Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 10. Sectional Peculiarities of Speech in the United States

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXX. The English Language in America

§ 10. Sectional Peculiarities of Speech in the United States

American English is not uniform. But neither is British English uniform. Only a dead language, or the language of a highly centralized country, or a more or less artificial literary language, can approach uniformity. But American English falls into clearly recognizable groups that are not too many to handle in the sensible way in which the British regard the several types of English of their own islands. By all means recognize an English of New England, an English of the Middle States, of the South, and of the West. To attempt to harmonize them in an impossible unity is only to confirm them in their several peculiarities. It would be wiser to direct the attack against those peculiarities which are a little too peculiar. If the New Englander shortens his long o’s, if the New Yorker confuses voice and verse in an absurd diphthong that both misleads and offends, if the Southerner loops and curls the diphthong of cow, if the Westerner in pronouncing r retorts the tongue so far back upon itself that no clear vowel can be made before it, each can be told, with some hope of affecting both his belief and his practice, that such extremes have no appropriateness, are not indulged in, indeed, by the best speakers of his own region. If many Americans tend to lengthen the vowel in frost and long, that is something that can be effectively discouraged without resorting to the equally objectionable extreme of saying “frahst” and “lahng.” But it is just as useless to tell a Westerner that he must not use an r as to tell a New Englander that he must furnish himself with one.

It is, then, not a question of one standard that does not exist against no standards at all; it is a question of sensibly recognizing several standards that do exist and making the best of them, criticizing the language of each main group according to its own standard, and not on grounds of right and wrong but on grounds of what may be regarded as appropriate. The peasant and the pedant, though one talks like a man and the other like a book, are alike in that each speaks his language in only one way; the educated man knows and employs his language in three or four ways. He has only an enlightened sense of appropriateness to guide him. But it is enough.