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

II. The Beginnings of American

6. Colonial Pronunciation

THE DEBATE that long raged over the pronunciation of classical Latin exhibits the difficulty of determining with exactness the shades of sound in the speech of a people long departed from earth. The American colonists, of course, are much nearer to us than the Romans, and so we should have relatively little difficulty in determining just how they pronounced this or that word, but against the fact of their nearness stands the neglect of our phonologists. What Sweet did to clear up the history of English pronunciation, and what Wilhelm Crossen did for Latin, no American philologian has yet thought to attempt for American. The literature is almost if not quite a blank. But here and there we may get a hint of the facts, and though the sum of them is not large, they at least serve to set at rest a number of popular errors.

One of these errors, chiefly prevalent in New England, is that the so-called Boston pronunciation, with its broad a’s, comes down unbrokenly from the day of the first settlements, and that it is in consequence superior in authority to the pronunciation of the rest of the country, with its flat a’s. A glance through Webster’s “Dissertations” is sufficient to show that the flat a was in use in New England in 1789, for the pronunciation of such words as wrath, bath and path, as given by him, makes them rhyme with hath. Moreover, he gives aunt the same a-sound. From other sources come indications that the a was likewise flattened in such words as plant, basket, branch, dance, blast, command and castle, and even in balm and calm. Changes in the sound of the letter have been going on in England ever since the Middle English period, and according to Lounsbury, they have moved toward the disappearance of the Continental a, “the fundamental vowel-tone of the human voice.” Grandgent, another authority, says that it became flattened “by the sixteenth century” and that “until 1780 or thereabouts the standard language had no broad a.” Even in such words as father, car and ask the flat a was universally used. Sheridan, in the dictionary he published in 1780, actually gave no ah-sound in his list of vowels. This habit of flatting the a had been brought over, of course, by the early colonists, and was as general in America, in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, as in England. Benjamin Franklin, when he wrote his “Scheme for a New Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling,” in 1768, apparently had no suspicion that any other a was possible. But between 1780 and 1790, according to Grandgent, a sudden fashion for the broad a (not the aw-sound, as in fall, but the Continental sound as in far) arose in England, and this fashion soon found servile imitation in Boston. But it was as much an affectation in those days as it is today, and Webster indicated the fact pretty plainly in his “Dissertations.” How, despite his opposition, the broad a prevailed East of the Connecticut river, and how, in the end, he himself yielded to it, and even tried to force it upon the whole nation—this will be rehearsed in the next chapter.

The colonists remained faithful much longer than the English to various other vowel-sounds that were facing change in the eighteenth century, for example, the long e-sound in heard. Webster says that the custom of rhyming heard with bird instead of with feared came in at the beginning of the Revolution. “To most people in this country,” he adds, “the English pronunciation appears like affectation.” He also argues for rhyming deaf with leaf, and protests against inserting a y-sound before the u in such words as nature. Franklin’s authority stands behind git for get. This pronunciation, according to Menner, was correct in seventeenth century England, and perhaps down to the middle of the next century. So was the use of the Continental i-sound in oblige, making it obleege. It is probable that the colonists clung to these disappearing usages much longer than the English. The latter, according to Webster, were unduly responsive to illogical fashions set by the exquisites of the court and by popular actors. He blames Garrick, in particular, for many extravagant innovations, most of them not followed in the colonies. But Garrick was surely not responsible for the use of a long i-sound in such words as motive, nor for the corruption of mercy to marcy. Webster denounced both of these pronunciations. The second he ascribed somewhat lamely to the fact that the letter r is called ar, and proposed to dispose of it by changing the ar to er.

As for the consonants, the colonists seem to have resisted valiantly that tendency to slide over them which arose in England after the Restoration. Franklin, in 1768, still retained the sound of l in such words as would and should, a usage not met with in England after the year 1700. In the same way, according to Menner, the w in sword was sounded in America “for some time after Englishmen had abandoned it.” The sensitive ear of Henry James detected an unpleasant r-sound in the speech of Americans, long ago got rid of by the English, so late as 1905; he even charged that it was inserted gratuitously in innocent words. The obvious slurring of the consonants by Southerners is explained by a recent investigator on the ground that it began in England during the reign of Charles II, and that most of the Southern colonists came to the New World at that time. The court of Charles, it is argued, was under French influence, due to the king’s long residence in France and his marriage to Henrietta Marie. Charles “objected to the inharmonious contractions willn’t (or wolln’t) and wasn’t and weren’t… and set the fashion of using the softly euphonious won’t and wan’t, which are used in speaking to this day by the best class of Southerners.” A more direct French influence upon Southern pronunciation is also pointed out. “With full knowledge of his g’s and his r’s, … [the Southerner] sees fit to glide over them, … and he carries over the consonant ending one word to the vowel beginning the next, just as the Frenchman does.” The political importance of the South, in the years between the Mecklenburg Declaration and the adoption of the Constitution, tended to force its provincialisms upon the common language. Many of the acknowledged leaders of the nascent nation were Southerners, and their pronunciation, as well as their phrases, must have become familiar everywhere. Pickering gives us a hint, indeed, at the process whereby their usage influenced that of the rest of the people.

The majority of Americans early dropped the initial h-sound in such words as when and where, but so far as I can determine they never elided it at the beginning of other words, save in the case of herb and humble. This elision is commonly spoken of as a cockney vulgarism, but it has extended to the orthodox English speech. In ostler the initial h is openly left off; in hotel and hospital it is sometimes not clearly sounded, even by careful Englishmen. Certain English words in h, in which the h is now sounded, betray its former silence by the fact that not a but an is still put before them. It is still good English usage to write an hotel and an historical.

The great authority of Webster was sufficient to establish the American pronunciation of schedule. In England the sch is always given the soft sound, but Webster decided for the hard sound, as in scheme. The variance persists to this day. The name of the last letter of the alphabet, which is always zed in English, is usually made zee in the United States. Thornton shows that this Americanism arose in the eighteenth century.