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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

V. Dialect Writers

§ 13. General Uniformity of American Speech

The resemblances, however, existing among the dialects of the different sections of the United States are so great, and the differences so slight, that one hesitates to call these speech peculiarities dialects at all. The reign of the newspaper, diffused educational facilities, increasing means of travel and transportation, together with the American passion for a standardized average of correctness, have checked the tendency to dialect that the colonists brought with them. The effort now making in England, through the Society for Pure English, to restore the old words and racy idioms that survive in the Cornish, Sussex, and Northumbrian dialects and thus to enrich and revitalize standard English, could hardly find imitation in this country, because there are no American dialects that offer corresponding rewards. The differences between the New England dialect, the Southern dialect, and the Western dialect, for example, are differences in pronunciation, in intonation, in stress, and slurring, not primarily in the loss or preservation of old words or old idioms. The speech of the mountain districts, especially that of the Southern Appalachian region, retains, it is true, a few words and locutions of old and honourable origin; but these are by no means numerous enough to be used for regenerative purposes on a large scale. Hit (it), holp (helped), ax (ask), afeard (afraid), fray (combat), fraction (as in Troilus and Cressida II, III, 107), antic (clown), humans (human beings), mought (might), Old Christmas (6 January), hone (yearn), tilth (agriculture), back a letter (address an envelope), and a few others may be heard in the mountains of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. But to affirm that in this dialect or in the dialect of any other part of the United States is to be found our best reservoir of fresh and vigorous English or our surest safeguard against slovenly pronunciation would be manifestly absurd.

While much remains to be done in accurately classifying American speech peculiarities, it needs no proof that the strongest impetus to a fresh study and appraisal of American dialect was given by James Russell Lowell in his Biglow Papers (1848, 1866) and in the Introductions with which he prefaced them. The early masters of the short story, Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne, looked askance at dialect, as did Longfellow and Whittier in their abolition poems. But Bret Harte gave new force to Lowell’s views by his effective use of dialect in the stories of the forty-niners, and from 1870 to the present time dialect has played a leading part in the attempt to portray and interpret American character against the background of social environment. Edward Eggleston, who brought a new dialect into literature in The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1871), spoke for all his colleagues when he said:

  • If I were a dispassionate critic, and were set to judge my own novels as the writings of another, I should say that what distinguishes them from other works of fiction is the prominence which they give to social conditions; that the individual characters are here treated to a greater degree than elsewhere as parts of a study of a society—as in some sense the logical results of the environment. Whatever may be the rank assigned to these stories as works of literary art, they will always have a certain value as materials for the student of social history.
  • With the exception of the negro dialects and those that are more French or German than English, American dialects fall into three groups, those of New England, the South, and the West. The dialect employed by Bret Harte has often been criticized as belonging to no one of these groups. The charge is made that it is merely an importation of cockney English. The critics, however, when pressed for proof, have been able to cite only the use of which in such initial sentences as

  • Which I wish to remark,
  • And my language is plain.
  • This is undoubtedly cockney English, but it is American as well, though it has always been and still is rarely heard.Bret Harte’s dialect has also been subjected to criticism on the charge of being too clever. It seems at times to be the author’s own creation rather than a transcript of speech actually current in California at the time. Much of this criticism turns on the failure to distinguish between dialect and slang, slang having a right to be original. The society, moreover, that Bret Harte portrays was unique in its compositeness. There were preachers, teachers, lawyers, and doctors among those who flocked to California as well as toughs, tramps, dead-beats, and illiterates. “The faith, courage, vigor, youth, and capacity for adventure necessary to this emigration,” says Bret Harte, “produced a body of men as strongly distinctive as were the companions of Jason.” William Grey describes the pioneers with whom he went to California as “a fine-looking and well educated body of men,—all young.” That the language of these men should be picturesque and representative in its idiom and as intellectual as the occasion might demand, is not surprising. Investigation has shown that of Bret Harte’s three hundred dialect words and phrases a mere handful remain unidentified as American.