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

IX. The Common Speech

10. Vulgar Pronunciation

BEFORE anything approaching a thorough and profitable study of the sounds of the American common speech is possible, there must be a careful assembling of the materials, and this, unfortunately, still awaits a phonologist of sufficient enterprise and equipment. Dr. William A. Read, of the State University of Louisiana, has made some excellent examinations of vowel and consonant sounds in the South, Dr. Louise Pound has done capital work of the same sort in the Middle West, and there have been other regional studies of merit. But most of these become misleading by reason of their lack of scope; forms practically universal in the nation are discussed as dialectical variations. This is a central defect in the work of the American Dialect Society, otherwise very industrious and meritorious. It is essaying to study localisms before having first platted the characteristics of the general speech. The dictionaries of Americanisms deal with pronunciation only casually, and often very inaccurately; the remaining literature is meagre and unsatisfactory. Until the matter is gone into at length it will be impossible to discuss any phase of it with exactness. No single investigator can examine the speech of the whole country; for that business a pooling of forces is necessary. But meanwhile it may be of interest to set forth a few provisional ideas.

At the start two streams of influence upon vulgar American pronunciation may be noted, the one an inheritance from the English of the colonists, and the other arising spontaneously within the country, and apparently much colored by immigration. The first influence, it goes without saying, is gradually dying out. Consider, for example, the pronunciation of the diphthong oi. In Middle English it was as in boy, but during the early Modern English period it was assimilated with that of the i in wine, and this usage prevailed at the time of the settlement of America. The colonists thus brought it with them, and at the same time it lodged in Ireland, where it still prevails. But in England, during the pedantic eighteenth century, this i-sound was displaced by the original oi-sound, not by historical research but by mere deduction from the spelling, and the new pronunciation soon extended to the polite speech of America. In the common speech, however, the i-sound persisted, and down to the time of the Civil War it was constantly heard in such words as boil, hoist, oil, join, poison and roil, which thus became bile, hist, ile, jine, pisen and rile. Since then the school-marm has combated it with such vigor that it has begun to disappear, and such forms as pisen, jine, bile and ile are now very seldom heard, save as dialectic variations. But in certain other words, perhaps supported by Irish influence, the i-sound still persists. Chief among them are hoist and roil. An unlearned American, wishing to say that he was enraged, never says that he was roiled, but always that he was riled. Desiring to examine the hoof of his horse, he never orders the animal to hoist but always to hist. In the form of booze-hister the latter is almost in good usage. I have seen booze-hister thus spelled and obviously to be thus pronounced, in an editorial article in the American Issue, organ of the Anti-Saloon League of America.

Various similar misplaced vowels were brought from England by the colonists and have persisted in America, while dying out of good English usage. There is, for example, short i in place of long e, as in critter for creature. Critter is common to almost all the dialects of English, but American has embedded the vowel in a word that is met with nowhere else and has thus become characteristic, to wit, crick for creek. Nor does any other dialect make such extensive use of slick for sleek. Again, there is the substitution of the flat a for the broad a, as in sassy and apple-sass. England has gone back to the broad a, but in America the flat a persists, and many Americans who use sassy every day would scarcely recognize saucy if they heard it. Yet again, there is quoit. Originally, the English pronounced it quate, but now they pronounce the diphthong as in doily. In the United States the quate pronunciation remains. Finally, there is deaf. Its proper pronunciation, in the England that the colonists left, was deef, but it now rhymes with Jeff. That new pronunciation has been adopted by polite American, despite the protests of Noah Webster, but in the common speech the word is still deef.

