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Title: Questions at Issue in Our English Speech
Author: Bowen, Edwin W. (Edwin Winfield)
Language: English
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  _Questions at Issue in
  Our English Speech_


  _Edwin W. Bowen, Ph.D._

  _Author of
  “Makers of American Literature”_



  _Broadway Publishing Company_
  _835 Broadway, ⁂ New York_

  Copyright, 1909



  _All Rights Reserved_


_Practically all the matter in this collection of essays has been
printed elsewhere. Four of the articles, “A Question of Preference
in English Spelling,” “Authority in English Pronunciation,” “What
Is Slang?” and “Briticisms versus Americanisms,” first appeared in
the “Popular Science Monthly” and are here reproduced with the kind
permission of the editor of that journal. The paper, “Vulgarisms
with a Pedigree,” is rewritten from three brief essays on allied
themes which were published in the “Atlantic Monthly” and the “North
American Review.” The essay on “Our English Spelling of Yesterday--Why
Antiquated?” is reprinted from the “Methodist Review.” I wish here to
thank the publishers of these periodicals for permission to reprint._



  Our English Spelling of Yesterday. Why Antiquated             1

  A Question of Preference in English Spelling                 25

  Authority in English Pronunciation                           38

  Vulgarisms With a Pedigree                                   60

  Briticisms Versus Americanisms                               82

  What is Slang?                                              108

  Standard English. How it Arose and How it is Maintained     130


There is a marked distinction between spoken and written language.
In writing a system of conventional symbols is adopted to represent
speech. At best such a system is ill-devised and incomplete. In many
cases, as in our own tongue, the written language fairly bristles
with innumerable inaccuracies and inconsistencies and with flagrant
absurdities of orthography. Of course the written language is only an
imperfect attempt to represent graphically the spoken speech and is
a mere shadow of the real substance, of the living tongue. No system
of symbols has been adopted which represent with absolute accuracy
and adequacy a spoken language at all periods of its history. It is a
matter of extreme doubt whether any living language is now, or ever
has been, represented by its alphabet with absolute accuracy and
precision. It is quite probable that no living European tongue is today
represented by its alphabet with more than approximate accuracy and
completeness. As for the dead languages, like the classics, we may
be reasonably certain that neither the Greek nor the Latin alphabet
correctly and adequately represented those respective languages at all
periods of their history. The body of Latin literature now extant
is but a desiccated, lifeless mummy of the living, pulsating speech
which was heard upon the lips of the ancient Romans. Of that robust
and vigorous Latin vernacular, as employed by Cicero and Virgil in
all its purity, we have only embalmed specimens, preserved to us in
the stirring rhetorical periods of that prince of Roman orators and
in the stately rhythmical hexameters of that famous Mantuan bard.
_Quantum mutatum ab illo_--how unlike the spoken language, how unlike
the burning eloquence which used to thrill the populace in the ancient
Roman Forum! Small wonder we are accustomed now to speak of the tongue
of the ancient Roman and of the tongue of the ancient Hellene as a
“dead language,” for those noble tongues perished, truly, centuries
ago, when they ceased to be spoken by the inhabitants of Rome and
Athens respectively.

However, the classics are not the only “dead languages.” There is a
sense in which some of the modern languages may be said to be “dead.”
Even our own Saxon tongue, which good King Alfred employed in all
its pristine purity both in conversation and in the translations
which he made for his people, is practically as “dead” as Latin or
Greek, inasmuch as it is no longer possible for us to think in terms
of the Anglo-Saxon or to speak with the accents and sounds of that
rugged, unpolished idiom. Indeed, the speech of Chaucer and even of
Shakespeare, no less than that of King Alfred, is to all intents
and purposes a “dead” tongue to the English-speaking people of the
twentieth century, for we no longer employ the idiom and the sound
values then current. We have the language of those times, it is true,
preserved in the works of Chaucer and in our rich literary heritage
from the Elizabethan age, but the speech of those times--the vernacular
spoken by the mellifluous-tongued and myriad-minded Shakespeare, no
less than that employed by that “verray perfight gentil knight,”
Chaucer--is no longer heard upon the lips of the users of English
and may therefore be said to be “dead.” These authors have left us
a photograph more or less faithful and true, though not a speaking
likeness, of the English language then existent. How our English
vernacular has changed ever since the days of the famous virgin queen,
not to mention the more radical changes of the far-remote days of the
ill-starred Richard II! A spoken language is constantly changing. It
grows and develops, or languishes and decays, upon the lips of those
who employ it as their mother-tongue, now incorporating into itself new
expressions and idioms and now casting off such as are old and worn
out. But it is no easy matter to fix its ever-shifting, kaleidoscopic
form, or to determine its chameleon color. The spoken language is
modified by each speaker who uses it as a medium for the communication
of his thoughts and feelings. The words which a man employs to convey
his thoughts to his fellow man have not an absolute and unvarying
significance. They have only a relative meaning, not a rigid and
definite signification, which is essential in the nature of the term,
and they express only the ideas which the writer or speaker puts
into them. The same word, as is well known, has entirely different
meanings in different passages or is employed in different senses by
the speaker. Hence a prolific source of ambiguity in language. In the
last analysis words are only conventional signs which mean whatever
the speaker and hearer agree to make them mean. Striking illustration
of this fact is furnished by our current social phrases, as Professor
Kittredge points out in his “Words and their Ways in English
Speech.”[1] Such conventional phrases as “Not at home,” “Delighted
to see you,” “Sorry to have missed you when you called” are familiar
everyday expressions which have no essential fixed meaning. To be
sure, they mean what their face value imports, but they are generally
regarded as merely polite forms--etiquette--nothing more.

Furthermore, the sounds which constitute words have to be learned
by the tedious process of imitation, and in this very process the
sounds are modified to a greater or less extent. In childhood--in
fact, in infancy--we begin the slow and painful process of acquiring a
vocabulary to express our ideas and we continue the work till death,
ever imitating more or less closely the habits of speech of those
about us. Thus language is modified perhaps without conscious effort,
upon our part. By careful speakers the purity and the propriety of our
speech are safeguarded. On the other hand, our language is corrupted
and debased by those of careless and slipshod habits of utterance.
In any case, however, whether upon the lips of the cultured and
refined or upon the lips of the untutored and ignorant, the language
is constantly undergoing modifications for better or for worse. Since
it is true that a spoken language is ever changing and never remains
fixed, how great and far-reaching must be the modification and change
which our own English speech has undergone during the many generations
of its history! Because our written language has experienced
comparatively little alteration since the invention of printing, it
does not follow that the spoken speech has remained constant and
unchanged from century to century. Indeed, nothing is farther from the
truth. But even our written language has been subjected to some minor
alteration and slight modification since the days of Caxton, reputed
the first English printer. Spoken English, which is the real, living
language, has undergone infinite change during the last five centuries,
and has diverged more and more from the idiom of Chaucer and Caxton,
so that it is today almost an entirely different tongue. English
orthography never has kept pace with the written language. Before the
invention of printing our spelling failed to reflect the modifications
which took place in the pronunciation of our tongue and the printing
press served to establish and stereotype the conventional spelling then
in vogue, which the characteristic conservatism of the Anglo-Saxon race
has ever since preserved in its crystallized, fossilized form.

