The American Language

by H.L. Mencken

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter IX - Miscellanea

§ 1

Proverb and Platitude —No people, save perhaps the Spaniards, have a richer store of proverbial wisdom than the Americans, and surely none other make more diligent and deliberate efforts to augment its riches. The American literature of "inspirational" platitude is enormous and almost unique. There are half a dozen authors, e. g., Dr. Orison Swett Marden and Dr. Frank Crane, who devote themselves exclusively, and to vast profit, to the composition of arresting and uplifting apothegms, and the fruits of their fancy are not only sold in books but also displayed upon an infinite variety of calendars, banners and wall-cards. It is rarely that one enters the office of an American business man without encountering at least one of these wall-cards. It may, on the one hand, show nothing save a succinct caution that time is money, say, "Do It Now," or "This Is My Busy Day"; on the other hand, it may embody a long and complex sentiment, ornately set forth. The taste for such canned sagacity seems to have arisen in America at a very early day. Benjamin Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanac," begun in 1732, remained a great success for twenty-five years, and the annual sales reached 10,000. It had many imitators, and founded an aphoristic style of writing which culminated in the essays of Emerson, often mere strings of sonorous certainties, defectively articulated. The "Proverbial Philosophy" of Martin Farquhar Tupper, dawning upon the American public in the early 40's, was welcomed with enthusiasm; as Saintsbury says,[1] its success [Pg302] on this side of the Atlantic even exceeded its success on the other. But that was the last and perhaps the only importation of the sage and mellifluous in bulk. In late years the American production of such merchandise has grown so large that the balance of trade now flows in the other direction. Visiting Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, France and Spain in the spring of 1917, I found translations of the chief works of Dr. Marden on sale in all those countries, and with them the masterpieces of such other apostles of the New Thought as Ralph Waldo Trine and Elizabeth Towne. No other American books were half so well displayed.

The note of all such literature, and of the maxims that precipitate themselves from it, is optimism. They "inspire" by voicing and revoicing the New Thought doctrine that all things are possible to the man who thinks the right sort of thoughts—in the national phrase, to the right-thinker. This right-thinker is indistinguishable from the forward-looker, whose belief in the continuity and benignity of the evolutionary process takes on the virulence of a religious faith. Out of his confidence come the innumerable saws, axioms and geflügelte Worte in the national arsenal, ranging from the "It won't hurt none to try" of the great masses of the plain people to such exhilarating confections of the wall-card virtuosi as "The elevator to success is not running; take the stairs." Naturally enough, a grotesque humor plays about this literature of hope; the folk, though it moves them, prefer it with a dash of salt. "Smile, damn you, smile!" is a typical specimen of this seasoned optimism. Many examples of it go back to the early part of the last century, for instance, "Don't monkey with the buzz-saw" and "It will never get well if you pick it." Others are patently modern, e. g., "The Lord is my shepherd; I should worry" and "Roll over; you're on your back." The national talent for extravagant and pungent humor is well displayed in many of these maxims. It would be difficult to match, in any other folk-literature, such examples as "I'd rather have them say 'There he goes' than 'Here he lies,'" or "Don't spit: remember the Johnstown flood," or "Shoot it in the arm; your leg's full," or "Cheer up; [Pg303] there ain't no hell," or "If you want to cure homesickness, go back home." Many very popular phrases and proverbs are borrowings from above. "Few die and none resign" originated with Thomas Jefferson; Bret Harte, I believe, was the author of "No check-ee, no shirt-ee," General W. T. Sherman is commonly credited with "War is hell," and Mark Twain with "Life is one damn thing after another." An elaborate and highly characteristic proverb of the uplifting variety—"So live that you can look any man in the eye and tell him to go to hell"—was first given currency by one of the engineers of the Panama Canal, a gentleman later retired, it would seem, for attempting to execute his own counsel. From humor the transition to cynicism is easy, and so many of the current sayings are at war with the optimism of the majority. "Kick him again; he's down" is a depressing example. "What's the use?" a rough translation of the Latin "Cui bono?" is another. The same spirit is visible in "Tell your troubles to a policeman," "How'd you like to be the ice-man?" "Some say she do and some say she don't," "Nobody loves a fat man," "I love my wife, but O you kid," and "Would you for fifty cents?" The last originated in the ingenious mind of an advertisement writer and was immediately adopted. In the course of time it acquired a naughty significance, and helped to give a start to the amazing button craze of ten or twelve years ago—a saturnalia of proverb and phrase making which finally aroused the guardians of the public morals and was put down by the police.

