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

Preface to the Revised Edition

THIS edition has been greatly enlarged and thoroughly rewritten. Every chapter has been scrutinized for errors, and nearly every page shows changes. The corrections and suggestions that accumulated after the publication of the first edition—they came from all parts of the world, and from observers of the most various equipment and accuracy—were of such bulk that they almost alarmed me into abandoning the work altogether, but after due prayer I finally tackled them, and the result is now spread before the nobility and gentry. I thought it well, in a book opening so much new ground, to document liberally, that possible successors might be spared the tedious searches that I had to make myself. In the revision I have pursued the same plan, and I believe that all the useful material is now charted. Especially in the first chapter and in the chapters on Tendencies in American, American and English Today, American Spelling, and Proper Names in America there are summaries of much new matter, and somewhat elaborate references. The discussion of foreign languages in the United States, scarcely more than a footnote in the first edition, is now enlarged and put into an appendix. Another appendix offers some specimens of the American vulgate. The bibliography has been augmented, reorganized, and I hope, made more useful. Everywhere the text has been revised in the light of the criticism that has reached me.

Unluckily, the book does not contain all of the new matter that I hoped to get into it. For one thing, there is the “more scientific examination of the grammar of the American vulgar speech,” spoken of in the preface to the first edition. It is not that I made no effort to carry out this promised inquiry; it is simply that I found it extending far beyond the limits of the time that I could give to it, and even further beyond the bounds of my philological equipment. The science of grammar, as it was taught and practised until a few years ago, had a very comfortable simplicity, for it dealt only with written languages, and what lay outside the printed page was conveniently neglected. But of late grammarians have been turning to spoken languages, and the result is a great increase in their difficulties. They must now deal, not with single words, but with whole phrases, many of which are not easily resolved into the words that originally made them. Worse, they must deal with phrases that no two individuals utter precisely alike. Thus grammar begins to ground itself on phonology, as it once grounded itself upon etymology, and the grammarian can no longer lock himself in his study with his books, but must go among men and women and listen attentively to what they say. The old-fashioned science of grammar was almost helpless in dealing with such a thing as the American vulgate; the new science, as I say, demands a wide and accurate knowledge in fields wherein my own knowledge is sadly imperfect. I have made various efforts to enlist professional philologists for the investigation, but with no success. From all that I have approached I have received far more courtesy than my amateurish inquiries deserved, and from many I have received very useful information and not a few acute suggestions. But the academic prudery that I spoke of in my first edition still flourishes. It would be regarded as infra dig., I am told, for an American professor of English to concern himself too actively with the English spoken by nearly a hundred millions of his countrymen. He may, if he will, devote a lifetime to the English dialect of Norfolk or Dorset, but he may not waste his time and his dignity upon the dialect of his janitor, his barber and his trousers-presser. That dialect, it appears, does not belong to philology, but merely to humor. If it is to be investigated, then the work must be done by such wags as Ring W. Lardner and such dilettanti as I.

Thus the section on vulgar American, save for the introduction of new illustrative material, remains substantially as I originally wrote it. In the interval, of course, I have received contributions and criticisms from many correspondents, and some of them have suggested changes that I have adopted. But in the main the section is unchanged. So are the various historical discussions of American pronunciation. The meagre material that I made use of remains almost as meagre as it was then; the whole literature of the subject, in fact, is embraced in a few essays, chiefly by Dr. Charles H. Grandgent. Why this inquiry, which demands the equipment of a competent phonologist, has not attracted more American scholars I do not know. It is certainly not open to objection on grounds of academic dignity. Nevertheless, it remains neglected, and so does the subject of American surnames. Practically all of the existing work upon American surnames, indeed, has been done by philological amateurs. As for geographical names, the material available is confined chiefly to incomplete and chaotic word-lists. Many of the etymologies currently accepted are clearly ridiculous, and many more have a dubious smack. There is certainly room here for a useful book. There is even more room in the field of loan-words. And quite as much in the field of artificial words, e. g., kodak, crisco and postum, though here Dr. Louise Pound and her pupils have done a great deal of careful and valuable work.

