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

I. Introductory

4. Foreign Observers

WHAT English and American laymen have thus observed has not escaped the notice of Continental philologists. The first edition of Bartlett, published in 1848, brought forth a long and critical review in the Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen by Prof. Felix Flügel, and in the successive volumes of the Archiv there have been many valuable essays upon Americanisms, by such men as Herrig, Koehler and Kartzke. Various Dutch philologists, among them Barentz, Keijzer and Van der Voort, have also discussed the subject, and a study in French has been published by G. A. Barringer. That, even to the lay Continental, American and English now differ considerably, is demonstrated by the fact that many of the popular German Sprachführer appear in separate editions, Amerikanisch and Englisch. This is true, for example, of the “Metoula-Sprachführer” and of the “Polyglott Kuntze” books. The American edition of the latter starts off with the doctrine that “Jeder, der nach Nord-Amerika oder Australien will, muss Englisch können,” but a great many of the words and phrases that appear in its examples would be unintelligible to most Englishmen—e. g., free-lunch, real-estate agent, buckwheat, corn (for maize), conductor and popcorn—and a number of others would suggest false meanings or otherwise puzzle—e. g., saloon, wash-stand, water-pitcher and apple-pie. In the “Neokosmos Sprachführer durch England-Amerika” there are many notes calling attention to differences between American and English usage, e. g., baggage-luggage, car-carriage, conductor-guard. The authors are also forced to enter into explanations of the functions of the boots in an English hotel and of the clerk in an American hotel, and they devote a whole section, now mainly archaic, to a discourse upon the nature and uses of such American beverages as Whiskey-sours, Martini-cocktails, silver-fizzes, John-Collinses, and ice-cream sodas. In other Continental works of the same sort there is a like differentiation between English and American. Baedeker follows suit. In his guide-book to the United States, prepared for Englishmen, he is at pains to explain the meaning of various American words and phrases. Asiatics are equally observant of the fast-growing differences. In the first number of the Moslem Sunrise, a quarterly edited by Dr. Mufti Muhammad Sadig, there is an explanatory note, apparently for the guidance of East Indian Mohammedan missionaries in the United States, upon certain peculiarities of the American vocabulary.

All the Continental Europeans who discuss the matter seem to take it for granted that American and English are now definitely separated. When I was in Germany as a correspondent, in 1917, I met many German officers who spoke English fluently. Some had learned it in England and some in America, and I noted that they were fully conscious of the difference between the two dialects, and often referred to it. M. Clemenceau, who acquired a very fluent and idiomatic English during his early days in New York, is always at pains to inform those who compliment him upon it that it is not English at all, but American. The new interest in American literature in France, growing out of the establishment of a chair of American Literature and Civilization at the Sorbonne, with Charles Cestre as incumbent, has brought forth several articles upon the peculiarities of American in the French reviews. Early in May, 1920, in discussing “La Poésie américaine d’aujourd’hui” in Les Marges, Eugène Montfort argued that American showed every sign of being more vigorous than English, and would eventually take on complete autonomy. A philologist of Scandinavian extraction, Elias Molee, has gone so far as to argue that the acquisition of correct English, to a people grown so mongrel in blood as the Americans, has already become a useless burden. In place of it he proposes a mixed tongue, based on English, but admitting various elements from the other Germanic languages. His grammar, however, is so much more complex than that of English that most Americans would probably find his artificial “American” very difficult of acquirement. At all events it has made no progress.