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

Page 380

serves the purpose of a relative clause.” In English, the subject almost invariably precedes the verb and the object follows after. Once Dr. Jespersen had his pupils determine the percentage of sentences in various authors in which this order was observed. They found that even in English poetry it was seldom violated; the percentage of observances in Tennyson’s poetry ran to 88. But in the poetry of Holger Drachmann, the Dane, it fell to 61, in Anatole France’s prose to 66, in Gabriele d’Annunzio to 49, and in the poetry of Goethe to 30. All these things make English clearer and more logical than other tongues. It is, says Dr. Jespersen, “a methodical, energetic, business-like and sober language, that does not care much for finery and elegance, but does care for logical consistency and is opposed to any attempt to narrow-in life by police regulations and strict rules either of grammar or of lexicon.” In these judgments another distinguished Danish philologist, Prof. Thomsen, agrees fully.
  There is, of course, something to be said on the other side. “Besides a certain ungainliness [Dr. Jespersen’s masculine quality],” said a recent writer in English, 12 “English labors under other grave disadvantages. The five vowels of our alphabet have to do duty for some twenty sounds, and, to the foreigner, there are no simple rules by which the correct vowel sounds may be gauged from the way a word is written; our orthography also reflects the chaotic period before our language was formed, and the spelling of a particular word is often unconnected with either its present pronunciation or correct derivation. And although our literature contains more great poetry than any other, and though our language was made by poets rather than by prose writers, English is not musical in the sense that Greek was, or that Italian is when sung.” But these objections have very little genuine force. The average foreigner does not learn English in order to sing it, but in order to speak it. And, as I have said, he does not learn it from books, but by word of mouth. To write it correctly, and particularly to spell it correctly, is a herculean undertaking, but very few foreigners find any need to do either. If our spelling were reformed, most of the difficulties now encountered would vanish.