However, a good many of the vowels of the early days have succumbed to pedagogy. The American proletarian may still use skeer for scare, but in most of the other words of that class he now uses the vowel approved by correct English usage. Thus he seldom permits himself such old forms as dreen for drain, keer for care, skeerce for scarce or even cheer for chair. The Irish influence supported them for a while, but now they are fast going out. So, too, are kivver for cover, crap for crop, and chist for chest. But kittle for kettle still shows a certain vitality, rench is still used in place of rinse, and squinch in place of squint, and a flat a continues to displace various e-sounds in such words as rare for rear (e. g., as a horse), thrash for thresh, and wrassle for wrestle. Contrariwise, e displaces a in catch and radish, which are commonly pronounced ketch and reddish. This e-sound was once accepted in standard English; when it got into spoken American it was perfectly sound; one still hears it from the most pedantic lips in any. There are also certain other ancients that show equally unbroken vitality among us, for example, stomp for stamp, snoot for snout, guardeen for guardian, janders for jaundice, muss for mess, and champeen for champion.

But all these vowels, whether approved or disapproved, have been under the pressure, for the past century, of a movement toward a general vowel neutralization, and in the long run it promises to dispose of many of them. The same movement also affects standard English, as appears by Robert Bridges’ “Tract on the Present State of English Pronunciation,” but I believe that it is stronger in America, and will go farther, at least with the common speech, if only because of our unparalleled immigration. Standard English has 19 separate vowel sounds. No other living tongue of Europe, save Portuguese, has so many; most of the others have a good many less; Modern Greek has but five. The immigrant, facing all these vowels, finds some of them quite impossible; the Russian Jew, for example, cannot manage ur. As a result, he tends to employ a neutralized vowel in the situations which present difficulties, and this neutralized vowel, supported by the slip-shod speech-habits of the native proletariat, makes steady progress. It appears in many of the forms that we have been examining—in the final a of would-a, vaguely before the n in this’n and off’n, in place of the original d in use’ to, and in the common pronunciation of such words as been, come and have, particularly when they are sacrificed to sentence exigencies, as in “I b’n thinking,” “c’m ’ere,” and “he would’ve saw you.”

Here we are upon a wearing down process that shows many other symptoms. One finds, not only vowels disorganized, but also consonants. Some are displaced by other consonants, measurably more facile; others are dropped altogether. D becomes the unvoiced t, as in holt, or is dropped, as in tole, han’kerchief, bran-new, di’nt (=didn’t) and fine (for find). In ast (for ask) t replaces k; when the same word is used in place of asked, as often happens, e. g., in “I ast him his name,” it shoulders out ked. It is itself lopped off in bankrup, quan’ity, crep, slep, wep, kep, gris’-mill and les (=let’s=let us), and is replaced by d in kindergarden and pardner. L disappears, as in a’ready and gent’man. The s-sound becomes tsh, as in pincers. The same tsh replaces ct, as in pitcher for picture, and t, as in amachoor. G disappears from the ends of words, and sometimes, too, in the middle, as in stren’th and reco’nize. R, though it is better preserved in American than in English, is also under pressure, as appears by bust, Febuary, stuck on (for struck on), cuss (for curse), yestiddy, sa’s’parella, pa’tridge, ca’tridge, they is (for there is) and Sadd’y (for Saturday). An excrescent t survives in a number of words, e. g., onc’t, twic’t, clos’t, wisht (for wish) and chanc’t; it is an heirloom from the English of two centuries ago. So is the final h in heighth. An excrescent b, as in chimbley and fambly, seems to be native. Whole syllables are dropped out of words, paralleling the English butchery of extraordinary; for example, in bound’ry, pro’bition, tarnal (=eternal), complected, hist’ry, lib’ry and prob’ly. Ordinary, like extraordinary, is commonly enunciated clearly, but it has bred a degenerated form, onry or onery, differentiated in meaning. Consonants are misplaced by metathesis, as in prespiration, hunderd, brethern, childern, libery, interduce, apern, calvary, govrenment, modren and wosterd (for worsted). Ow is changed to er, as in piller, swaller, yeller, beller and holler, or to a, as in fella, or to i, as in minni (=minnow); ice is changed to ers in janders. Words are given new syllables, as in ellum, fillum, lozenger, athaletic, mischievious, mayorality and municipial, or new consonants, as in overhalls and idear.