Since my first edition was published there have been various evidences of a renewed interest in the contemporary status and development of the language, both in the United States and in England. The Society for Pure English, organized in 1913 but paralyzed by the onset of the war, has resumed its functions, and, under the leadership of Dr. Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate, is now showing an intelligent interest in the language that is in being, and a fine determination to rescue it from the outworn formulae of the grammarians. At home the National Council of Teachers of English has begun to make propaganda for better instruction in the mother-tongue—though often without due discrimination, I fear, between what is in the books and what people actually speak—and a great many discussions of living philological questions, sometimes very penetrating, have appeared in the magazines and newspapers, and even in some of the more daring philological journals. The American Dialect Society continues its work, and still looks forward to the publication of its dictionary. English, the first English periodical devoted wholly to the mother-tongue, made its bow in March, 1919. Its prospectus announced that it would discuss, among other things, “American English, Americanisms, and Anglicisms in America,” but this promise has not been fulfilled. English quickly degenerated, in fact, to what one correspondent denounced as “carping schoolmasterishness and conventional pedantry”; it is now no more than a sort of grammatical Answers. Mr. R. H. Thornton’s revision and extension of his American Glossary remains unpublished, unfortunately, for lack of funds, and his materials have been turned over to the library of Harvard University. But Mr. Gilbert M. Tucker, a pioneer student of Americanisms, has published an important work, “American English,” summarizing his observations over a period of forty years, Dr. George Philip Krapp has published an admirable study of the current standard pronunciation of English in America, and various other writers—for example, Mr. Ring W. Lardner and Mr. John V. A. Weaver—have made interesting contributions to American-English literature. All these new works are noticed in their proper places.

The first edition of this book was printed from type and limited in numbers deliberately—not, as some kind friends seem to suspect, because the publisher and I plotted to profiteer by putting up the price, but simply because I knew it to be full of imperfections and planned to submit a small edition to scholars and then prepare a revised edition for general circulation in the light of their criticism. The popular demand for the volume was a genuine surprise, and the whole edition was quickly sold out. Since then stray copies have brought large premiums in the second-hand book-shops—a consolation, perhaps, to original purchasers, but certainly no source of profit to either the publisher or me. The present edition will be electrotyped after the first printing has been run over and all errors of the press have been corrected, and is not limited in number; I do not plan to make any substantial changes in it for at least ten years. If it is reprinted in the interval, an effort, of course, will be made to correct all surviving errors; a great many will persist, I make no doubt. But I shall not rewrite the book until the investigations suggested in it have been carried out by competent hands—and this business, I fear, is not likely to be undertaken very soon. As before, I ask all readers who may observe omissions or inaccuracies to communicate with me in care of the publisher, or at my home, 1524 Hollins Street, Baltimore. In particular, I am eager to get more light upon the history of American pronunciation, upon the grammar and syntax of the vulgar speech, and upon the non-English languages spoken in the United States.

My debt to my many and far-flung correspondents is very heavy, and I have acknowledged it in various places in the text. But above all I owe thanks to Dr. Louise Pound, of the University of Nebraska, not only for the materials I have so lavishly borrowed from her, but also, and even more importantly, for her constant interest in the work and her generous toleration of my philological shortcomings. Various other scholars, notably Dr. Otto Jespersen, of Copenhagen, have volunteered very valuable encouragement. I regret that the appearance of my book caused Dr. Jespersen to postpone a work upon the same subject that he had long had in contemplation; I can only hope that he will return to it, for his great learning will make it of extraordinary utility. Among the many private friends and correspondents who have helped me over difficult places I owe most to Mrs. Harry C. Black of Baltimore, and Mr. H. W. Seaman, of New York, both English-born. Mrs. Black made parts of “English and American Today,” especially in its first stages, almost her own, and Mr. Seaman prepared for me an exhaustive and extremely useful review and criticism of the whole book. Dr. W. W. Charters generously offered to place his unique collection of vulgar Americanisms at my disposal; Mr. Thornton and Mr. Tucker, the one the compiler of the best existing dictionary of Americanisms and the other the pioneer of their scientific study, both gave me much encouragement, though differing from some of my conclusions. The aid of Miss Marion L. Bloom, of Washington, has been peculiarly valuable. She pursued many investigations for me in the Library of Congress, and otherwise gave me intelligent assistance. Finally, I owe a special debt to my amanuensis, Miss Addie B. Deering, of Baltimore, whose extraordinary diligence and good sense rescued me more than once from the wild snarls of my own manuscript—a manuscript bristling with difficulties that she never failed to surmount.