The printing press, therefore, is largely responsible for our
inconsistent, archaic and unphonetic English orthography. When
printing was introduced into England, such bewildering confusion
and signal want of uniformity prevailed in writing and speaking the
vernacular that expediency and business exigencies alike suggested
a modification of our received spelling, and soon an imperative
demand for simplicity and uniformity was felt among the printers. In
response to this demand, and in order to facilitate the labor of the
compositor and reader, a conventional mode of spelling was adopted
and put into general use by the printers. Thus English orthography
was taken from the direct control of the intellectual class who wrote
books, and was turned over to a mechanical class who simply printed
books. The intellectual class strove to make the spelling of our tongue
conform to the pronunciation. With this object always in view English
orthography was permitted a wide variation. A writer, therefore,
enjoyed considerable latitude and freedom of choice and was untrammeled
by the binding authority of tradition or convention. The mechanical
class who undertook to establish our spelling for us at the same time
that they printed our manuscripts experienced serious difficulty in
their effort to represent an ever-varying orthography. Above all things
they aimed to reduce English orthography to some uniform notation, and
at length they achieved their purpose. Thus uniformity in our spelling
was secured, but at the sacrifice of accuracy and precision; for the
conventional orthography adopted by the early printers in England was
by no means scientific or accurate even at the time of its adoption,
and no attempt was made later to make the received orthography
adequately reproduce the pronunciation. Consequently there arose a wide
divergence between written and spoken English. Not the least important
result is the loss of knowledge we have sustained as to how successive
past generations of Englishmen spoke the vernacular. The result, which
is obvious to everyone and frequently an embarrassment to some, is the
innumerable obstacles which our archaic and inconsistent orthography
necessarily places in the way of those of the present generation who
have to learn English.

Sometimes, indulging in a little persiflage, we point with pardonable
pride to the great achievements of our race and descant upon the
marvelous beauty and flexibility of our noble English speech. We
glory in the fact that “we speak the tongue that Shakespeare spoke,”
although we may not hold the faith and morals which Milton held. We
look with leniency upon such an oratorical or poetic utterance as a
harmless effusion of patriotic sentiment. Yet how few really are those
who today know the tongue that Shakespeare spoke! Because we speak the
vernacular we take it for granted, as a matter of course, that we speak
the language and employ the idiom of Shakespeare, little reflecting
how different our present-day English sounds from Elizabethan English.
Very few persons, indeed, have an accurate knowledge of Shakespearean
English. Our speech has taken a long step in advance since the halcyon
days of Queen Elizabeth, and it is a far cry from the twentieth century
to the sixteenth century English. Perhaps it is not wide of the mark
to affirm that not one person in a thousand of those using English as
their mother tongue could today understand a play of Shakespeare if
read with the author’s own accent and pronunciation. Spoken with the
original sound values, in accordance with authorized usage at the time
of its production, the play of Hamlet would seem to us today a foreign
tongue. With the words of Shakespeare’s plays according to our present
fashion of pronunciation we are quite familiar, but we know no more how
the master dramatist would have uttered them, as Ellis observes in his
“Early English Pronunciation,”[2] than we know how to write a play in
his idiom. The speech of Shakespeare has long since departed from us;
and if acquired today, it must be acquired as a new tongue at the cost
of untold study and unstinted toil. It would be necessary to delve into
Elizabethan antiquities and consult contemporary authorities on English
pronunciation in order to determine the accepted values of English
sounds then in use and reproduce the vernacular of that remote age.
This would involve a vast deal of patient labor and generous study, and
even at this costly price we could only hope to ascertain Shakespeare’s
speech with approximate accuracy of detail. So far has our spoken
English today left behind the written English of the Elizabethan age.

Were it a physical possibility, it would be equally instructive and
interesting to hear our English tongue uttered with the characteristic
accents and sounds of each successive period of its history from the
age of King Alfred to the Victorian era. What a vast and striking
difference there must be registered between the received pronunciations
of these several periods, embracing a lapse of time of well-nigh ten
centuries! How they gradually shade into each other as the colors of
the prism! History records a wide divergence of the speech of King
Edward VII from that of King Alfred, and yet both of these are but
extremes of the same English language which has enjoyed an unbroken
continuity of development through so many centuries. How different our
language must have sounded upon the lips of the leading English men
of letters from Chaucer, Wickliffe, Langland, and Spenser, on down to
Dryden, Milton, Pope, and Addison! When we speak of the English speech
of a given period in the past, we naturally think of the pronunciation
as being uniform all over England. We assume without sufficient warrant
that there was a standard of pronunciation that prevailed throughout
England in those remote times, just as there is a recognized standard,
with but slight variation, that prevails in England and America at
the present day. However, even today there is no absolute standard
of pronunciation. An absolute, definite English orthoëpy does not
exist in reality; it is only a phantom, a figment of a precisian
imagination without a counterpart in nature. We use the phrase for
convenience, to be sure, but there never has been any such thing as an
absolute standard of pronunciation in English, and is not now. The
nearest approach to it is a linguistic ideal to which the users of our
English speech aim, with more or less conscious effort, to make their
pronunciation conform.

Still, the educated pronunciation of England and America comes much
nearer to a common standard today than was ever the case before in the
history of the English language. In Elizabethan times the usage of
London and the Court did not prevail throughout the various shires of
England, where the pronunciation was somewhat provincial. The tendency
of English pronunciation in modern times has been toward uniformity.
But in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries it is almost
a straining of the meaning of words, as Ellis truly remarks, to talk of
a general English pronunciation. In those good old days there was no
received standard of pronunciation in England, and every man was free
to speak English according to his own sense of propriety. Indeed, prior
to the age of Chaucer not only was there no standard of pronunciation,
but there was no acknowledged standard of literary English. There
were various provincial dialects and also a Court dialect, but none
of these was of sufficient influence to triumph over the rest and to
compel universal imitation and adoption. After the Elizabethan age
local usage in the matter of English pronunciation declined steadily,
and the standard of the metropolis gradually commended itself, with
increasing influence, till it spread more or less completely over the
entire country. Consequently at the time of the rise of the pronouncing
dictionary, in the eighteenth century, when the great middle class
had begun to attain to prominence, provincial pronunciation fell into
disrepute, and people everywhere clamored for a guide to Court usage
in the matter of English orthoëpy. From that time to the present
there has been a close approach to uniformity of utterance in our
English speech. But in the very nature of things there cannot, of
course, be a standard pronunciation without absolute uniformity of
utterance, and it need hardly be remarked that this does not exist.
Nevertheless, the influence and dominance of the pronouncing dictionary
are clearly in the direction of a standard pronunciation and have made
possible the existing approach to that end. It is quite remarkable how
potent the influence of the pronouncing dictionary is upon English
pronunciation.[3] Despite the fact that such an orthoëpic authority
is at best arbitrary, and somewhat artificial, it has enjoyed a kind
of undisputed supremacy since the days of Dr. Johnson, the literary
autocrat of the eighteenth century; and its tyranny seems not yet
ended. For the English-speaking world still defers to the authority of
the pronouncing dictionary and to that extent is under its thrall and
has not the courage to challenge it and to assert its own independence
in matters of orthoëpy.

