Standard American English: Usage & Language Conventions

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  • 0:00 What is Standard…
  • 1:18 Usage Changing
  • 2:39 How It Changes
  • 3:22 Constantly Evolving Language
  • 4:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

If you are learning English, it is useful to know what kind of English to focus on. After all, we speak differently than people in the United Kingdom. This lesson focuses on Standard American English, the most popular English in the U.S.

What Is Standard American English?

More than 300 million people around the world speak Standard American English, but what is it exactly? Like many major languages, English is spoken in a number of different countries, each with its own distinct culture and dialect. In the United States, Standard American English is the dominant dialect, just as British English is the most popular in the United Kingdom. However, what is it exactly?

In short, Standard American English is a version of English that should be easily understood by just about anyone in the country. Turn on the TV, and unless they are focusing on a specific accent, chances are they are speaking in Standard American English. Want a better example? Find some clips from local news channels around the country - with a few exceptions, they all sound the same.

Still, despite being so standardized, Standard American English has changed greatly over the past decades, and it continues to change. In this lesson, we will look at how and why it changes, as well as gain an understanding for how learning Standard American English is a life-long process.

Usage Changing

Almost 30 years ago, the way one could describe something particularly pleasing was 'radical.' 10 years ago, the appropriate term would have been 'tight.' Today, 'radical' describes political beliefs, and 'tight' refers to a lack of looseness. However, these were not particularly specific instances of slang, but instead they worked their way into the language. New words and expressions are constantly finding new homes in Standard American English.

Not all of these words have their origin in English. Today, to be 'gung ho' about something means that one is willing to work hard to get a result. A hundred years ago, no one had ever heard the word. That's because it comes from Cantonese and means 'let's work together.' American servicemen in the China Sea heard the expression and made it part of American English.

To that end, other languages have a massive influence on Standard American English. This is most obvious in food. 15 years ago, people would have never said the word 'schwarma.' Today it's a common sandwich choice in major cities, especially those with a strong connection to the Middle East. In fact, it's such a new word that we can't even agree on how to spell it in English!

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