The American Language

by H. L. Mencken

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Historical Context

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Reading Habits in America during the 1910s
The 1910s saw significant changes in the reading habits of the American public. The market for books grew substantially. In order to sign on the best writers, many publishers approached them with ideas for planned works rather than waiting for completed manuscripts to consider. Books about war had an immediate audience in the years leading up to, during, and after World War I. Houghton Mifflin released more than one hundred war-themed books between 1914 and 1919. Means of distribution had to change with expanding readerships. Before World War I, 90 percent of books were sold by door-to-door salesmen and through catalogs. The rise of the bookstore followed; in 1914 there were 3,501 bookstores, mainly in urban areas, but this number soon grew and locations spread. A new generation of publishers entered the business, including Alfred A. Knopf, the publisher of The American Language.

Americans also enjoyed a new breed of magazines, called the"smart magazines'' by writer George Douglas. Publications such as Vanity Fair, the Smart Set, The New Yorker, and Esquire combined elements of humor magazines and society magazines. Aimed at an intelligent, elite audience, these magazines offered information on a variety of topics alongside satire and opinion pieces.

Newspapers were changing, too. The press was shaped less by newspaper owners and more by editors. The result was more variety among newspapers, as different editors chose to cover and comment on news based on their own principles. Oswald Garrison Villard's approach to editing the New York Evening Post and The Nation was based on moral standards, while Adolph Ochs and Carr Van Anden edited the New York Times in hopes of producing a literary paper that presented news objectively. Still others were focused primarily on making money. A code of professional ethics emerged in the field of journalism around this time. This was due in part to the ‘‘yellow journalism’’ (the practice of exaggerating and sensationalizing news in order to boost readership) of the late nineteenth century, and in part to new university programs in journalism.

On the literary front, the years after World War I resembled other postwar eras. Disillusionment and the impulse to portray American life gave rise to works with American settings, American protagonists, and themes of individualism and overcoming adversity. In The American Language, Mencken notes that Mark Twain and James Fenimore Cooper rose in popularity. Most of the major writers in the 1910s were from the Midwest. Willa Cather was from Nebraska; Booth Tarkington and Theodore Dreiser were from Indiana; Carl Sandburg was from Illinois; and Sherwood Anderson was from Ohio. Not surprisingly, much of the literature of this time is set in rural communities. Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, published the same year as The American Language, takes place in a small Midwestern town. Some of the war-related novels of this period have become enduring fixtures of American literature. Cather won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, a story of a Midwestern boy who finds his place in the world when he goes off to war. Ernest Heming-way's A Farewell to Arms (1929) is based on his personal experiences during the war. American Linguistics
American linguistics has its foundation in the works of Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, and Leonard Bloomfield. Sapir and Bloomfield dominated the study of descriptive linguistics, which asserts that languages are related by basic units and structures (such as phonemes, the basic unit of sound in a language; morphemes, the basic unit of meaning; and syntax, the rules governing sentence structure) but are best studied as independent entities. Noam Chomsky took their ideas and developed his own theory of generative grammar. This theory states that language and cognition develop together because language is innate and thus becomes more complex as humans become more complex. Bloomfield spearheaded structural linguistics, which focuses on structures such as those mentioned above as language components. Boas, Sapir, and Bloomfield formed the Linguistic Society of America in 1924. Mencken mentions this organization briefly in The American Language (chapter one, section five). Another major area of study within American linguistics is historical-comparative linguistics, which compares Indo-European languages (which include European languages along with their forerunners from Iran and parts of Asia, including the Indian subcontinent) and also studies the development of American English and its dialects. It is this area in which Mencken's work is considered a tour de force.

Literary Style

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Mencken uses his trademark wry sense of humor to make his linguistic treatise entertaining. Prior to completing this book, Mencken had poked fun at American scholars, but with this book, he found himself among them. Still, he applied the same writing style to his scholarly work that he had used in so many other forums. The result is a meticulously detailed book that is accessible and enjoyable to the general public. What could be very bland reading comes to life in Mencken's editorial comments. In chapter one, Mencken observes, "In every age, of course, there have been pedantic fellows who outschoolmarm the school-marms in their devotion to grammatical, syntactical, and lexicographical niceties.’’ In chapter five, he writes, ‘‘Outstanding began its career among the pedagogues, and they still overwork it cruelly, but it is now also used by politicians, the ... clergy, newspaper editorial writers, and other such virtuosi of bad writing.’’

Mencken aims his humor at the British and Americans alike. Commenting on the effects of the American cinema on British English, Mencken writes that American movies were ‘‘terrorizing English purists.’’ In chapter one, he pokes fun at a British traveler in the United States who was baffled by a sign reading ‘‘Coffin Warehouse.’’ In chapter four, he mocks the British for lacking imagination. He comments:

The English, in naming their own somewhat meager inventions, commonly display a far more limited imagination. Seeking a name, for example, for a mixture of whiskey and soda-water, the best they could achieve was whiskey-and-soda. The Americans, introduced to the same drink, at once gave it the far more original name of high-ball.

