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

Page 4

that stands quite outside their common experience, and into which they have to translate their thoughts, consciously and painfully. Bad writing consists in making the attempt, and failing through lack of practise. Good writing consists, as in the case of Howells, in deliberately throwing overboard the principles so elaborately inculcated, or, as in the case of Lincoln, in standing unaware of them. Thus the study of the language he is supposed to use, to the average American, takes on a sort of bilingual character. On the one hand, he is grounded abominably in a grammar and syntax that have always been largely artificial, even in the country where they are supposed to prevail, and on the other hand he has to pick up the essentials of his actual speech as best he may. “Literary English,” says Van Wyck Brooks, 3 “with us is a tradition, just as Anglo-Saxon law with us is a tradition. They persist, not as the normal expressions of a race,… but through prestige and precedent and the will and habit of a dominating class largely out of touch with a national fabric unconsciously taking form out of school.” What thus goes on out of school does not interest most of the guardians of our linguistic morals. Now and then a Charters takes a somewhat alarmed peep into the materials of the vulgar speech, and now and then a Krapp investigates the pronunciation of actual Americans, but in the main there is little save a tedious repetition of nonsense. In no department are American universities weaker than in the department of English. The æsthetic opinion that they disseminate is flabby and childish, and their philological work in the national language is extraordinarily lacking in enterprise. No attempt to deduce the principles of vulgar American grammar from the everyday speech of the people has ever been made by an American philologist. There is no scientific study, general and comprehensive in scope, of the American vocabulary, or of the influences lying at the root of American word-formation. No professor, so far as I know, has ever deigned to give the same sober attention to the sermo plebeius of his country that his colleagues habitually give to the pronunciation of Latin, or to the irregular verbs in French.