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

II. The Beginnings of American

1. The First Differentiation

WILLIAM GIFFORD, the first editor of the Quarterly Review, is authority for the tale that a plan was set on foot during the Revolution for the abandonment of English as the national language of America, and the substitution of Hebrew in its place. An American chronicler, Charles Astor Bristed, makes the proposed tongue Greek, and reports that the change was rejected on the ground that “it would be more convenient for us to keep the language as it is, and make the English speak Greek.” The story, though it has the support of the editors of the Cambridge History of American Literature, has an apocryphal smack; one suspects that the savagely anti-American Gifford invented it. But, true or false, it well indicates the temper of those times. The passion for complete political independence of England bred a general hostility to all English authority, whatever its character, and that hostility, in the direction of present concern to us, culminated in the revolutionary attitude of Noah Webster’s “Dissertations on the English Language,” printed in 1789. Webster harbored no fantastic notion of abandoning English altogether, but he was eager to set up American as a distinct and independent dialect. “Let us,” he said, “seize the present moment, and establish a national language as well as a national government.… As an independent nation our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government.”

Long before this the challenge had been flung. Scarcely two years after the Declaration of Independence Franklin was instructed by Congress, on his appointment as minister to France, to employ “the language of the United States,” not simply English, in all his “replies or answers” to the communications of the ministry of Louis XVI. And eight years before the Declaration Franklin himself had invented a new American alphabet and drawn up a characteristically American scheme of spelling reform, and had offered plenty of proof in it, perhaps unconsciously, that the standards of spelling and pronunciation in the New World had already diverged noticeably from those accepted on the other side of the ocean. In acknowledging the dedication of Webster’s “Dissertations” Franklin endorsed both his revolt against English domination and his forecast of widening differences in future, though protesting at the same time against certain Americanisms that have since come into good usage, and even migrated to England. Nor was this all. “A Scotchman of the name of Thornton,” having settled in the new republic and embraced its Kultur with horrible fervor, proposed a new alphabet even more radical than Franklin’s and, according to Gifford, was doubly honored by the American Philosophical Society for his project, first by being given its gold medal and secondly by having his paper printed in its Transactions. This new alphabet included e’s turned upside down and i’s with their dots underneath. “Di Amrik languids,” he argued, “uil ds bi az distint az d gvrnmnt, fri from aul foliz or nfilosofikl fasn.”

Franklin’s protest to Webster was marked by his habitual mildness, but in other quarters dissent was voiced with far less urbanity. The growing independence of the colonial dialect, not only in its spoken form, but also in its most dignified written form, had begun, indeed, to attract the attention of purists in both England and America, and they sought to dispose of it in its infancy by force majeure. One of the first and most vigorous of the attacks upon it at home was delivered by John Witherspoon, a Scotch clergyman who came out in 1769 to be president of Princeton in partibus infidelium. This Witherspoon brought a Scotch hatred of the English with him, and at once became a leader of the party of independence; he signed the Declaration to the tune of much rhetoric, and was the only clergyman to sit in the Continental Congress. But in matters of learning he was orthodox to the point of immovability, and the strange locutions that he encountered on all sides aroused his pedagogic ire. “I have heard in this country,” he wrote in 1781, “in the senate, at the bar, and from the pulpit, and see daily in dissertations from the press, errors in grammar, improprieties and vulgarisms which hardly any person of the same class in point of rank and literature would have fallen into in Great Britian.” It was Witherspoon who coined the word Americanism—and at once the English guardians of the sacred vessels began employing it as a general synonym for vulgarism and barbarism. Another learned immigrant, the Rev. Jonathan Boucher, soon joined him. This Boucher was a friend of Washington, but was driven back to England by his Loyalist sentiments. He took revenge by printing various charges against the Americans, among them that of “making all the haste they can to rid themselves of the [English] language.” He was vigorously supported by many Englishmen, including Samuel Johnson, whose detestation of all things American is familiar to every reader of Boswell. Johnson’s recognition of and aversion to Americanisms, in fact, long antedated the Revolution. When, in 1756, one Lewis Evans published a volume of “Geographical, Historical, Philosophical, and Mechanical Essays,” with a map, the sage wrote of it: “The map is engraved with sufficient beauty, and the treatise written with such elegance as the subject admits, though not without some mixture of the American dialect; a trace of corruption to which every language widely diffused must always be exposed.”

