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

IX. The Common Speech

2. Spoken American As It Is

BUT here I wander afield. The art of prose has little to do with the stiff and pedantic English taught in grammar-schools and a great deal less to do with the loose and lively English spoken by the average American in his daily traffic. The thing of importance is that the two differ from each other even more than they differ from the English of a Huxley or a Stevenson. The school-marm, directed by grammarians, labors heroically, but all her effort goes for naught. The young American, like the youngster of any other race, inclines irresistibly toward the dialect that he hears at home, and that dialect, with its piquant neologisms, its high disdain of precedent, its complete lack of self-consciousness, is almost the antithesis of the hard and stiff speech that is expounded out of books. It derives its principles, not from the subtle logic of learned and stupid men, but from the rough-and-ready logic of every day. It has a vocabulary of its own, a syntax of its own, even a grammar of its own. Its verbs are conjugated in a way that defies all the injunctions of the grammar books; it has its contumacious rules of tense, number and case; it has boldly re-established the double negative, once sound in English; it admits double comparatives, confusions in person, clipped infinitives; it lays hands on the vowels, changing them to fit its obscure but powerful spirit; it repudiates all the finer distinctions between the parts of speech.

This highly virile and defiant dialect, and not the fossilized English of the school-marm and her books, is the speech of the Middle American of Joseph Jacobs’ composite picture—the mill-hand in a small city of Indiana, with his five years of common schooling behind him, his diligent reading of newspapers, and his proud membership in the Order of Foresters and the Knights of the Maccabees. Go into any part of the country, North, East, South or West, and you will find multitudes of his brothers, car conductors in Philadelphia, immigrants of the second generation in the East Side of New York, iron-workers in the Pittsburgh region, corner grocers in St. Louis, holders of petty political jobs in Atlanta and New Orleans, small farmers in Kansas or Kentucky, house carpenters in Ohio, tinners and plumbers in Chicago—genuine Americans all, bawling patriots, hot for the home team, marchers in parades, readers of the yellow newspapers, fathers of families, sheep on election day, undistinguished norms of the Homo Americanus. Such typical Americans, after a fashion, know English. They read it—all save the “hard” words, i. e., all save about 90 per cent of the words of Greek and Latin origin. They can understand perhaps two-thirds of it as it comes from the lips of a political orator or clerygman. They have a feeling that it is, in some recondite sense, superior to the common speech of their kind. They recognize a fluent command of it as the salient mark of a “smart” and “educated” man, one with “the gift of gab.” But they themselves never speak it or try to speak it, nor do they look with approbation on efforts in that direction by their fellows.

In no other way, indeed, is the failure of popular education made more vividly manifest. Despite a gigantic effort to enforce certain speech habits, universally in operation from end to end of the country, the masses of people turn almost unanimously to very different speech habits, nowhere advocated and seldom so much as even accurately observed. The literary critic, Francis Hackett, somewhere speaks of “the enormous gap between the literate and unliterate American.” He is apparently the first to call attention to it. It is the national assumption that no such gap exists—that all Americans, at least if they be white, are so outfitted with sagacity in the public schools that they are competent to consider any public question intelligently and to follow its discussion with understanding. But the truth is, of course, that the public school accomplishes no such magic. The inferior man, in America as elsewhere, remains an inferior man despite the hard effort made to improve him, and his thoughts seldom if ever rise above the most elemental concerns. What lies above not only does not interest him; it actually excites his derision, and he has coined a unique word, high-brow, to express his view of it. Especially in speech is he suspicious of superior pretension. The school-boy of the lower orders would bring down ridicule upon himself, and perhaps criticism still more devastating, if he essayed to speak what his teachers conceive to be correct English, or even correct American, outside the school-room. On the one hand his companions would laugh at him as a prig, and on the other hand his parents would probably cane him as an impertinent critic of their own speech. Once he has made his farewell to the schoolmarm, all her diligence in this department goes for nothing. The boys with whom he plays baseball speak a tongue that is not the one taught in school, and so do the youths with whom he will begin learning a trade tomorrow, and the girl he will marry later on, and the saloon-keepers, star pitchers, vaudeville comedians, business sharpers and political mountebanks he will look up to and try to imitate all the rest of his life.

