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

Page 206

VII.   The Standard American Pronunciation

1. General Characters
  “Language,” said Sayce, in 1879, “does not consist of letters, but of sounds, and until this fact has been brought home to us our study of it will be little better than an exercise of memory.”  1 The theory, at that time, was somewhat strange to English grammarians and etymologists, despite the investigations of A. J. Ellis and the massive lesson of Grimm’s law; their labors were largely wasted upon deductions from the written word. But since then, chiefly under the influence of German philologists, they have turned from orthographical futilities to the actual sounds of the tongue, and the latest and best grammar, that of Sweet, is frankly based upon, the spoken English of educated Englishmen—not, remember, of conscious purists, but of the general body of cultivated folk. Unluckily, this new method also has its disadvantages. The men of a given race and time usually write a good deal alike, or, at all events, attempt to write alike, but in their oral speech there are wide variations. “No two persons,” says a leading contemporary authority upon English phonetics,  2 “pronounce exactly alike.” Moreover, “even the best speaker commonly uses more than one style.” The result is that it is extremely difficult to determine the prevailing pronunciation of a given combination of letters at any time and place. The persons whose speech is studied pronounce it with minute shades of difference, and admit other differences according as they are conversing naturally or endeavoring to exhibit their pronunciation.