Prior to the eighteenth century the pronouncing dictionary was unknown.
It therefore cannot boast the authority of a long antiquity. There
were, however, certain guides to correct orthoëpy even in those early
times, at least in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There are
preserved to us certain records of contemporary orthoëpists which throw
light upon English pronunciation in those remote times. We are not
therefore left to conjecture simply in this matter. These authorities,
to be sure, leave much to be desired in any disputed question of our
early pronunciation. Their descriptions of the accepted orthoëpy of
their respective centuries as well as their graphic representations
of the English sounds are far from lucid, and they sometimes make
confusion worse confounded. Some of the orthoëpists were content to
refer to Latin, Greek, or Hebrew sounds as a standard of comparison
for English pronunciation, sublimely unconscious of the fact that the
older pronunciation of these languages is not yet established to the
satisfaction of all scholars and that the modern pronunciation varies
with different countries. Others of them used key words the value of
which it is extremely difficult to determine definitely. Others again
refer to such unstable standards of comparison as contemporary French
and Italian. Yet, amid the endless confusion and apparent conflict of
these incomplete records, that eminent authority on our English speech
succeeded, by dint of his laborious erudition and untiring patience,
in solving the numberless difficulties with which the question of our
early pronunciation was beset. By this achievement Mr. Ellis placed
the world of scholars under lasting obligation by determining for us,
with approximate accuracy, the successive values of our early English
sounds down to the age of the pronouncing dictionary. Let Mr. Ellis
give us in his own words a summary of his arduous investigation.
“The pronunciation of English during the sixteenth century,” says
he, “was thus rendered tolerably clear, and the mode in which it
broke into that of the seventeenth century became traceable. But the
seventeenth century was, like the fifteenth, one of civil war, that is
of extraordinary commingling of the population, and consequently one
of marked linguistic change. Between the fourteenth and the sixteenth
centuries our language was almost born anew. In the seventeenth
century the idiomatic changes are by no means so evident, but the
pronunciation altered distinctly in some remarkable points. These
facts, and the breaking up of the seventeenth into the eighteenth
century pronunciation, which when established scarcely differed from
the present, are well brought to light by Wallis, Wilkins, Owen, Price,
Cooper, Miege, and Jones, followed by Buchanan, Franklin, and Sheridan.
It became, therefore, possible to assign with considerable accuracy the
pronunciation of Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, and Pope, or
rather of their contemporaries.”[4]

In the English language there is manifest a tendency for the
pronunciation to conform to the orthography. Our pronunciation seems
to be more a matter of the eye than of the ear. By this is meant that
the spelling of an English word exerts an appreciable influence upon
its pronunciation. We feel, somehow, instinctively that the spelling
ought to be an index, perhaps a reasonably trustworthy guide to the
pronunciation of a word. It seems not in keeping with the eternal
fitness of things, certainly contrary to our linguistic instinct and
opposed to the genius of our English speech, for pronunciation to be
entirely dissociated from orthography. We feel that the sound should
be forever and inseparably wedded to the writing, and our linguistic
sense is more or less shocked when the two are divorced. Especially is
this sentiment prevalent in America. What else could have prompted the
slight modification in the writing of such words as _favor_, _honor_,
_neighbor_,[5] etc., where American usage has seen fit to make a
departure from the time-honored British usage in discarding the silent
letter? Of course, as far as orthography is concerned, there is very
little difference between American and British usage. In America we aim
to pronounce more nearly as we spell. Yet even in American English the
pronunciation is occasionally divorced from the spelling, particularly
in proper names, but in British English this feature is still more
noticeable, and, no doubt, American usage in this particular is simply
to be regarded as a concession to British authority and custom.[6] For
there appears to be no general principle governing the pronunciation
of proper names, the same name being sometimes differently pronounced
in different localities. Besides, many of our proper names are
direct importations from the mother country and therefore have
naturally retained their imported pronunciations. In British usage the
pronunciation and spelling are not infrequently at glaring variance,
as in _Pall Mall_ and _Cholmondeley_, which may serve as a type of
this class of proper names. We might offer _Taliaferro_ as an American
Roland for the British Oliver. But where should we find a parallel in
American English to the characteristic British _clerk_ and _military_,
to cite only two examples of a class of words of which the distinctive
usage of the United States and Great Britain is at variance?

Perhaps the true explanation of this variation between British and
American usage is found in the fact that America is a new country,
and hence tradition here does not carry such binding authority as
in the Old World. There the pronunciation has been handed down by
word of mouth, from generation to generation, among a people “to the
manner born.” Here conditions are much altered. America has a large
foreign-born element, and consequently many of the people cannot claim
English as their native tongue and are compelled to learn it as a
foreign language. Hence they rely, in a measure, upon the spelling
to indicate the pronunciation of English, making it a study for the
eye quite as much as for the ear. If in democratic America the habits
of speech were as thoroughly established as they are in aristocratic
England then we should speak the English language without any reference
to its orthography. But political conditions have modified our American
English somewhat, causing it to vary slightly from British usage. A
rise in social rank, which is quite common in the New World though
rare in the Old, is frequently marked by a revision of one’s former
mode of utterance, especially if your self-made man happens to have
come of an obscure and unlettered family.

Assuredly English orthography is no criterion of received
pronunciation, either in America or in England. It requires only a
moment’s reflection to be convinced how misleading and deceptive is
our orthography as a guide to orthoëpy. Foreigners who undertake
to learn our tongue are naturally more forcibly impressed with the
utter untrustworthiness of this guide. The status of our orthography
has been correctly described by a prominent historian of our noble
speech. He says, “English is now the most barbarously spelled of any
cultivated tongue in Christendom. We are weltering in an orthographic
chaos in which a multitude of signs are represented by the same sound
and a multitude of sounds by the same sign.”[7] There is no doubt
that our spelling is exceedingly unphonetic and unscientific. In our
alphabet are only twenty-six characters to represent the multiplicity
of sounds which exist in the English language. The utter inadequacy
of our imperfect alphabet makes its strongest appeal--albeit mute--in
its vowel notation. Here the many distinct vocalic sounds with their
gradations in which English abounds must all be represented by five
symbols. Add to this that we employ the same orthographic device to
indicate quantity. The one vowel symbol _a_, for example, is written
to indicate the various divergent sounds heard in the words _father_,
_fate_, _fat_, _fall_, _ask_, and _fare_. Likewise the single letter
_o_ is employed to represent the diverse gradations of that sound which
we utter in the words _floor_, _room_, _frog_, _off_, _note_, and
_not_. Again we use diagraphs, such as _ea_, _ee_, _oa_, _ei_, _ie_,
etc., to represent a single vowel sound and diphthongs as well. As has
been pointed out by Professor Lounsbury, one and the same sound is now
represented by _e_ in _let_, by _ea_ in _head_, by _ei_ in _heifer_, by
_eo_ in _leopard_, by _ay_ in _says_, by _ai_ in _said_, and by _a_ in