The reviews of the first edition in philological periodicals were always friendly, and in many cases exhaustive and valuable. The notices in the lay press were extensive, but not often intelligent. The book appeared at a time when colonialism, revived by the war, was at its height, and so a number of newspaper reviewers were rather alarmed by its apparent tendency to defend American practise against English example. One such watchman went to the length of denouncing it as proof of a sinister effort, inspired by the Wilhelmstrasse, to introduce discord into the Anglo-American entente. This reviewer gave a final touch to his bill of complaint by accusing me of being a Jew. I remain unable to comprehend the relevancy of the charge, but hasten to give assurance that my earliest known ancestors were uncompromising Christians, and engaged gallantly in the pogroms of their time.

For all the changes made in the text, I am, of course, wholly responsible. In many cases, after inquiry, I have felt it necessary to reject the suggestions of correspondents; in other cases observers of equal authority have revealed such a conflict of opinion that I have had perforce to fall back upon my own judgment. This conflict has been especially noticeable in the field of current usages on the plane of educated speech. I observe that Englishmen, when they settle in the United States, quickly lose their sense of difference between the two dialects, and are thereafter apt to argue that every American locution they encounter has been borrowed from England. Various correspondents, for example, have sought to convince me that such typical American verbs as to steam-roller (in the political sense) and to joy-ride are actually English. Others have maintained that various well-known American spellings, lately begun to be imitated in England, originated there. In the face of such earnest assaults it becomes difficult to hold to the thesis that there is any American dialect at all, but nevertheless I have managed to do so. Here, fortunately, exact evidence is often procurable, for the locutions in question enter into the written speech. Whenever I have found a contemporary English journal referring to a given form as an Americanism I have thought it quite safe to accept that view of it. True enough, almost every imaginable Americanism is heard now and then in England. But when it seems strange to an active journalist, it is certainly not in common use.

Many American correspondents and reviewers have objected to this or that locution, particularly in the section on the vulgar speech, on the ground that it is a localism. Such objections, I believe, have been almost invariably based upon faulty observation. More than once, investigating a word or a phrase thus alleged to be confined to New England or the South or the far West, I have found it in Lardner or in the materials collected by Charters in Kansas City. The collections of the American Dialect Society dispose of most such criticisms. They show that what are accepted as localisms in Vermont or Connecticut are often also localisms in Texas or Nebraska—in brief, that the common speech of the different parts of the country differs a good deal less than superficial observers usually believe. A great many persons, I find, are strangely deaf to the dialect that they hear every day from humble lips. When their attention is called to a peculiar word or grammatical form they are first disposed to deny that it is used, and then to argue that it is a localism. Other earnest but useless criticisms have come to me from persons who have confused what I say about the vulgar speech with what I say about the speech of educated folk. More than one reviewer, in fact, has solemnly taken me to task for accusing all Americans of saying “I seen” and “if I hadda went.” In part I must accept primary responsibility for this confusion. When I set out to write this book I soon found that I was dealing with two very distinct dialects, and that it was often difficult to keep the distinction between them clear. This difficulty still confronts me, and now and then, I fear, it has led me into obscurity. I say there are two dialects; an American scholar, whose suggestions have been most useful, argues that there are actually four: “a language of the intellectuals, another of the fairly educated (business men, Congressmen, etc.), another of the great American democracy, another of the poor trash.” This scholar argues that I should compare the vulgar speech (which seems to me to be his third and fourth varieties), not with standard English, but with corresponding dialects of England. But that would obviously lead to confusion worse confounded. The only safe plan is to compare both varieties of American English with what is currently regarded as standard English. That is the method adopted by the students of the dialects of all other living languages. It has its disadvantages, but it at least avoids the necessity of stopping every few minutes to describe the standard. All my readers, I assume, know standard English.

H. L. M.
Baltimore, November 12, 1921.