That neglect which marks the study of the vulgate generally extends to the subject of popular proverb-making. The English publisher, Frank Palmer, prints an excellent series of little volumes presenting the favorite proverbs of all civilized races, including the Chinese and Japanese, but there is no American volume among them. Even such exhaustive collections as that of Robert Christy[2] contain no American specimens—not even "Don't monkey with the buzz-saw" or "Root, hog, or die." [Pg304]

§ 2

American Slang—This neglect of the national proverbial philosophy extends to the national slang. There is but one work, so far as I can discover, formally devoted to it,[3] and that work is extremely superficial. Moreover, it has been long out of date, and hence is of little save historical value. There are at least a dozen careful treatises on French slang,[4] half as many on English slang,[5] and a good many on German slang, but American slang, which is probably quite as rich as that of France and a good deal richer than that of any other country, is yet to be studied at length. Nor is there much discussion of it, of any interest or value, in the general philological literature. Fowler and all the other early native students of the language dismissed it with lofty gestures; down to the time of Whitney it was scarcely regarded as a seemly subject for the notice of a man of learning. Lounsbury, less pedantic, viewed its phenomena more hospitably, and even defined it as "the source from which the decaying energies of speech are constantly refreshed," and Brander Matthews, following him, has described its function as that of providing "substitutes for the good words and true which are worn out by hard service."[6] But that is about as far as the investigation has got. Krapp has some judicious paragraphs upon the matter in his "Modern English,"[7] there are a few scattered essays upon the underlying psychology,[8] and various uninforming magazine articles, but that is all. The practising authors of the country, like its philologians, have always shown [Pg305] a gingery and suspicious attitude. "The use of slang," said Oliver Wendell Holmes, "is at once a sign and a cause of mental atrophy." "Slang," said Ambrose Bierce fifty years later, "is the speech of him who robs the literary garbage carts on their way to the dumps." Literature in America, as we have seen, remains aloof from the vulgate. Despite the contrary examples of Mark Twain and Howells, all the more pretentious American authors try to write chastely and elegantly; the typical literary product of the country is still a refined essay in the Atlantic Monthly, perhaps gently jocose but never rough—by Emerson, so to speak, out of Charles Lamb—the sort of thing one might look to be done by a somewhat advanced English curate. George Ade, undoubtedly one of the most adept anatomists of the American character and painters of the American scene that the national literature has yet developed, is neglected because his work is grounded firmly upon the national speech—not that he reports it literally, like Lardner and the hacks trailing after Lardner, but that he gets at and exhibits its very essence. It would stagger a candidate for a doctorate in philology, I daresay, to be told off by his professor to investigate the slang of Ade in the way that Bosson,[9] the Swede, has investigated that of Jerome K. Jerome, and yet, until something of the sort is undertaken, American philology will remain out of contact with the American language.

