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Authors: H.L. Mencken

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BOOK: American Language
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Something of the sort was plainly in the mind of John Adams when he wrote to the president of Congress from Amsterdam on September 5, 1780, suggesting that Congress set up an academy for “correcting, improving and ascertaining the English language.” There were such academies, he said, in France, Spain and Italy, but the English had neglected to establish one, and the way was open for the United States. He went on:

It will have a happy effect upon the union of States to have a public standard for all persons in every part of the continent to appeal to, both for the signification and pronunciation of the language.… English is destined to be in the next and succeeding centuries more generally the language of the world than Latin was in the last or French is in the present age. The reason of this is obvious, because the increasing population in America, and their universal connection and correspondence with all nations will, aided by the influence of England in the world, whether great or small, force their language into general use, in spite of all the obstacles that may be thrown in their way, if any such there should be.

Six years before this, in January, 1774, some anonymous writer, perhaps also Adams, had printed a similar proposal in the
Royal American Magazine
. That it got some attention is indicated by the fact that Sir John Wentworth, the Loyalist Governor of New Hampshire, thought it of sufficient importance to enclose a reprint of it in a dispatch to the Earl of Dartmouth, Secretary of State for the Colonies, dated April 24. I quote from it briefly:

The English language has been greatly improved in Britain within a century, but its highest perfection, with every other branch of human knowledge, is perhaps reserved for this land of light and freedom. As the people through this extensive country will speak English, their advantages for polishing their language will be great, and vastly superior to what the people of England ever enjoyed. I beg leave to propose a plan for perfecting the English language in America, thro’ every future period of its existence;
That a society for this purpose should be formed, consisting of members in each university and seminary, who shall be stiled
Fellows of the American Society of Language
; That the society … annually publish some observations upon the language, and from year to year correct, enrich and refine it, until perfection stops their progress and ends their labor.

Whether this article was Adams’s or not, he kept on returning to the charge, and in a second letter to the president of Congress, dated September 30, 1780, he expressed the hope that, after an American Academy had been set up, England would follow suit.

This I should admire. England will never more have any honor, excepting now and then that of imitating the Americans. I assure you, Sir, I am not altogether in jest. I see a general inclination after English in France, Spain and Holland, and it may extend throughout Europe. The population and commerce of America will force their language into general use.

In his first letter to the president of Congress Adams deplored the fact that “it is only very lately that a tolerable dictionary [of English] has been published, even by a private person,
and there is not yet a passable grammar enterprised by any individual.” He did not know it, but at that very moment a young schoolmaster in the backwoods of New York was preparing to meet both lacks. He was Noah Webster. Three years later he returned to Hartford, his birthplace, and brought out his “Grammatical Institute of the English Language,” and soon afterward he began the labors which finally bore fruit in his “
Dictionary of the English Language” in 1828.
Webster was a pedantic and rather choleric fellow — someone once called him “the critic and cockcomb-general of the United States” —, and his later years were filled with ill-natured debates over his proposals for reforming English spelling, and over the more fanciful etymologies in his dictionary. But though, in this enlightened age, he would scarcely pass as a philologian, he was extremely well read for his time, and if he fell into the blunder of deriving all languages from the Hebrew of the Ark, he was at least shrewd enough to notice the relationship between Greek, Latin and the Teutonic languages before it was generally recognized. He was always at great pains to ascertain actual usages, and in the course of his journeys from State to State to perfect his copyright on his first spelling-book
he accumulated a large amount of interesting and valuable material, especially in the field of pronunciation. Much of it he utilized in his “Dissertations on the English Language,” published at Boston in 1789.

