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

Page 70

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. 51 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, 52 and according to Lounsbury, 53 they have moved toward the disappearance of the Continental a, “the fundamental vowel-tone of the human voice.” Grandgent, another authority, 54 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, 55 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, 56 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.