The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States

By H. L. Mencken | Go to book overview

IX.

THE COMMON SPEECH

1.
Grammarians and Their Ways

So far, in the main, the language examined has been of a relatively pretentious and self-conscious variety—the speech, if not always of formal discourse, then at least of literate men. Most of the examples of its vocabulary and idiom, in fact, have been drawn from written documents or from written reports of more or less careful utterances, for example, the speeches of members of Congress and of other public men. The whole of Thornton's excellent material is of this character. In his dictionary there is scarcely a locution that is not supported by printed examples.

It must be obvious that such materials, however lavishly set forth, cannot exhibit the methods and tendencies of a living speech with anything approaching completeness, nor even with accuracy. What men put into writing and what they say when they take sober thought are very far from what they utter in everyday conversation. All of us, no matter how careful our speech habits, loosen the belt a bit, so to speak, when we talk familiarly to our fellows, and pay a good deal less heed to precedents and proprieties, perhaps, than we ought to. It was a sure instinct that made Ibsen put "bad grammar" into the mouth of Nora Helmar in "A Doll's House." She is a general's daughter and the wife of a professor, but even professors' wives are not above occasional bogglings of the cases of pronouns and the conjugations of verbs. The professors themselves, in truth, must have the same habit, for sometimes they show plain signs of it in print. More than once, plowing through profound and interminable treatises of grammar and syntax during the writing and revision of the present work, I have encountered the

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The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The American Language - An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States *
  • Contents iii
  • Preface to the First Edition *
  • Preface to the Revised Edition xi
  • I - Introductory *
  • II - The Beginnings of American 45
  • III - The Period of Growth 74
  • IV - American and English Today *
  • V - International Exchanges 157
  • VI - Tendencies in American 173
  • VII - The Standard American Pronunciation 206
  • VIII - American Spelling 221
  • IX - The Common Speech 255
  • X - Proper Names in America 321
  • XI - American Slang 360
  • XII - The Future of the Language 372
  • Appendix 388
  • I - Specimens of the American Vulgate 388
  • II - Non-English Dialects in America 397
  • III - Proverb and Platitude 422
  • Bibliography 427
  • List of Words and Phrases 459
  • Index 483
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