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

VI. Tendencies in American

4. Foreign Influences Today

THE EXTENT of such influences as those last noted upon the development of American, and particularly spoken American, is often underestimated. In no other large nation of the world are there so many aliens, nor is there any other in which so large a proportion of the resident aliens speak languages incomprehensible to the native. Since 1820 nearly 35,000,000 immigrants have come into this country, and of them probably not 10,000,000 brought any preliminary acquaintance with English with them. The census of 1910 showed that nearly 1,500,000 persons then living permanently on American soil could not speak it at all; that more than 13,000,000 had been born in other countries, chiefly of different language; and that nearly 20,000,000 were the children of such immigrants, and hence under the influence of their speech habits. No other country houses so many aliens. In Great Britain the alien population, for a century past, has never been more than 2 per cent of the total population, and since the passage of the Aliens Act of 1905 it has tended to decline steadily. In Germany, in 1910, there were but 1,259,873 aliens in a population of more than 60,000,000, and of these nearly half were German-speaking Austrians and Swiss. In France, in 1906, there were 1,000,000 foreigners in a population of 39,000,000 and a third of them were French-speaking Belgians, Luxembourgeois and Swiss. In Italy, in 1911, there were but 350,000 in a population of 35,000,000.

This large and constantly reinforced admixture of foreigners has naturally exerted a constant pressure upon the national language, for the majority of them, at least in the first generation, have found it quite impossible to acquire it in any purity, and even their children have grown up with speech habits differing radically from those of correct English. The effects of this pressure are obviously two-fold; on the one hand the foreigner, struggling with a strange and difficult tongue, makes efforts to simplify it as much as possible, and so strengthens the native tendency to disregard all niceties and complexities, and on the other hand he corrupts it with words and locutions from the language he has brought with him, and sometimes with whole idioms and grammatical forms. We have seen, in earlier chapters, how the Dutch and French of colonial days enriched the vocabulary of the colonists, how the German immigrants of the first half of the nineteenth century enriched it still further, and how the Irish of the same period influenced its everyday usages. The same process is still going on. The Italians, the Slavs, and above all, the Russian Jews, make steady contributions to the American vocabulary and idiom, and though these contributions are often concealed by quick and complete naturalization their foreignness to English remains none the less obvious. I should worry, In its way, is correct English, but in essence it is as completely Yiddish as kosher, ganof, schadchen, oi-yoi, or mazuma.

The extent of such influences remains to be studied; in the whole literature I can find but one formal article upon the subject. That article deals specifically with the suffix -fest, which came into American from the German and was probably suggested by familiarity with sängerfest. There is no mention of it in any of the dictionaries of Americanisms, and yet, in such forms as talkfest, gabfest, swatfest and hoochfest, it is met with almost daily. So with -heimer, -inski and -bund. Several years ago -heimer had a great vogue in slang, and was rapidly done to death. But wiseheimer remains in colloquial use as a facetious synonym for smart-aleck, and after awhile it may gradually acquire dignity. Far lowlier words, in fact, have worked their way in. Buttinski, perhaps, is going the same route. As for the words in -bund, many of them are already almost accepted. Plunder-bund is now at least as good as pork-barrel and slush-fund, and money-bund is frequently heard in Congress. Such locutions creep in stealthily, and are secure before they are suspected. Current slang, out of which the more decorous language dredges a large part of its raw materials, is full of them. Nix and nixy, for no, are debased forms of the German nicht; aber nit, once as popular as camouflage, is obviously aber nicht. And a steady flow of nouns, all needed to designate objects introduced by immigrants, enriches the vocabulary. The Hungarians not only brought their national condiment with them; they also brought its name, paprika, and that name is now thoroughly American, as is goulash. In the same way the Italians brought in camorra, pad-rone, spaghetti, chianti, and other substantives, and the Jews made contributions from Yiddish and Hebrew and greatly reinforced certain old borrowings from German. Once such a loan-word gets in it takes firm root. During the first year of American participation in the World War an effort was made on patriotic grounds to substitute liberty-cabbage for sauer-kraut, but it quickly failed, for the name had become as completely Americanized as the thing itself, and so liberty-cabbage seemed affected and absurd. In the same way a great many other German words survived the passions of the time. Nor could all the ardor of the professional patriots obliterate that German influence which has fastened upon the American yes something of the quality of ja, or prevent the constant appearance of such German loan-forms as “it listens well” and “I want out.” Many American loan-words are of startlingly outlandish origin. Hooch, according to a recent writer, is from a northwestern Indian language, and so is skookum. Cuspidor, a typical Americanism, is from the Portuguese cuspador, one who spits.

