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Friday, August 02, 2013

The American Language

This week's post on a twentieth-century volume in our collection (A 937a) comes from our collections intern Robin Craren.
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American language, you say? Although you may balk at the term, H.L. Mencken wrote a whole book about it (The American Language: An Inquiry Into the Development of English in the United States), explaining the divergence of American English from British English; and he wasn’t the first to notice the changes inflicted on the English language by the Americas.

English began to change almost immediately after the first settlers came to the Americas. America’s first colonists were at first rather loyal to the English language and denounced the “Americanisms” of the new colonies but as Mencken describes, some words were necessary to adopt because they simply did not exist in the English language, representing objects, plants, and animals new to settlers.

Mencken illustrates several borrowed words from Native American languages and how they developed into the words we use today. One example shows raccoon’s transformation from rahaugcum to aracoune to rarowcun and finally to raccoon. On the same page, he discusses the word opossum, which came from apossoun, which changed to opassom, to the word we use today (which has been clipped to possum, something I will discuss later in this post). Words such as skunk, hickory, squash, caribou, pecan, and persimmon also come from Native American origins.

While these words were created out of necessity, meanings of other words changed from their British equivalents, causing the English to disparage the nuances of the new “Americanisms.” For example, the word American corn now refers to what the Spanish called maiz (from the Native American word), while its British origins referred to grain for human consumption, in particular wheat. The settlers began to call maize by the term Indian corn. But, by the middle of the 18th century, the Indian was dropped and corn referred to maize while grain was referred to as breadstuffs.

 After the Revolutionary War ended and the new country was formed, the general feeling in America was that the United States would rise in the world as England declined and a widespread contempt for everything English extended to the canons of the mother-tongue. Very quickly “the common speech of the United States [had] departed very considerably from the standard adopted in England.” The War of 1812 would not help with the contempt that the Americans felt towards the English, nor how the English felt of what the Americans were doing to their language, and began a new series of complaints across the pond.

One English writer, speaking of her travels in America, wrote that she had seldom “heard a sentence elegantly turned and correctly pronounced from the lips of an American;" there was “always something either in the expression or the accent” that jarred her feelings and shocked her taste. Another writer observed that “it is remarkable how very debased the language has become in a short period in America.” While the English were disgusted with the adaptations of the American language, the United States was not only eager to differentiate itself from its former rulers but was also quite literally an ocean away during a period in which sea travel back and forth across the Atlantic could take the better part of a year.

One feature of American English was the American notion to shorten or condense words. This was done through new word formation, either by clipping, back-shortening, or back-formation (in which part of the original word is retained, i.e. influenza to flu); blending which began in the 19th century (bringing two or more words together to create a new term and meaning, i.e. brunch from breakfast and lunch); or by the use of suffixes such as -ize, -ate, -ify, -ous- and –ment (i.e. to Americanize).

The book illustrates many words created from shortening or clipping. Among the examples are the words moving picture changing to movie, promenade changing to prom, cabriolet to cab, photograph to photo, gasoline to gas, telephone to phone, drapery to drapes, etc.

Interestingly, the author illustrates the ways in which companies and advertisers have created words through blending. A footnote describes the etymology of the word Vaseline coming from the German word wasser (meaning water) and the Greek elaion (meaning oil), thus describing the product in a unique way. Other companies to use blending are Nabisco for National Biscuit Company, Listerine from Lord Lister, the surgeon who brought the aseptic to surgery, etc.

In addition to these new word formations, Americans of the 19th century were concerned with condensing complex thoughts into a shorter phrase, some of which we still use today. For example: to keep tab, to keep a stiff upper lip, to go it blind, to run into the ground, to get ahead of, to crack up, to bark up the wrong tree, and to let it slide.

American English has developed as an adaptation of British English, and while our languages interact more often now than in the 19th century (due to the electronic age and better political relations), each language still has its own set of terms, words, and phrases that represent the culture in which they were created. While our countries now share many of the words previously considered “Americanisms,” there are still very distinct differences between what we call everyday objects and things (for example: lift vs. elevator, jumper vs. sweater, post vs. mail, petrol vs. gasoline, the list goes on and on). There are innumerable ways in which our countries differ from one another (geographically, linguistically, and culturally) and Mencken’s book seeks to investigate some of these differences in order to understand the development of the American language alongside the development of the United States as a country.

I’ll conclude this blog entry as Mencken did his book, with this quote from the 16th century:

And who in time knows whither we may vent
The treasure of our tongue? To what strange shores
This gain of our best glory shall be sent,
T’ enrich unknowing nations with our stores?
What worlds in th’ yet unformed Occident
May come refin’d with th’ accents that are ours?

--Samuel Daniel, Musophilus, 1599

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