So far as I can discover, there has been but one attempt by a competent authority to determine the special characters of this general tongue of the mobile vulgus. That authority is Dr. W. W. Charters, now Professor of Education at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pittsburgh. In 1914 Dr. Charters was dean of the faculty of education and professor of the theory of teaching in the University of Missouri, and one of the problems he was engaged upon was that of the teaching of grammar. In the course of this study he encountered the theory that such instruction should be confined to the rules habitually violated—that the one aim of teaching grammar was to correct the speech of the pupils, and that it was useless to harass them with principles which they already instinctively observed. Apparently inclining to this somewhat dubious notion, Dr. Charters applied to the School Board of Kansas City for permission to undertake an examination of the language actually used by the children in the elementary schools of that city, and this permission was granted. The materials thereupon gathered were of two classes. First, the teachers of grades III to VII inclusive in all the Kansas City public schools were instructed to turn over to Dr. Charters all the written work of their pupils, “ordinarily done in the regular order of school work” during a period of four weeks. Secondly, the teachers of grades II to VII inclusive were instructed to make note of “all oral errors in grammar made in the school-rooms and around the schoolbuildings” during the five school-days of one week, by children of any age, and to dispatch these notes to Dr. Charters also. The result was an accumulation of material so huge that it was unworkable with the means at hand, and so the investigator and his assistants reduced it. Of the oral reports, two studies were made, the first of those from grades III and VII and the second of those from grades VI and VII. Of the written reports, only those from grades VI and VII of twelve typical schools were examined.

The ages thus covered ran from nine or ten to fourteen or fifteen, and perhaps five-sixths of the material studied came from children above twelve. Its examination threw a brilliant light upon the speech actually employed by children near the end of their schooling in a typical American city, and per corollary, upon the speech employed by their parents and other older associates. If anything, the grammatical and syntactical habits revealed were a bit less loose than those of the authentic Volkssprache, for practically all of the written evidence was gathered under conditions which naturally caused the writers to try to write what they conceived to be correct English, and even the oral evidence was conditioned by the admonitory presence of the teacher. Moreover, it must be obvious that a child of the lower classes, during the period of its actual study of grammar, probably speaks better English than at any time before or afterward, for it is only then that any positive pressure is exerted upon it to that end. But even so, the departures from standard usage that were unearthed were numerous and striking, and their tendency to accumulate in definite groups showed plainly the working of general laws.

Thus, no less than 57 per cent of the oral errors reported by the teachers of grades III and VII involved the use of the verb, and nearly half of these, or 24 per cent of the total, involved a confusion of the past tense form and the perfect participle. Again, double negatives constituted 11 per cent of the errors, and the misuse of adjectives or of adjectival forms for adverbs ran to 4 per cent. Finally, the difficulties of the objective case among the pronouns, the last stronghold of that case in English, were responsible for 7 per cent, thus demonstrating a clear tendency to get rid of it altogether. Now compare the errors of these children, half of whom, as I have just said, were in grade III, and hence wholly uninstructed in formal grammar, with the errors made by children of the second oral group—that is, children of grades VI and VII, in both of which grammar is studied. Dr. Charters’ tabulations show scarcely any difference in the character and relative rank of the errors discovered. Those in the use of the verb drop from 57 per cent of the total to 52 per cent, but the double negatives remain at 7 per cent and the errors in the cases of pronouns at 11 per cent.

