The American Language

by H. L. Mencken

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Chapter 1: The Two Streams of English
Americanisms began with the early settlers' need to describe their new land. Increasing awareness of changes happening to English resulted in two camps, one supporting the development of Americanisms, and the other staunchly protective of British English. With the American Revolution came a "national conceit'' that led Americans to reject anything British and embrace anything uniquely American. As America grew, new words and new pronunciations of existing words emerged. British critics were suspicious, resentful, and hostile, resulting in a great rivalry.

Americanisms first made their way into literature by way of humorists such as Benjamin Franklin and Washington Irving. Later, dialect writers such as Mark Twain introduced regional humor.

Chapter 2: The Materials of the Inquiry
In this chapter, Mencken reviews the ways that scholars have defined and recorded American English. He explains that American English is characterized by its consistency across the country, its disregard for precedents and rules, its inclusion of words and phrases from outside influences, and its inclusion of new words and phrases.

Mencken devotes a section to reviewing the earliest attempts at defining and recording Americanisms in dictionaries, glossaries, and articles.

Chapter 3: The Beginnings of American
In this chapter, Mencken provides a historical context for American English. He discusses "loanwords" taken from Native-American languages and explains that colonists from other countries brought new words with them. Americans also invented words for new foods and for innovations in architecture, agriculture, and hunting.

Other words were assigned new meanings, and obsolete words were revived. American colonists, lacking current literature, adopted many archaic words from the Bible and from commentaries on the Bible.

Chapter 4: The Period of Growth
In chapter four, Mencken describes how the language changed as America became more settled. After the Revolutionary War, Americans were determined to define themselves and their new country on their own terms. American literature was beginning to take shape, and because of anti-British sentiment, many writers looked to other European influences, such as Spain, Germany, and the classical writers.

Mencken discusses the different types of new words in detail. He writes about verbs, adjectives, and then nouns, noting differences between British English and American English. Among the areas in which American English and British English possess very different vocabularies are politics, drinking, and religion.

Certain areas of the country were more impacted by non-English influences than others. Increased immigration resulted in Irish, Jewish, Slavic, and Chinese cultures introducing words into American English.

Chapter 5: The Language Today
Despite efforts to direct the evolution of American English, it has its own direction and momentum. Suffixes and prefixes are one way in which words evolve. Back-formation is another method; an example of this is forming ‘‘to resurrect’’ from the existing noun "resurrection." Mencken observes that the press, in the interest of being concise and conforming to space limitations, often creates words through back-formation and abbreviation (as with "ad" and ‘‘gas’’). Verbs are often created through back-formation, using nouns as verbs (such as "author’’) and adding -ize or -en to nouns or adjectives (such as "hospitalize" and ‘‘mistaken’’).

Chapter 6: American and English
Chapter six explores the presence of British English in America and American English in England. After the Civil War, the popularity of American humorists such as Mark Twain in England made Americanisms more accepted. Around the beginning of World War I, American movies became very popular in England, further infiltrating England with American English. Radio, theater, and newspapers were other sources of Americanisms.

To illustrate the differences between the two strains of English, Mencken presents a lengthy table of British English...

(This entire section contains 1426 words.)

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words in everyday life alongside their American counterparts. He then discusses areas in which there are significant vocabulary differences; these include schools, business, professions, nature, sports, music, and honorific titles.

The American tendency to use euphemisms is especially apparent with regard to professions and features of daily life. For example, Mencken observes that Americans prefer "mortician'' to "undertaker’’ and "help" to "servant." The opposite tendency is evident in the terms Americans have for people of various ethnicity, and a table of derogatory terms for people of various origins illustrates this point. On the subject of forbidden words, the American tolerance for crude language is inconsistent across time and location. Mencken provides various examples of words considered profane in England but not in America, and vice-versa. Chapter 7: The Pronunciation of American
The next few chapters contain a wealth of detail and factual information. Pronunciation is difficult to study because of the subtle differences within individual regions. Mencken cites the work of various phonetic experts and their methods.

Examples of differences in American and British pronunciations include differing syllable stress (as in ‘‘advertisement’’), the American drawl and nasal tone, and the pronunciations of some vowels and consonants (such as the British tendency to drop the sound of ‘‘r’’).

Mencken again notes that American English is amazingly consistent. In fact, some researchers have found that dialects are on their way to conforming to the general speech patterns in America. Still, Mencken claims that there are three basic dialects: Western American, New England American, and Southern American.

Chapter 8: American Spelling
In early America, there was no authoritative guide to spelling. Noah Webster's work answered this need. English purists resisted American spellings. Mencken boldly states that"American spelling is plainly better than British spelling,'' citing the example of "jail" versus "gaol."

Americans are generally liberal in their spellings of loan-words. They frequently drop accent marks and do not italicize foreign words in common use. They are also unlikely to use masculine and feminine forms of words (like "blond" and ‘‘blonde’’) or to capitalize as often as the British.

Chapter 9: The Common Speech
Common errors in everyday American speech include the use of double negatives (‘‘don't do nothing’’), misuse of adjectives as adverbs (‘‘Look up quick!’’), and mismatching pronoun cases and verb tenses (‘‘she have been’’). Mencken comments that most grammatical errors in common speech relate to verbs and pronouns. Errors also are made in combining pronouns and adverbs (as in "that there’’). The most common problems with nouns occur in making compound nouns and noun-phrases plural (as in "son-in-laws" instead of ‘‘sons-in-law’’) and with the genitive (as in "That umbrella is the young lady I go with's’’). Adjectives pose few problems, although Americans often double the comparative or superlative (as in ‘‘more better’’). Mencken observes that American English expanded so quickly that certain oddities arose. Examples include strange compounds, (such as "that'n" and ‘‘woulda’’), the contraction ‘‘would' ve’’ being broken back out to "would of,'' and the insertion of an "a" between two words (as in ‘‘that-a-way’’).

Chapter 10: Proper Names in America
American surnames represent a wide range of nationalities, but they also reflect the efforts of immigrants to comply with American styles. Many immigrants changed their surnames (and first names) to similar-sounding American names. When family members were born on American soil, they were often given American first names. As Native Americans entered the mainstream society, they often left their tribal names behind.

There are regional differences within the United States in first names. Americans also have a propensity to give unusual first names to their children.

Colonists originally named places after places in England or after landscape features. Today, there are eight categories of place-names: people's names; names of other places; Native-American names; European names; biblical or mythological names; names describing the location; names of the flora and fauna of the area; and"purely fanciful names.''

Chapter 11: American Slang
In this chapter, Mencken draws distinctions between slang and argot. The first refers to colloquial language considered below educated standards of language; the second refers to vocabulary specific to a group or profession, and it often includes slang. Mencken discusses some of the major contributors to American slang. Besides the French, Americans are the most prolific users of slang. At the time of Mencken's study, there was little serious study of slang in American English.

Mencken devotes an entire section to a discussion of the argot of criminals, noting that this type of language is international. Differences among the argot of criminals, prostitutes, and vagabonds are explained.

Chapter 12: The Future of the Language
In the final chapter, Mencken asserts that English, especially American English, is destined to remain the most widely spoken language in the world. English is the primary language spoken in the world's most influential nations and is the second language spoken in numerous others. The ongoing spread of English further ensures its importance in the future. Mencken contends that foreigners find English easy to learn because of its straightforward nature.