Mencken also had a reputation as a humorous commentator on American culture. This is evident in chapter two, where he writes, ‘‘Such a term as rubberneck is almost a complete treatise on American psychology.’’ In chapter three, he comments on American disregard for decorum: "The early Americans showed that spacious disregard for linguistic nicety which has characterized their descendants ever since.’’ Commenting on American arrogance, he writes in chapter six on the subject of euphemisms:

The American, probably more than any other man, is prone to be apologetic about the trade he follows. He seldom believes that it is quite worthy of his virtues and talents; almost always he thinks that he would have adorned something far gaudier.

Historical Survey
To support his presentation of the development of American English, Mencken introduces a wealth of historical and linguistic information. He writes about developments in the language by explaining how and why they came about, what writers or scholars had to say about them, what sort of debates arose between the Americans and the British (or among Americans), and what publications were relevant. Extensive footnotes, an appendix, a glossary, and an index further support the text.

Mencken uses a logical progression of ideas to guide the reader through his treatise. The organization of the book along historical lines gives the reader a clear framework for understanding complicated material. Beginning with an overview of the issues explored in the book, he introduces the reader to the tensions between American English and British English. Next, he explains how scholars have attempted to define and record Americanisms as the field has expanded over the years. Once he provided the reader with this overview, Mencken delves into the evolution of American English in greater detail.

Mencken chooses a chronological approach, beginning with the earliest settlers and their struggle to redefine English to suit their new needs. Next, he explains how America's growing population and changing attitudes led to alterations in the language. Addressing modern-day usage, he reviews various parts of speech, demonstrating how each has changed so significantly that stark differences between American English and British English are evident.

The next section of the book explores the minutiae of language; Mencken describes American pronunciations and spellings and how they came to differ from those of British English. Next, Mencken addresses everyday speech by breaking it down into grammar, parts of speech, and peculiarities of everyday American English. After a review of the rules of proper names in America, Mencken returns to the subject of informal speech by discussing slang. Appropriately, he concludes the book by commenting on what he sees as the future of American English. Up to this point, he has demonstrated its ability to change and adapt, and he leaves the reader with the understanding that it will continue to do so.

Compare and Contrast

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1910s: The experience of World War I forever changes the way Americans feel about their position in the world. Never having been involved in a conflict of this magnitude, Americans feel patriotic but also disillusioned and fearful.

Today: In 2001, terrorists attack the World Trade Center towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. These attacks on American soil leave Americans feeling disillusioned and fearful but also patriotic and united.

1910s: There is not yet a comprehensive linguistic history of the United States. Although the topic has received attention and study over the years, no one has compiled all data into a single volume.

Today: Mencken's The American Language is considered one of the most informative and thorough treatments of American linguistics. The field has broadened, and books are available containing up-to-date terms, slang, and influences. To date, however, no other author has compiled another volume as ambitious as Mencken's work.

1910s: Bookstores are just becoming an important element of the publishing business. In 1912, the Washington Square Bookshop in New York City's Greenwich Village offers the Little Leather Library, a series of excerpts from the classics. This set is also sold through Woolworth's and sells an unprecedented one million units in a year.

Today: Bookselling is highly competitive, with large traditional stores that carry tens of thousands of titles and online booksellers that offer, literally, millions. Sales have skyrocketed. In 1994, for example, a record seventeen titles sold over a million copies each.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 292

Matthews, Brander, ‘‘Developing the American from the English Language,’’ in the New York Times Book Review, March 30, 1919, pp. 157, 164, 170.

Thorp, Willard,"The Many Styles of H. L. Mencken,’’ in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 41, 1970, pp. 638–42.

Williams, W. H. A., ‘‘H. L. Mencken,’’ in Twayne's United States Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.

Wilson, Edmund, Jr., ‘‘H. L. Mencken,’’ in New Republic, Vol. 27, No. 339, June 1, 1921, pp. 10-13.

Further Reading
Cairns, Huntington, ed., H. L. Mencken: The American Scene, Vintage Books, 1982.
Cairns has gathered a representative sampling of Mencken's writing. Topics include journalism, politics, religion, and America. This book is considered a good introduction to Mencken's writing as a whole.

Crunden, Robert, ed., The Superfluous Men: Critics of American Culture, 1900-1945, ISI Books, 1999.
Crunden presents the writing of numerous social commentators in the first half of the twentieth century, years that span both world wars and the Great Depression. In addition to Mencken, writers such as John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate are featured.

Manchester, William, Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H. L. Mencken, Harper and Brothers, 1951.
This biography is unique among those exploring Mencken's life because Manchester knew Mencken personally and wrote the biography with his help. The style is considered accessible and engaging.

Mencken, H. L., A Choice of Days, Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.
This single volume contains excerpts from Mencken's three-volume autobiographical series. It was released on the one-hundredth anniversary of Mencken' s birth.

Strachan, Hew, The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Strachan has edited the work of experts from all over the world to present a total picture of World War I. Complete with numerous photographs and illustrations, this book answers questions about military endeavors, economics, the press, and social implications.

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