In the written work of grades VI and VII, however, certain changes appear, no doubt because of the special pedagogical effort against the more salient oral errors. The child, pen in hand, has in mind the cautions oftenest heard, and so reveals something of that greater exactness which all of us show when we do any writing that must bear critical inspection. Thus, the relative frequency of confusion between the past tense forms of verbs and the perfect participles drops from 24 per cent to 5 per cent, and errors based on double negatives drop to 1 per cent. But this improvement in one direction merely serves to unearth new barbarisms in other directions, concealed in the oral tables by the flood of errors now remedied. It is among the verbs that they are still most numerous; altogether the errors here amount to exactly 50 per cent of the total. Such locutions as I had went and he seen diminish relatively and absolutely, but in all other situations the verb is treated with the lavish freedom that is so characteristic of the American common speech. Confusions of the past and present tenses jump relatively from 2 per cent to 19 per cent, thus eloquently demonstrating the tenacity of the error. And mistakes in the forms of nouns and pronouns increase from 2 per cent to 19: a shining proof of a shakiness which follows the slightest effort to augment the vocabulary of everyday.

The materials collected by Dr. Charters and his associates are not, of course, presented in full, but his numerous specimens must strike familiar chords in every ear that is alert to the sounds and ways of the sermo vulgaris. What he gathered in Kansas City might have been gathered just as well in San Francisco, or New Orleans, or Chicago, or New York, or in Youngstown, O., or Little Rock, Ark., or Waterloo, Iowa. In each of these places, large or small, a few localisms might have been noted—oi substituted for ur in New York, you-all in the South, a few Germanisms in Pennsylvania and in the upper Mississippi Valley, a few Spanish locutions in the Southwest, certain peculiar vowel-forms in New England—but in the main the report would have been identical with the report he makes. “Relatively few Americans,” says Krapp, “spend all their lives in one locality, and even if they do, they cannot possibly escape coming into contact with Americans from other localities.… We can distinguish with some certainty Eastern and Western and Southern speech, but beyond this the author has little confidence in those confident experts who think they can tell infallibly, by the test of speech, a native of Hartford from a native of Providence, or a native of Philadelphia from a native of Atlanta, or even, if one insist on infallibility, a native of Chicago from a native of Boston.” Krapp is discussing the so-called “standard” speech; on the plane of the vulgate the levelling is quite as apparent. That vast uniformity which marks the people of the United States, in political doctrine, in social habit, in general information, in reaction to ideas, in prejudices and enthusiasms, in the veriest details of domestic custom and dress, is nowhere more marked, in truth, than in their speech habits. The incessant neologisms of the national dialect sweep the whole country almost instantly, and the iconoclastic changes which its popular spoken form is constantly undergoing show themselves from coast to coast. “He hurt hisself,” cited by Dr. Charters, is surely anything but a Missouri localism; one hears it everywhere. And so, too, one hears “she invited him and I,” and “it hurt terrible,” and “I set there,” and “this here man,” and “no, I never, neither,” and “he ain’t here,” and “where is he at?” and “it seems like I remember,” and “if I was you,” and “us fellows,” and “he give her hell.” And “he taken and kissed her,” and “he loaned me a dollar,” and “the man was found two dollars,” and “the bee stang him,” and “I wouldda thought,” and “can I have one?” and “he got hisn,” and “the boss left him off,” and “the baby et the soap,” and “them are the kind I like,” and “he don’t care,” and “no one has their ticket,” and “how is the folks?” and “if you would of gotten in the car you could of rode down.”

Curiously enough, this widely dispersed and highly savory dialect—already, as I shall show, come to a certain grammatical regularity—has attracted the professional writers of the country almost as little as it has attracted the philologists. There are foreshadowings of it in “Huckleberry Finn,” in “The Biglow Papers” and even in the rough humor of the period that began with J. C. Neal and company and ended with Artemus Ward and Josh Billings, but in those early days it had not yet come to full flower; it wanted the influence of the later immigrations to take on its present character. The enormous dialect literature of twenty years ago left it almost untouched. Localisms were explored diligently, but the general dialect went virtually unobserved. It is not in “Chimmie Fadden”; it is not in “David Harum”; it is not even in the pre-fable stories of George Ade, perhaps the most acute observer of average, undistinguished American types, urban and rustic, that American literature has yet produced. The business of reducing it to print had to wait for Ring W. Lardner, a Chicago newspaper reporter. In his grotesque tales of base-ball players, so immediately and so deservedly successful, Lardner reports the common speech not only with humor, but also with the utmost accuracy. The observations of Charters and his associates are here reinforced by the sharp ear of one especially competent, and the result is a mine of authentic American.