In the opening essay of this work he put himself squarely behind Adams. He foresaw that the new Republic would quickly outstrip England in population, and that virtually all its people would speak English. He proposed therefore that an American standard be set up, independent of the English standard, and that it be inculcated in the schools throughout the country. He argued that it should be determined, not by “the practise of any particular class of people,” but by “the general practise of the nation,” with due regard, in cases where there was no general practise, to “the principle of analogy.” He went on:

As an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government. Great Britain, whose children we are, and whose language we speak, should no longer be
standard; for the taste of her writers is already corrupted,
and her language on the decline. But if it were not so, she is at too great a distance to be our model, and to instruct us in the principles of our own tongue.… Several circumstances render a future separation of the American tongue from the English necessary and unavoidable.… Numerous local causes, such as a new country, new associations of people, new combinations of ideas in arts and sciences, and some intercourse with tribes wholly unknown in Europe, will introduce new words into the American tongue. These causes will produce, in a course of time, a language in North America as different from the future language of England as the modern Dutch, Danish and Swedish are from the German, or from one another: like remote branches of a tree springing from the same stock, or rays of light shot from the same center, and diverging from each other in proportion to their distance from the point of separation.… We have therefore the fairest opportunity of establishing a national language and of giving it uniformity and perspicuity, in North America, that ever presented itself to mankind. Now is the time to begin the plan.

What Witherspoon thought of all this is not recorded. Maybe he never saw Webster’s book, for he was going blind in 1789, and lived only five years longer. Webster seems to have got little support for what he called his Federal English from the recognized illuminati of the time;
indeed, his proposals for a reform of American spelling,
set forth in an appendix to his “Dissertations,” were denounced roundly by some of them, and the rest were only lukewarm. He dedicated the “Dissertations” to Franklin, but Franklin delayed acknowledging the dedication until the last days of 1789, and then ventured upon no approbation of Webster’s linguistic Declaration of Independence. On the contrary, he urged him to make war upon various Americanisms of recent growth, and perhaps with deliberate irony applauded his “zeal for preserving the purity of our language.” A year before the “Dissertations” appeared, Dr. Benjamin Rush anticipated at least some of Webster’s ideas in “A Plan of a Federal University,”
and they seem to have made some impression on Thomas Jefferson, who was to ratify them formally in 1813;
but the rest of the contemporaneous sages held aloof, and in July, 1800, the
Monthly Magazine and American Review
of New York printed an anonymous denunciation, headed “On the Scheme of an American Language,” of the notion that “grammars and dictionaries should be compiled by natives of the country, not of the British or English, but of the
tongue.” The author of this tirade, who signed himself C, displayed a violent Anglomania. “The most suitable name for our country,” he said, “would be that which is now appropriated only to a part of it: I mean New England.” While admitting that a few Americanisms were logical and necessary — for example,
Congress, president
—, he dismissed all the rest as “manifest corruptions.” A year later, a savant using the
nom de plume
of Aristarcus delivered a similar attack on Webster in a series of articles contributed to the
New England Palladium
and reprinted in the
Port Folio
of Philadelphia, the latter “a notoriously
Federalistic and pro-British organ.” “If the Connecticut lexicographer,” he said, “considers the retaining of the English language as a badge of slavery, let him not give us a Babylonish dialect in its stead, but adopt, at once, the language of the aborigines.”

But if the illuminati were thus chilly, the plain people supported Webster’s scheme for the emancipation of American English heartily enough, though very few of them could have heard of it. The period from the gathering of the Revolution to the turn of the century was one of immense activity in the concoction and launching of new Americanisms, and more of them came into the language than at any time between the earliest colonial days and the rush to the West. Webster himself lists some of these novelties in his “Dissertations,” and a great many more are to be found in Richard H. Thornton’s “American Glossary”
— for example,
(in the sense of defeat),
(of houses),
bobolink, bookstore, bootee
(now obsolete),
breadstuffs, buckeye, buckwheat-cake, bull-snake, bundling
, to go no further than the
. It was during this period, too, that the American meanings of such words as
shoe, corn, bug, bureau, mad, sick, creek, barn
were finally differentiated from the English meanings, and that American peculiarities in pronunciation began to make themselves felt. Despite the economic difficulties which followed the Revolution, the general feeling was that the new Republic was a success, and that it was destined to rise in the world as England declined. There was a widespread contempt for everything English, and that contempt extended to the canons of the mother-tongue.


