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

VII. The Standard American Pronunciation

1. General Characters

“LANGUAGE,” said Sayce, in 1879, “does not consist of letters, but of sounds, and until this fact has been brought home to us our study of it will be little better than an exercise of memory.” The theory, at that time, was somewhat strange to English grammarians and etymologists, despite the investigations of A. J. Ellis and the massive lesson of Grimm’s law; their labors were largely wasted upon deductions from the written word. But since then, chiefly under the influence of German philologists, they have turned from orthographical futilities to the actual sounds of the tongue, and the latest and best grammar, that of Sweet, is frankly based upon, the spoken English of educated Englishmen—not, remember, of conscious purists, but of the general body of cultivated folk. Unluckily, this new method also has its disadvantages. The men of a given race and time usually write a good deal alike, or, at all events, attempt to write alike, but in their oral speech there are wide variations. “No two persons,” says a leading contemporary authority upon English phonetics, “pronounce exactly alike.” Moreover, “even the best speaker commonly uses more than one style.” The result is that it is extremely difficult to determine the prevailing pronunciation of a given combination of letters at any time and place. The persons whose speech is studied pronounce it with minute shades of difference, and admit other differences according as they are conversing naturally or endeavoring to exhibit their pronunciation. Worse, it is impossible to represent a great many of these shades in print. Sweet, trying to do it, found himself, in the end, with a preposterous alphabet of 125 letters. Prince L.-L. Bonaparte more than doubled this number, and Ellis brought it to 390. Other phonologists, English and Continental, have gone floundering into the same bog. The dictionary-makers, forced to a far greater economy of means, are brought into obscurity. The difficulties of the enterprise, in fact, are probably unsurmountable. It is, as White says, “almost impossible for one person to express to another by signs the sound of any word.” “Only the voice,” he goes on, “is capable of that; for the moment a sign is used the question arises, What is the value of that sign? The sounds of words are the most delicate, fleeting and inapprehensible things in nature. .… Moreover, the question arises as to the capability to apprehend and distinguish sounds on the part of the person whose evidence is given.” Certain German orthoëpists, despairing of the printed page, have turned to the phonograph, and there is a Deutsche Grammophon-Gesellschaft in Berlin which offers records of specimen speeches in a great many languages and dialects, including English. The phonograph has also been put to successful use in language teaching by various American correspondence schools.

