The Characteristics of the American Language

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The United States is unique in a number of ways, but to historians and cultural commentators, it is especially interesting for its relative newness. America is unlike any other nation in its beginnings because it grew not out of circumstance and geography but out of intention. The first American settlers deliberately left their native countries and traveled to a new land to start a new way of life in almost complete isolation from their traditional cultures. These circumstances allow historians to trace the development of American culture in a way that no other country's culture can be studied. In The American Language, Mencken examines the evolution of language in the United States. His study is thorough and compelling, and it is particularly intriguing when compared to other important aspects of American culture because there are so many similarities. The American Language deepens the reader's understanding of American culture because the qualities that define the language characterize other American institutions and attitudes. According to Mencken, American English is adaptable, uniform, multicultural, individualistic, and influential, and has its own momentum. All of these qualities also appear in other segments of American culture.

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First, American English is adaptable; this is, in essence, the thesis of Mencken's book. Vocabulary is the area in which the most change continues to take place. As society changes with the times, new words are needed, just as the first colonists needed new words to describe their new circumstances. Another important pillar of American culture that is flexible is the Constitution, on which America's unique form of government is based. The oldest document of its kind, the American Constitution could not have survived so long without being flexible. The spirit of the document has remained intact over the years, and the wording of the core document has remained unchanged, but amendments have been added as needed. For example, the founders did not allow women to vote because their society did not consider voting a woman's right. In 1920, however, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote. This is only one example of the Constitution's ability to expand to meet the needs of its changing people, just as the American language has done and continues to do.

Second, Mencken describes American English as uniform. At the beginning of chapter two, he writes that everyone who has studied American English has noticed that it is remarkably consistent across the country. While there are regional dialects and vocabularies, these are not as disparate as they are in many other countries, especially countries as large as the United States. He illustrates the point by claiming that a taxi driver from Boston could work in Chicago without facing a language barrier with his riders. By contrast, a taxi driver in India who moved a similar distance would likely have to learn a new language.

This linguistic consistency is reflected politically in the positive feelings most residents have about the American form of government. While many countries face disgruntled masses longing for a newer, fairer form of government, most Americans agree that the constitutional republic in which they live is fair and empowering. The way a nation's people feel about their government is an important contributor to overall well-being and contentment within its borders.

Third, Mencken also comments in chapter two that everyone who has studied American English has noticed ‘‘its large capacity for taking in new words and phrases.'' In numerous contexts throughout the book, Mencken emphasizes the multicultural qualities of American English. From the first settlers' encounters with Native Americans to the flood of immigrants from Europe in the nineteenth century, foreign languages have had a profound impact on English in America. This notion of the ‘‘melting pot’’ is a critical aspect of American culture. Americans take great pride in living in a country that welcomes people from all over the world and allows those people to bring the richness of their cultures with them. By folding in so many cultural influences, America becomes a fascinating mosaic of words, foods, music, clothing, customs, religions, and every other part of American life. The multicultural elements of American culture are impossible to miss. In America, these differences are not only encouraged and often celebrated, but they inspire new blends of cultures. Music, for example, offers a mixture of ethnic styles. In literature, many writers base their works on what it is like to be in America as a member of another culture.

Fourth, Mencken describes the American spirit as defiantly independent, a spirit that has been the force behind many of the changes in the language. Americans' determination to be different from the English and to assert their liberties made them unwilling to adopt British English intact. Instead, Americans created new words, gave new meanings to existing English words, and rescued other English words from obscurity. Independence is a core feature of American culture, and its effects reach into American economics, business practices, and policy-making, as well as law. The United States imposes fewer legal restrictions on both individual expression and on businesses than virtually any other nation.