Constant familiarity with such immigrants from foreign languages and with the general speech habits of foreign peoples has made American a good deal more hospitable to loan-words than English, even in the absence of special pressure. Let the same word knock at the gates of the two languages, and American will admit it more readily, and give it at once a wider and more intimate currency. Examples are afforded by café, vaudeville, revue, employé, boulevard, cabaret, exposé, kindergarten, dépât, fête, and menu. Café, in American, is a word of much larger and more varied meaning than in English and is used much more frequently, and by many more persons. So is employé, in the naturalized form of employee. So is toilet: we have even seen it as a euphemism for native terms that otherwise would be in daily use. So is kindergarten: during the war I read of a kindergarten for the elementary instruction of conscripts. Such words are not unknown to the Englishman, but when he uses them it is with a plain sense of their foreignness. In American they are completely naturalized, as is shown by the spelling and pronunciation of most of them. An American would no more think of attempting the correct French pronunciation of depot (though he always makes the final t silent), or of putting the French accents upon it than he would think of spelling toilet with the final te or of essaying to pronounce Münchner in the German manner. Often curious battles go on between such loan-words and their English equivalents, and with varying fortunes. In 1895 Weber and Fields tried to establish music-hall in New York, but it quickly succumbed to vaudeville-theatre, as variety had succumbed to vaudeville before it. In the same way lawn-fete (without the circumflex accent, and sometimes, alas, pronounced feet) has elbowed out the English garden-party. But now and then, when the competing loanword happens to violate American speech habits, a native term ousts it. The French crèche offers an example; it has been entirely displaced by day-nursery.

The English, in this matter, display their greater conservatism very plainly. Even when a loan-word enters both English and American simultaneously a sense of foreignness lingers about it on the other side of the Atlantic much longer than on this side, and it is used with far more self-consciousness. The word matinée offers a convenient example. To this day the English commonly print it in italics, give it its French accent, and pronounce it with some attempt at the French manner. But in America it is entirely naturalized, and the most ignorant man uses it without any feeling that it is strange. Often a loan-word loses all signs of its original foreignness. For example, there is shimmy, a corruption of both chemise and chemin (de fer), the name of a card game: it has lost both its original forms and, in one sense, its original meaning. The same lack of any sense of linguistic integrity is to be noticed in many other directions—for example, in the freedom with which the Latin per is used with native nouns. One constantly sees per day, per dozen, per hundred, per mile, etc., in American newspapers, even the most careful, but in England the more seemly a is almost always used, or the noun itself is made Latin, as in per diem. Per, in fact, is fast becoming an everyday American word. Such phrases as “as per your letter (or order) of the 15th inst.” are met with incessantly in business correspondence. The same greater hospitality is shown by the readiness with which various un-English prefixes and affixes come into fashion, for example, super- and -itis. The English accept them gingerly; the Americans take them in with enthusiasm, and naturalize them instanter.

The pressure of loan-words, of course, is greatest in those areas in which the foreign population is largest. In some of these areas it has given rise to what are almost distinct dialects. Everyone who has ever visited lower Pennsylvania must have observed the wide use of German terms by the natives, and the German intonations in their speech, even when they are most careful with their English. In the same way, the English of everyday life in New Orleans is full of French terms, e.g., praline, brioche, lagniappe, armoir, kruxingiol (= croquignole), pooldoo (= poule d’eau), and the common speech of the Southwest is heavy with debased Spanish, e.g., alamo, arroyo, chaparral, caballero, comino, jornada, frijole, presidio, serape, hombre, quien sabe, vamose. As in the early days of settlement, there is a constant movement of favored loan-words into the general speech of the country. Hooch, from the Chinook, was for long a localism in the Northwest; suddenly it appeared everywhere. So with certain Chinese and Japanese words that have, within late years, entered the general speech from the speech of California. New York has been the port of entry for most of the new Yiddish and Italian loan-words, as it was the port of entry for Irishisms seventy years ago. In Michigan the natives begin to borrow from the Dutch settlers and may later on pass on their borrowings to the rest of the country; in the prairie states many loan-words from the Scandinavian languages are already in use; in Kansas there are even traces of Russian influence.