Most of the existing discussions of slang spend themselves upon efforts to define it, and, in particular, upon efforts to differentiate it from idiomatic neologisms of a more legitimate type. This effort is largely in vain; the border-line is too vague and wavering to be accurately mapped; words and phrases are constantly crossing it, and in both directions. There was a time, perhaps, when the familiar American counter-word, proposition, was slang; its use seems to have originated in the world of business, and it was soon afterward adopted by the sporting fraternity. But today it is employed without much feeling that it needs apology, and surely without any feeling that it is low. [Pg306] Nice, as an adjective of all work, was once in slang use only; today no one would question "a nice day," or "a nice time" or "a nice hotel." Awful seems to be going the same route. "Awful sweet" and "awfully dear" still seem slangy and school-girlish, but "awful children," "awful weather" and "an awful job" have entirely sound support, and no one save a pedant would hesitate to use them. Such insidious purifications and consecrations of slang are going on under our noses all the time. The use of some as a general adjective-adverb seems likely to make its way in the same manner. It is constantly forgotten by purists of defective philological equipment that a great many of our most respectable words and phrases originated in the plainest sort of slang. Thus, quandary, despite a fanciful etymology which would identify it with wandreth (=evil), is probably simply a composition form of the French phrase, qu'en dirai-je? Again, to turn to French itself, there is tête, a sound name for the human head for many centuries—though its origin was in the Latin testa (=pot), a favorite slang-word of the soldiers of the decaying empire, analogous to our own block, nut and conch. The word slacker, recently come into good usage in the United States as a designation for an unsuccessful shirker of conscription, is a substantive derived from the English verb to slack, which was born as university slang and remains so to this day. Brander Matthews, so recently as 1901, thought to hold up slang; it is now perfectly good American.

The contrary movement of words from the legitimate vocabulary into slang is constantly witnessed. Some one devises a new and intriguing trope or makes use of an old one under circumstances arresting the public attention, and at once it is adopted into slang, given a host of remote significances, and ding-donged ad nauseam. The Rooseveltian phrases, muck-raker, Ananias Club, short and ugly word, nature-faker and big-stick, offer examples. Not one of them was new and not one of them was of much pungency, but Roosevelt's vast talent for delighting the yokelry threw about them a charming air, and so they entered into current slang and were mouthed idiotically for months. Another example is to be found in steam-roller. [Pg307] It was first heard of in June, 1908, when it was applied by Oswald F. Schuette, of the Chicago Inter-Ocean, to the methods employed by the Roosevelt-Taft majority in the Republican National Committee in over-riding the protests against seating Taft delegates from Alabama and Arkansas. At once it struck the popular fancy and was soon heard on all sides. All the usual derivatives appeared, to steam-roller, steam-rollered, and so on. Since then, curiously enough, the term has gradually forced its way back from slang to good usage, and even gone over to England. In the early days of the Great War it actually appeared in the most solemn English reviews, and once or twice, I believe, in state papers.

Much of the discussion of slang by popular etymologists is devoted to proofs that this or that locution is not really slang at all—that it is to be found in Shakespeare, in Milton, or in the Revised Version. These 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 English, in his day, was unharassed by the proscriptions of purists, and so the vocabulary could be enriched more facilely than today, but though Shakespeare and his fellow-dramatists quickly adopted such neologisms as to bustle, to huddle, bump, hubbub and pat, it goes without saying that they exercised a sound discretion and that the slang of the Bankside was full of words and phrases which they were never tempted to use. In our own day the same discrimination is exercised by all writers of sound taste. On the one hand they disregard the senseless prohibitions of school-masters, and on the other hand they draw the line with more or less watchfulness, according as they are of conservative or liberal habit. I [Pg308] find the best of the bunch and joke-smith in Saintsbury;[10] one could scarcely imagine either in Walter Pater. But by the same token one could not imagine chicken (for young girl),[11] aber nit, to come across or to camouflage in Saintsbury.

What slang actually consists of doesn't depend, in truth, upon intrinsic qualities, but upon the surrounding circumstances. It is the user that determines the matter, and particularly the user's habitual way of thinking. If he chooses words carefully, with a full understanding of their meaning and savor, then no word that he uses seriously will belong to slang, but if his speech is made up chiefly of terms poll-parroted, and he has no sense of their shades and limitations, then slang will bulk largely in his vocabulary. In its origin it is nearly always respectable; it is devised not by the stupid populace, but by individuals of wit and ingenuity; as Whitney says, it is a product of an "exuberance of mental activity, and the natural delight of language-making." But when its inventions happen to strike the popular fancy and are adopted by the mob, they are soon worn thread-bare and so lose all piquancy and significance, and, in Whitney's words, become "incapable of expressing anything that is real."[12] This is the history of such slang phrases, often interrogative, as "How'd you like to be the ice-man?" "How's your poor feet?" "Merci pour la langouste," "Have a heart," "This is the life," "Where did you get that hat?" "Would you for fifty cents?" "Let her go, Gallegher," "Shoo-fly, don't bother me," "Don't wake him up" and "Let George do it." The last well exhibits the process. It originated in France, as "Laissez faire à Georges," during the fifteenth century, and at the start had satirical reference to the multiform activities of Cardinal Georges d'Amboise, prime minister to Louis XII.[13] It later [Pg309] became common slang, was translated into English, had a revival during the early days of David Lloyd-George's meteoric career, was adopted into American without any comprehension of either its first or its latest significance, and enjoyed the brief popularity of a year.