Fifth, Americanisms have influenced other languages. In chapter six, Mencken discusses the many ways in which Americanisms have made their way into British usage. Later, he observes that American English is also used in other countries around the world. Despite being a relative newcomer on the language scene, American English is very influential. Similarly, America is extremely influential in the world, especially in terms of economics and the military. America's strong economy makes it a major player in the world market, and the well being of other countries depends on the strength of the American economy. America buys from and sells to numerous nations worldwide, in addition to offering humanitarian aid to countries faced with famine, drought, oppression, and other strains. When the American economy was crippled by the Great Depression, European countries like Germany, England, and France were impacted. Militarily, America is also extremely influential. The Cold War, in which the Americans and the Soviets faced off in a sort of staring contest while they built up reserves of nuclear weapons, is evidence of the importance of American military strength to the world. Without it, many believe that communism would have gained too much power during this time. More recently, there are examples of other countries (such as South Vietnam and Kuwait) relying on the United States for help in fighting their wars. Finally, Mencken notes in chapter five that American English has a momentum of its own. It has not been subject to the efforts of those who have attempted to control its development. For such a young culture, the American way has demonstrated considerable momentum. A specific aspect of American culture that continually demonstrates momentum is the American dream of economic betterment. Immigrants and natives alike are drawn to the idea that in a land of opportunity, hard work and determination are rewarded with a better life. This dream is so strong that it propels people from harsh situations (at home or abroad) to create goals for themselves and pursue them even when faced with setbacks.

That the qualities that make up the American language are shared by so many other aspects of the culture should not be surprising. These are the qualities possessed by the people who perpetuate the language and the culture, after all. Americans, like their culture, accept change, possess similarities and differences, value independence, influence one another and the world, and have the opportunity to apply cultural momentum to their lives. In any cohesive culture, there is consistency among different elements—language, economy, government, art, attitudes—no matter how unrelated they may seem. Perhaps Mencken's contemporaries embraced The American Language because they saw themselves in it and thus believed in the integrity of the work. And perhaps this is why the book is so enduring; Americans continue to see themselves in it.

Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on The American Language, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Babylonian Frolics: H. L. Mencken and The American Language

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Probably no one would take exception to [Raven] McDavid's observation that ‘‘a tremendous growth took place in American linguistics between the first edition of The American Language in 1919 and the fourth in 1936’’, but not everyone would feel entirely comfortable with his implication of a causal relationship. Mencken's influence on linguistics has proved difficult to evaluate, in part because it has been primarily literary and inspirational. Mencken kept to his own haunts and developed his own procedures, in which circumstance or accident sometimes played a part. He had no students who would institutionalize his ideas and developed no subfield to be identified with him. That is to say, he did not behave in ways that would make him comparable to the specialized, scientifically oriented linguists of the twentieth century.

The American Language is closer in kind to nineteenth-century scholarly enterprises on the grand scale, which aspired to be definitive rather than incremental. Mencken's contribution to his discipline, then, comes from an ancestral distance and is not so much practical as it is spiritual, if we may allow ourselves so unmenckenian a concept. He is at his best as a cheerleader, an antagonist, and an exemplar—someone who points to great possibilities by assuming great tasks. In these qualities, as in little else, he most resembles Noah Webster among the doctors of the national language.

The book itself goes Webster one better. It remains approachable as a treatise on sociolinguistics, as a testimony of its peculiar time and place, or as an artifact, which is still powerful even though it may no longer be timely. It also remains just out of reach of any one of those approaches. The judgments that it or aspects of it have attracted over the years, while often shrewd, have almost of necessity been either stringently localized or too sweeping. Almost everybody would agree, probably, that The American Language is monumental; some might find it glorious in its way; but surprisingly few have felt able to identify its premises or weigh its evidence with any great degree of confidence.

One favorite way to duck the risk of evaluating a man who goes off on tangents, shuffles his assumptions, and writes, as Louis Kronenberger complained, in "a style in which it is impossible to tell the truth’’, has been to announce that he is an amateur, not subject, somehow, to the demands linguists might legitimately make on other linguists. Mencken himself made clever use of this evasion, which has the added benefit of placing him in good company. Much of the seminal philological work in America has been and continues to be done by dedicated amateurs. Roger Williams was one. Thomas Jefferson was another. John Bartlett was another. And so on. What amateurism may mean with regard to Mencken, however, except that he worked on his own, is not entirely clear. He was every bit as learned and at home with his learning as any academic linguist, although he may not have shared the academic's trust in methodology. It is true that he turned to philology for love more than money, but it is also true that he almost certainly made more money at it than any of his professional contemporaries. Perhaps he may appropriately be called amateur because he was a man of letters rather than a scientist, who, like Samuel Johnson or Noah Webster, used philology as a way of expressing a personal vision of national and civilized values.