In the Philippines and in Hawaii American naturally shows even greater hospitality to loan-words; in both places distinct dialects have been developed, quite unintelligible to the newcomer from home. Maurice P. Dunlap offers the following specimen of a conversation between two Americans long resident in Manila:

  • Hola, amigo.
  • Komusta kayo.
  • Porque were you hablaing with ese senorita?
  • She wanted a job as lavandera.
  • Cuanto?
  • Ten cents, conant, a piece, so I told her no kerry.
  • Have you had chow? Well, spera, till I sign this chit and I’ll take a paseo with you.
  • Here we have an example of Philippine American that shows all the tendencies of American Yiddish. It retains the general forms of American, but in the short conversation, embracing but 41 different words, there are eight loan-words from the Spanish (hola, amigo, porque, ese, senorita, lavandera, cuanto and paseo), two Spanish locutions in a debased form (spera for espera and no kerry for no quiero), two loan-words from the Tagalog (komusta and kayo), two from Pidgin English (chow andchit), one Philippine-American localism (conant), and a Spanish verb with an English inflection (hablaing).

    The American dialect developed in Hawaii is thus described by a writer in the Christian Science Monitor:

  • Honolulu, despite the score or more of races which intermingle in absolute harmony, is a strictly American community. English is the language which predominates; and yet there are perhaps a hundred or more Hawaiian words which are used by everyone, almost exclusively, in preference to those English words of similar meaning.
  • Are you pau?” asks the American housekeeper of her Japanese yard man.
  • “All pau,” he responds.
  • The housekeeper has asked if the yard man is through. He has replied that he is. She would not think of asking, “Are you through?” Pau—pronounced pow—as used in Honolulu conveys just as much meaning to the Honolulan as the English word through. It is one of the commonest of the Hawaiian words used today.
  • In Honolulu one does not say “the northwest corner of Fort and Hotel Streets.” One says “the makai-ewa corner.” Makai means toward the sea. Ewa means toward the north or in the direction of the big Ewa plantation which lies toward the north of Honolulu. Thus the makai-ewa corner means that corner which is on the seaward side and toward Ewa. Instead of saying east or the direction in which the sun rises, Honolulans say mauka, which means toward the mountains. To designate south, they say waikiki, which means toward Diamond Head or Waikiki Beach.
  • One often hears a little boy say he has a puka in his stocking. The housekeeper directs the yard man to put the rubbish in the puka. It is a simple Hawaiian word meaning hole. Another common word is lanai. In English it means porch or veranda. One never says, “Come out on the porch,” but “Come out on the lanai.”
  • The two words pahea oe are used as a term of greeting. In the States they say, “How do you do?” “How are you?” or “Good day.” In Honolulu, “Pahea oe?” conveys the same meaning. The response is Maikai no, or “Very good,” or “All right.”
  • On the mainland the word aloha is not new. It is used as a word of greeting or as a word of farewell. “Aloha oe” may mean “Farewell to you,” “How are you?” or “Good day.” The word is not as common among the Americans as some of the others, but is used to a more exclusive extent by the Hawaiians.
  • A large number of Americans have an entirely wrong interpretation of the word kanaka. In its truest and only sense it means man. It can be interpreted in no other way. In Hawaiian a man is a kanaka, a woman a wahine. The word kane is also often used as man, and coupled with the word keiki—keiki kane—means boy. The Hawaiians have often been referred to as kanakas, which on the mainland has developed into more or less of a slang word to designate the people of the Hawaiian race. This, however, is totally incorrect.
  • The kamaaina, or old-timer, usually refers to his hat as his papale. His house is his hale, and his food is usually designated as kaukau, although this is not a Hawaiian word. There are perhaps a hundred other such words which are used daily in preference to those which mean the same in English.
  • The immigrant in the midst of a large native population, of course, exerts no such pressure upon the national language as that exerted upon an immigrant language by the native, but nevertheless his linguistic habits and limitations have to be reckoned with in dealing with him, and the concessions thus made necessary have a very ponderable influence upon the general speech. Of much importance is the support given to a native tendency by the foreigner’s incapacity for employing (or even comprehending) syntax of any complexity, or words not of the simplest. This is the tendency toward succinctness and clarity, at whatever sacrifice of grace. One English observer, Sidney Low, puts the chief blame for the general explosiveness of American upon the immigrant, who must be communicated with in the plainest words available, and is not socially worthy of the suavity of circumlocution anyhow. In his turn the immigrant seizes upon these plainest words as upon a sort of convenient Lingua Franca—his quick adoption of damn as a universal adjective is traditional—and throws his influence upon the side of the underlying speech habit when he gets on in the vulgate. Many characteristic Americanisms of the sort to stagger lexicographers—for example, near-silk—have come from the Jews, whose progress in business is a good deal faster than their progress in English.