Furthermore, as a result of the change in the values of English vowel
sounds, our vowel notation is no longer accurate. We use the character
_a_ to indicate to the eye the vowel quality in _mate_, _sate_, _rate_,
_date_, etc., where the sound value, far from being of an _a_ quality,
is really a long phonetic _e_. The truth is, all the English vowels
have undergone a radical alteration from their primitive values which
they had in the early history of our speech, having passed through
different stages in the successive periods. It is an interesting
chapter in English phonology to trace the tortuous course of a given
sound, say _a_, through its various mutations from the Anglo-Saxon
period down to the present time. Our vowels, especially, have changed
and interchanged to an extent which is simply astonishing. The average
scholar who has not made a special study of our English language has
absolutely no conception of the radical nature and vast extent of the
change and development of English sounds. Take as an illustration our
vowel _e_. The early English phonetic _e_ passed through several stages
of development and about the seventeenth century came to have the value
of a genuine long _i_, as in _ear_, _hear_, _year_, etc. Later, in the
nineteenth century, this same sound developed into a diphthong which
is its present phonetic value. Of course we speak now of the sound of
this vowel, not of the symbol which we employ to represent it to the
eye in writing. That is another story, and it illustrates the bungling
work of our early English printers. In early times there were several
characters in use to represent the vowel, _e_, to wit, _e_, _ee_, _eo_,
_ea_, and _ae_. After the printing press was set up in England, for
convenience and simplicity, _eo_ and _ae_ were not much employed. But
_e_, _ee_, and _ea_ came into general favor, and were established by
custom to indicate the vowel _e_ to the eye. However, these symbols
were not consistently used in the beginning by the printers, and hence
the present confusion in writing. Our consonantal notation shows
evidence of as flagrant abuse of symbols and of glaring inaccuracy.
Numerous examples might be cited to prove that errors on the part of
our early scribes and printers have been stereotyped in our orthography
and perpetuated to the present day.

But not all the inconsistencies in our spelling have sprung from
the careless work of the early printers. Some are the result of our
etymological spelling. For instance, the sound of _s_ in _sure_ we
represent by the symbol _ti_ in _motion_, by _sci_ in _conscience_,
by _ci_ in _suspicion_, by _xi_ in _anxious_, by _ce_ in _ocean_,
and by _sh_ in _shepherd_. It is obviously not fair to charge such
an inconsistency as this to the sins of our erring early printers.
Still, the early English printers have enough to answer for in
corrupting the orthography of our language. They were grossly careless
and indifferent, and showed but slight regard for the propriety of
English orthography. We are not at all surprised to learn, in view
of the gross errors they committed, that they were, for the most
part, foreigners--Germans and Dutchmen--who did not use English as
their vernacular and who did not, for that reason, know the language
thoroughly. “As foreigners,” comments Professor Lounsbury, “they had
little or no knowledge of the proper spelling of our tongue”; and
he adds that “in the general license that then prevailed they could
venture to disregard where they did not care to understand.” The
result was the printing press brought chaos into English orthography
in the multitude of books which it sent broadcast over the land.
Some of the errors, it is true, were corrected subsequently, at the
beginning of the eighteenth century, when an effort was made to reform
English orthography and adjust it anew to the pronunciation. But many
of the incorrect spellings which had meanwhile crept in through the
introduction of printing were too thoroughly established by usage to
be eradicated. They continue still in English orthography as a lasting
monument alike to the crass ignorance and negligence of our early
printers and to the arrant pedantry of our early proof readers. Thus
our English orthography now in its crystallized state preserves those
glaring defects as the amber the insects which, entangled in the
liquid, are encased for ever.

It must not be inferred, however, that as soon as Caxton set up his
press, English spelling was immediately stereotyped and fixed for all
time. It required fully two, if not three, centuries, according to
Ellis, for the picturesque diversity and latitude permitted the early
scribes to be reduced to the dull, rigid uniformity now established by
convention. Experiment after experiment was made by the typographers
whose constant and ultimate aim was simplicity. The last radical change
was effected by the seventeenth century when the spellings _ee_, _oo_,
and _oa_ were adopted by the printers. Even then a fierce struggle in
orthography was waged, as, for example, that between _sope_ and _soap_,
until the conventional spelling at last triumphed. In the seventeenth
century the writing _ie_ for long _e_ as in _brief_, _believe_,
_friend_, _chief_, and the like, was finally established after a long
and doubtful contest. In early times the spelling vacillated between
_frend_ and _freend_, _chef_, _cheef_, and _chefe_; and a scribe could
take his choice. But of course the printing press sounded the knell of
this orthographic liberty of the individual, and one must spell now
according to convention. And if one does not know what this is, he must
consult the dictionary.

The seventeenth century witnessed many important, yea, revolutionary,
changes in our speech as a result of the social upheaval incident
to the civil war. But there was very slight recognition of these in
the contemporary orthography. The printers refused to alter the
conventional orthography to suit the modifications in the spoken
speech, and they threw the weight of all their mighty influence in
favor of the traditional spelling and against any sweeping reform. They
prevailed; and from that time down to the present they have resolutely
discouraged any attempt at extensive revision of our traditional
orthography. Hence our historic orthography with its teeming
inconsistencies and absurdities has now come to be regarded with a
feeling of reverence; and we naturally recoil from any far-reaching
reform of it as we would from laying violent hands upon an heirloom
which has passed down to us through many generations. We have become
accustomed to associate a certain spelling with a certain word, and we
do not desire to have this association broken up. We therefore feel
like registering a strong and vigorous protest against any proposed
reform of a sweeping nature which would disturb our present English
orthography, however illogical, archaic, and arbitrary.

