Book Review: Speaking American, Richard W Bailey

“Speaking American. A History of English in the United States”
Richard W Bailey
Oxford UP, April 2015 (hardback February 2012)
Paperback, 15.7 x 23.5 cm (6.1 x 9.3 in), 207+18 pp., £12.99 (hardback £18.99), US$19.95 (hardback $27.95)
ISBN 978 0 19 023260 3
Available for Kindle (£17.99 or $9.99) and in the iTunes Store (£18.99). I would expect the UK prices to fall now that the paperback edition has been published.

There can be few more daunting tasks than writing a readable and faithful account of the history of a language now spoken by over 300 million people, over a period of more than 350 years. This modest, brief and engaging book, now issued for the first time as a paperback, tackles this seemingly impossible task.

Sadly it is also the last work of Professor Bailey, who died after a long and highly distinguished career as a linguist specialising in this topic, with many years working on dictionaries and dialects of American English.

There are hundreds of books and review articles which dissect in great detail the historical development of British English, but remarkably few which give a coherent account of American English. Yet on both sides of the Atlantic there are popular myths, most notably that American English has simply evolved from ‘period’ British English, or is essentially the same apart from different pronunciation and spelling.

Bailey avoids writing as a linguist and casting the subject into conventional disciplines of phonology, morphology, lexicon, and grammar; instead he focusses on fifty-year periods set in different areas, in which language change illustrates the evolution of the language as a whole.

After fifteen pages of introductory hors d’oeuvres, his second chapter is set in Chesapeake Bay before 1650. Just as the history of those earliest settlements remains quite murky and indistinct, so the nature of the English that the first settlers brought with them is hard to define. We learn of the truth behind Pocahontas, are introduced to the founder principle and colonial lag, and how those are probably as unhelpful as the Pocahontas story itself.

The third chapter takes us to better documented times, around Boston in 1650-1700. Here the distinct traditions of the Puritan and Quaker colonies had different effects on the emerging local tongue, and Bailey mines legal records for valuable evidence as to how the language was developing. There is also a succinct and clear account of the famous rhotic r, an important topic which he revisits later.

Bailey then took me into unfamiliar territory in the fourth chapter, covering Charleston (or, as it was then, Charles Town) in 1700-1750. Here there is the combined interest of contributions from native Americans and African-Caribbean slaves. A fascinating vignette on the indicator word backra gives insight into Barbadian connections, and the memorable phrase “many hairs shy of a haircut”.

Bailey is sceptical of the many speculative claims of an Atlantic creole which came to form a foundation for later American English, pointing out shortcomings in the evidence for Gullah as an example. He also draws attention to the continuing and influential exchange with Britain.

His fifth chapter moves to Philadelphia in 1750-1800, which I was astonished to see was at the time the third largest city in the British Empire. Bailey uses the naturalist and explorer John Bartram, and his German translator Conrad Weiser, as a point of entry into the naming of local plant species. He then considers the history and influence of Swedish and German, including Benjamin Franklin and the Franklin College. With the added contributions of Scottish and Irish English, these were increasing diversity within American English.

The theme of diversity continues into the sixth chapter, on New Orleans in 1800-1850. Acquired by the United States together with much of the mid-West in 1803 as part of its Louisiana Purchase, multilingualism came with the deal. French was the dominant language, but there were many Germans too, and in Orleans parish the majority of the population was of African origin. Bailey draws fascinating parallels between New Orleans from 1803 and London from 1348, with respect to epidemics such as the annual outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera. Here he considers the effects on the grammar of American English, as well as its lexicon and spelling.

I felt that I was back in more familiar territory in the seventh chapter, on New York in 1850-1900, during which its population shot from around 650,000 in Manhattan and Brooklyn to nearly 3.5 million. Bailey credits Mary Louise Booth (1867) with the concept that New York was comprised of a “strange mosaic of different nations”, which had shaped its English into “a universal language – the only tongue that should be spoken by the people of a New World.”

The rest of this chapter then shows different ingredients in that amalgam, including the extraordinary Astor Place riot of 1849. In that about thirty people died and more than 250 were injured as the result of a pitched battle between mobs supporting rival Shakespearian actors, which could have boiled down to a dispute over whether American or British English was the better vehicle for Shakespeare.

Bailey here records the rise of those trying to improve their English, and the peevers who fed them aids to that quest. I was also astonished to learn that until 1875 there was no English name for one of the most influential languages on American English at the time, Yiddish.

The eighth chapter, on Chicago in 1900-1950, establishes the Midwest as the centre for English linguistics, language improvement, and further development in lexicon and usage. For example the word clout was here used for personal or private influence. Chicago’s explosive growth in business and communications spawned and spread words and new meanings for existing words, before US entry into World War 1 caused a wave of anti-German and pro-English prejudice. Bailey also treats us to a careful introduction to the phonology of Chicago English, and its origins, before considering the influences of gangsters and jazz.

The final full chapter, on Los Angeles in 1950-2000, will inevitably be the most real to many readers, from their own memories and the global influence of Hollywood. Starting with Evelyn Waugh and yearnings for British English, Bailey explores the influence of Disney and the wholesale export of American English in movies. He then passes through beach culture, Valspeak, and the assimilation to English of most multilingual communities, before ending with ongoing proposals to make American English the official language of the US.

The text concludes with a brief epilogue.

There are unobtrusive but valuable footnotes throughout the book, and 14 pages of references to ensure that we are pointed in very many right directions for further reading. The single, general index is good, but as ever I wish that we could have had an index of words whose origins are mentioned in the text. It is also a shame that the opportunity of this paperback edition was not used to correct a minor misprint, in the name of John Jacob Astor on page 126.


Like others who do not just know but thoroughly understand their subject, Professor Bailey has left us with a fascinating, eminently readable, and deeply insightful account of the history of American English. Its narrative has been carefully honed over decades of research, and teaching, each etymology and glimpse of American history selected to build its coherence.

Had he attempted a precis of a much more detailed description, darting around time and locations, this would so readily have become cerebral spaghetti. By focussing on eight locations and periods, he has not only achieved this daunting task, but has given us the clearest possible understanding of where most of English has relatively recently been, and how and why it has got where it is now.

If most great men are only known by brief epitaphs, I hope that Professor Bailey will be known by this book. It is the one book on American English that every English speaker – American, British, Australian, or wherever – should read.