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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

I. Introductory

1. The Diverging Streams of English

THOMAS JEFFERSON, with his usual prevision, saw clearly more than a century ago that the American people, as they increased in numbers and in the diversity of their national interests and racial strains, would make changes in their mother tongue, as they had already made changes in the political institutions of their inheritance. “The new circumstances under which we are placed,” he wrote to John Waldo from Monticello on August 16, 1813, “call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects. An American dialect will therefore be formed.”

Nearly a quarter of a century before this, another great American, and one with an expertness in the matter that the too versatile Jefferson could not muster, had ventured upon a prophecy even more bold and specific. He was Noah Webster, then at the beginning of his stormy career as a lexicographer. In his little volume of “Dissertations on the English Language,” printed in 1789 and dedicated to “His Excellency, Benjamin Franklin, Esq., LL.D., F.R.S., late President of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Webster argued that the time for regarding English usage and submitting to English authority had already passed, and that “a future separation of the American tongue from the English” was “necessary and unavoidable.” “Numerous local causes,” he continued, “such as a new country, new associations of people, new combinations of ideas in arts and sciences, and some intercourse with tribes wholly unknown in Europe, will introduce new words into the American tongue. These causes will produce, in a course of time, a language in North America as different from the future language of England as the modern Dutch, Danish and Swedish are from the German, or from one another.”

Neither Jefferson nor Webster put a term upon his prophecy. They may have been thinking, one or both, of a remote era, not yet come to dawn, or they may have been thinking, with the facile imagination of those days, of a period even earlier than our own. In the latter case they allowed far too little (and particularly Webster) for factors that have worked powerfully against the influences they saw so clearly in operation about them. One of these factors, obviously, has been the vast improvement in communications across the ocean, a change scarcely in vision a century ago. It has brought New York relatively nearer to London today than it was to Boston, or even to Philadelphia, during Jefferson’s presidency, and that greater proximity has produced a steady interchange of ideas, opinions, news and mere gossip. We latter-day Americans know a great deal more about the everyday affairs of England than the early Americans did, for we read more English books, and find more about the English in our newspapers, and meet more Englishmen, and go to England much oftener. The effects of this ceaseless traffic in ideas and impressions, so plainly visible in politics, in ethics and æsthetics, and even in the minutiæ of social intercourse, are also to be seen in the language. On the one hand there is a swift exchange of new inventions on both sides, so that many of our American neologisms quickly pass to London and the latest English fashions in pronunciation are almost instantaneously imitated, at least by a minority, in New York; and, on the other hand, the English, by so constantly having the floor, force upon us, out of their firmer resolution and certitude, and no less out of the authority that goes with their mere cultural seniority, a somewhat sneaking respect for their own greater conservatism of speech, so that our professors of the language, in the overwhelming main, combat all signs of differentiation with the utmost diligence, and safeguard the doctrine that the standards of English are the only reputable standards of American.

This doctrine, of course, is not supported by the known laws of language, nor has it prevented the large divergences that we shall presently examine, but all the same it has worked steadily toward a highly artificial formalism, and as steadily against the investigation of the actual national speech. Such grammar, so-called, as is taught in our schools and colleges, is a grammar standing four-legged upon the theorizings and false inferences of English Latinists of a past generation, eager only to break the wild tongue of Shakespeare to a rule; and its frank aim is to create in us a high respect for a book language which few of us ever actually speak and not many of us even learn to write. That language, elaborately artificial though it may be, undoubtedly has merits. It shows a sonority and a stateliness that you must go to the Latin of the Golden Age to match; its “highly charged and heavy-shotted” periods, in Matthew Arnold’s phrase, serve admirably the obscurantist purposes of American pedagogy and of English parliamentary oratory and leader-writing; it is something for the literary artists of both countries to prove their skill upon by flouting it. But to the average American, bent upon expressing his ideas, not stupendously but merely clearly, it must always remain something vague and remote, like Greek history or the properties of the parabola, for he never speaks it or hears it spoken, and seldom encounters it in his everyday reading. If he learns to write it, which is not often, it is with a rather depressing sense of its artificiality. He may master it as a Korean, bred in the colloquial Onmun, may master the literary Korean-Chinese, but he never thinks in it or quite feels it.

This fact, I daresay, is largely responsible for the notorious failure of our schools and colleges to turn out pupils who can put their ideas into words with simplicity and intelligibility. What their professors try to teach is not their mother-tongue at all, but a dialect that stands quite outside their common experience, and into which they have to translate their thoughts, consciously and painfully. Bad writing consists in making the attempt, and failing through lack of practise. Good writing consists, as in the case of Howells, in deliberately throwing overboard the principles so elaborately inculcated, or, as in the case of Lincoln, in standing unaware of them. Thus the study of the language he is supposed to use, to the average American, takes on a sort of bilingual character. On the one hand, he is grounded abominably in a grammar and syntax that have always been largely artificial, even in the country where they are supposed to prevail, and on the other hand he has to pick up the essentials of his actual speech as best he may. “Literary English,” says Van Wyck Brooks, “with us is a tradition, just as Anglo-Saxon law with us is a tradition. They persist, not as the normal expressions of a race,… but through prestige and precedent and the will and habit of a dominating class largely out of touch with a national fabric unconsciously taking form out of school.” What thus goes on out of school does not interest most of the guardians of our linguistic morals. Now and then a Charters takes a somewhat alarmed peep into the materials of the vulgar speech, and now and then a Krapp investigates the pronunciation of actual Americans, but in the main there is little save a tedious repetition of nonsense. In no department are American universities weaker than in the department of English. The æsthetic opinion that they disseminate is flabby and childish, and their philological work in the national language is extraordinarily lacking in enterprise. No attempt to deduce the principles of vulgar American grammar from the everyday speech of the people has ever been made by an American philologist. There is no scientific study, general and comprehensive in scope, of the American vocabulary, or of the influences lying at the root of American word-formation. No professor, so far as I know, has ever deigned to give the same sober attention to the sermo plebeius of his country that his colleagues habitually give to the pronunciation of Latin, or to the irregular verbs in French.