To be sure, some of our lexicographers have ventured to introduce
a revised spelling here and there. Dr. Johnson essayed this in
his epoch-making dictionary, published about the middle of the
eighteenth century. Indeed, he foisted not a few absurd and arbitrary
orthographies into our language, which have contributed to bring our
spelling into disrepute with those who clamor for “fonetic reform.” Let
us note some of these. Johnson threw the weight of his authority in
favor of _comptroller_ against the older _controller_, although he gave
both a place in his dictionary. He likewise harbored _foreign_ and
_sovereign_ in his dictionary, leaving the older _forrain_ and _sovran_
to shift for themselves. He adopted _debt_ and _doubt_ with the
epenthetic _b_, to the exclusion of the older and correct _dett_ and
_dout_. He lent the weight of his influence to establish a misleading
and useless _s_ in _island_, which used to be written _iland_. But
perhaps he felt that the word was too closely associated in the popular
mind with _isle_ for _iland_ to prevail. On the other hand, he retained
the old spelling _ile_, which we have discarded for the etymological
_aisle_, adding that _isle_ was in his judgment a corrupt writing for
_aile_, then also current. His uncertainty as to the etymology of the
early English _agast_ led him to write it also _aghast_, which has
since triumphed over its quondam rival. He gives the precedence to
_delight_, to the utter defeat of _delite_, its erstwhile competitor
for popular favor. He rejected the simpler spelling _ake_ for the
less familiar _ache_, out of deference to its Greek origin, yet he
endeavored to preserve a useless _k_ in _almanack_ and _musick_ and
similar words. He made a distinction without a difference in his
spelling of the final syllables of such words as _accede_, _exceed_,
_precede_, and _proceed_. But it is idle at this distant day to arraign
Dr. Johnson on the score of his spelling. Let us therefore dismiss
the indictment against his arbitrary orthography. Some of our present
authorities on English spelling are not entirely free from reproach
in this particular. The truth is, even yet our English dictionaries
are not a unit as to approved spelling. We have not yet attained to
absolute uniformity in the matter of our orthography. For, according
to Ellis, there are still well-nigh twenty-five hundred words in the
English language the spelling of which is unsettled and indeterminate.
But we experience no serious inconvenience as a result, even if we
have no preference as to what dictionary we should follow as a guide.
In fact, any dictionary gives us a choice between _worshipped_ and
_worshiped_, _traveller_ and _traveler_, _center_ and _centre_,
and similar words, in the case of which usage still wavers and is
divided almost equally. Some excellent authorities still cling to the
etymological spelling of words of classic origin, such as _hæmorrhage_,
_diarrhœa_, _æsthetics_, _œconomics_, and _æstivate_, to mention only a
few of a large class the spelling of which vacillates. Others, again,
sanction this spelling, but throw the weight of their influence on the
side of the simpler form. This simply proves that there is some degree
of variation even in our accepted orthography. After all there is no
fixed standard of English orthography, just as there is no absolute
standard of English pronunciation. And yet there is a narrower margin
of variation in our accepted orthography than there is in our received

The movement for the reform of English spelling is beginning to
engage the attention of the public. The Simplified Spelling Board has
already entered upon a campaign which holds out some hope of success.
It remains to be seen what practical results will be accomplished.
Scholars of acknowledged eminence are lending the influence of their
authority to the movement. But there is a mighty wall of bigoted
conservatism, to be battered down before a movement so sweeping in
its aim and scope as “spelling reform” can make much headway. The
history of all similar attempts in the past is not such as to hold out
great promise to the present reformers or inspire them with unbounded
confidence. Still, intelligent, well-directed and untiring effort
ought certainly to be rewarded with a reasonable degree of success,
and surely there can be no question that there is room for improvement
in our English spelling. If we had such an institution as the French
Academy, no doubt the problem would be simplified. The outcome of the
present campaign for the revision of our English spelling will be
awaited with no little interest.


[1] See p. 219.

[2] Vol. I, p. 22.

[3] See Authority in English Pronunciation.

[4] Early English Pronunciation, I, p. 26.

[5] See A Question of Preference in English Spelling.

[6] See Briticisms vs. Americanisms.

[7] Professor T. R. Lounsbury, History of the English Language. p. 267.


We little think when we read or write that the words we employ are not
precisely the same as those which have been in use in our mother-tongue
from time immemorial. We are born into the language, so to say, and
the words of our vocabulary we regard as part and parcel of our rich
heritage of American liberty. Yet even the words of our English
speech, like many of the institutions and customs of our Anglo-Saxon
civilization, have a long history back of them, showing traces here
and there of the various stages of development they have passed
through. The words we use to-day are not identical in form or meaning
with those employed by our forebears of the generation of Chaucer or
even of the generation of Shakespeare. The forms of our English words
have undergone considerable change since that remote period in the
development of our mother-tongue. English spelling is far different
from what it was in Alfred’s, or Chaucer’s time.

Before the invention of printing, those who spoke and wrote the English
language seem to have been at liberty to spell as they chose. Their
mental composure was not disturbed by the annoying suspicion that their
spelling was not according to the norm prescribed by the dictionary.
In those good old days there was no acknowledged criterion such as
the “Century,” or “Webster,” or “Worcester”; and writers had no final
appeal in the matter of orthography as present-day writers have. Since
there was no standard authority on orthography to which all polite
society had to conform, the authors of the thirteenth and fourteenth
centuries were untrammeled by tradition and were free to spell as they
pleased. Every writer was a law unto himself and followed the dictates
of his own orthographical conscience, with no dictionary to molest
or make him afraid. We find an allusion to this delightful sense of
freedom in the comment which a well-known American humorist made upon
Chaucer, that well of English undefiled from which so many modern
writers have drunk copious draughts of inspiration. “Chaucer,” said he
quaintly, “may have been a fine poet, but he was a ---- poor speller.”

The diffusion of the art of printing and the consequent necessity
for a uniform orthography gradually curtailed this liberty, and then
the day of the dictionary dawned. The dictionary is a democratic
invention called into being by the rise of the great middle class of
society, which desired to become familiar with the practises of polite
circles. Lexicographers came forward to supply the desired information.
Authors not “to the mannor born,” and therefore unacquainted with
courtly usage, when moved to write, felt that they must conform to
the standards set up by the lexicographers, who claimed to give the
received usage, the _jus et norma scribendi_. Before the epoch of
dictionaries it appears not to have made the slightest difference
whether a writer spelled the word _recede_, for example, according to
the present accepted orthography, or whether he spelled it _receed_,
_receede_, _recede_ or _recead_, all of which forms are found in
manuscripts of a few centuries ago. Some of these orthographic
variations lingered into the eighteenth century, though English
spelling had probably become stereotyped at least a century before this
date. Yet the establishment of the spelling was naturally a gradual
process, and some words vacillated a long time and never really became
fixed. Of this more anon. Proper names showed considerable latitude
of spelling. Men of the eminence of Spenser, rare Ben Jonson and
Shakespeare, for example, are said to have had no fixed practise of
spelling their names, but wrote them in a variety of ways.

The lack of a standard authority of orthography necessarily gave rise
to much confusion and disorder in English spelling. This confusion is
reflected even yet in the present chaotic and unphonetic spelling of
our language. Few tongues are more unphonetic than the English. This
fact is recognized and efforts have been made to bring our spelling
into closer conformity with our pronunciation. Philological societies
on both sides of the Atlantic have been trying for the last quarter
of a century, at least, to reform English spelling; but only meager
success has been achieved thus far.

The proposed reforms have been of two kinds, and they have varying
aims. One recommended by the extreme phonetists, is a reform which
contemplates a revision and enlargement of our alphabet. This would
result in a radical transformation of our written speech, and chiefly
for this reason it has found few ardent advocates. It may be briefly
described as a reform of the language. The other reform is less
revolutionary and contemplates mainly a simplification of our present
spelling, such as the omission of silent letters, the substitution of
“f” for “ph” as in _phonetics_ (fonetics) and of “t” for final “d” as
in _equipped_ (equipt) and similar emendations. Of the two kinds of
reform the latter has, manifestly, more to commend it to popular favor.
This kind of reform may be termed a reform in the language.

