Home  »  The American Language  »  2. The Academic Attitude

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

I. Introductory

2. The Academic Attitude

THIS neglect of the vulgate by those professionally trained to investigate it, and its disdainful dismissal when it is considered at all, are among the strangest phenomena of American scholarship. In all other countries the everyday speech of the common people, and even the grotesque dialects of remote yokels, have the constant attention of philologists, and the laws of their growth and variation are elaborately studied. In France, to name but one agency, there is the Société des Parlers de France, with its diligent inquiries into changing forms; moreover, the Académie itself is endlessly concerned with the subject, and is at great pains to observe and rate every fluctuation in popular usage. There is, besides, a constant outpouring of books by private investigators, of which “Le Langage Populaire,” by Henri Banche, is a good example. In Germany, amid many other such works, there are the admirable grammars of the spoken speech by Dr. Otto Bremer. In Sweden there are several journals devoted to the study of the vulgate, and the government has granted a subvention of 7500 kronen a year to an organization of scholars called the Undersökningen av Svenska Folkmål, formed to investigate it systematically. In Norway there is a widespread movement to overthrow the official Dano-Norwegian, and substitute a national language based upon the speech of the peasants. In Spain the Real Academia Española de la Lengua is constantly at work upon its great Diccionario, Ortografía and Gramática, and revises them at frequent intervals, taking in all new words as they appear and all new forms of old ones. And in Latin-America, to come nearer to our own case, the native philologists have produced a copious literature on the matter closest at hand, and one finds in it excellent works upon the Portuguese dialect of Brazil, and the variations of Spanish in Mexico, the Argentine, Chili, Peru, Ecuador, Uruguay and even Honduras and Costa Rica. But in the United States the business has attracted little attention and less talent. The only existing formal treatise upon the subject, if the present work be excepted, was written by a Swede trained in Germany and is heavy with errors and omissions. And the only usable dictionary of Americanisms was written in England, and is the work of an English-born lawyer.

I am not forgetting, of course, the early explorations of Noah Webster, of which much more anon, nor the labors of our later dictionary makers, nor the inquiries of the American Dialect Society, nor even the occasional illuminations of such writers as Richard Grant White, Charles H. Grandgent, George Philip Krapp, Thomas S. Lounsbury and Brander Matthews. But all this preliminary work has left the main field almost uncharted. Webster, as we shall see, was far more a reformer of the American dialect than a student of it. He introduced radical changes into its spelling and pronunciation, but he showed little understanding of its direction and genius. One always sees in him, indeed, the teacher rather than the scientific inquirer; the ardor of his desire to expound and instruct was only matched by his infinite capacity for observing inaccurately, and his profound ignorance of elementary philological principles. In the preface to the first edition of his American Dictionary, published in 1828—the first in which he added the qualifying adjective to the title—he argued eloquently for the right of Americans to shape their own speech without regard to English precedents, but only a year before this he had told Captain Basil Hall that he knew of but fifty genuine Americanisms—a truly staggering proof of his defective observation. Webster was the first American professional scholar, and despite his frequent engrossment in public concerns and his endless public controversies, there was always something sequestered and almost medieval about him. The American language that he described and argued for was seldom the actual tongue of the folks about him, but often a sort of Volapük made up of one part faulty reporting and nine parts academic theorizing. In only one department did he exert any lasting influence, and that was in the department of orthography. The fact that our spelling is simpler and usually more logical than the English we owe chiefly to him. But it is not to be forgotten that the majority of his innovations, even here, were not adopted, but rejected, nor is it to be forgotten that spelling is the least of all the factors that shape and condition a language.