Krapp attempts to distinguish between slang and sound idiom by setting up the doctrine that the former is "more expressive than the situation demands." "It is," he says, "a kind of hyperesthesia in the use of language. To laugh in your sleeve is idiom because it arises out of a natural situation; it is a metaphor derived from the picture of one raising his sleeve to his face to hide a smile, a metaphor which arose naturally enough in early periods when sleeves were long and flowing; but to talk through your hat is slang, not only because it is new, but also because it is a grotesque exaggeration of the truth."[14] The theory, unluckily, is combated by many plain facts. To hand it to him, to get away with it and even to hand him a lemon are certainly not metaphors that transcend the practicable and probable, and yet all are undoubtedly slang. On the other hand, there is palpable exaggeration in such phrases as "he is not worth the powder it would take to kill him," in such adjectives as break-bone (fever), and in such compounds as fire-eater, and yet it would be absurd to dismiss them as slang. Between block-head and bone-head there is little to choose, but the former is sound English, whereas the latter is American slang. So with many familiar similes, e. g., like greased lightning, as scarce as hen's teeth; they are grotesque hyperboles, but surely not slang.

The true distinction between slang and more seemly idiom, in so far as any distinction exists at all, is that indicated by Whitney. Slang originates in an effort, always by ingenious individuals, to make the language more vivid and expressive. When in the form of single words it may appear as new metaphors, [Pg310] e. g., bird and peach; as back formations, e. g., beaut and flu; as composition-forms, e. g., whatdyecallem; as picturesque compounds, e. g., booze-foundry; as onomatopes, e. g., biff and zowie; or in any other of the shapes that new terms take. If, by the chances that condition language-making, it acquires a special and limited meaning, not served by any existing locution, it enters into sound idiom and is presently wholly legitimatized; if, on the contrary, it is adopted by the populace as a counter-word and employed with such banal imitativeness that it soon loses any definite significance whatever, then it remains slang and is avoided by the finical. An example of the former process is afforded by Tommy-rot. It first appeared as English school-boy slang, but its obvious utility soon brought it into good usage. In one of Jerome K. Jerome's books, "Paul Kelver," there is the following dialogue:

"The wonderful songs that nobody ever sings, the wonderful pictures that nobody ever paints, and all the rest of it. It's Tommy-rot!"

"I wish you wouldn't use slang."

"Well, you know what I mean. What is the proper word? Give it to me."

"I suppose you mean cant."

"No, I don't. Cant is something that you don't believe in yourself. It's Tommy-rot; there isn't any other word."

Nor was there any other word for hubbub and to dwindle in Shakespeare's time; he adopted and dignified them because they met genuine needs. Nor was there any other satisfactory word for graft when it came in, nor for rowdy, nor for boom, nor for joy-ride, nor for omnibus-bill, nor for slacker, nor for trust-buster. Such words often retain a humorous quality; they are used satirically and hence appear but seldom in wholly serious discourse. But they have standing in the language nevertheless, and only a prig would hesitate to use them as Saintsbury used the best of the bunch and joke-smith.

