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

I. Introductory

3. The View of Writing Men

UNLUCKILY for Dr. Matthews, there is not the slightest sign that the novelists and newspaper men on the two sides of the ocean will ever bring themselves to such eschewing. On the contrary, they apparently delight in the use of the “localisms” he denounces, and the result is a growing difficulty of intercommunication. Americans, trained in book English and constantly reading English books and journals, still make their way in British-English comfortably enough, though now and then, I daresay, an English novel daunts them. But the English have a great deal more difficulty with American, and devote a great deal of attention to its peculiarities—often with very ill grace. For a long while, as we shall see in the next chapter, they viewed its differentiation from standard English with frank indignation, and sought to put an end to the process by violent denunciation; even so late as the period of the Civil War their chief spokesman saw in every Americanism that quality of abhorrent barbarism which they looked upon as the salient mark of the American people. But in later years, despite a certain lingering waspishness, they have brought themselves to a more philosophical view, and the fact that American-English is definitely separating itself from British-English is now admitted as a matter of course. The Cambridge History of English Literature, for example, says that the two have become “notably dissimilar” in vocabulary, and that American is splitting off into a distinct dialect. The Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, going further, says that the two languages are already so far apart that “it is not uncommon to meet with [American] newspaper articles of which an untravelled Englishman would hardly be able to understand a sentence.” A great many other academic authorities, including A. H. Sayce and H. W. and F. G. Fowler, bear testimony to the same effect.

On turning to the men actually engaged in writing English, and particularly to those aspiring to an American audience, one finds nearly all of them adverting, at some time or other, to the growing difficulties of intercommunication. William Archer, Arnold Bennett, W. L. George, George Moore, H. G. Wells, Edgar Jepson, H. N. Brailsford, Sidney Low, J. C. Squire, the Chestertons and Kipling are some of those who have dealt with the matter, following Dickens, Ruskin, George Augusta Sala and others of an elder generation. Low, in an article in the Westminster Gazette ironically headed “Ought American to be Taught in Our Schools?” has described how the latter-day British business man is “puzzled by his ignorance of colloquial American” and “painfully hampered” thereby in his handling of American trade. He continues:

  • In the United States of North America the study of the English tongue forms part of the educational scheme. I gather this because I find that they have professors of the English language and literature there, and I note that in the schools there are certain hours allotted for “English” under instructors who specialize in that subject. This is quite right. English is still far from being a dead language, and our American kinsfolk are good enough to appreciate the fact.
  • But I think we should return the compliment. We ought to learn the American language in our schools and colleges. At present it is strangely neglected by the educational authorities. They pay attention to linguistic attainments of many other kinds, but not to this. How many thousands of youths are at this moment engaged in puzzling their brains over Latin and Greek grammar only Whitehall knows. Every well-conducted seminary has some instructor who is under the delusion that he is teaching English boys and girls to speak French with a good Parisian accent. We teach German, Italian, even Spanish, Russian, modern Greek, Arabic, Hindustani. For a moderate fee you can acquire a passing acquaintance with any of these tongues at the Berlitz Institute and the Gouin Schools. But even in these polyglot establishments there is nobody to teach you American. I have never seen a grammar of it or a dictionary. I have searched in vain at the booksellers for “How to Learn American in Three Weeks” or some similar compendium. Nothing of the sort exists. The native speech of one hundred millions of civilized people is as grossly neglected by the publishers as it is by the schoolmasters. You can find means to learn Hausa or Swahili or Cape Dutch in London more easily than the expressive, if difficult, tongue which is spoken in the office, the barroom, the tram-car, from the snows of Alaska to the mouths of the Mississippi, and is enshrined in a literature that is growing in volume and favor every day.
  • Low then quotes an extract from an American novel appearing serially in an English magazine—an extract including such Americanisms as side-stepper, saltwater-taffy, Prince-Albert (coat), boob, bartender and kidding, and many characteristically American extravagances of metaphor. It might be well argued, he goes on, that this strange dialect is as near to “the tongue that Shakespeare spoke” as “the dialect of Bayswater or Brixton,” but that philological fact does not help to its understanding. “You might almost as well expect him [the British business man] to converse freely with a Portuguese railway porter because he tried to stumble through Cæsar when he was in the Upper Fourth at school.”

