The American Language

by H.L. Mencken

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Chapter I - Footnotes

[1] Pp. 22-23.

[2] America's Coming of Age; New York, 1915, p. 15. See also the preface to Every-Day English, by Richard Grant White; Boston, 1881, p. xviii.

[3] The common notion that the Académie combats changes is quite erroneous. In the preface to the first edition of its dictionary (1694) it disclaimed any purpose "to make new words and to reject others at its pleasure." In the preface to the second edition (1718) it confessed that "ignorance and corruption often introduce manners of writing" and that "convenience establishes them." In the preface to the third edition (1740) it admitted that it was "forced to admit changes which the public has made." And so on. Says D. M. Robertson, in A History of the French Academy (London, 1910): "The Academy repudiates any assumption of authority over the language with which the public in its own practise has not first clothed it. So much, indeed, does it confine itself to an interpretation merely of the laws of language that its decisions are sometimes contrary to its own judgment of what is either desirable or expedient."

[4] Cf. Scandinavian Studies and Notes, vol. iv, no. 3, Aug. 1917, p. 258.

[5] This movement won official recognition so long ago as 1885, when the Storting passed the first of a series of acts designed to put the two languages on equal footing. Four years later, after a campaign going back to 1874, provision was made for teaching the landsmaal in the schools for the training of primary teachers. In 1899 a professorship of the landsmaal was established in the University of Christiania. The school boards in the case of primary schools, and the pupils in the case of middle and high schools are now permitted to choose between the two languages, and the landsmaal has been given official status by the State Church. The chief impediment to its wider acceptance lies in the fact that it is not, as it stands, a natural language, but an artificial amalgamation of peasant dialects. It was devised in 1848-50 by Ivar Aasen. Vide The Language Question, London Times Norwegian Supplement, May 18, 1914.

[6] A few such works are listed in the bibliography. More of them are mentioned in Americanismos, by Miguel de Toro y Gisbert; Paris, n. d.

[7] Maximilian Schele de Vere: Americanisms: The English of the New World; New York, 1872.

[8] Richard H. Thornton: An American Glossary ..., 2 vols.; Phila. and London, 1912.

[9] Organized Feb. 19, 1889, with Dr. J. J. Child, of Harvard, as its first president.

[10] Author of Travels in North America; London, 1829.

[11] A Vocabulary or Collection of Words and Phrases which Have Been Supposed to be Peculiar to the United States of America; Boston, 1816.

[12] A Letter to the Hon. John Pickering on the Subject of His Vocabulary; Boston, 1817.

[13] 4th ed., New York, 1870, p. 669.

[14] Op. cit. p. 676.

[15] The English Language; New York 1850; rev. ed., 1855. This was the first American text-book of English for use in colleges. Before its publication, according to Fowler himself (rev. ed., p. xi), the language was studied only "superficially" and "in the primary schools." He goes on: "Afterward, when older, in the academy, during their preparation for college, our pupils perhaps despised it, in comparison with the Latin and the Greek; and in the college they do not systematically study the language after they come to maturity."

[16] In Recent Exemplifications of False Philology; London, 1872.

[17] Americanisms, parts I-VIII, April, May, July, Sept., Nov., 1878; Jan., March, May, 1879.

[18] A Glossary of Words and Phrases Usually Regarded as Peculiar to the United States, 4th ed.; Boston, 1877.

[19] Feb., March, June, July, Sept.

[20] Vol. xiv, pp. 484-5; Cambridge, 1917.

[21] Vol. xxv, p. 209.

[22] July 18, 1913.

[23] Of the words cited as still unfamiliar in England, Thornton has traced hobo to 1891, hold-up and bunco to 1887, dive to 1882, dead-beat to 1877, hoodlum to 1872, road-agent to 1866, stag to 1856, drummer to 1836 and flume to 1792. All of them are probably older than these references indicate.

[24] Summarized in Literary Digest, June 19, 1915.

[25] America Today, Scribner's, Feb. 1899, p. 218.

[26] London Court Journal, Aug. 28, 1892.

[27] In Pastures New; New York, 1906, p. 6.

[28] Concerning the American Language, in The Stolen White Elephant; Boston, 1882. A footnote says that the essay is "part of a chapter crowded out of A Tramp Abroad." (Hartford, 1880.)

[29] Hartford, 1872, p. 45.

[30] The Editor's Study, Harper's Magazine, Jan. 1886.

[31] Die englische Sprache in Nordamerika, band iv, heft i; Braunschweig, 1848.