On the other hand, many an apt and ingenious neologism, by falling too quickly into the gaping maw of the proletariat, is spoiled forthwith. Once it becomes, in Oliver Wendell Holmes' phrase, "a cheap generic term, a substitute for differentiated [Pg311] specific expressions," it quickly acquires such flatness that the fastidious flee it as a plague. One recalls many capital verb-phrases, thus ruined by unintelligent appreciation, e. g., to hand him a lemon, to freeze on to, to have the goods, to fall for it, and to get by. One recalls, too, some excellent substantives, e. g., dope and dub, and compounds, e. g., come-on and easy-mark, and verbs, e. g., to vamp. These are all quite as sound in structure as the great majority of our most familiar words, but their adoption by the ignorant and their endless use and misuse in all sorts of situations have left them tattered and obnoxious, and they will probably go the way, as Matthews says, of all the other "temporary phrases which spring up, one scarcely knows how, and flourish unaccountably for a few months, and then disappear forever, leaving no sign." Matthews is wrong in two particulars here. They do not arise by any mysterious parthenogenesis, but come from sources which, in many cases, may be determined. And they last, alas, a good deal more than a month. Shoo-fly afflicted the American people for at least two years, and "I don't think" and aber nit quite as long. Even "good-night" lasted a whole year.

A very large part of our current slang is propagated by the newspapers, and much of it is invented by newspaper writers. One needs but turn to the slang of baseball to find numerous examples. Such phrases as to clout the sphere, the initial sack, to slam the pill and the dexter meadow are obviously not of bleachers manufacture. There is not enough imagination in that depressing army to devise such things; more often than not, there is not even enough intelligence to comprehend them. The true place of their origin is the perch of the newspaper reporters, whose competence and compensation is largely estimated, at least on papers of wide circulation, by their capacity for inventing novelties. The supply is so large that connoisseurship has grown up; an extra-fecund slang-maker on the press has his following. During the summer of 1913 the Chicago Record-Herald, somewhat alarmed by the extravagant fancy of its baseball reporters, asked its readers if they would prefer a return to plain English. Such of them as were literate enough [Pg312] to send in their votes were almost unanimously against a change. As one of them said, "one is nearer the park when Schulte slams the pill than when he merely hits the ball." In all other fields the newspapers originate and propagate slang, particularly in politics. Most of our political slang-terms since the Civil War, from pork-barrel to steam-roller, have been their inventions. The English newspapers, with the exception of a few anomalies such as the Pink-Un, lean in the other direction; their fault is not slanginess, but an otiose ponderosity—in Dean Alford's words, "the insisting on calling common things by uncommon names; changing our ordinary short Saxon nouns and verbs for long words derived from the Latin."[15] The American newspapers, years ago, passed through such a stage of bombast, but since the invention of yellow journalism by the elder James Gordon Bennett—that is, the invention of journalism for the frankly ignorant and vulgar—they have gone to the other extreme. Edmund Clarence Stedman noted the change soon after the Civil War. "The whole country," he wrote to Bayard Taylor in 1873, "owing to the contagion of our newspaper 'exchange' system, is flooded, deluged, swamped beneath a muddy tide of slang."[16] A thousand alarmed watchmen have sought to stay it since, but in vain. The great majority of our newspapers, including all those of large circulation, are chiefly written, as one observer says, "not in English, but in a strange jargon of words that would have made Addison or Milton shudder in despair."[17]

§ 3

The Future of the Language—The great Jakob Grimm, the founder of comparative philology, hazarded the guess more than three-quarters of a century ago that English would one day become [Pg313] the chief language of the world, and perhaps crowd out several of the then principal idioms altogether. "In wealth, wisdom and strict economy," he said, "none of the other living languages can vie with it." At that time the guess was bold, for English was still in fifth place, with not only French and German ahead of it, but also Spanish and Russian. In 1801, according to Michael George Mulhall, the relative standing of the five, in the number of persons using them, was as follows:

French 31,450,000

Russian 30,770,000

German 30,320,000

Spanish 26,190,000

English 20,520,000

The population of the United States was then but little more than 5,000,000, but in twenty years it had nearly doubled, and thereafter it increased steadily and enormously, and by 1860 it was greater than that of the United Kingdom. Since that time the majority of English-speaking persons in the world have lived on this side of the water; today there are nearly three times as many as in the United Kingdom and nearly twice as many as in the whole British Empire. This great increase in the American population, beginning with the great immigrations of the 30's and 40's, quickly lifted English to fourth place among the languages, and then to third, to second and to first. When it took the lead the attention of philologists was actively directed to the matter, and in 1868 one of them, a German named Brackebusch, first seriously raised the question whether English was destined to obliterate certain of the older tongues.[18] Brackebusch decided against on various philological grounds, [Pg314] none of them sound. His own figures, as the following table from his dissertation shows,[19] were against him:

English 60,000,000

German 52,000,000

Russian 45,000,000

French 45,000,000

Spanish 40,000,000

This in 1868. Before another generation had passed the lead of English, still because of the great growth of the United States, was yet more impressive, as the following figures for 1890 show:

English 111,100,000

German 75,200,000

Russian 75,000,000

French 51,200,000

Spanish 42,800,000

Italian 33,400,000

Portuguese 13,000,000[20]

Today the figures exceed even these. They show that English is now spoken by two and a half times as many persons as spoke it at the close of the American Civil War and by nearly eight times as many as spoke it at the beginning of the nineteenth century. No other language has spread in any such proportions. Even German, which is next on the list, shows but a four-fold gain since 1801, or just half that of English. The number of persons speaking Russian, despite the vast extension of the Russian empire during the last century of the czars, has little more than tripled, and the number speaking French has less than doubled. But here are the figures for 1911:

English 160,000,000

German 130,000,000

Russian 100,000,000

French 70,000,000

Spanish 50,000,000

Italian 50,000,000

Portuguese 25,000,000[21]

Japanese, perhaps, should follow French: it is spoken by 60,000,000 persons. But Chinese may be disregarded, for it is split into half a dozen mutually unintelligible dialects, and shows no sign of spreading beyond the limits of China. The same may be said of Hindustani, which is the language of 100,000,000 inhabitants of British India; it shows wide dialectical variations and the people who speak it are not likely to spread. But English is the possession of a race that is still pushing in all directions, and wherever that race settles the existing languages tend to succumb. Thus French, despite the passionate resistance of the French-Canadians, is gradually decaying in Canada; in all the newly-settled regions English is universal. And thus Spanish is dying out in our own Southwest, and promises to meet with severe competition in some of the nearer parts of Latin-America. The English control of the sea has likewise carried the language into far places. There is scarcely a merchant ship-captain on deep water, of whatever nationality, who does not find some acquaintance with it necessary, and it has become, in debased forms, the lingua franca of Oceanica and the Far East generally. "Three-fourths of the world's mail matter," says E. H. Babbitt, "is now addressed in English," and "more than half of the world's newspapers are printed in English."[22]

Brackebusch, in the speculative paper just mentioned, came to the conclusion that the future domination of English would be prevented by its unphonetic spelling, its grammatical decay and the general difficulties that a foreigner encounters in seeking to master it. "The simplification of its grammar," he said, "is the commencement of dissolution, the beginning of the end, and its extraordinary tendency to degenerate into slang of [Pg316] every kind is the foreshadowing of its approaching dismemberment." But in the same breath he was forced to admit that "the greater development it has obtained" was the result of this very simplification of grammar, and an inspection of the rest of his reasoning quickly shows its unsoundness, even without an appeal to the plain facts. The spelling of a language, whether it be phonetic or not, has little to do with its spread. Very few men learn it by studying books; they learn it by hearing it spoken. As for grammatical decay, it is not a sign of dissolution, but a sign of active life and constantly renewed strength. To the professional philologist, perhaps, it may sometimes appear otherwise. He is apt to estimate languages by looking at their complexity; the Greek aorist elicits his admiration because it presents enormous difficulties and is inordinately subtle. But the object of language is not to bemuse grammarians, but to convey ideas, and the more simply it accomplishes that object the more effectively it meets the needs of an energetic and practical people and the larger its inherent vitality. The history of every language of Europe, since the earliest days of which we have record, is a history of simplifications. Even such languages as German, which still cling to a great many exasperating inflections, including the absurd inflection of the article for gender, are less highly inflected than they used to be, and are proceeding slowly but surely toward analysis. The fact that English has gone further along that road than any other civilized tongue is not a proof of its decrepitude, but a proof of its continued strength. Brought into free competition with another language, say German or French or Spanish, it is almost certain to prevail, if only because it is vastly easier—that is, as a spoken language—to learn. The foreigner essaying it, indeed, finds his chief difficulty, not in mastering its forms, but in grasping its lack of forms. He doesn't have to learn a new and complex grammar; what he has to do is to forget grammar.