In view of all this it would be hopeless to attempt to exhibit in print the numerous small differences between English and American pronunciation, for many of them are extremely delicate and subtle, and only their aggregation makes them plain. According to a recent and very careful observer the most important of them do not lie in pronunciation at all, properly so called, but in intonation. In this direction, he says, one must look for the true characters of “the English accent.” Despite the opinion of Krapp, a very competent authority, that “the American voice in general starts on a higher plane, is normally pitched higher than the British voice,” I incline to agree with White that the contrary is the case. The nasal twang which Englishmen observe in the vox Americana, though it has high overtones, is itself not high pitched, but rather low pitched, as all constrained and muffled tones are apt to be. The causes of that twang have long engaged phonologists, and in the main they agree that there is a physical basis for it—that our generally dry climate and rapid changes of temperature produce and actual thickening of the membranes concerned in the production of sound. We are, in brief, a somewhat snuffling people, and much more given to catarrhs and coryzas than the inhabitants of damp Britain. Perhaps this general impediment to free and easy utterance, subconsciously apprehended, is responsible both for the levelness of tone of American speech, noted by Krapp, and for the American tendency to pronounce the separate syllables of a word with much more care than an Englishman bestows upon them. “To British ears,” says Krapp, “American speech often sounds hesitating, monotonous and indecisive, and British speech, on the other hand, is likely to seem to Americans abrupt, explosive and manneristic.” The American, in giving extraordinary six careful and distinct syllables instead of the Englishman’s grudging four, may be seeking to make up for a natural disability. Marsh, in his “Lectures on the English Language,” sought two other explanations of the fact. On the one hand, he argued that the Americans of his day read a great deal more than the English, and were thus much more influenced by the spelling of words, and on the other hand he pointed out that “our flora shows that the climate of even our Northern States belongs … to a more Southern type than that of England,” and that “in Southern latitudes … articulation is generally much more distinct than in Northern regions.” In support of the latter proposition he cited the pronunciation of Spanish, Italian and Turkish, as compared with that of English, Danish and German—rather unfortunate examples, for the pronunciation of German is at least as clear as that of Spanish. Swedish would have supported his case far better: the Swedes debase their vowels and slide over their consonants even more markedly than the English. Marsh believed that there was a tendency among Southern peoples to throw the accent toward the ends of words, and that this helped to bring out all the syllables. A superficial examination shows a number of examples of that movement of accent in American: advertisement, paresis, pianist, primarily, telegrapher, temporarily. The English invariably accent all of these words on the first syllable; Americans usually accent primarily and telegrapher on the second, and temporarily on the third, and paresis and pianist on the second. Again there are frontier and harass. The English accent the first syllables; we accent the second. Yet again there is the verb, to perfect. Tucker says that its accentuation on the second syllable, “bringing it into harmony with perfume, cement, desert, present, produce, progress, project, rebel, record, and other words which are accented on the final syllable when used as verbs, originated in this country.” But when all these examples have been marshalled, the fact remains that there are just as many examples, and perhaps many more, of an exactly contrary tendency. The chief movement in American, in truth, would seem to be toward throwing the accent upon the first syllable. I recall mamma, papa, inquiry, ally, recess, details, idea, alloy, deficit, armistice and adult; I might add defect, excess, address, magazine, decoy and romance.

Thus it is unsafe, here as elsewhere, to generalize too facilely, and particularly unsafe to exhibit causes with too much assurance. “Man frage nicht warum,” says Philipp Karl Buttmann. “Der Sprachgebrauch lässt sich nur beobachten.” But the greater distinctness of American utterance, whatever its genesis and machinery, is palpable enough in many familiar situations. “The typical American accent,” says Vizetelly, “is often harsh and unmusical, but it sounds all of the letters to be sounded, and slurs, but does not distort, the rest.” An American, for example, almost always sounds the first l in fulfill; an Englishman makes the first syllable foo. An American sounds every syllable in extraordinary, literary, military, dysentery, temporary, necessarily, secretary and the other words of the -ary-group; an Englishman never pronounces the a of the penultimate syllable. Kindness, with the d silent, would attract notice in the United States; in England, according to Jones, the d is “very commonly, if not usually” omitted. Often, in America, commonly retains a full t; in England it is actually and officially offen. Let an American and an Englishman pronounce program (me). Though the Englishman retains the long form of the last syllable in writing, he reduces it in speaking to a thick triple consonant, grm; the American enunciates it clearly, rhyming it with damn. Or try the two with any word ending in -g, say sporting or ripping. Or with any word having r before a consonant, say card, harbor, lord or preferred. “The majority of Englishmen,” says Menner, “certainly do not pronounce the r …; just as certainly the majority of educated Americans pronounce it distinctly.” Henry James, visiting the United States after many years of residence in England, was much harassed by this persistent r-sound, which seemed to him to resemble “a sort of morose grinding of the back teeth.” So sensitive to it did he become that he began to hear it where it was actually non-existent, save as an occasional barbarism, for example, in Cuba-r, vanilla-r and California-r. He put the blame for it, and for various other departures from the strict canon of contemporary English, upon “the American school, the American newspaper, and the American Dutchman and Dago.” Unluckily for his case, the full sounding of the r came into American long before the appearance of any of these influences. The early colonists, in fact, brought it with them from England, and it still prevailed there in Dr. Johnson’s day, for he protested publicly against the “rough snarling sound” and led the movement which finally resulted in its extinction. Today, extinct, it is mourned by English purists, and the Poet Laureate denounces the clergy of the Established Church for saying “the sawed of the Laud” instead of “the sword of the Lord.”

