of a word. There is for instance the -our ending in the British words colour or favour that turns into the shorter -or ending in the American spellings color and favor. Another slighty changed word ending is -logue in words like dialogue or catalogue, which simply becomes -log in the American spellings dialog and catalog. A third common change in word endings concerns British words ending with -ce, for example offence or defence. These words are spelled offense and defense in American English, changing the -ce ending into a -se ending. Finally, the ending -re is often changed to -er in American English like in meter (BE: metre) or theater (BE: theatre).

In addition to the aforementioned differences in word endings, there are of course further differences between British and American spelling. AE has a tendency to simplify some tenses of verbs ending with -l, such as travelling or travelled (BE), by not doubling this consonant. An American would simply spell these words traveling and traveled, i.e. only add the -ing/-ed suffix to the infinitive. On the other hand, some spellings in AE do not follow a certain rule. Among these are for example the words gray and tire, which are spelled grey and tyre in BE. Unquestionably, there are further examples of how the spelling in AE differs from that in BE, but those listed above are certainly the most important ones to be mentioned.

While spelling usually does not differ very much in American and British English, the vocabulary certainly varies greatly and on different levels.3 First, there are words that share the same meaning in both AE and BE, but are used more frequently in one of the two varieties, for instance the pairs maybe/perhaps and post/mail. Both maybe and perhaps exist in either language, but Americans use maybe far more frequently than perhaps (with the execption of written language). Regarding post and mail, the situation is a little more complicated. While the Royal Mail is in charge of Britain‟s postal system, the Americans have their post offices. When talking about things or persons connected with the postal system, however, mail is the preferred word in America (mailbox, mailman), whereas the British prefer post (postbox, postman). Second, some words have additional meanings in one variety but not in the other, such as the word tube. Its basic meaning is identical in both varieties of English, but in AE it can also mean television, while in BE, it is the name usually used for the London underground railway. Third, several words used to have the same meaning in AE and BE, but have different meanings nowadays like subway. Originally, it meant underpass in both languages, but today it has only retained that meaning in Britain. In the USA, it has become the word for an underground railway system. Finally, there are words in both varieties that are used only or predominantly in the respective variety. Cell phone is such a term only used in AE, while a speaker of BE would use mobile phone. Another example is the typically British word lorry, which is not used in American English since the American word is truck.

Again, this is only a small collection of examples to illustrate the fundamental differences between AE and BE, but it would take a large dictionary to cover them all.

2.3 Foreign influences

Owing to America‟s history as a nation of immigrants, a large number of words from foreign languages have become a part of modern-day American English. Among these languages are Native American languages, Dutch, Spanish, German, and French.

The Native American loanwords are mostly geographic names and names for the flora and fauna since the early settlers needed names for the new places, plants and animals. Some famous examples are Chicago, moose, and raccoon.4

The Dutch, who had settled in what is today New York (at that time called New Amsterdam), also introduced place names like Harlem and Flushing. Additionally, they introduced culinary terms such as coleslaw and cookie.5

Another large group consisted of Spanish settlers, whose language has influenced the USA until today as there are still large numbers of Mexican immigrants coming into the country. They contributed words concerning ranch life such as ranch and rodeo to American English, but also many food-related terms, for example tortilla and taco.6

Immigrants from Germany brought some culinary terms to America as well, for instance sauerkraut and pretzels.7 Over time, however, German terms relating to politics and society were introduced, too. Among these are Reich and zeitgeist.

The last group that has to be mentionend is the group of French immigrants, who had settled mostly in the Mississippi area during the colonial periods. Their impact on American English manifests itself in words like rapids, bayou, and prairie. The French not only coined these topographical terms, but also brought cent and dime to the USA, names that are still used for coins today.8

Apart from the influences listed above, there were of course others such as Yiddish, Japanese, or Italian9, but these arrived during later waves of immigration, and they were not the languages of the indigenous population or the colonists.

2.4 Social, regional and ethnic varieties

Like in most other languages spoken by large groups of people, there are numerous varieties of spoken American English that differ from the standard. These are mainly based on the socio-economic group, the geographical location and the ethnic group of the speaker. Besides, even the speaker‟s age and the speaking situation may influence how he or she says something.10

The aforementioned socio-economic varieties are best documented in the New York City area due to the work of William Labov, an American linguist. During his research, he found out that there were several variables, i.e. varieties depending on factors like the social status or the speech situation. Some of the people he interviewed pronounced a [θ] as in thing or youth like a [t], making the words sound like ting or yout respectively. Additionally, a number of the people made the [ð] in words like this and that sound like a [d], pronouncing those words dis and dat. Finally, some used the shortened form [ɪn] instead of [ɪŋ], and thus pronounced sitting and going like sittin’ and goin’. Labov and his team noticed that people from low socio-economic groups used these common non-standard forms more frequently than people from higher socio-economic groups and educated people (with the exception of casual speaking situations).11 Apart from these varieties in New York City, there are others spread widely across the USA. Among these are the usage of ain’t for am not/is not/are not etc., a missing subject-verb agreement (“She don’t know”), and a double negation (“I haven’t seen nothing”).12 Some non-standard forms, however, are completely avoided by higher socio-economic groups. This applies particularly to grammatical varieties such as the regularization of past tense verb forms. Therefore, an educated or well-off speaker would certainly avoid a sentence like “He knowed what to do”.13

In addition to the socio-economic varieties, there are many regional varieties since the USA is a considerably large country. One of these varieties is the r-lessness in New England and the South, although it is disappearing more and more nowadays and has mostly remained in lower socio-economic groups. Speakers of other dialects often make fun of this variety with the sentence “Pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd”, which is the New England pronounciation of “Park the car in Harvard yard”. Another regional characteristic of the South is the so-called Southern Drawl, a certain lengthening of the vocals.14 Lastly, some forms that are considered prestigious in most regions of America may be the usual forms in a specific region, for example the word aunt. While it is normally pronounced [ænt] in American English, it is pronounced [ɑnt] in some Southern dialects, regardless of the speaker‟s social status.15


1 I use the shortened form “American Tragedy” to refer to the book in quotes and footnotes.

2 The following comparison of American English and British English is based on: Gunnel Tottie, An Introduction to American English (Malden: Blackwell, 2002) 8-12; hereafter cited in the text as IAE.

3 The following passage is based on IAE, 97-102.

4 IAE, 120-121.

5 IAE, 121-122.

6 Albert H. Marckwardt, American English (1958; New York: Oxford University Press, 1976) 41; hereafter cited in the text as AME.

7 IAE, 122.

8 AME, 33-35.

9 IAE, 123-125.

10 IAE, 206-209.

11 IAE, 214-217.

12 IAE, 217-218.

13 Edward Finegan and John R. Rickford, eds., Language in the USA: Themes for the Twenty-first Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) 61; hereafter cited in the text as LU.

14 IAE, 209-211.

15 LU, 72.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
American English Amerikanisches Englisch Theodore Dreiser Varietätenlinguistik Soziolinguistik sociolinguistics




Title: Forms and Functions of American English in Dreiser's "An American Tragedy"