Such speculations and associations may yield a glimpse of the public man in the light of his discipline, although disagreements about his stature will continue to be sharp. The personal man is a different matter. Analysis can be a touchy business when dealing with so resolutely superficial a character as Mencken. Nevertheless, the book is so much of the man, and judgments about the man and the book are so inextricably linked, that curiosity, if nothing finer, would look for answers in Mencken's distinctive personality. It was the personality, of course, that earned him his great influence and celebrity. He was boisterous, supremely self-confident, and assertive to a fault, one of the most colorful self-promoters of his era, so cocky that, if he had thought of it, Wallace Stevens might have written his swashbuckling poem of 1922, ‘‘Bantams in Pine-woods,’’ specifically about him. However attractive his psychic strut might have made him to his contemporaries, and many were infatuated with him, it could also lead him to snap judgments, not always good ones, or to aggressiveness for its own sake. The attitude was at least largely responsible for his indifference to the humility, patience, and disinterestedness that are implicitly required by any scientific inquiry.

The radical individualism is ultimately not so much an issue of style—how much of a noisy personality can one take?—as of character—at what juncture does cockiness become egotism, indifferent to introspection, inaccessible to correction? Mencken regarded himself as a man apart. That attitude, which he advertised blatantly, frequently involved the assumption that he was right and the world wrong simply because he was Mencken, born to the purple, so to speak, even if he was pretty much a party of one. It was at first partly a mask, of course, but over time the man grew into it. At its best, his Toryism made him a tough, courageous champion of individual liberties. However, the impulses that led him to confront with a kind of chivalric gallantry lynchers and comstockers alike also inclined him to arrogance, facetiousness, and a contemptuous dismissal of lesser breeds. His reputation will always be tainted by the meanspirited bigotry he seemed eager to record for posterity during the last years of his creative life, after his outrage at the ascendancy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal embittered him, and he almost spitefully made himself into a smaller man than our admiration wants him to be.

Walter Lippmann asserted that if the clamorous personality were suppressed Mencken would be reduced to ‘‘a collection of trite and somewhat confused ideas.'' The division of mind and character is perhaps too sharp, but the observation that the personality indeed preceded and usually dominated the thought is unexceptionable. Mencken's self-consultations and characteristic impatience, not only with the subtleties but even the procedures of public debate, did indeed often result in reductionism. He would bring a slogan to the table, elevate his volume, and refuse to acknowledge amendments from the floor. Such tactics were useful for getting attention but ultimately impossible to sustain.

Both the strengths and weaknesses of Mencken's reductionism are displayed in his basic argument about the divergence of American and British English. In a brisk retrospective review of the 1963 abridgment. W. V. Quine suggested that Mencken's showy dichotomy was in fact a careless fusion of five separate contrasts that were the book's true subjects: between U.S. and British English; between well-defined grammar and the older Latin grammar; between speech (which is basic) and writing (which is derivative); between colloquial and literary language; and between descriptive and prescriptive lexicography. Some process of reduction is obviously necessary to any imposition of order on accumulations of data. That Mencken's could be effective is clear from the power his dichotomy held over two generations of reviewers. However, as Quine's example insists, Mencken often risks turning argument into caricature, and sometimes he succumbs to the risk.

His mind was not supple in ways that would allow him to be educated by the particular requirements of a task. By the time he had reached his young manhood, so he claimed, he had developed all of the important opinions he would ever find necessary, and he went on repeating them until he lost the power to speak. They were the prejudices he cheerfully acknowledged in the titles of his famous series of opinionated books, an arrangement of set responses that lent his utterances great strength and forthrightness, and enabled him to produce a preternatural amount of lucid, consistent, usually entertaining prose. They narrowed his mind as they focused it.