Once he has done so, the rest is a mere matter of acquiring a vocabulary. He can make himself understood, given a few nouns, pronouns, verbs and numerals, without troubling [Pg317] himself in the slightest about accidence. "Me see she" is bad English, perhaps, but it would be absurd to say that it is obscure—and on some not too distant tomorrow it may be very fair American. Essaying an inflected language, the beginner must go into the matter far more deeply before he may hope to be understood. Bradley, in "The Making of English,"[23] shows clearly how German and English differ in this respect, and how great is the advantage of English. In the latter the verb sing has but eight forms, and of these three are entirely obsolete, one is obsolescent, and two more may be dropped out without damage to comprehension. In German the corresponding verb, singen, has no less than sixteen forms. How far English has proceeded toward the complete obliteration of inflections is shown by such barbarous forms of it as Pigeon English and Beach-la-Mar, in which the final step is taken without appreciable loss of clarity. The Pigeon English verb is identical in all tenses. Go stands for both went and gone; makee is both make and made. In the same way there is no declension of the pronoun for case. My is thus I, me, mine and our own my. "No belong my" is "it is not mine"—a crude construction, of course, but still clearly intelligible. Chinamen learn Pigeon English in a few months, and savages in the South Seas master Beach-la-Mar almost as quickly. And a white man, once he has accustomed himself to either, finds it strangely fluent and expressive. He cannot argue politics in it, nor dispute upon transubstantiation, but for all the business of every day it is perfectly satisfactory.

As we have seen in Chapters V and VI, the American dialect of English has gone further along the road thus opened ahead than the mother dialect, and is moving faster. For this reason, and because of the fact that it is already spoken by a far larger and more rapidly multiplying body of people than the latter, it seems to me very likely that it will determine the final form of the language. For the old control of English over American to be reasserted is now quite unthinkable; if the two dialects are not to drift apart entirely English must follow in American's tracks. This yielding seems to have begun; the exchanges from [Pg318] American into English grow steadily larger and more important than the exchanges from English into American. John Richard Green, the historian, discerning the inevitable half a century ago, expressed the opinion, amazing and unpalatable then, that the Americans were already "the main branch of the English people." It is not yet wholly true; a cultural timorousness yet shows itself; there is still a class which looks to England as the Romans long looked to Greece. But it is not the class that is shaping the national language, and it is not the class that is carrying it beyond the national borders. The Americanisms that flood the English of Canada are not borrowed from the dialects of New England Loyalists and fashionable New Yorkers, but from the common speech that has its sources in the native and immigrant proletariat and that displays its gaudiest freightage in the newspapers.

The impact of this flood is naturally most apparent in Canada, whose geographical proximity and common interests completely obliterate the effects of English political and social dominance. By an Order in Council, passed in 1890, the use of the redundant u in such words as honor and labor is official in Canada, but practically all the Canadian newspapers omit it. In the same way the American flat a has swept whole sections of the country, and American slang is everywhere used, and the American common speech prevails almost universally in the newer provinces. More remarkable is the influence that American has exerted upon the speech of Australia and upon the crude dialects of Oceanica and the Far East. One finds such obvious Americanisms as tomahawk, boss, bush, canoe, go finish (=to die) and pickaninny in Beach-la-Mar[24] and more of them in Pigeon English. And one observes a very large number of American words and phrases in the slang of Australia. The Australian common speech, in pronunciation and intonation, resembles Cockney English, and a great many Cockneyisms are in it, but despite the small number of Americans in the Antipodes [Pg319] it has adopted, of late, so many Americanisms that a Cockney visitor must often find it difficult. Among them are the verb and verb-phrases, to beef, to biff, to bluff, to boss, to break away, to chase one's self, to chew the rag, to chip in, to fade away, to get it in the neck, to back and fill, to plug along, to get sore, to turn down and to get wise; the substantives, dope, boss, fake, creek, knockout-drops and push (in the sense of crowd); the adjectives, hitched (in the sense of married) and tough (as before luck), and the adverbial phrases, for keeps and going strong.[25] Here, in direct competition with English locutions, and with all the advantages on the side of the latter, American is making steady progress.