But the Jay Treaty of 1794 gave notice that there was still some life left in the British lion, and during the following years the troubles of the Americans, both at home and abroad, mounted at so appalling a rate that their confidence and elation gradually oozed out of them. Simultaneously, their pretensions began to be attacked
with pious vigor by patriotic Britishers, and in no field was the fervor of these brethren more marked than in those of literature and language. To be sure, there were Englishmen, then as now, who had a friendly and understanding interest in all things American, including even American books, and some of them took the trouble to show it, but they were not many. The general tone of English criticism, from the end of the Eighteenth Century to the present day, has been one of suspicion, and not infrequently it has been extremely hostile. The periods of remission, as often as not, have been no more than evidences of adroit politicking, as when Oxford, in 1907, helped along the graceful liquidation of the Venezuelan unpleasantness of 1895 by giving Mark Twain an honorary D.C.L. In England all branches of human endeavor are alike bent to the service of the state, and there is an alliance between society and politics, science and literature, that is unmatched anywhere else on earth. But though this alliance, on occasion, may find it profitable to be polite to the Yankee, and even to conciliate him, there remains an active aversion under the surface, born of the incurable rivalry between the two countries, and accentuated perhaps by their common tradition and their similar speech. Americanisms are forcing their way into English all the time, and of late they have been entering at a truly dizzy pace, but they seldom get anything properly describable as a welcome, save from small sects of iconoclasts, and every now and then the general protest against them rises to a roar. As for American literature, it is still regarded in England as somewhat barbaric and below the salt, and the famous sneer of Sydney Smith, though time has made it absurd in all other respects, is yet echoed complacently in many an English review of American books.

There is an amusing compilation of some of the earlier diatribes
in William B. Cairns’s “British Criticisms of American Writings, 1783–1815.”
Cairns is not so much concerned with linguistic matters as with literary criticism, but he reprints a number of extracts from the pioneer denunciations of Americanisms, and they surely show a sufficient indignation. The attack began in 1787, when the
European Magazine and London Review
fell upon the English of Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia,” and especially upon his use of
to belittle
, which, according to Thornton, was his own coinage. “
” it roared. “What an expression! It may be an elegant one in Virginia, and even perfectly intelligible; but for our part, all we can do is to
at its meaning. For shame, Mr. Jefferson! Why, after trampling upon the honour of our country, and representing it as little better than a land of barbarism — why, we say, perpetually trample also upon the very grammar of our language, and make that appear as Gothic as, from your description, our manners are rude? — Freely, good sir, will we forgive all your attacks, impotent as they are illiberal, upon our
national character
; but for the future spare — O spare, we beseech you, our mother-tongue!” The
Gentleman’s Magazine
joined the charge in May, 1798, with sneers for the “uncouth … localities” [
] in the “Yankey dialect” of Noah Webster’s “Sentimental and Humorous Essays,” and the
followed in October, 1804, with a patronizing article upon John Quincy Adams’s “Letters on Silesia.” “The style of Mr. Adams,” it said, “is in general very tolerable English; which, for an American composition, is no moderate praise.” The usual American book of the time, it went on, was full of “affectations and corruptions of phrase,” and they were even to be found in “the enlightened state papers of the two great Presidents.” The
predicted that a “spurious dialect” would prevail, “even at the Court and in the Senate of the United States,” and that the Americans would thus “lose the only badge that is still worn of our consanguinity.” The appearance of the five volumes of Chief Justice Marshall’s “Life of George Washington,” from 1804 to 1807, brought forth corrective articles from the
British Critic
, the
Critical Review
, the
, the
, and the
. The
, in 1808, declared that the Americans made “it
a point of conscience to have no aristocratical distinctions — even in their vocabulary.” They thought, it went on, “one word as good as another, provided its meaning be as clear.” The
Monthly Mirror
, in March of the same year, denounced “the corruptions and barbarities which are hourly obtaining in the speech of our transatlantic colonies [
],” and reprinted with approbation a parody by some anonymous Englishman of the American style of the day. Here is an extract from it, with the words that the author regarded as Americanisms in italics:

BOOK: American Language
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