In a celebratory essay, Raven McDavid argued that intellectual flexibility was in fact one of Mencken's strengths, demonstrated in part by his persistent corrections of his text. It is about as strong an argument in Mencken's favor as could be made from the evidence, but it eventually arrives at a dead end. Although his passion for collecting facts and noting them accurately was among his few wholly uncomplicated virtues, it did not move him to rethink the assumptions that held his facts together. His discussion of African loanwords, for example, has attracted some troubled commentary, particularly in recent years. When he contended in 1919 that the slaves brought only gumbo, goober, juba, and voodoo to the lexicon, and had ‘‘probably helped to corrupt a number of other loan-words’’, he was probably saying no more or less than might be expected of him. Such assumptions were of a piece with his milieu's alternately supremacist and indifferent attitudes toward African-American culture.

In succeeding editions the argument remained where Mencken left it in 1919, even though he had a surprising amount of interaction over the years with such African-American intellectuals as James Weldon Johnson and George Schuyler, whom he encouraged to make aggressive cultural statements on behalf of their race (Scruggs). He added to his original word list only a few explanatory sentences to the effect that Africanisms otherwise survived exclusively in Gullah, while African-American English derived either from poorly assimilated white speech or comic dialect-writing.

When he returned to the subject in Supplement I. Mencken filled out the record by noting the important new studies of the early forties about African cultural survivals and what Melville Herskovitz (whom Mencken cited) called "the myth of the Negro past.’’ He acknowledged Lorenzo Turner's researches in Gullah and his arguments about the influence of African languages upon specifically Southern African-American dialect, and he expanded on the etymologies of the loanwords on his list, which was essentially unmodified. It is surely to his credit that he gave Turner's important studies some exposure. There is no reason to suspect him of being personally sympathetic to revisionist arguments about issues of race in the U.S. At the same time, his description of Turner's work was simply part of an accumulation of data, without interpretation or application, so that he left unqualified his own original contention that African-American speech is derivative and its contribution to the common tongue limited to some half dozen marginal words.

He saw flexibility of mind as a sign of weakness, even when he encountered it among contemporaries who had rethought their positions because of the strength with which he argued his own. Charles Fecher and Fred Hobson have been among Mencken's most sympathetic and sophisticated observers, and both make a point of emphasizing, with approval, the absolute consistency of his basic ideas throughout his career. It was the same single-mindedness Edmund Wilson had described in 1921. "Mencken," he wrote, ‘‘once having got his teeth into an idea, can never be induced to drop it, and will only shake his head and growl when somebody tries to tempt him with something else.’’ In the diary he maintained sporadically during the thirties and forties Mencken himself noted: "It always distresses me to hear of a man changing his opinions, so I never seek conversions. My belief is that every really rational man preserves his major opinions unchanged from his youth onward. When he vacillates it is simply a sign that he is stupid.’’

The formidable qualities of mind and personality, then, from which Mencken drew much of his strength, could by indiscriminate application turn to infirmities. They are the source of the two major faults in The American Language. The first is almost entirely a matter of the surface and derives from Mencken's fixation on the British, their incor-rigibility, their airs of superiority, and the prestige enjoyed by their variety of the language. Once he had made his emotionally charged calls for liberation from British authority into an organizational principle, he was for practical purposes incapable of keeping his argument responsive to changes in the situation. Henry Bosley Woolf described the anachronistic stereotypes about British attitudes (‘‘even when allowances are made for Mencken's tendency to exaggerate’’) that persisted into the McDavid abridgment of 1963. Particularly after the beginning of the Second World War, Mencken's fulminations about English traits increasingly assumed a decided, not necessarily unpleasant, period flavor.