[32] Étude sur l'Anglais Parlé aux Etats Unis (la Langue Américaine), Actes de la Société Philologique de Paris, March, 1874.

[33] Metoula-Sprachführer.... Englisch von Karl Blattner; Ausgabe für Amerika; Berlin-Schöneberg, 1912.

[34] Polyglott Kuntze; Schnellste Erlernung jeder Sprache ohne Lehrer; Amerikanisch; Bonn a. Rh., n. d.

[35] Like the English expositors of American slang, this German falls into several errors. For example, he gives cock for rooster, boots for shoes, braces for suspenders and postman for letter-carrier, and lists iron-monger, joiner and linen-draper as American terms. He also spells wagon in the English manner, with two g's, and translates Schweinefüsse as pork-feet. But he spells such words as color in the American manner and gives the pronunciation of clerk as the American klörk, not as the English klark.

[36] Molee's notions are set forth in Plea for an American Language ...; Chicago, 1888; and Tutonish; Chicago, 1902. He announced the preparation of A Dictionary of the American Language in 1888, but so far as I know it has not been published. He was born in Wisconsin, of Norwegian parents, in 1845, and pursued linguistic studies at the University of Wisconsin, where he seems to have taken a Ph. B.

[37] American English, North American Review, Jan. 1883.

[38] Oct. 1, 1909.

[39] J. F. Healy, general manager of the Davis Colliery Co. at Elkins, W. Va., in a speech before the West Virginia Coal Mining Institute, at Wheeling, Dec. 1910; reprinted as The American Language; Pittsburgh, 1911.

[40] Westminster Review, July, 1888, p. 35.

[41] W. W. Skeat distinguishes no less than 9 dialects in Scotland, 3 in Ireland and 30 in England and Wales. Vide English Dialects From the Eighth Century to the Present Day; Cambridge, 1911, p. 107 et seq..

[42] Art. Americanisms, 2nd ed.

[43] F. L. Pattee: A History of American Literature Since 1870; New York, 1916.

[44] A. H. Sayce: Introduction to the Science of Language, 2 vols.; London, 1900. See especially vol. ii, ch. vi.

[45] Cf. the chapter, Interlude: On Jargon, in Quiller-Couch's On the Art of Writing; New York, 1916. Curiously enough, large parts of the learned critic's book are written in the very Jargon he attacks.

[46] Alexander Francis: Americans: an Impression; New York, 1900.

[47] G. Lowes Dickinson, in the English Review, quoted by Current Literature, April, 1910.

[48] Speech before the Chamber of Commerce Convention, Washington, Feb. 19, 1916.

[49] Speech at workingman's dinner, New York, Sept. 4, 1912.

[50] Wit and Wisdom of Woodrow Wilson, comp. by Richard Linthicum; New York, 1916, p. 54.

[51] Speech at Ridgewood, N. J., April 22, 1910.

[52] Wit and Wisdom ..., p. 56.

[53] Henry Sweet: A New English Grammar, Logical and Historical, 2 parts; Oxford, 1900-03, part i, p. 224.

[54] Despite this fact an academic and ineffective opposition to it still goes on. On the Style Sheet of the Century Magazine it is listed among the "words and phrases to be avoided." It was prohibited by the famous Index Expurgatorius prepared by William Cullen Bryant for the New York Evening Post, and his prohibition is still theoretically in force, but the word is now actually permitted by the Post. The Chicago Daily News Style Book, dated July 1, 1908, also bans it.

[55] Scientist is now in the Oxford Dictionary. So are reliable, standpoint and gubernatorial. But the Century Magazine still bans standpoint and the Evening Post (at least in theory) bans both standpoint and reliable. The Chicago Daily News accepts standpoint, but bans reliable and gubernatorial. All of these words, of course, are now quite as good as ox or and.

[56] Art. Changes in the Language Since Shakespeare's Time, Cambridge History of English Literature, vol. xiv. p. 491.

[57] Introduction to the Science of Language, vol. ii, pp. 333-4.

[58] Op. cit., pp. 119-28.

[59] Alfred L. Elwyn, M. D.: Glossary of Supposed Americanisms ...; Phila., 1859.

[60] John S. Farmer: Americanisms Old and New ...; London, 1889.

[61] Sylva Clapin: A New Dictionary of Americanisms, Being a Glossary of Words Supposed to be Peculiar to the United States and the Dominion of Canada; New York, 1902.


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