Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 9. The Need of American Attention to American Traditions in Speech and Usage

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

§ 9. The Need of American Attention to American Traditions in Speech and Usage

But cannot all these historical reasons for American English being what it is be granted (and they pretty generally are) and still leave us facing a very desperate situation about which something should be done? History, after all, brings no solution to the problem which it helps to define. It does not furnish a standard, it can only show us the steps by which all present English has gone very badly astray. But a standard is precisely what is wanted; lack of standard, our academy was quite persuaded, is what ails American English. Enough has been said already to suggest the hopelessness of finding such a standard in literary South British. Just what sort of folly that leads to may be seen in the case of the academician who lamented that Americans wrote toward when an Englishman, “following the established usage of prose,” wrote towards. Towards is not the established usage of prose, and quite as many Englishmen write toward as towards. All that the academician can mean is that he personally prefers towards. No one could deny him the privilege of choosing, but no one would attach the slightest significance to his choice either way. Much the same can be said of most of the differences of detail between literary English in America and the same thing in England; they are too trivial to be worth much trouble in trying to remove them.

But even the attempt to remove these peculiarities of American English in deference to some standard outside itself may work harm vastly greater than it is proposed to help. If English had remained the literary language of a small homogeneous group, who like the Athenians could consent instantly in the pleasure of jeering a misplaced accent, the single and precise kind of standard which some critics of English seem to have in mind might have been successfully applied to it. But English has become the common possession of many scattered peoples. It is quite possible that this involves some sacrifice with some gain. English can hardly become the adequate expression of so varied a human experience, the medium of so many diverse men, without losing something in the direction of perfect uniformity as against its gains in range. This expansion has its too evident dangers, but to try to correct them by a single narrow standard is not only impossible; it is harmful in its results just so far as it breeds in the mind of speakers and writers an uneasy feeling that really good English is something vaguely and beautifully beyond them, something they can never hope to attain to, something so high and delicate that they would not care to use it if they could get it, certainly not for even the best moments of every day.

This brings us to the very centre of the problem. The trouble with American English, it might reasonably be urged, is that it has been so constantly disparaged in comparison with a standard so vague, so remote, so “superior,” but of so little practical guidance, that the fine sense of possession, the feeling that the way one goes about one’s mores is inevitably the right way, has been in many cases completely lost. “I say ‘dawg,’” said an American teacher of English, “but I know ‘dahg,’ is correct and I make my pupils say it.” We can be sure that her pupils do not say “dahg” outside the classroom, and carry away with them only a conviction that “good English” is something with which they can and will have nothing to do.

”All this is very different in English English,” says another of our academicians. “They believe in English and have the ideal of good usage.” But the standard, it should be noted, is a native standard; it is fairly well defined; it is not impossible of attainment; and it is not flagrantly at variance with the practice of the linguistic environment in which the fortunate young Britisher is being fitted by governesses, tutors, and public-school masters to take his place. Conditions so favourable must be somewhat limited in their occurrence even in England. In America those who inherit a sound native tradition in their homes are more than likely to spend large parts of their lives in regions of quite other language habits. In school they will encounter many who have been brought up in an environment distinctly foreign, the teacher even may have an unsure control of the language, and he—or more generally she—is sure to have some very extravagant and ill-informed notions of what constitutes good English. In the university they may learn a good deal about correctness in composition but will encounter no very definite standards of speech, for both teachers and students are usually drawn from all parts of the country and represent every sort of social opportunity.

All this sounds much worse than it actually turns out to be. For English is the authentic speech of free peoples and it is endowed with an innate energy for getting along, going into strange places on strange errands, but never quite losing its sense of identity. It breeds surprisingly true, in the main, even amid the most unpromising conditions. Franklin, the cosmopolitan, said “air” for are; “hev” and “hez”; sounded the l in would and calm, and in the latter used the vowel of hat; uttered new with the vowel of too, and bosom as who should write “buzzum.” Noah Webster, father of American lexicography, advocated the pronunciations “creatur,” “natur,” “raptur”; angel with the vowel of hat, chamber with that of father; fierce and pierce were to rhyme with verse, beard with third, and deaf with thief; the present pronunciation of heard and wound he regarded as new and objectionable. With such a start what might not American English have become? Without any external compulsion, without any very clearly expressed ideals, however, American English has kept pace step by step in these particulars with the development of British English.

The problem of American English resides, then, not in its differences from British English, nor yet in its own infinite variety—here history is both enlightening and consoling—but in the attitude which it adopts toward itself. It is not as good as it might be—no language is so in its entirety, because people are not so wise and well-bred, so sensitively in touch with the best of literature and of life as they might be—but to make itself better it has no reasonable standards to look to. It has held up to it silly ideals, impossible ideals, ignorant dogmatisms, and for the most part it wisely repudiates them all. But in so doing it is left with a diminished self-respect. Excellence is not for it. Why bother about the impossible? We shall get along. Not thus, however, is bred that subtle atmosphere of linguistic authenticity, the inevitableness of the thing rightly said, which is the peasant’s by inheritance and to which the man of letters attains by giving his toilsome nights to much else beside Addison. The great mass of men lies between, the many who write and are not great writers, the many who talk not so well as they might; where in irritation and bewilderment may they look?

”All this is very different in English English.” Here, quite possibly, is a hint of some value. One can hardly suppose that there is any very determined effort to make Scottish boys and girls acquire what Arnold Bennett calls a Kensingtonian accent. There is a distinct and well recognized standard of North British, as well as South British. American English has a history that entitles it to consideration. It has certain peculiarities of vocabulary. Let them be kept; half of them will be adopted by the rest of the English-speaking world, the other half will be liked by them if the American who uses them is otherwise likable, and above all if he uses them as if they were authentically his. The well of English has never mistaken increase for defilement. The American is traditionally supposed to have a “nasal twang.” If any allow air to leak through the nasal passage when it should be closed (a characteristic of unrefined English outside of America); if any speak with a certain constriction of the muscles of the nose and upper lip, with a certain shrillness and thinness of voice (and many do), let them be taught not to do it. That is something worth making a fight for. But let them not give up the cool, deliberate, level tone, with half a laugh in it, which shall be the mark of the American in whatever part of the world his destiny calls him. Let his restrained speech keep to the unemphatic forms of the verb to be which it has instinctively preferred. Were (”wear”) and been (”bean”) are emphatic forms that sort well with the highly energized speech of South Britain, with its sudden changes of speed and pitch, its great expenditure of breath.