In the complete sentence, assimilation makes this disorganization much more obvious. Mearns, in a brief article, gives many examples of the extent to which it is carried. He hears “wah zee say?” for “what does he say?”, “ware zee?” for “where is he?”, “ast ’er in” for “ask her in,” “itt’m owd” for “hit them out,” “sry” for “that is right,” and “c’meer” for “come here.” He believes that the voiceless t is gradually succumbing to the voiced d, and cites “ass bedder” (for “that’s better”), “wen juh ged din?” (for “when did you get in?”), and “siddup” (for “sit up”). One hears countless other such decayed forms on the street every day. Let’s is le’s. The neutral vowel replaces the oo of good in g’by. “What did you say?” reduces itself to “wuz ay?” Maybe is mebby, perhaps is p’raps, so long is s’long, excuse me is skus me; the common salutation, “how are you?” is so dismembered that it finally emerges as a word almost indistinguishable from high. Here there is room for inquiry, and that inquiry deserves the best effort of American phonologists, for the language is undergoing rapid changes under their very eyes, or, perhaps more accurately, under their very ears, and a study of those changes should yield a great deal of interesting matter. How did the word stint, on American lips, first convert itself into stent and then into stunt? By what process was baulk changed into buck?

A by-way that is yet to be so much as entered is that of naturalized loan-words in the common speech. A very characteristic word of that sort is sashay. Its relationship to the French chassé seems to be plain, and yet it has acquired meanings in American that differ very widely from the meaning of chassé. How widely it is dispersed may be seen by the fact that it is reported in popular use, as a verb signifying to prance or to walk consciously, in Southeastern Missouri, Nebraska, Northwestern Arkansas, Michigan, Eastern Alabama and Western Indiana, and, with slightly different meaning, on Cape Cod. The travels of café in America would repay investigation; particularly its variations in pronunciation. I believe that it is fast becoming kaif. Plaza, boulevard, vaudeville, menu and rathskeller have entered into the common speech of the land, and are pronounced as American words. Such words, when they come in verbally, by actual contact with immigrants, commonly retain some measure of their correct native pronunciation. Spiel, kosher, ganof and matzoth are examples; their vowels remain un-American. But words that come in visually, say through street-signs and the newspapers, are immediately overhauled and have thoroughly Americanized vowels and consonants thereafter. School-teachers have been trying to establish various pseudo-French pronunciations of vase for fifty years past, but it still rhymes with face in the vulgate. Vaudeville is vawd-vill; boulevard has three syllables and a hard d at the end; plaza has a flat a; the first syllable of menu rhymes with bee; the first of rathskeller with cats; fiancée is fy-ance-y; née rhymes with see; décolleté is de-coll-ty; hofbräu is huffbrow; the German w has lost its v-sound and becomes an American w. I have, in my day, heard proteege for protégé, habichoo for habitué, connisoor for connoisseur, shirtso for scherzo, premeer for première, dee tour for détour, eetood for étude and prelood for prélude. I once heard a burlesque show manager, in announcing a French dancing act, pronounce M. and Mlle. as Em and Milly. Divorcée is divorcey, and has all the rakishness of the adjectives in -y. The first syllable of mayonnaise rhymes with hay. Crème de menthe is cream de mint. Schweizer is swite-ser. Roquefort is roke-fort. I have heard début with the last syllable rhyming with nut. I have heard minoot for minuet. I have heard tchefdoover for chef-d’ceuvre. And who doesn’t remember

  • As I walked along the Boys Boo-long
  • With an independent air
  • and
  • Say aw re-vore,
  • But not good-by!
  • Charles James Fox, it is said, called the red wine of France Bordox to the end of his days. He had an American heart; his great speeches for the revolting colonies were more than mere oratory. John Bright, another kind friend in troubled days, had one too. He always said Bordox and Calass.