But even in the matter of elided consonants American is not always the conservator. We cling to the r, we preserve the l in almond, we are relatively careful about the final g, we give nephew a clear f-sound instead of the clouded English v-sound, and we boldly nationalize trait and pronounce its final t, but we drop the second p from pumpkin and change the m to n, we change the ph (=f) sound to plain p in diphtheria, diphthong and naphtha, we relieve rind of its final d, we begin to neglect the d in landlady, handsome, grandmother, etc., and, in the complete sentence, we slaughter consonants by assimilation. I have heard Englishmen say brand-new, but on American lips it is almost invariably bran-new. So nearly universal is this nasalization in the United States that certain American lexicographers have sought to found the term upon bran and not upon brand. Here the national speech is powerfully influenced by Southern dialectical variations, which in turn probably derive partly from French example and partly from the linguistic limitations of the negro. The latter, even after two hundred years, has great difficulties with our consonants, and often drops them. A familiar anecdote well illustrates his speech habit. On a train stopping at a small station in Georgia a darkey threw up a window and yelled “Wah ee?” The reply from a black on the platform was “Wah oo?” A Northerner aboard the train, puzzled by this inarticulate dialogue, sought light from a Southern passenger, who promptly translated the first question as “Where is he?” and the second as “Where is who?” A recent viewer with alarm argues that this conspiracy against the consonants is spreading, and that English printed words no longer represent the actual sounds of the American language. “Like the French,” he says, “we have a marked liaison—the borrowing of a letter from the preceding word. We invite one another to c’ meer (=come here) .… Hoo-zat? (=who is that?) has as good a liaison as the French vous avez.” This critic believes that American tends to abandon t for d, as in Sadd’y (=Saturday) and siddup (=sit up), and to get rid of h, as in ware-zee? (=where is he?). But here we invade the vulgar speech, which belongs to Chapter IX. Even, however, in the standard speech there is a great slaughter of vowels. A correspondent of education, accustomed to observing accurately, sends me the following specimens of his own everyday conversation:

  • We mus’n’ b’lieve all th’ts said.
  • Wh’n y’ go t’ gi’ ch’ hat, please bring m’ mine.
  • Le’s go.
  • Would’n’ stay if’ could.
  • Keep on writin’ t’ll y’ c’n do ’t right.
  • But here, of course, we come upon the tendency to depress all vowels to the level of a neutral e—a tendency quite as visible in English as in American, though there are differences in detail. The two languages, however, seem to proceed toward phonetic decay on paths that tend to diverge more and more, and the divergences already in effect, though they may seem slight separately, are already of enough importance in the aggregate to put serious impediments between mutual comprehension. Let an Englishman and an American (not of New England) speak a quite ordinary sentence, “My aunt can’t answer for my dancing the lancers even passably,” and at once the gap separating the two pronunciations will be manifest. Add a dozen everyday words—military, schedule, trait, hostile, been, lieutenant, patent, laboratory, nephew, secretary, advertisement, and so on—and the strangeness of one to the other is augmented. “Every Englishman visiting the States for the first time,” said an English dramatist some time ago, “has a difficulty in making himself understood. stood. He often has to repeat a remark or a request two or three times to make his meaning clear, especially on railroads, in hotels and at bars. The American visiting England for the first time has the same trouble.” Despite the fact that American actors always imitate English pronunciation to the best of their skill, this visiting Englishman asserted that the average American audience is incapable of understanding a genuinely English company, at least “when the speeches are rattled off in conversational style.” When he presented one of his own plays with an English company, he said, many American acquaintances, after witnessing the performance, asked him to lend them the manuscript, “that they might visit it again with some understanding of the dialogue.” American speech is just as difficult for Englishmen.