    Such a campaign of education is undertaken by the London newspapers whenever a new American play of the racier sort, e. g., Montague Glass’ “Potash and Perlmutter” or Willard Mack’s “Kick In,” holds the boards in the West End. The legends shown in moving-pictures also keep the subject alive. Some time ago, in the London Daily Mail, W. G. Faulkner undertook an elaborate explanation of common American movie terms. Mr. Faulkner assumed that most of his readers would understand sombrero, sidewalk, candy-store, freight-car, boost, elevator, boss, crook and fall (for autumn) without help, but he found it necessary to define such commonplace Americanisms as hoodlum, hobo, bunco-steerer, rubber-neck, drummer, sucker, dive (in the sense of a thieves’ resort), clean-up, graft and to feature. Curiously enough, he proved the reality of the difficulties he essayed to level by falling into error as to the meanings of some of the terms he listed, among them dead-beat, flume, dub and stag. Another English expositor, apparently following him, thought it necessary to add definitions of hold-up, quitter, rube, shack, road-agent, cinch, live-wire and scab, but he, too, mistook the meaning of dead-beat, and in addition he misdefined bandwagon and substituted get-out, seemingly an invention of his own, for get-away. Faulkner seized the opportunity to read a homily upon the vulgarity and extravagance of the American language, and argued that the introduction of its coinages through the moving-picture theatre (Anglais, cinema) “cannot be regarded without serious misgivings, if only because it generates and encourages mental in-discipline so far as the choice of expressions is concerned.” Such warnings are common in the English newspapers. Early in 1920 the London Daily News began a formal agitation of the subject, and laid particular stress upon the menace that American moving-pictures offered to the purity of the English learned and used by children. I quote from a characteristic contribution to the discussion:

  • I visited two picture theatres today for the express purpose of collecting slang phrases and of noticing the effect of the new language on the child as well as on the adult. What the villain said to the hero when the latter started to argue with him was, “Cut out that dope,” and a hundred piping voices repeated the injunction. The comic man announced his marriage to the Belle of Lumbertown by saying, “I’m hitched.”
  • The same writer protested bitterly against the intrusion of such commonplace Americanisms as fire-water, daffy, forget it, and bootlegger. The Associated Press, in reporting the protest, said:

  • England is apprehensive lest the vocabularies of her youth become corrupted through incursions of American slang. Trans-Atlantic tourists in England note with interest the frequency with which resort is made to “Yankee talk” by British song and play writers seeking to enliven their productions. Bands and orchestras throughout the country when playing popular music play American selections almost exclusively. American songs monopolize the English music hall and musical comedy stage. It is the subtitle of the American moving picture film which, it is feared, constitutes the most menacing threat to the vaunted English purity of speech.
  • But it is not only American slang that the English observe and object to; they also begin to find it difficult to comprehend American-English on higher planes. It was H. N. Brailsford who protested that many of the utterances of Dr. Woodrow Wilson, during and after the Versailles conference, were incomprehensible to Englishmen on linguistic grounds. “The irruption of Mr. Wilson upon our scene,” he said, “threatens to modify our terminology. If one knew the American language (as I do not),” and so on. At about the same time a leading English medical journal was protesting satirically against the Americanisms in an important American surgical monograph. Some time before this, in the New Witness, the late Cecil Chesterton discussed the growing difficulty, for Englishmen, of understanding American newspapers. After quoting a characteristic headline he went on:

  • I defy any ordinary Englishman to say that that is the English language or that he can find any intelligible meaning in it. Even a dictionary will be of no use to him. He must know the language colloquially or not at all.… No doubt it is easier for an Englishman to understand American than it would be for a Frenchman to do the same, just as it is easier for a German to understand Dutch than it would be for a Spaniard. But it does not make the American language identical with the English.
  • Chesterton, however, refrained from denouncing this lack of identity; on the contrary, he allowed certain merits to American. “I do not want anybody to suppose,” he said, “that the American language is in any way inferior to ours. In some ways it has improved upon it in vigor and raciness. In other ways it adheres more closely to the English of the best period.” Testimony to the same end was furnished before this by William Archer. “New words,” he said, “are begotten by new conditions of life; and as American life is far more fertile of new conditions than ours, the tendency toward neologism cannot but be stronger in America than in England. America has enormously enriched the language, not only with new words, but (since the American mind is, on the whole, quicker and wittier than the English) with apt and luminous colloquial metaphors.” To which the Manchester Guardian, reviewing Henry G. Aikman’s “Zell,” added: “The writing is, frankly, not English but American, and it cannot be judged by our standards. Some of the sentences are simply appalling, from our point of view—but they serve their purpose. This prompts the interesting speculation whether it is not time that we gave up the pretense of a ‘common language’ and accepted the American on its own merits.”

    The list of such quotations might be indefinitely prolonged. There is scarcely an English book upon the United States or an English review of an American book which does not offer some discussion, more or less profound, of American peculiarities of speech, both as they are revealed in spoken discourse (particularly pronunciation and intonation) and as they show themselves in literature and in the newspapers, and to this discussion protest is often added, as it very often is by the reviews and newspapers. “The Americans,” says a typical critic, “have so far progressed with their self-appointed task of creating an American language that much of their conversation is now incomprehensible to English people.” “This amazing lack of a sense of the beauty of words,” says another, “comes from the manner in which the language of the United States is spoken—that monotonous drone, generally nasal, or that monotonous nasal whine.” English reviews of American books frequently refer in this way to the growing differences between the two dialects—in fact, it is rare for an English reviewer to refrain from noting and sneering at Americanisms. Even translations from foreign languages made by Americans are constantly under fire.

    But, now and then there appears a defender. One such is William Archer, already quoted, who lately protested eloquently against “pulling a wry face over American expressions, not because they are inherently bad, but simply because they are American.” He continued:

  • The vague and unformulated idea behind all such petty cavillings is that the English language is in danger of being corrupted by the importation of Americanisms and that it behooves us to establish a sort of quarantine in order to keep out the detrimental germs. This notion is simply one of the milder phases of the Great Stupidity. The current English of today owes a great deal to America, and though certain American writers carry to excess the cult of slang, that tendency is not in the least affecting serious American literature and journalism. Much of the best and purest English of our time has been, and is being, written in America.… If English journalists make a show of arrogant and self-righteous Briticism, it is quite possible that a certain class of American journalists may retaliate by setting afoot a deliberately anti-British movement and attempting (as an American has wittily put it) to “deserve well of mankind by making two languages grow where only one grew before.”
  • Another attorney for the defense is Richard Aldington, the poet. “Are Americans,” he asks, “to write the language they speak, which is slowly but inevitably separating itself from the language of England, or are they to write a devitalized idiom learned painfully from books or from a discreet frequentation of London literary cliques?” Now and then, says Mr. Aldington, “one encounters an American who speaks perfect standard [i. e., British] English, but the great majority of Americans make no attempt to do so.” He goes on:

  • Language is made by the people; it is only fixed by writers and orators. When language, especially that of poetry, is too far removed from that of the people, it becomes conventional and hieratic, like church Latin; or languid and degenerate, like modern official French poetry. When language is conventionally used by writers it becomes burdened with clichés and dead phrases. If American soldiers, newspapers and popular novels are evidence, it is clear that the American people is evolving a new language, full of vigorous and racy expressions. In spite of the phenomenon of the “pure-English” American, mentioned above, I am compelled to believe that the majority of his countrymen use an idiom which differs considerably from that which he employs. Whitman wrote a language which is intelligible to all Englishmen (far more so than that of James); but it seems to us inaccurate, harsh and crude, for all its vigor and occasional rare beauty. The language of the American people—judging from a comparison between newspapers of the Civil War and of today—has altered considerably in fifty years, so that a modern Whitman would write a language almost needing a glossary for Englishmen. Contemporary American poets use this popular language merely for comic effect of for purposes of sentimentality; most of them, since they are cultivated and rather literary, are careful to use a speech which is as well understood here [in England] as in America. Yet even in their writings there is a conception of the language which differs from ours. Almost all the American poets in “The New Poetry” anthology seem to have a feeling for words which differs from that of the English. In the works of Miss Lowell, for example, there are few usages which an Englishman would not be prepared to defend; yet there is an Americanism in her language, indefinable but unmistakable. Miss Lowell will, I think, recognize this as one of the excellencies of her work; she is, however, too well versed in classic English literature to have any but a faint trace of the quality I am trying to describe. It is more marked in Mr. Carl Sandberg, and still more marked in American prose; for even American literary criticism is a little difficult to understand, and new novels are bewildering with vigorous but incomprehensible expressions. Englishmen of letters and literary journalists may publish their exhortations and practice their refinements; in vain—a vast and increasingly articulate part of the English-speaking and English-writing world will ignore them. Another century may see English broken into a number of dialects or even different languages, spoken in Canada, Australia, South Africa, the United States and England. The result may eventually be similar to the break-up of Latin. The triumph of any one of these languages will be partly a matter of commercial and military supremacy, and partly a matter of literary supremacy.
  • On the western shore of the Atlantic, despite the professors of English, there is equal evidence of a growing sense of difference. “The American,” says George Ade, in his book of travel, “In Pastures New,” “must go to England in order to learn for a dead certainty that he does not speak the English language.… This pitiful fact comes home to every American when he arrives in London—that there are two languages, the English and the American. One is correct; the other is incorrect. One is a pure and limpid stream; the other is a stagnant pool swarming with bacilli.” This was written in 1906. Twenty-five years earlier Mark Twain had made the same observation. “When I speak my native tongue in its utmost purity in England,” he said, “an Englishman can’t understand me at all.” The languages, continued Mark, “were identical several generations ago, but our changed conditions and the spread of our people far to the south and far to the west have made many alterations in our pronunciation, and have introduced new words among us and changed the meanings of old ones.” Even before this the great humorist had marked and hailed these differences. Already in “Roughing It” he was celebrating “the vigorous new vernacular of the occidental plains and mountains,” and in all his writings, even the most serious, he deliberately engrafted its greater liberty and more fluent idiom upon the stem of English, and so lent the dignity of his high achievement to a dialect that was as unmistakably American as the point of view underlying it.

    The same tendency is plainly visible in William Dean Howells. His novels are mines of American idiom, and his style shows an undeniable revolt against the trammels of English grammarians. In 1886 he made a plea in Harper’s for a concerted effort to put American on its own legs. “If we bother ourselves,” he said, “to write what the critics imagine to be ‘English,’ we shall be priggish and artificial, and still more so if we make our Americans talk ‘English.’… On our lips our continental English will differ more and more from the insular English, and we believe that this is not deplorable but desirable.” Howells then proceeded to discuss the nature of the difference, and described it accurately as determined by the greater rigidity and formality of the English of modern England. In American, he said, there was to be seen that easy looseness of phrase and gait which characterized the English of the Elizabethan era, and particularly the Elizabethan hospitality to changed meanings and bold metaphors. American, he argued, made new words much faster than English, and they were, in the main, words of much greater daring and savor.