After the adoption of the Constitution nearly all the British reviews began to maintain an eager watchfulness for these abhorrent inventions, and to denounce them, when found, with vast acerbity. The Monthly Review opened the new offensive in July, 1797, with an attack upon the American spelling in Webster’s “Dissertations,” and the European Magazine and London Review joined it a month later with a violent diatribe against Jefferson’s Americanisms in his “Notes on Virginia.” “For shame, Mr. Jefferson!” it roared. “Why, after trampling upon the honour of our country, and representing it as little better than a land of barbarism—why, we say, perpetually trample also upon the very grammar of our language, and make that appear as Gothic as, from your description, our manners are rude?—Freely, good sir, will we forgive all your attacks, impotent as they are illiberal, upon our national character; but for the future spare—O spare, we beseech you, our mother-tongue!” The Edinburgh joined the charge in October, 1804, with a patronizing article upon John Quincy Adams’ “Letters on Silesia.” “The style of Mr. Adams,” it said, “is in general very tolerable English; which, for an American composition, is no moderate praise.” The usual American book of the time, it went on, was full of “affectations and corruptions of phrase,” and they were even to be found in “the enlightened state papers of the two great Presidents.” The Edinburgh predicted that a “spurious dialect” would prevail, “even at the Court and in the Senate of the United States,” and that the Americans would thus “lose the only badge that is still worn of our consanguinity.” The appearance of the five volumes of Chief Justice Marshall’s “Life of George Washington,” from 1804 to 1807, brought forth corrective articles from the British Critic, the Critical Review, the Annual, the Monthly, and the Eclectic. The Edinburgh, in 1808, declared that the Americans made “it a point of conscience to have no aristocratical distinctions—even in their vocabulary.” They thought, it went on, “one word as good as another, provided its meaning be as clear.” The Monthly Mirror, in March of the same year, denounced “the corruptions and barbarities which are hourly obtaining in the speech of our trans-atlantic colonies (sic),” and reprinted with approbation a parody by some anonymous Englishman of the American style of the day. Here is an extract from it, with the words that the author regarded as Americanisms in italics:

  • In America authors are to be found who make use of new or obsolete words which no good writer in this country would employ; and were it not for my destitution of leisure, which obliges me to hasten the occlusion of these pages, as I progress I should bottom my assertation on instances from authors of the first grade; but were I to render my sketch lengthy I should illy answer the purpose which I have in view.
  • The British Critic, in April, 1808, admitted somewhat despairingly that the damage was already done—that “the common speech of the United States has departed very considerably from the standard adopted in England.” The others, however, sought to stay the flood by invective against Marshall and, later, against his rival biographer, the Rev. Aaron Bancroft. The Annual, in 1808, pronounced its high curse and anathema upon “that torrent of barbarous phraseology” which was pouring across the Atlantic, and which threatened “to destroy the purity of the English language.” In Bancroft’s “Life of George Washington” (1808), according to the British Critic, there were gross Americanisms, inordinately offensive to Englishmen, “at almost every page.”

    The Rev. Jeremy Belknap, long anticipating Elwyn, White and Lounsbury, tried to obtain a respite from this abuse by pointing out the obvious fact that many of the Americanisms under fire were merely survivors of an English that had become archaic in England, but this effort counted for little, for on the one hand the British purists enjoyed the chase too much to give it up, and on the other hand there began to dawn in America a new spirit of nationality, at first very faint, which viewed the differences objected to, not with shame, but with a fierce sort of pride. In the first volume of the North American Review William Ellery Channing spoke out boldly for “the American language and literature,” and a year later Pickering published his defiant dictionary of “words and phrases which have been supposed to be peculiar to the United States.” This thin collection of 500 specimens sets off a dispute which yet rages on both sides of the Atlantic. Pickering, however, was undismayed. He had begun to notice the growing difference between the English and American vocabulary and pronunciation, he said, while living in London from 1799 to 1801, and he had made his collections with the utmost care, and after taking counsel with various prudent authorities, both English and American. Already in the first year of the century, he continued, the English had accused the people of the new republic of a deliberate “design to effect an entire change in the language,” and while no such design was actually harbored, the facts were the facts, and he cited the current newspapers, the speeches from pulpit and rostrum, and Webster himself in support of them. This debate over Pickering’s list, as I say, still continues. Lounsbury, entrenched behind his grotesque categories, once charged that four-fifths of the words in it had “no business to be there,” and Gilbert M. Tucker has argued that “not more than about fifty” of them were genuine Americanisms. But a careful study of the list, in comparison with the early quotations collected by Thornton, seems to indicate that both of these judgments, and many others no less, have done injustice to Pickering. He made the usual errors of the pioneer, but his sound contributions to the subject were anything but inconsiderable, and it is impossible to forget his diligence and his constant shrewdness. He established firmly the native origin of a number of words now in universal use in America—e. g., backwoodsman, breadstuffs, caucus, clapboard, sleigh and squatter—and of such familiar derivatives as qubernatorial and dutiable, and he worked out the genesis of not a few loan-words, including prairie, scow, rapids, hominy and barbecue. It was not until 1848, when the first edition of Bartlett appeared, that his work was supplanted.