He did not know the British vernacular or its distribution well enough to justify his a priori argument. Forgue, among others, has noted that Mencken's comparative nationalism compares unlike entities: a standard British, more often written than spoken, implicitly considered as monolithic, to colloquial American in all its wild irregularity. Mencken himself acknowledged then dismissed the problem in his preface to the 1921 edition. Over the years many critics have amused themselves by listing some of Mencken's inaccuracies or inconsistencies regarding British usage.

Errors in detail, however, in a study so rich with detail, are an incidental shortcoming of every edition of The American Language and are easily corrected. The more serious and enduring fault of Mencken's preoccupation with the competition of languages is the disproportionate importance it awards the British. Against his own volition, or so it seems, Mencken establishes the bases of his study in British English and in effect makes British usage normative, the referent from which linguistic change is measured and according to which comparisons are drawn. A similar distortion of emphasis in the extended lists of comparative vocabulary sometimes results in the comparison of strictly British usages or the chronicling of their changes. We learn, for instance, that in British schools the ‘‘lower pedagogues used to be ushers, but are now masters or assistant masters (or mistresses)’’, or we are provided a substantial word list from the ‘‘archaic and unintelligible [British] nomenclature'' of music. While such matters can be interesting and valuable in themselves, pages of them are merely distractions in a study of American English.

The other major fault in The American Language lies at its heart. Mencken never could clarify or escape the contradictions inherent in his personal definition of American. He invoked, often in crude terms, breeding and the spontaneous authority of superior men to resist the biological and political implications of democracy, but he insisted on American freedoms, rejoiced in expressions of democratic energy—the more grotesque the better—and immersed himself in his American milieu as few people have. His conflicted feelings about his citizenship and emotional allegiances were often noted. ‘‘What Mr. Mencken desires,’’ Walter Lippmann asserted in a review of Notes on Democracy, ‘‘is in substance the distinction, the sense of honor, the chivalry, and the competence of an ideal aristocracy combined with the liberty of an ideal democracy. This is an excellent wish, but like most attempts to make the best of both worlds, it results in an evasion of the problem''.

Incompatible assumptions also result in an evasive model of the American language. Mencken, perhaps tactically, declined ever to address the question about the organic relationship of vulgate and standard his own analyses begged. In other words, how do yokels and gaping proletarians, who are more or less involuntarily spawning a language, also manage to make the language great: imaginative, metaphoric, daring of wit, and so on? He sidestepped the issue by identifying linguistic energy with American loutish ingenuity while assigning linguistic form to the British and their ill-fitting Latin grammars. Like so much of Mencken's behavior, that polarization reflects a need for unambiguous positions that shifts him back and forth between the Old World and the New, the past and the present. In the study, it leads to the conclusion that energy is good, or at least good fun, while form is bad. Mencken, of course, would not have acknowledged so lame a proposition, but his tacit applications of it reduce to brittle allegory what should be the dialectical interplay of description and prescription, usage and sanction. In particular, the dualism drains his practical theory of the creative tension that would be generated by a rigorous ongoing interaction of the savage force with civil authority, be it academic, literary, or merely conventional, so that both form and energy are constantly limited and constantly renewed.

The observer of language who risks becoming, like Mencken, equally (and only) disdainful of both the schoolmarm and the yokel is left with nothing of the creative process to value except raw energy, pretty much for its own sake. The inconsistencies between the making and what has been made are left irreconcilable. Forgue attempted to reconcile them by arguing that Mencken intuits and makes us feel a kind of vitalistic model whereby the linguistic élan vital imitates the abundance and randomness of nature, thus becoming subject to a Darwinian process of natural selection, which sorts out the anarchic flux and sustains what fittest elements of language may survive.

