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

III. The Period of Growth

5. Pronunciation Before the Civil War

NOAH WEBSTER, as we saw in the last chapter, sneered at the broad a, in 1789, as an Anglomaniac affectation. In the course of the next 25 years, however, he seems to have suffered a radical change of mind, for in “The American Spelling Book,” published in 1817, he ordained it in ask, last, mass, aunt, grass, glass and their analogues, and in his 1829 revision he clung to this pronunciation, besides adding master, pastor, amass, quaff, laugh, craft, etc., and even massive. His authority was sufficient to safeguard the broad a in the speech of New England, and it has remained there ever since, though often showing considerable variations from the true English a. Between 1830 and 1850, according to Grandgent, it ran riot through the speech of the region, and was even introduced into such words as handsome, matter, apple, caterpiller, pantry, hammer, practical and satisfaction. Oliver Wendell Holmes, in 1857, protested against it in “The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table,” but the great majority of New England schoolmasters were with Webster, and so the protest went for naught. There is some difficulty, at this distance and in the absence of careful investigation, about determining just what sound the great lexicographer advocated. His rival, Worcester, in 1830, recommended a sound intermediate between ah and the flat a. “To pronounce the words fast, last, glass, grass, dance, etc.,” he said, “with the proper sound of short a, as in hat, has the appearance of affectation; and to pronounce them with the full Italian sound of a, as in part, father, seems to border on vulgarism.” Grandgent says that this compromise a never made much actual progress—that the New Englanders preferred the “Italian a” recommended by Webster, whatever it was. Apparently it was much nearer to the a in father than to the a in all. A quarter of a century after Webster’s death, Richard Grant White distinguished clearly between these a’s, and denounced the former as “a British peculiarity.” Frank H. Vizetelly, writing in 1917, still noted the difference, particularly in such words as daunt, saunter and laundry; some Americans, pronouncing these words, use one a, and some use the other. At the present time, says Grandgent, “the broad a of New Englanders, Italiante though it be, is not so broad as that of Old England.… Our grass really lies between the grahs of a British lawn and the grass of the boundless prairies.” In the cities, he adds, it has been “shaken by contact with the Irish,” and is now restricted to “a few specific classes of words—especially those in which an a (sometimes an au) is followed by a final r, by an r that precedes another consonant, by an m written lm, or by the sound of f, s, or th: as far, hard, balm, laugh, pass, rather, path. In the first two categories, and in the word father, ah possesses nearly all the English-speaking territory; concerning the other classes there is a wide divergence, although flat a appears everywhere to be disappearing from words like balm. Uankeedom itself is divided over such combinations as ant, can’t, dance, example, in which a nasal and another consonant follow the vowel; anut, however, always has broad a. Ah, in this region, is best preserved in rural communities and among people of fashion, the latter being more or less under British influence.”

But the imprimatur of the Yankee Johnson was not potent enough to establish the broad a outside New England. He himself, compromising in his old age, allowed the flat a in stamp and vase. His successor and rival, Lyman Cobb, decided for it in pass, draft, and dance, though he advocated the ah-sound in laugh, path, daunt and saunter. By 1850 the flat a was dominant everywhere west of the Berkshires and south of New Haven, save for what Grandgent calls “a little ah-spot in Virginia,” and its sound had even got into such proper names as Alabama and Lafayette. “In the United States beyond the Hudson—perhaps beyond the Connecticut,” says Grandgent, “the flat a prevails before f, s, th, and n.”

Webster failed in a number of his other attempts to influence support American pronunciation. His advocacy of deef for deaf had popular support while he lived, and he dredged up authority for it out of Chaucer and Sir William Temple, but the present pronunciation gradually prevailed, though deef remains familiar in the common speech. Joseph E. Worcester and other rival lexicographers stood against many of his pronunciations, and he took the field against them in the prefaces to the successive editions of his spelling-books. Thus, in that to “The Elementary Spelling Book,” dated 1829, he denounced the “affectation” of inserting a y-sound before the u in such words as gradual and nature, with its compensatory change of d into dj and of t into ch. The English lexicographer, John Walker, had argued for this “affectation” in 1791, but Webster’s prestige, while he lived, remained so high in some quarters that he carried the day, and the older professors at Yale, it is said, continued to use natur down to 1839. He favored the pronunciation of either and neither as ee-ther and nee-ther, and so did most of the English authorities of his time. The original pronunciation of the first syllable, in England, probably made it rhyme with bay, but the ee-sound was firmly established by the end of the eighteenth century. Toward the middle of the following century, however, there arose a fashion of an ai-sound, and this affectation was borrowed by certain Americans. Gould, in the 50’s, put the question, “Why do you say i-ther and ni-ther?” to various Americans. The reply he got was: “The words are so pronounced by the best-educated people in England.” This imitation still prevails in the cities of the East. “All of us,” says Lounsbury, “are priviledged in these latter days frequently to witness painful struggles put forth to give to the first syllable of these words the sound of i by those who who have been brought up to give it the sound of e. There is apparently an impression on the part of some that such a pronunciation establishes on a firm foundation an otherwise doubtful social standing.” But the overwhelming majority of Americans continue to say ee-ther and not eye-ther. White and Vizetelly, like Lounsbury, argue that they are quite correct in so doing. The use of eye-ther, says White, is no more than “a copy of a second-rate British affectation.”