The American Language

by H. L. Mencken

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 607

John Adams
The American statesman John Adams proposed in 1780 that the United States government establish an academy dedicated to the improvement and assessment of the English language. He argued that there were similar institutions in France, Spain, and Italy, but England had never established one, leaving the way clear for America to do so. Adams expected Americans to take the English language to new heights, and thus it made sense to him that America should be home to an academy of English. Years later, in 1806, a bill was proposed to establish this academy, but it did not pass. In 1820, however, the American Academy of Languages and Belles Lettres was established in New York, presided over by John Quincy Adams, John Adams's son. The purpose of this academy was to gather uniquely American words, terms, and sayings in an effort to promote the American language.

Charles Astor Bristed
Charles Astor Bristed was the first American to write a full-length defense of Americanisms. His treatise appeared in a volume of Cambridge Essays, Contributed by Members of the University in 1855. Bristed graduated from Yale University in 1839 and from Cambridge University in 1845.

W. W. Charters
Dr. W. W. Charters was the first researcher to seriously study the common English spoken by most Americans on a daily basis. He was a professor at the University of Missouri and then served as director of the Bureau of Educational Research at Ohio State University. He gathered data by having teachers record incidents of grammatical errors made by their students in and out of the classroom. His work resulted in a wealth of new data that revealed patterns in the types of errors made in everyday speech.

Benjamin Franklin
The American statesman Benjamin Franklin was a strong supporter of the social and political developments taking place in the young United States. Still, he was concerned about most of the changes in the language. He was one of the first to attempt to compile a spelling guide to help standardize spelling in America.

George Philip Krapp
George Philip Krapp, a professor at Columbia University, was the first person to research thoroughly the history and practice of American pronunciations. He used existing materials (dictionaries, glossaries, and spelling books) along with original research to conduct his studies. In a later edition of The American Language, Mencken credits the second volume of Krapp's The English Language in America (1925) as being the first exhaustive and authoritative collection of American pronunciations.

John Pickering
John Pickering was the first to compile a comprehensive list of Americanisms. This is distinct from Webster's dictionary, which included British English words along with American words. Pickering divided Americanisms into the following three categories: new words, new meanings for existing English words, and revived words no longer used in England.

Richard H. Thornton
In 1912 Richard H. Thornton compiled his American Glossary, which was one of the most thorough dictionaries of Americanisms. Mencken comments that its value is in its use of quotations, all dated, and its corrections of common misunderstandings about American English. Mencken adds, however, that because of its reliance on quotations, it is more valuable as a record of the written than the spoken language.

Noah Webster
In 1828 Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language was published. This was the first formal dictionary of American words and grammar. A supporter of John Adams, Webster maintained that America would be larger and more important than England and thus should take the initiative in redefining the standards of the language. Webster's work was particularly important in establishing standards of spelling in American English. Prior to his work, there was little consistency in how words were spelled.

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