The American Language

by H. L. Mencken

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 449

National Pride
Mencken carries the theme of American independence from England throughout the book. Besides breaking away from the British government, economy, and culture, early Americans soon broke away from the British English language. Just as Americans created a new way of life and self-government, they created new ways of expressing themselves. In some cases, they even took British words and revived or redefined them to make them American. Early American settlers took great pride in differentiating their English from that of England. They took great offense at being considered ignorant and barbaric by British visitors for their new words, pronunciations, terms, and dialects. As they struggled to establish a new nation, many Americans were unwilling to accept anything that seemed too British, including speech. The increasing tension between the two countries in America's early years led to hostility toward the British and created a strong sense of American solidarity.

Mencken also paints a clear picture of British pride. Early British travelers to the United States reported on the inferior manners of speech adopted by Americans, reflecting the protective pride they felt for their language. Although there was much resistance to Americanisms in British English, they eventually became accepted parts of the British vocabulary.

Inevitable Outcomes
Mencken demonstrates how the changes to the English language were a matter of course in America. New animals, foods, and landscapes, for example, required new words. The influence of the Native-American population was also an inevitable source of change in the American language. Once Americans started organizing themselves into new social and civic groups, new terms were necessary to describe these groups.

Settlers from all over the world brought their own languages, all of which eventually contributed to American English. Immigrants naturally grouped together in cities (or sections of cities) so they could continue to enjoy their native cultures. Wherever ethnic groups were concentrated, it was inevitable that some of their words would become part of the language of the area. Today, Americans all over the country use words derived from Native-American languages, German, French, Dutch, Spanish, Chinese, and other languages. Changes in pronunciation were also inevitable because of the "melting pot’’ nature of American society. With so many immigrants accustomed to different speech patterns and accents, words were subject to various pronunciations.

In America there are obvious influences of British English, but Americanisms are also present in British English. This, too, was inevitable. Mencken explains that British resistance to Americanisms was ultimately powerless to keep them out of everyday speech. Because of the introduction of American writing and entertainment (such as movies) along with British commentary about America, it was inevitable that some words and phrases would cross over into British usage.

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