The public concedes the unphonetic character of English orthography,
but the conservatism of the Anglo-Saxon race is so binding that the
people are slow to adopt even the slightest recommendations of the
philological societies. A few American journals have had the courage
to adopt certain emended spellings, such as _thru_ (through), _tho_
(though), _catalog_ (catalogue) and the like, but the majority of
our periodicals show by their practise very meager approval of
spelling-reform. No publisher, so far as known to the writer, has
ventured as yet to use the emended spelling in a book issued by his
firm. Yet all admit the need of spelling-reform and believe that, if
adopted, it would save the coming generation a vast deal of humdrum
work in acquiring an accurate knowledge of English orthography.

We Americans, however, with our characteristic spirit of independence
have made bold to break away from British tradition and custom in
the writing of certain English words and have introduced a few minor
reforms in our spelling. But the English people have not followed
our lead in this matter, being content to allow our adopted American
spelling, together with our distinctive pronunciation, serve as an
earmark to distinguish American from British English. It is the
practise of some reputable British journals to disparage our spelling,
wherever it makes a departure from English traditions, and to refer
to it by way of reproach as “American spelling.” Some few years ago
the _St. James Gazette_, intending to express its disapproval of our
spelling, deprecatingly remarked that “already newspapers in London
are habitually using the ugliest forms of American spelling and those
silly eccentricities do not make the slightest difference in their
circulation.” Viewed in the light of subsequent events, perhaps this
ought to be considered as the forerunner of “the American invasion.”

As every one knows who has visited the mother country, there is a
perceptible difference not only in the spelling, but also in the
pronunciation, between American English and British English. Of
course the language is the same in America as in England; and yet
there are some appreciable minor points of difference. For example,
the Englishman gives the broad sound to the vowel _a_ as in _father_,
when it is followed by such a combination of consonants as in the
words _ask_, _fast_, _dance_, _can’t_, _answer_, _after_ and the like.
In America, on the other hand, while this pronunciation is heard in
some circles, it is clearly not the ordinary pronunciation and is
not general, as in England. There is also a noticeable difference
in the pronunciation of long _o_, the Englishman giving the vowel a
distinctive utterance quite unlike that ordinarily heard in America.
The pronunciation of the word _been_ is a shibboleth by which a man
of British nationality may be almost unfailingly distinguished. The
native Englishman pronounces the word so as to rhyme with _seen_, never
_bin_. In addition to these points of pronunciation there are certain
locutions which never fail to betray an Englishman. The English call
an elevator _a lift_, overshoes _galoshes_, napkins _serviettes_,
candy _sweets_. In England a baby-carriage is called a _perambulator_,
which is generally abridged “_pram_” merely; a lamp-post is known as
_lamp-pillar_ and a letter-box as a _pillar-box_. There no one would
ask at a store for a wash-bowl and pitcher, however much he might need
these useful household articles, but he would call at the shop for
a _jug_ and _basin_. An American in London must not say street car,
but _tram_ or _road car_; not engine (which is pronounced injin), but
_locomotive-engine_; not engineer, but _engine-driver_. In England
many ordinary household articles are known by names as different from
those in our country as if the language there were altogether a foreign
tongue. Small wonder, then, that a keen-witted American maid remarked,
_à propos_ of the difference between British English and American
English, that London was a delightful place if you only knew the

Nowhere is the difference between American English and British English
more marked and interesting than in the varying practise of spelling
on both sides of the Atlantic. Let us note some of the chief points of

Our British cousins assume an exasperating air of superiority when they
mention the matter of our spelling and, as self-appointed conservators
of the language, point out what they are pleased to style the offensive
eccentricities of American spelling. The British journals ever and anon
draw attention to our manner of writing such words as _favor_, _honor_,
_center_, _program_, _almanac_, _tire_, _curb_, _check_ and _criticize_
and the like, which they spell _favour_, _honour_, _centre_,
_programme_, _almanack_, _tyre_, _kerb_, _cheque_ and _criticise_.
Now, in the case of most of these words, we submit that the American
spelling is nearer the historical spelling, simpler and more logical
than the British method. As for the words typified by _honor_, our
method is simpler and nearer to the ultimate etymology. These words,
it hardly need be observed, are borrowed from the Latin through the
French. The British maintain that for this reason the spelling ought
to conform to the French fashion. But they overlook the fact that
these words have not always been written in English according to the
French manner of writing. Dr. Johnson, the eminent lexicographer of the
eighteenth century, wrote _honor_ beside _honour_, _neighbor_ beside
_neighbour_, _harbor_ beside _harbour_ and the like. Indeed, the great
Cham allowed himself considerable latitude in the matter of English
orthography. Moreover, the Norman-French forms of these words were
written in a variety of ways, as _our_, _eur_, _ur_, and also _or_.
Even on the historical ground, therefore, there is not lacking some
authority for the American spelling. If the English were consistent,
they would be forced by the logic of their argument to write uniformly
_governour_, _errour_, _emperour_, _oratour_, _horrour_ and _dolour_ as
well as _honour_ and _favour_. But practise shows their glaring lack
of consistency, since they do not spell these words ordinarily with
_u_. It ought not to be regarded as a reproach upon American spelling,
because in our desire for simplicity and uniformity we have rejected
the _u_ in this entire class of words like _honor_, thus making the
spelling more in keeping with the Latin derivation. We can at least lay
claim to simplicity and consistency. If we are provincial, we can not
be charged with arbitrariness in our spelling.

As for the writing of _center_, _meter_, _meager_ and words of this
kind, the American method has as much history and logic in its favor
as the British spelling has. Analogy, too, if that may be cited as
an argument, supports our spelling, for we all write _perimeter_,
_diameter_, never otherwise, whether we be American or English. The
word _center_, according to Lowell, who was no mean authority on
matters pertaining to our speech, “is no Americanism; it entered the
language in that shape and kept it at least as late as Defoe.” “In the
sixteenth and in the first half of the seventeenth century,” declares
Professor Lounsbury, in reference to the spelling of _center_ and
similar words, “while both ways of writing these words existed side
by side, the termination _er_ is far more common than _re_. The first
complete edition of Shakespeare’s plays was published in 1624. In that
work _sepulcher_ occurs thirteen times; it is spelled eleven times
with _er_. _Scepter_ occurs thirty-seven times; it is not once spelled
with _re_, but always with _er_. _Center_ occurs twelve times, and in
nine instances out of the twelve it ends in _er_.” John Bellows, in
the preface to his excellent French-English and English-French pocket
dictionary, states that “the Act of Parliament legalizing the use of
the metric system in this country [England] gives the words meter,
liter, gram, etc., spelt on the American plan.” It is evident, then,
that our way of writing these words is quite as logical and as much
warranted by the history of our tongue as the British spelling.

