Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Speaking American

One hundred and four years ago, H.L Mencken published the first edition of The American Language, arguing that this nation had developed a distinctive form of the English language, in no way inferior to the form spoken and written in the British Isles. Over the decades it grew in multiple editions and ultimately to two fat supplementary volumes. 

This month sees the publication of The People's Tongue: Americans and the English Language, edited by Ilan Stavans (Restless Books, 512 pages, $35). This hefty anthology covers the territory with selections from The New England Primer to John McWhorter writing in 2022 about "English as a Living Language--Period." 

You will find John Adams advocating for an American Language Academy to keep English in good order, and you can read Sen. S.I. Hayakawa's proposal to make English the official language of the United States. (Neither proposal came to anything, and neither should have.)

Noah Webster's preface to An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828 is included, as are "The String Untuned," Dwight Macdonald's hissy fit over Webster's Third, and Merriam-Webster's Peter Sokolowski's lucid explanation of how new words find their way into dictionaries. 

David Foster Wallace's "Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage," his response to Bryan A. Garner's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 2001, will alternately delight and irritate. And you can savor nine pages of tweets in which Donald Trump insulted CNN from the announcement of his candidacy for the presidency in 2016 to the suspension of his Twitter account in 2021. 

What I found most interesting was a series of contemporary essays, Amy Tan's "Mother Tongue," Chang-Rae Lee's "Mute in an English-Only World," Jamaica Kincaid's "In History," Ilan Stavans's "In Defense of Spanglish," and others by Americans whose cultural background is not standard American English, and who by finding means to cope with the language are also contributing to it. It is not the kind of English that John Adams anticipated, but it is a rich one. 

And, of course, there is something from Henry Mencken, "The Characters of American" from 1919, in which he identifies as a principal characteristic of our language "its impatient disdain of rule and precedent, and hence its large capacity (distinctly greater than that of the English of England) for taking in new words and phrases and for manufacturing new locutions out of its own materials." 

So we were; so we are.