Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 3. The History of English; The Dialect of London and Its Relation to Other English Dialects

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

§ 3. The History of English; The Dialect of London and Its Relation to Other English Dialects

The history of English is somewhat different from any of these. In origin, Modern English, as it appears everywhere in books and as it falls from the lips of the vast majority of speakers, is the dialect of a city, London. But unlike the case of Rome, there was at the outset presumably no great difference between the language of literature and the language of every day, and, unlike Florence, London was the chief city of a steadily unifying country. With the changing language of the city, its gradual loss of Southern, or Saxon, forms and its gradual acquirement of Northern, or Anglian, forms, the language of literature kept closely in touch. By the early sixteenth century, though details are shifting, the outlines of Modern English are fairly clear. Then came a period of great expansion. The language was carried, farther than the Roman legionaries carried theirs, into the remotest parts of the world; it came to be spoken by more people than ever before in the history of the world could hold comfortable converse together. The really surprising thing is not that the result exhibits some variety but that, when the lapse of time afforded opportunity for, and indeed effected, so much change, when groups widely scattered might so easily have completely lost contact when there was so little external compulsion of any kind to keep even the literary language true to itself, there should have resulted a literary language that is almost uniform and a number of spoken dialects which never become unintelligible one to all the rest. In 1789 Noah Webster prophesied that there would develop, “in a course of time, a language in North America, as different from the future language of England, as modern Dutch, Danish, and Swedish are from German or from one another.” When it was made this was not a foolish guess; all analogy supported it. That it has not come about, that every passing day adds to the unlikelihood of its realization, is one of the things that the observer of the ways of language thinks about when he is invited to be very miserable. Clearly, matters are not so bad as they quite easily might have been.

But this is speaking in the large. What of details? Excellence is largely a matter of details. A literary language “almost uniform”—why not entirely so? “A number of spoken dialects”—why any dialects at all? Confronted with a demand for perfect uniformity—one of our academicians very expressly makes it and deplores the fact that Americans use “back of” and “toward” and “spool of thread” instead of British “behind” and “towards” and “reel of cotton”—what can we say? Obviously, such a demand more nearly concerns the literary English of books than the vernacular of daily intercourse; no one seriously hopes to see us all regimented into speaking exactly alike. But even in the former case it is proper to ask not only how far uniformity may be possible, but also how far an absolute uniformity, as opposed to something fairly close to it, is really desirable. On what ground shall this agreement be effected? Few would now feel, as some did in the early days of the Republic, that the dignity of the nation requires that it should have a language entirely its own. More would be ready to assent to the implication of one of our academicians that American usage conform itself as far as possible to the practice of British writers. It is an old notion; Franklin and Webster both gave reverent expression to it, but neither, it should be noted, made any special effort to live up to it, and Webster at other times professed quite a different ideal. They made no more effort, that is, than any educated man does who allows his best reading to be reflected in his best writing. The simple fact is that such differences as exist between English in America and English in Britain are not mainly due to ignorance or perversity. The days are long past when the British reviewer branded as an “Americanism” every word and every construction which, during a period of enormous growth in the demands made upon the language, he could not remember having met with before. Such differences as there are, it is now well recognized, are due to the historical evolution of the language. It will be well to look at this for a moment before casting up the losses and gains and before pointing out a possible, indeed a very real, danger involved in attempting to alter too drastically the record with which history presents us.

The literary dialect of London never, as has been said, got wholly out of touch with the other dialects of the island. They continued to affect it in many ways; it was a “natural” growth in that it was not consciously regulated by groups of literary men in the way that German or French has been regulated. In company with the British Constitution it muddled along, obtaining surprisingly good results, all things considered. Of the spoken language, apart from many rustic dialects of a pedigree as honourable as it is ancient, there are at least two recognized standards in England, a Northern British and a Southern British, and, in addition, educated Scots and Irishmen and Welshmen have ways of speaking that are quite distinctly their own. The farther one travels from London the less noticeable becomes the difference between British English and American. If it be urged that the literary language is largely uniform throughout the British Isles—leaving out works that are frankly in dialect—this can in great part be accounted for by the fact that political and literary life centre in the great commercial city of London. But the varieties that characterize spoken English today were probably even greater—less subdued to a literary medium—in the seventeenth century when the language was transplanted to America. And American authors have seldom written with an eye to the London book market. It is not, therefore, surprising that the English in America, cut off from the British at home by an estranging sea and feeling for them an affectionate regard in about the same degree as it was accorded, should not have followed precisely the same lines of change. Some of the resulting differences it will help matters to glance at.