The American orthography is clearly in advance of the British in the
word _almanac_. This word is not rightly entitled to the final _k_, as
the English spell it. This superfluous letter is a mere survival from
a former way of writing, no longer in vogue. It has been rejected in
_music_, _public_, _optic_ and similar words which are written alike
on both sides of the Atlantic. In Johnson’s dictionary and also in
our King James’s version of the Scriptures the old spelling generally
occurs. Indeed, Johnson appended the excrescent _k_ to well-nigh
all words of this class. Strange to say, there is one word of this
class which preserves the _k_ even in American English, and that is
_hammock_. This is but an exception which goes to prove that even
American English with its revised orthography is still far from being

In regard to words ending in _ize_, usage in Great Britain has
established the writing _ise_, as in _civilise_. However, new
formations even there are usually made to terminate in _ize_, which is
generally adopted in America. Yet American spelling sometimes exhibits
_ise_, after the English fashion. The British writing is derived
from the French, whereas the American harks back to the original
Greek suffix. The British spelling of _tyre_, _kerb_, _programme_ and
_cheque_ perhaps has as much to commend it as the American _tire_,
_curb_, _program_ and _check_. Usage in America varies in the case of
_program_, the more conservative still clinging to _programme_. _Tyre_
and _kerb_ are but little employed here. These words are merely variant
forms which British usage has adopted. The spelling _cheque_, in
general use in Great Britain for our bank check, has resulted through
the influence of the word _exchequer_ with which it is connected.

The usual American spelling of _wagon_ is held up to public obloquy by
British journalists, who regard _waggon_ as the orthodox orthography.
Skeat, who gives both forms in his etymological dictionary, asserts
that the doubling of the _g_ is simply a device to show that the
preceding vowel is short. In the early history of the language when the
etymological spelling was in vogue, pedants had recourse to this method
of changing the form of a word to make it phonetic, as they claimed.
In point of fact, by their practise they made the language far less
phonetic. Spenser and other early English authors write the word after
the American fashion. Horace Greeley once made a departure from our
American usage and wrote _waggon_, saying by way of apology, when his
attention was called to it, that “they used to build wagons heavier in
the good old times when he learned to spell.”

It is not to be supposed for a moment, however, that our utilitarian
disregard of tradition is so strong as to have eliminated all useless
letters in our American spelling. There is many a word in which an
epenthetic letter is still retained merely because the traditional
spelling shows it. _Sovereign_, _comptroller_, _island_ and _rhyme_ may
be cited as examples in point. Perhaps it ought to be added that the
emended spelling _rime_ for _rhyme_ appears to be meeting with favor in
certain philological circles.

There is one class of words which does not exhibit a uniform method
of writing, either in Great Britain or in America. This class is
typified by the words _traveler_, _counselor_, _worshiper_ and the
like. It will be readily seen that these words are all derivatives,
formed from the primary by the addition of a suffix; and the writing
vacillates between a single and a double consonant preceding the
suffix. According to the well-known principle of English orthography,
these words are not entitled to a double consonant, and therefore
should never be written _traveller_, _counsellor_ and _worshipper_. The
rule is, if the final syllable of a word ending in a single consonant
and preceded by a short vowel is accented, the final consonant, on
the addition of a suffix beginning with a vowel, is doubled; but
never otherwise. Thus we write _offered_, _deviled_ and the like, but
_referred_, _transferred_ and _jammed_. Hence the orthodox spelling
should be _traveler_, _counselor_, _worshiper_, _unrivaled_ and the
like. But practise shows that either spelling is regarded as correct
on both sides of the Atlantic. These words are survivals from a former
period in the history of the language when more latitude was allowed
in English orthography and there was no hard and fast line drawn, no
fixed standard. The proper historical spelling, it is interesting to
note, is with one consonant, as in _counselor_ derived ultimately from
the Latin _consilarius_. While either spelling is considered correct,
British usage favors the double consonant (_counsellor_) and American
the single (_counselor_). Here again as elsewhere American spelling
inclines to simplification and would make these words conform to the
general rule of English orthography as laid down above. Strange to say,
British usage shows one exception in the word _paralleled_, which it
has adopted (and not _parallelled_). Here we find another instance of
the striking inconsistency of British orthography. It may be a shocking
thing to say, but investigation will prove it true, that if those
British critics who censure our spelling so severely, as offending
their esthetic sense, were more familiar with the history of the
language, they would, without doubt, have far less comment to make upon
the so-called eccentricities of American spelling.

It remains to notice some apparent exceptions to the rule of English
orthography stated above. Noteworthy among these are the words
_handicapped_ and _kidnapped_, which are written alike in British and
American English. But they can be explained and are only apparent
exceptions. A moment’s reflection is sufficient to convince one that
_handicap_ and _kidnap_ are not simple words, but in reality compounds
in which the last element has not completely lost its identity in
combination. Because of the consciousness of the independent words
_cap_ and _nap_ in these compounds, they conform to the rule as a
matter of fact and therefore double the final consonant, on the
addition of a suffix beginning with a vowel. Hence, if they are
exceptions, they must be considered exceptions which prove the rule.

The few points we have drawn attention to in this imperfect little
sketch are enough to show how unphonetic and illogical is our English
spelling. Many of the eccentricities of our orthography, according
to Skeat, have resulted from the futile attempts of pedants in the
sixteenth century to make English spelling etymological and to make it
conform to the classics, from which a vast multitude of words had been
introduced into our speech. These conscious attempts at etymological
spelling gave rise to endless confusion and disorder. But other causes,
such as analogy and mere caprice, also contributed to this end. Thus
we are to explain the writing of the word _female_, for example. This
word, coming from the Latin _femella_ through the French _femelle_
into English, was originally written _femelle_ and would probably
have retained this form to the present time. But because of a fancied
connection with the word _male_, the spelling was changed to _female_.
In a similar manner is to be explained the spelling of numerous other
words in our language which seem perfectly natural and logical on first


For wellnigh two centuries a popular belief has prevailed throughout
the English-speaking world that there should be a standard of
pronunciation, which should be followed in all those countries where
English is the native tongue. Many people, holding this view, assume
that some such norm is unconsciously observed by men of education
and culture, who, because of their influence and rank, are generally
conceded the right to establish the customs of speech. It is but
natural, therefore, that men with greater or less claim to culture
and education should take it upon themselves from time to time to
determine the supposed standard of pronunciation. Thus as far back as
the beginning of the eighteenth century we find that the orthoepists
of that period undertook to ascertain and record the pronunciation of
English as practised in polite society.

Now, the early orthoepists discovered, apparently to their
astonishment, that English pronunciation, even in the most cultured
circles, far from being fixed by ironclad rules, was quite an elastic
thing, allowing considerable latitude. Indeed, two centuries ago
pronunciation in English, as reflected by the best usage, was no more
uniform than it is to-day. Then as now, men recognized no fixed and
absolute standard of English pronunciation. They followed their own
tastes and individual preferences, despite the orthoepical suggestions
and recommendations of their contemporaries. Prejudice and caprice,
too, in those days, as in the present time, were factors to be reckoned
with, so that the path of the would-be authority on pronunciation was
beset with no slight difficulty.

