The American Language
by H L Mencken
I have had some interesting conversations in recent weeks when I told people I was a reading a book from 1919 about American English. I know that it’s an odd choice of reading matter. It’s because I was looking for older titles from the Gilmore Girls Reading Challenge on Project Gutenberg, which didn’t have either of the Mencken titles on the list but did have a dozen others, including this one. I didn’t expect to read more than the first chapter or so, but found it strangely enticing.
This is a difficult book to categorise. It’s part reference book, part textbook, part history, part sociology. Mencken combines his own knowledge of etymology and philology with a huge array of sources in order to cover the rather large question of how the American language evolved into its then-current state.
He begins by comparing British English (which he calls plain “English” throughout) and American English (which he calls “American”) in terms of words and phrases. What I liked was that he strove throughout to reflect the actual language spoken, rather than just formal written language, though he did use the latter to prove when words and phrases had passed into the “accepted” lexicon.
My favourite part was the historical section, which traced changes in the language from the first settlers onward. Mencken explained how isolation from the “mother country” allowed some words to be corrupted or to change in meaning, while others retained meanings or pronunciations that became obselete in Britain. The new Americans acquired words from people they came into contact with; initially American Indians, French and Spanish settlers, and later people from all over the world. And then of course there was Noah Webster, who I’d love to learn more about.
“A good many of these new spellings, of course, were not actually Webster’s inventions. For example, the change from –our to –or in words of the honor class was a mere echo of an earlier English usage, or, more accurately, of an earlier English uncertainty. In the first three folios of Shakespeare, 1623, 1632 and 1663-6, honor and honour were used indiscriminately and in almost equal proportions; English spelling was still fluid.”
I am a language nerd anyway. It’s my job and I chose that job for a reason. But there is some stuff in this book that I think most people would find fascinating. American pronunciation tends to be quite regular, even logical, because any widely used word needed to be understood by people who had come (if not themselves then usually within a generation or two) from all over the world.
However, I don’t agree with everything Mencken says. He contradicts himself, has some very strong prejudices and makes claims that are outright untrue. (For instance, he writes “The English have nothing equivalent to…the bespangled colonels and generals of the Knights Templar,” which is so far from true it’s laughable. I know the modern Knights Templar are not actually the same organisation as the medieval one that built the Temple quarter of Bristol, but they are an international organisation that started in Europe and have strong presence in Britain.) In particular, his knowledge of British English is patchy. And because he is writing in part in reaction to British grammar purists levelling accusations of American inferiority, he attacks in the other direction.
An entire chapter of this book is devoted to listing common American surnames and their various international origins. Mencken gives tedious long lists from local phone books, when the interesting point about the whole chapter could be summarised in one paragraph:
“A Greek named Zoyiopoulous, Kolokotronis, Mavrokerdatos or Constantinopoulos would find it practically impossible to carry on amicable business with Americans; his name would arouse their mirth, if not their downright ire…But more important than this purely linguistic hostility, there is a deeper social enmity, and it urges the immigrant to change his name with even greater force. For a hundred years past all the heaviest and most degrading labor of the United States has been done by successive armies of foreigners, and so a concept of inferiority has come to be attached to mere foreignness. In addition, these newcomers, pressing upward steadily…have offered the native a formidable, and…what has appeared to him unfair competition in his own plane, and as a result a hatred born of disastrous rivalry has been added to his disdain.”
But Mencken also has some fascinating theories and opinions about language that I do agree with. He believes the additon of new words enriches rather than detracts from language:
“Scientists, of course, overlook the plain fact that slang, like the folk-song, is not the creation of people in the mass, but of definite individuals, and that its character as slang depends entirely upon its adoption by the ignorant, who use its novelties too assiduously and with too little imagination, and so debase them to the estate of worn-out coins, smooth and valueless. It is this error, often shared by philologists of sounder information, that lies under the doctrine that the plays of Shakespeare are full of slang, and that the Bard showed but a feeble taste in language. Nothing could be more absurd. The business of writing language, in his day, was unharassed by the proscriptions of purists, and so the vocabulary could be enriched more facilely than today.”
So I’m glad I’ve read it, but I can’t honestly say I’d recommend it. I’m sure a more modern book on the subject would include less repetition and more careful fact-checking.
Published 1919 by Alfred A Knopf.
Source: Project Gutenberg.