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

VIII. American Spelling

6. The Treatment of Loan-Words

IN the treatment of loan-words English spelling is very much more conservative than American. This conservatism, in fact, is so marked that it is frequently denounced by English critics of the national speech usages, and it stood first among the “tendencies of modern taste” attacked by the Society for Pure English in its original prospectus in 1913—a prospectus prepared by Henry Bradley, Dr. Robert Bridges, Sir Walter Raleigh and L. Pearsall Smith, and signed by many important men of letters, including Thomas Hardy, A. J. Balfour, Edmund Gosse, Austin Dobson, Maurice Hewlett, Gilbert Murray, George Saintsbury and the professors of English literature at Oxford and London, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and W. P. Ker. I quote from this caveat:

  • Literary taste at the present time, with regard to foreign words recently borrowed from abroad, is on wrong lines, the notions which govern it being scientifically incorrect, tending to impair the national character of our standard speech, and to adapt it to the habits of classical scholars. On account of these alien associations our borrowed terms are now spelt and pronounced, not as English, but as foreign words, instead of being assimilated, as they were in the past, and brought into conformity with the main structure of our speech. And as we more and more rarely assimilate our borrowings, so even words that were once naturalized are being now one by one made un-English, and driven out of the language back into their foreign forms; whence it comes that a paragraph of serious English prose may be sometimes seen as freely sprinkled with italicized French words as a passage of Cicero is often interlarded with Greek. The mere printing of such words in italics is an active force toward degeneration. The Society hopes to discredit this tendency, and it will endeavour to restore to English its old recreative energy; when a choice is possible we should wish to give an English pronunciation and spelling to useful foreign words, and we would attempt to restore to a good many words the old English forms which they once had, but which are now supplanted by the original foreign forms.
  • A glance through any English weekly or review, or, indeed, any English newspaper of the slightest intellectual pretension will show how far this tendency has gone. All the foreign words that English must perforce employ for want of native terms of precisely the same import are carefully italicized and accented, e. g., matinèe, cafè, crêpe, dèbut, portiére, èclat, naïvetè, règime, rôle, soirèe, prècis, protègè, èlite, gemütlichkeit, mêlèe, tête-á-tête, porte-cochére, divorcèe, fiancèe, weltpolitik, weltschmerz, muzhik, ukase, dènouement. Even good old English words have been displaced by foreign analogues thought to be more elegant, e. g., repertory by rèpertoire, sheik by shaikh, czar by tsar, levee by levèe, moslem by muslim, khalifate by khilifat, said by seyd, crape by crêpe, supper by souper, Legion of Honor by Lègion d’honneur, gormand by gourmand, grip by la grippe, crown by krone. Proper names also yield to this new pedantry, and the London Times frequently delights the aluminados by suddenly making such substitutions as that of Serbia for Servia and that of Rumania for Roumania; in the course of time, if the warnings of the S. P. E. do not prevail, the English may be writing München, Kobenhavn, Napoli, Wien, Warszava, Bruxelles and s’Gravenhage; even today they commonly use Hannover, Habana and Leipzig. Nearly all the English papers are careful about the diacritical marks in proper names, e. g., Sévres, Zürich, Bülow, François, Frèdèric, Hèloise, Bogotà, Orlèans, Besançon, Rhône, Côted’Or, Württemberg. The English dictionaries seldom omit the accents from recent foreign words. Cassell’s leaves them off règime and dèbut, but preserves them on practically all the other terms listed above; the Concise Oxford always uses them.

    In the United States, as everyone knows, there is no such preciosity visible. Dèpôt became depot immediately it entered the language, and the same rapid naturalization has overtaken employè, matinèe, dèbutante, negligèe, tête-á-tête, exposè, rèsumè, hofbräu, and scores of other loan-words. Cafè is seldom seen with its accent, nor is senor or divorcèe or attachè. In fact, says a recent critic, “the omission of the diacritic is universal. Even the English press of French New Orleans ignores it.” This critic lists some rather amazing barbarisms, among them standchen for ständchen in Littell’s Living Age, outre for outrè in Judge, and Poincaire, Poincare and Poinciarre for Poincarè in an unnamed newspaper. He gives an amusing account of the struggles of American newspapers with thè dansant. He says:

  • Put this through the hopper of the typesetting machine, and it comes forth, “the the dansant”—which even Oshkosh finds intolerable. The thing was, however, often attempted when thes dansants came into fashion, and with various results. Generally the proof-reader eliminates one of the the’s, making dansant a quasi-noun, and to this day one reads of people giving or attending dansants. Latterly the public taste seems to favor dansante, which doubtless has a Frenchier appearance, provided you are sufficiently ignorant of the Gallic tongue. Two other solutions of the difficulty may be noted:
  • Among those present at the “the dansant”;
  • Among those present at the the-dansant;
  • that is, either a hyphen or quotation marks set off the exotic phrase.