    Howells’ position was supported by that of many other well-known American authors of his generation, including especially Lowell, Whitman and John Fiske. Fiske, always truculent, carried the war into Africa by making a bold attack upon Briticisms, and even upon English pronunciation and intonation. “The English,” he said in 1873, “talk just like the Germans. So much guttural is very unpleasant, especially as half the time I can’t understand them, and have to say, ‘I beg your pardon?’” In more recent days there have been many like defiances. Brander Matthews, as I have said, was an eager apologist for Americanisms until he joined the Ochs lodge of Anglo-Saxon brothers. Others in the forefront of the fray are Dr. Richard Burton and Rupert Hughes. “Who can doubt,” says Dr. Burton, “that Mr. Mencken is right in speaking of the ‘American language’?… One recalls the cowboy who made a trip to Paris and was asked by his bunkie on returning to the big plains, how he had got along with French; to which he answered: ‘I got along fine, but the French had a hell of a time.’ English has that sort of time in the United States, but the people are perfectly happy about it. Why worry? A few professors are hired, at very small pay, to do that, and the populace prefers to do its suffering vicariously.… When a mayor of a large western city says has went twice in a public speech, and a governor of a great eastern state in public utterances declares that ‘it ain’t in my heart to hurt any man,’ it gives one a piquant sense of the democracy of language in these United States.… We get a charming picture of proletariat and pedants amiably exchanging idiom, while school larnin’ goes glimmering, and go-as-you-please is the order of the day. Why bother about the form of sentences when vital questions are for settling, and when to make others understand your meaning is the main purpose of words? That, at least, appears to be the general view. No wonder Brander Matthews speaks of English as a grammarless tongue. America has done and is doing her full share to make it so.” Dr. Burton continues:

  • The pundit, the pedant, and the professor who are fain to stem the turbid tide of popular vernacular may suffer pain; but they can have little influence on the situation. Even college-bred folk revert to type and use people’s speech—when they are out from under the restraining, corrective monitions of academic haunts—in a way to shock, amuse, or encourage, according to the point of view. Artificial book-speech is struggled for in recitation halls; then forth issue the vital young, and just beyond the door real talk is heard once more: the words and sentences that come hot from the heart, eagerly from emotional reactions, spontaneously representing the feelings rather than a state of mind supposed to be proper. To see a pupil who on trial solemnly declares that two nouns call for a plural verb, hasten out into the happy sunshine and immediately begin to do what the race always has done—including truly idiomatic writers—namely, use a singular verb on all such occasions, is only depressing to those who place the letter before the spirit which is life.
  • Mr. Hughes is even more emphatic. There must be an end, he argues, to all weak submission to English precept and example. What is needed is “a new Declaration of Independence.” Then he goes on:

  • Could anyone imagine an English author hesitating to use a word because of his concern as to the ability of American readers to understand it and approve it? The mere suggestion is fantastic. Yet it is the commonest thing imaginable for an American author to wonder if the word that interests him is good “English,” or, as the dictionaries say, “colloquial U. S.” The critics, like awe-inspiring and awe-inspired governesses, take pains to remind their pupils that Americanisms are not nice, and are not written by well-bred little writers. When you stop to think of it, isn’t this monstrously absurd, contemptible, and servilely colonial?… Why should we fail to realize that all our arts must be American to be great? Why should we permit the survival of the curious notion that our language is a mere loan from England, like a copper kettle that we must keep scoured and return without a dent? Have we any less right to develop the language we brought away with us than they have who stayed behind?
  • Mr. Hughes, whose own novels are full of racy and effective Americanisms, describes some of his difficulties in England. “A London publisher,” he says, “once wrote of a book of mine that it was bewildering in its Americanism. He instanced, among others, the verb tiptoed as an amazing and incredible thing. On tiptoe, or a-tiptoe, he could well understand because he had seen it in print at home. But the well-recognized truth that our language is largely made up of interchangeable facts did not calm his dismay. We know what a foot is; therefore we can say ‘she footed it gracefully,’ or speak of foot-troops or footers. To toe the mark is a legitimate development from the noun toe. Tiptoed is a simple employment of the franchise of our language, a franchise that Shakespeare and countless others have taken full advantage of. In fact, Richardson used it in ‘Clarissa Harlowe’ as far back as 1747: ‘Mabel tiptoed it to her door.’ But even if he did not, why should not I.?” Mr. Hughes is bitter against the “snobbery that divides our writers into two sharp classes—those who in their effort to write pure English strut pompously and uneasily in Piccadilly fashions, and those who in their effort to be true to their own environment seem to wear overalls and write with a nasal twang.” Between the two extremes he evidently prefers the latter. “Americans who try to write like Englishmen,” he says, “are not only committed to an unnatural pose, but doomed as well to failure, above all among the English; for the most likable thing about the English is their contempt for the hyphenated imitation Englishmen from the States, who only emphasize their nativity by their apish antics. The Americans who have triumphed among them have been, almost without exception, peculiarly American.” Finally, he repeats his clarion call for a formal rebellion, saying:

  • But let us sign a Declaration of Literary Independence and formally begin to write, not British, but Unitedstatish. For there is such a language, a brilliant, growing, glowing, vivacious, elastic language for which we have no specific name. We might call it Statesish, or for euphony condense it to Statish. But, whatever we call it, let us cease to consider it a vulgar dialect of English, to be used only with deprecation. Let us study it in its splendid efflorescence, be proud of it, and true to it. Let us put off livery, cease to be the butlers of another people’s language, and try to be the masters and the creators of our own.
  • Meanwhile, various Americans imitate John Fiske by abandoning the defense for the attack. When, in 1919, a British literary paper presumed to criticise the Americanisms in American advertisements, the editor of the Indianapolis Star replied with a vigorous denunciation of current Briticisms. “In British fiction,” he said, “with the omission of a few writers rated as first class, badly constructed and even ungrammatical sentences are by no means uncommon, and even the books of the ‘big’ authors are not immune from criticism. As for slang, certain colloquialisms and peculiarities of English speech appear so frequently in even the pages of Wells and Galsworthy as to be irritating. Right-o is an example; bloody and beastly, as applied to commonplace happenings, are others; the use of directly with a meaning quite unlike our usage, and many more of their kind, jump at American readers from the pages of English novels, and are there usually without intent of the writers to put color or accuracy into their delineations, but merely as a part of their ordinary vocabulary and with unconsciousness of any differences between their own and American usages.”

    Other Americans remain less resolute, for example, Vincent O’Sullivan, whose English schooling may account for his sensitiveness. In America, he says in the London New Witness, “the English literary tradition is dying fast, and the spoken, and to a considerable extent, the written language is drawing farther and farther away from English as it is used in England.” He continues:

  • To most English people, many pages of the published sermons of Billy Sunday, the evangelist, would be almost as unintelligible as a Welsh newspaper. But is American at its present point of development a language or a lingo? Professor Brander Matthews does not hesitate to liken it to Elizabethan English for its figurative vigour. American figures, however, are generally on a low level. When Bacon calls floods great winding-sheets, he is more impressive than when the Pennsylvania Railroad announces that there is a wash-out down ‘round Harrisburg, Pa. It would, in fact, be impossible to express any grand or moving thought in American; humour, homely wisdom, yes; but not grandeur. Leaving aside the intellectual value of either, Bishop Latimer’s sermons are in the plain language of his time, and they easily maintain themselves on heights that Billy Sunday never gets a clutch on, even for a moment. It is a fair claim that American is more vivid than English.
  • So much for the literati. The plain people of the two countries, whenever they come into contact, find it very difficult to exchange ideas. This was made distressingly apparent when American troops began to pour into France in 1917. Fraternizing with the British was impeded, not so much because of old animosities as because of the wide divergence in vocabulary and pronunciation between the doughboy and Tommy Atkins—a divergence interpreted by each as a sign of uncouthness in the other. The Y. M. C. A. made a characteristic effort to turn the resultant feeling of strangeness and homesickness among the Americans to account. In the Chicago Tribune’s Paris edition of July 7, 1917, I find a large advertisement inviting them to make use of the Y. M. C. A. clubhouse in the Avenue Montaigne, “where American is spoken.” At about the same time an enterprising London tobacconist, Peters by name, affixed a large sign bearing the legend “American spoken here” to the front of his shop, and soon he was imitated by various other London, Liverpool and Paris shop-keepers. Earlier in the war the Illinoiser Staats-Zeitung, no doubt seeking to keep the sense of difference alive, advertised that it would “publish articles daily in the American language.”