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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

§ 11. The Americanization of English

How to get such a sense of appropriateness widely diffused among people of widely various opportunities, is the problem of American English. It is a serious problem. With Italian-American, Yiddish-American, Scandinavian-American, German-American yammering in our ears, it is not a time for academicians to regret that we write toward and not towards, or for teachers of “oral” English to endeavour to make broad our a’s. Such scribal pharisaism, if it were harmless, would be amusing. But it is chiefly owing to such folly that sound and reasonable standards for American English have never come into recognition. What is needed is some knowledge of the facts, a willingness to face them with a sympathetic and rational criticism, and above all a belief that life as lived in America has a value and an atmosphere of its own. It is distinctly to be desired that British authors should write whilst and different to; we rejoice when the hero begins his dinner with “an” oyster, talks about “coals,” takes “in” the Times, says “directly” and “expect,” and knows exactly what he means when he says “sick” and “bug,” or rather knows exactly why he does not say them. We should be “very disappointed” if he did not do these things; it is all part of the British atmosphere; it goes with the very smell of the book. These things are not good or bad, right or wrong, in themselves; they are merely appropriate, or the reverse. And Americans will generally speak well when they are taught to look for the best in the speech of their neighbours, pruning the more luxuriant growths of dialect and tempering their speech in the glowing heat of the common literary tradition; no longer reluctant to speak well because “good” English is unnatural and unattainable, but conscious that a really good English, such as the world will value according to their worth as individuals and as a nation, is their rightful heritage to enter upon and enjoy.

Great things have been expected of American English in the past. A Frenchman, Roland de la Platière (1791), saw in America, a land so fortunately situated, so happily governed, with a people so constituted that they “fraternized with the universe” and presumably to be trusted to benefit by association with the primitive virtues of Indians and negroes, the country which was most likely to develop its speech into a universal language. Whitman, in the notes published as An American Primer, dug deep in the recesses of language for a word-hoard that should be distinctly American, and rolled the aboriginal names—Monongahela—with venison richness upon his palate. He saw an America cleared of all names that smack of Europe, an American vocabulary enriched with many words not in the print of dictionaries.

  • American writers are to show far more freedom in the use of words.… Ten thousand native idiomatic words are growing, or are today already grown, out of which vast numbers could be used by American writers, with meaning and effect—words that would be welcomed by the nation, being of the national blood—words that would give that taste of identity and locality which is so dear in literature.