"This American language," says a recent observer, "seems to be much more of a pusher than the English. For instance, after eight years' occupancy of the Philippines it was spoken by 800,000, or 10 per cent, of the natives, while after an occupancy of 150 of India by the British, 3,000,000, or one per cent, of the natives speak English."[26] I do vouch for the figures. They may be inaccurate, in detail, but they at least state what seems to be a fact. Behind that fact are phenomena which certainly deserve careful study, and, above all, study divested of unintelligent prejudice. The attempt to make American uniform with English has failed ingloriously; the neglect of its investigation is an evidence of snobbishness that is a folly of the same sort. It is useless to dismiss the growing peculiarities of the American vocabulary and of grammar and syntax in the common speech as vulgarisms beneath serious notice. Such vulgarisms have a way of intrenching themselves, and gathering dignity as they grow familiar. "There are but few forms in use," says Lounsbury, "which, judged by a standard previously existing, would not be regarded as gross barbarisms."[27] Each language, in such matters, is a law unto itself, and each vigorous dialect, particularly if it be spoken by millions, is a [Pg320] law no less. "It would be as wrong," says Sayce, "to use thou for the nominative thee in the Somersetshire dialect as it is to say thee art instead of you are in the Queen's English." All the American dialect needs, in the long run, to make even pedagogues acutely aware of it, is a poet of genius to venture into it, as Chaucer ventured into the despised English of his day, and Dante into the Tuscan dialect, and Luther, in his translation of the Bible, into peasant German. Walt Whitman made a half attempt and then drew back; Lowell, perhaps, also heard the call, but too soon. The Irish dialect of English, vastly less important than the American, has already had its interpreters—Douglas Hyde, John Milington Synge and Augusta Gregory—and with what extraordinary results we all know. Here we have writing that is still indubitably English, but English rid of its artificial restraints and broken to the less self-conscious grammar and syntax of a simple and untutored folk. Synge, in his preface to "The Playboy of the Western World,"[28] tells us how he got his gypsy phrases "through a chink in the floor of the old Wicklow house where I was staying, that let me hear what was being said by the servant girls in the kitchen." There is no doubt, he goes on, that "in the happy ages of literature striking and beautiful phrases were as ready to the story-teller's or the playwright's hand as the rich cloaks and dresses of his time. It is probable that when the Elizabethan dramatist took his ink-horn and sat down to his work he used many phrases that he had just heard, as he sat at dinner, from his mother or his children."

The result, in the case of the neo-Celts, is a dialect that stands incomparably above the tight English of the grammarians—a dialect so naïf, so pliant, so expressive, and, adeptly managed, so beautiful that even purists have begun to succumb to it, and it promises to leave lasting marks upon English style. The American dialect has not yet come to that stage. In so far as it is apprehended at all it is only in the sense that Irish-English was apprehended a generation ago—that is, as something [Pg321] uncouth and comic. But that is the way that new dialects always come in—through a drum-fire of cackles. Given the poet, there may suddenly come a day when our theirns and would'a hads will take on the barbaric stateliness of the peasant locutions of old Maurya in "Riders to the Sea." They seem grotesque and absurd today because the folks who use them seem grotesque and absurd. But that is a too facile logic and under it is a false assumption. In all human beings, if only understanding be brought to the business, dignity will be found, and that dignity cannot fail to reveal itself, soon or late, in the words and phrases with which they make known their high hopes and aspirations and cry out against the intolerable meaninglessness of life.


Return to the The American Language Summary Return to the H.L. Mencken Library

© 2022