    Even when American newspapers essay to use accents, they commonly use them incorrectly. The same critic reports Piérre for Pierre, má for ma, and buffèt, buffêt and even buffet for buffet. But they seldom attempt to use them, and in this iconoclasm they are supported by at least one professor, Brander Matthews. In speaking of naïve and naïvetè, which he welcomes because “we have no exact equivalent for either word,” he says: “but they will need to shed their accents and to adapt themselves somehow to the traditions of our orthography.” He goes on: “After we have decided that the foreign word we find knocking at the doors of English [he really means American, as the context shows] is likely to be useful, we must fit it for naturalization by insisting that it shall shed its accents, if it has any; that it shall change its spelling, if this is necessary; that it shall modify its pronunciation, if this is not easy for us to compass; and that it shall conform to all our speech-habits, especially in the formation of the plural.” This counsel is heeded by the great majority of American printers. I have found bozart (for beaux arts) on the first page of a leading American newspaper, and a large textile corporation widely advertises Bozart rugs. Exposè long since lost its accent and is now commonly pronounced to rhyme with propose. In the common speech the French word beau has been naturalized as bo, and is often so spelled. Schmierkäse has become smearkase. The sauer, in sauer-kraut and sauer-braten, is often spelled sour. Cole-slaw, has become cold-slaw. Canon is canyon. I have even seen jonteel, in a trade name, for the French gentil.

    American newspapers seldom distinguish between the masculine and feminine forms of common loan-words. Blond and blonde are used indiscriminately. The majority of papers, apparently mistaking blond for a simplified form of blonde, use it to designate both sexes. So with employèe, divorcèe, dèbutante, etc. Here the feminine form is preferred; no doubt it has been helped into use in the case of the -ee words by the analogy of devotee. In all cases, of course, the accents are omitted. In the formation of the plural American adopts native forms much more quickly than English. All the English authorities that I have consulted advocate retaining the foreign plurals of most of the loan-words in daily use, e. g., sanatoria, appendices, indices, virtuosi, formulœ, libretti, media, thèsdansants, monsignori. But American usage favors plurals of native design, and sometimes they take quite fantastic forms. I have observed delicatessens, monsignors, virtuosos, rathskellers, kindergartens, nucleuses and appendixes. Even the Journal of the American Medical Association, a highly scientific authority, goes so far as to approve curriculums and septums. Banditti, in place of bandits, would seem an affectation to an American, and so would soprani for sopranos and soli for solos, but the last two, at least, are common in England. Both English and American labor under the lack of native plurals for the two everyday titles, Mister and Missus. In the written speech, and in the more exact forms of the spoken speech, the French plurals, Messieurs and Mesdames, are used, but in the ordinary spoken speech, at least in America, they are avoided by circumlocution. When Messieurs has to be spoken it is almost invariably pronounced messers, and in the same way Mesdames becomes mez-dames, with the first syllable rhyming with sez and the second, which bears the accent, with games. In place of Mesdames a more natural form, Madames, seems to be gaining ground in America. Thus, I have found Dames du Sacrè Cœur translated as Madames of the Sacred Heart in a Catholic paper of wide circulation, and the form is apparently used by American members of the community.

    Dr. Louise Pound notes that a number of Latin plurals tend to become singular nouns in colloquial American, notably curricula, data, dicta, insignia and strata, and with them a few Greek plurals, e. g., criteria and phenomena. She reports hearing the following uses of them: “The curricula of the institution is being changed,” “This data is very significant,” “The dicta, ‘Go West,’ is said to have come from Horace Greeley,” “What is that insignia on his sleeve?”, “This may be called the Renaissance strata of loan-words,” “That is no criteria,” and “What a strange phenomena!”—all by speakers presumed to be of some education. The error leads to the creation of double plurals, e. g., curriculas, insignias, stratas, stimulis, alumnis, bacillis, narcissis. The Latin names of plants lead to frequent blunders. Cosmos and gladiolus are felt to be plurals, and from them, by folk-etymology, come the false singulars, cosma and gladiola. Dr. Pound notes many other barbarous plurals, not mentioned above, e. g., antennas, cerebras, alumnas, alumnuses, narcissuses, apparatuses, emporiums, opuses, criterions, amœbas, cactuses, phenomenons.