In a single story by Lardner, in truth, it is usually possible to discover examples of almost every logical and grammatical peculiarity of the emerging language, and he always resists very stoutly the temptation to overdo the thing. Here, for example, are a few typical sentences from “The Busher’s Honeymoon”:

  • I and Florrie was married the day before yesterday just like I told you we was going to be.… You was to get married in Bedford, where not nothing is nearly half so dear.… The sum of what I have wrote down is $29.40.… Allen told me I should ought to give the priest $5.… I never seen him before.… I didn’t used to eat no lunch in the playing season except when I knowed I was not going to work.… I guess the meals has cost me all together about $1.50, and I have eat very little myself.…
  • I was willing to tell her all about them two poor girls.… They must not be no mistake about who is the boss in my house. Some men lets their wife run all over them.… Allen has went to a college foot-ball game. One of the reporters give him a pass.… He called up and said he hadn’t only the one pass, but he was not hurting my feelings none.… The flat across the hall from this here one is for rent.… If we should of boughten furniture it would cost us in the neighborhood of $100, even without no piano.… I consider myself lucky to of found out about this before it was too late and somebody else had of gotten the tip.… It will always be ourn, even when we move away.… Maybe you could of did better if you had of went at it in a different way.… Both her and you is welcome at my house.… I never seen so much wine drank in my life.…
  • Here are specimens to fit into most of Charters’ categories—verbs confused as to tense, pronouns confused as to case, double and even triple negatives, nouns and verbs disagreeing in number, have softened to of, n marking the possessive instead of s, like used in place of as, and the personal pronoun substituted for the demonstrative adjective. A study of the whole story would probably unearth all the remaining errors noted in Kansas City. Lardner’s baseball player, though he has pen in hand and is on his guard, and is thus very careful to write would not instead of wouldn’t and even am not instead of ain’t, offers a comprehensive and highly instructive panorama of popular speech habits. To him the forms of the subjunctive mood have no existence, and will and shall are identical, and adjectives and adverbs are indistinguishable, and the objective case is merely a variorum form of the nominative. His past tense is, more often than not, the orthodox present tense. All fine distinctions are obliterated in his speech. He uses invariably the word that is simplest, the grammatical form that is handiest. And so he moves toward the philological millennium dreamed of by George T. Lanigan, when “the singular verb shall lie down with the plural noun, and a little conjunction shall lead them.”

    Lardner, as I say, is a very accurate observer. More, despite the grotesqueness of the fables that he uses as skeletons for his reports, he is a man of sound philological knowledge, and approaches his business quite seriously. As yet the academic critics have failed to discover him, but soon or late such things as “The Busher’s Honeymoon” are bound to find a secure place in the new literature of the United States. His influence, indeed, is already considerable, and one sees it plainly in such things as Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street.” Much of the dialogue in “Main Street” is in vulgar American, and Mr. Lewis reports it very accurately. Other writers of fiction turn to the same gorgeous and glowing speech, among them Caroline Lockhart. It even penetrates to more or less serious writing. For example, in a recent treatise on angling by an eminent American authority I find such sentences as “You gotta give him credit for being on the job” and “For an accommodating cuss we gotta tip the kelly to the wall-eyed pike.” Finally, there are the experiments in verse by John V. A. Weaver—still a bit uncertain, but perhaps showing the way to a new American poetry tomorrow.