The same caveat lies against the work of the later makers of dictionaries; they have often gone ahead of common usage in the matter of orthography, but they have hung back in the far more important matter of idiom. The defect in the work of the Dialect Society lies in a somewhat similar circumscription of activity. Its constitution, adopted in 1889, says that “its object is the investigation of the spoken English of the United States and Canada,” but that investigation, so far, has got little beyond the accumulation of vocabularies of local dialects, such as they are. Even in this department its work is very far from finished, and the Dictionary of Distinctively American Speech announced years ago (and again in 1919) has not yet appeared. Until its collections are completed and synchronized, it will be impossible for its members to make any profitable inquiry into the general laws underlying the development of American, or even to attempt a classification of the materials common to the whole speech. The meagreness of the materials accumulated in the slow-moving volumes of Dialect Notes shows clearly, indeed, how little the American philologist is interested in the language that falls upon his ears every hour of the day. And in Modern Language Notes that impression is reinforced, for its bulky volumes contain exhaustive studies of all the other living languages and dialects, but only an occasional essay upon American.

Now add to this general indifference a persistent and often violent effort to oppose any formal differentiation of English and American, initiated by English purists but heartily supported by various Americans, and you come, perhaps, to some understanding of the unsatisfactory state of the literature of the subject. The pioneer dictionary of Americanisms, published in 1816 by John Pickering, a Massachusetts lawyer, was not only criticised unkindly; it was roundly denounced as something subtly impertinent and corrupting, and even Noah Webster took a formidable fling at it. Most of the American philologists of the early days—Witherspoon, Worcester, Fowler, Cobb and their like—were uncompromising advocates of conformity, and combated every indication of a national independence in speech with the utmost vigilance. One of their company, true enough, stood out against the rest. He was George Perkins Marsh, and in his “Lectures on the English Language,” he argued that “in point of naked syntactical accuracy, the English of America is not at all inferior to that of England.” But even Marsh expressed the hope that Americans would not, “with malice prepense, go about to republicanize our orthography and our syntax, our grammars and our dictionaries, our nursery hymns (sic) and our Bibles” to the point of actual separation. Moreover, he was a philologist only by courtesy; the regularly ordained schoolmasters were all against him. The fear voiced by William C. Fowler, professor of rhetoric at Amherst, that Americans might “break loose from the laws of the English language” altogether, was echoed by the whole fraternity, and so the corrective bastinado was laid on. Fowler, in fact, advocated heroic measures. He declared that all Americanisms were “foreign words and should be so treated.”

It remained, however, for two professors of a later day to launch the doctrine that the independent growth of American was not only immoral, but a sheer illusion. They were Richard Grant White, for long the leading American writer upon language questions, at least in popular esteem, and Thomas S. Lounsbury, for thirty-five years professor of the English language and literature in the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, and an indefatigable controversialist. Both men were of the utmost industry in research, and both had wide audiences. White’s “Words and Their Uses,” published in 1872, was a mine of erudition, and his “Everyday English,” following eight years later, was another. True enough, Fitzedward Hall, the Anglo-Indian-American philologist, disposed of many of his etymologies and otherwise did execution upon him but in the main his contentions held water. Lounsbury was also an adept and favorite expositor. His attacks upon certain familiar pedantries of the grammarians were penetrating and effective, and his two books, “The Standard of Usage in English” and “The Standard of Pronunciation in English,” not to mention his excellent “History of the English Language” and his numerous magazine articles, showed a profound knowledge of the early development of the language, and an admirable spirit of free inquiry. But both of these laborious scholars, when they turned from English proper to American English, displayed an unaccountable desire to deny its existence altogether, and to the support of that denial they brought a critical method that was anything but unprejudiced. White devoted not less than eight long articles in the Atlantic Monthly to a review of the fourth edition of John Russell Bartlett’s American Glossary and when he came to the end he had disposed of nine-tenths of Bartlett’s specimens and called into question the authenticity of at least half of what remained. And no wonder, for his method was simply that of erecting tests so difficult and so arbitrary that only the exceptional word or phrase could pass them, and then only by a sort of chance. “To stamp a word or a phrase as an Americanism,” he said, “it is necessary to show that (1) it is of so-called ‘American’ origin—that is, that it first came into use in the United States of North America, or that (2) it has been adopted in those States from some language other than English, or has been kept in use there while it has wholly passed out of use in England.” Going further, he argued that unless “the simple words in compound names” were used in America “in a sense different from that in which they are used in England” the compound itself could not be regarded as an Americanism. The absurdity of all this is apparent when it is remembered that one of his rules would bar out such obvious Americanisms as the use of sick in place of ill, of molasses for treacle, and of fall for autumn, for all of these words, while archaic in England, are by no means wholly extinct; and that another would dispose of that vast category of compounds which includes such unmistakably characteristic Americanisms as joy-ride, rake-off, show-down, up-lift, out-house, rubber-neck, chair-warmer, fire-eater and back-talk.