Forgue's ingenious analysis of Mencken as an evolutionist abandons the search for Homo faber altogether, but it offers a uniquely plausible, internally consistent explanation of the relationship between Mencken's vulgar and standard American. Unfortunately, it was not Mencken's explanation. He understood from the first that he had a problem, as he acknowledged to F. C. Prescott in relating the American of educated people to that of the masses. In edition after edition, however, the intractability of the problem provoked him less to brilliant solutions than to virtuoso performances of the shell game. In his preface to the 1921 edition he acknowledged that his assumption in 1919 of two American dialects (which he did not define) had confused some readers, and he proceeded to discuss a four-dialect model, ‘‘a language of the intellectuals, another of the fairly educated (business men, Congressmen, etc.), another of the great American democracy, another of the poor trash.’’ However, he attributed these categorizations to an anonymous ‘‘American scholar,’’ was noncommittal about it, and apparently never consulted it again, even in the edition of 1921.

In his chapter on ‘‘The Common Speech’’ in 1923 Mencken employed a cursory, occasional distinction of vulgar American, correct American, and correct English, and he reported the same categories in 1936. These are precisely the formulations at work in 1919, and they remain wholly arbitrary. Over the years he made not even a gesture toward distinguishing standard (or correct) American from its vulgar ancestor. In fact, in all editions, after discussions of the early federal period are concluded, American almost exclusively connotes "vulgar American,’’ and one need not be among the muddleheaded Britons Mencken scolded in 1936 to draw conclusions from the usage. An American Ph.D., the only one to study Mencken as a philologist, suggested that ‘‘the Vulgate is the language that the genuine American aristocrat will use naturally, both in his writing and his speech''.

To the degree that Mencken is to blame for such howlers, he is so first because he could not resist comedy, with its inherent homogenizations, and second because he both conceived and represented a far too monolithic impression of what American might be. He had no real interest in a standard variety. Of what concern to him were the intellectuals, businessmen, and Congressmen nominated by the ‘‘American scholar’’ of 1921? Those fellows were learned idiots, pedants, Rotarians, boobs, Methodists. He had made a career out of making them howl.

So he allowed vulgar American to become a synecdoche for the language itself, but even then he remained indifferent to distinguishing among its many forms of vulgarity. The characteristic of American he identified first in all of his editions was its uniformity throughout the country. It was unlike old-world languages because it lacked dialects. He appears to have obscured the distinction between two ideas about dialect when he assumed that because American was not fragmented into mutually unintelligible regional varieties, as might be found in England or China, it lacked significant geographical or social peculiarities altogether, except in a few items of the lexicon.

His inaccurate assumption, noted by McDavid, that"folk grammar'' was consistent throughout the U.S. was at least in part also attributable to his indifference to the formal and empirical resources of science. Forgue pressed hard on that point. Mencken uses linguistics to express himself, Forgue complained; he relies on energy, enthusiasm, and humor instead of the tools of dispassionate inquiry and notation; he overdoes his reflexive defiance of authority. It is not easy to contradict Forgue. No one, probably, would care to deny that in his philological work Mencken was often attracted to curiosities rather than norms, used exaggeration as a method of judgment, and could resist anything better than an opportunity to crack wise.

Fair enough. He worked by memory, inference, and symbol. His vernacular dream of deep structure as a uniform vulgate, lying beneath standard forms like some volcanic substratum, battering and illuminating them, resembles other modern dreams of creative force. Such abstracted and idealized emblems in The American Language should remind us that Mencken was essentially an artist with an artist's conscience, poking among the secrets of origins and evolutions, who gathered evidence in order to substantiate the insights of art. His artifact displays the ambition as well as the messiness and inconsistency of many classic American books.

The American Language was from the first sui generis. Perhaps it will always be inimitable. Whatever its future, Mencken's future depends heavily on it. The unsealing and publication in recent years of his private autobiographical writings have taken the bloom off his personality. The passing political scene of 75 years ago that he so well loved and recorded so brightly seems remote now, even quaint. He never did amount to much of a rigorous thinker. But in his philology he found ways to coordinate all of his virtues, outsmart most of his shortcomings, and achieve a durable integration of vision and nourishment. The art remains, as always, more reliable than the artist.

Source: Raymond Nelson, ‘‘Babylonian Frolics: H. L. Mencken and The American Language,'' in American Literary History, Vol. 11, No. 4, Winter 1999, pp. 668-98.

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Critical Overview