Lounsbury went even further. In the course of a series of articles in Harper’s Magazine, in 1913, he laid down the dogma that “cultivated speech… affords the only legitimate basis of comparison between the language as used in England and in America,” and then went on:

  • In the only really proper sense of the term, an Americanism is a word or phrase naturally used by an educated American which under similar conditions would not be used by an educated Englishman. The emphasis, it will be seen, lies in the word “educated”.
  • This curious criticism, fantastic as it must have seemed to European philologists, was presently reinforced, for in his fourth article Lounsbury announced that his discussion was “restricted to the Written speech of educated men”. The result, of course, was a wholesale slaughter of Americanisms. If it was not possible to reject a word, like White, on the ground that some stray English Poet or other had once used it, it was almost always Possible to reject it on the ground that it was not admitted into the Vocabulary of a college Professor when he sat down to compose formal book-English. What remained was a small company, indeed—and almost the whole field of American idiom and American grammar, so full of interest for the less austere explorer, was closed without even a peek into it.

    White and Lounsbury dominated the arena and fixed the fashion. The later national experts upon the national language, with a few somewhat timorous exceptions, pass over its Peculiarities without noticing them. So far as I can discover, there is not a single treatise in type upon one of its most salient characters—the wide departure of some of its vowel sounds from those of orthodox English. Marsh, C. H. Grandgent, and Robert J. Menner have printed a number of valuable essays upon the subject, and George Philip Krapp has discussed the matter incidentally in “The Pronunciation of Standard English in America”, but there is no work that co-ordinates these inquiries or that attempts otherwise to cover the field. When, in preparing materials for the following chapters, I sought to determine the history of the a-sound in America, I found it necessary to plow through scores of ancient spelling-books, and to make deductions, perhaps sometimes rather rash, from the works of Franklin, Webster and Cobb. Some time ago the National Council of Teachers of English appointed a Committee on American Speech and sought to let some light into the matter, but as yet its labors are barely begun and the publications of its members get little beyond preliminaries. Such an inquiry involves a laboriousness which should have attracted Lounsbury: he once counted the number of times the word female appears in “Vanity Fair”. But you will find only a feeble dealing with the question in his book on Pronunciation. Nor is there any adequate general work (for Schele de Vere’s is full of errors and omissions) upon the influences felt by American through contact with the languages of our millions of immigrants, nor upon our peculiarly rich and characteristic slang.

    Against all such enterprises, as I have said, academic opinion stands firmly. During the World War it seems to have taken on, if possible, an added firmness. Before the war, for example, Dr. Brander Matthews, of Columbia University, was a diligent collector of Americanisms, and often discussed them with much show of liking for them. He even used the term Briticism to designate an English locution rejected by 100% Americans. But during the war he appears to have succumbed to the Propaganda for British-American unity launched by the eminent Anglo-Saxon idealist, Adolph S. Ochs, of the New York Times. I quote from one of his articles in the Times:

  • We may rest assured that the superficial evidences of a tendency toward the differentiation of American-English and British-English are not so significant as they may appear to the unreflecting, and that the tendency itself will be powerless against the cohesive force of our common literature, the precious inheritance of both the English-speaking peoples.… So long as the novelists and the newspaper men on both sides of the ocean continue to eschew Briticisms and Americanisms, and so long as they indulge in these localisms only in quotation marks, there is no danger that English will ever halve itself into a British language and an American language.