It must not be inferred, however, that the orthoepists themselves were
a unit and in perfect harmony as to current usage. On the contrary,
they were frequently far apart in recording the pronunciation
sanctioned by the best society and differed quite as much as their
worthy successors of the present day. They sometimes indulged in
vituperation and severe censure at each others’ expense and made no
attempt to conceal their disapproval of a rival’s authority, which
they expressed in plain, vigorous Anglo-Saxon. Some of their sarcastic
remarks furnish spicy and entertaining reading to the student who is
willing to plod his way through the dreary waste of those forgotten
dust-covered tomes.

The most conspicuous among the eighteenth century orthoepists were
Baily, Johnson, Buchanan, Sheridan and Walker. Some of these were
Scotch, and some Irish, and some, of course, English. Quite naturally
it struck the fancy of an Englishman as somewhat humorous, not to say
absurd, for an Irishman or a Scotchman to pose as an authority on
English pronunciation. So the damaging taunt of foreign nationality
and consequent lack of acquaintance with English usage was flaunted
in the face of Buchanan and Sheridan, natives of Scotland and Ireland,

When Doctor Johnson was informed of Sheridan’s plan of producing an
English dictionary that was designed to indicate the pronunciation of
each word, he ridiculed the idea of an Irishman’s presuming to teach
Englishmen how to speak their native language as utterly absurd.
“Why, Sir,” growled the autocrat of eighteenth century literature,
“my dictionary shows you the accent of words, if you can but remember
them.” Then on being reminded that his dictionary does not give
the pronunciation of the vowels, “Why, Sir,” continued he, in his
characteristic surly manner, “consider how much easier it is to learn
a language by the ear than by any marks. Sheridan’s dictionary may do
very well; but you can not always carry it about with you; and when
you want the word, you have not the dictionary. It is like the man
who has a sword that will not draw. It is an admirable sword, to be
sure; but while your enemy is cutting your throat, you are unable to
use it. Besides, Sir, what entitles Sheridan to fix the pronunciation
of English? He has, in the first place, the disadvantage of being an
Irishman; and if he says he will fix it after the example of the best
company, why they differ among themselves. I remember an instance: when
I published the plan of my dictionary, Lord Chesterfield told me that
the word _great_ should be pronounced to rhyme to _state_; and Sir
William Yonge sent me word that it should be pronounced so as to rhyme
to _seat_, and that none but Irishmen would pronounce it _grait_. Now,
here were two men of the highest rank, the one the best speaker in the
House of Lords, the other the best speaker in the House of Commons,
differing entirely.”

As this quotation shows clearly and forcibly, even the usage of the
very best speakers in England in the eighteenth century was far from
uniform and harmonious, as has been intimated in the opening paragraph.
Moreover, it is evident from the striking illustration Johnson uses
that English pronunciation must have varied much more two centuries
ago than it does to-day; for no two speakers of national reputation,
such as the leaders of the two chambers of Parliament presumably must
have been, would differ so radically at the present time in their
pronunciation. The truth is, in those good old days men paid but little
attention either to pronunciation or to spelling. It is a fact not
so widely known as it deserves to be, that English orthography two
centuries ago was just emerging from a state of confusion and chaos;
and law and order were then for the first time beginning to appear. The
result is the conventional spelling which only since the eighteenth
century has been stereotyped in the form now so familiar to all
educated people. And not even yet, as we know, has English orthography
had its perfect work. As late as Doctor Johnson’s time, the spelling of
many English words had not yet been crystallized, and not a few words
could be spelled in two distinct ways, either of which was recognized
as correct. For instance, the spelling of _soap_, _cloak_, _choke_ and
_fuel_, to select only a few examples, as recorded in his dictionary,
vacillated between “sope,” “cloke,” “choak,” “fewel” and the present
accepted spelling of these words. These variant spellings, long since
rejected, now seem to us either attempts at phonetic spelling or quaint
and curious imitations of Chaucerian orthography. Having discussed
elsewhere[8] the subject of English spelling, I dismiss the matter here
with this passing reference.

The crystallized form of English spelling which has been brought about
mainly through the influence of the printing-press in the last few
centuries we accept as a matter of course, little thinking of the
difficulties innumerable which the printer and the “gentle” reader
encountered three centuries ago. But the very existence of a standard
orthography, as a moment’s reflection will show, has necessitated as
its indispensable adjunct the pronouncing dictionary.

The pronouncing dictionary, therefore, is a modern production; it was
hardly known before the first quarter of the eighteenth century. It is
held by some scholars, notably Professor Lounsbury in his “Standard of
Pronunciation in English,” that the pronouncing dictionary was called
into existence by the desire on the part of the imperfectly educated
middle class to know what to say and how to say it. This desire became
stronger and stronger as the members of that growing class of England’s
population rose by degrees into social prominence. Possessing little
culture and few social advantages, and lacking confidence in their
meager training, such people were not willing to exercise the right of
private judgment, and consequently they sought out an authority and
guide. They were eager to learn the modes of speech which obtained in
the most highly cultured circles, the _jus et norma loquendi_ of the
nobility. It was natural therefore, since the occasion appeared to
demand it, that self-appointed guides should come forward and offer
to conduct the multitudes of social pariahs through the wilderness of
orthoepical embarrassment into the Canaan of polite usage. Such was
probably the origin of the pronouncing dictionary.

It will prove interesting to consider some of the pronunciations
authorized by the early orthoepists as reflecting contemporary usage.
How unlike current usage many of those early pronunciations are, the
reader will see for himself. But first a word as to the orthoepists

The earliest of the eighteenth century orthoepists is Baily. His
dictionary enjoyed the enviable distinction of being the first
authority on English pronunciation during the first half of the
eighteenth century. But Baily’s supremacy was eclipsed by Johnson,
whose epoch-marking dictionary appeared in 1755. Johnson claimed to
record the most approved method of English orthoepy, and his prestige
as a man of letters contributed speedily to establish his dictionary as
the ultimate authority on English pronunciation. It is to be observed,
however, that Johnson only indicated the syllable on which the accent
falls. This left much to be desired as a pronouncing dictionary. So, in
1766, Buchanan, a Scotchman, gave to the world his dictionary which
challenged Johnson’s pre-eminence. A few years later, in 1780, to be
accurate, Sheridan published his dictionary. Sheridan was an Irishman
by birth, as has been said, the son of the famous British orator and
dramatist, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, whose plays are so favorably
known to us through Mr. Jefferson’s interpretation. Sheridan’s
nationality was used by his competitors to prejudice the public
against his dictionary and to discount it as an authority on English
pronunciation. Still Sheridan enjoyed a considerable vogue.

In 1791 Walker published his dictionary. The reputation of this work,
in a revised form, extended far into the last century, so we are
informed by the late Mr. Ellis in his authoritative work on English
pronunciation. Walker, like Sheridan, was an actor, but unlike his
rival he was an Englishman by birth. He did not fail to draw attention
to the advantage this circumstance would naturally give him in the
popular estimation, in advertising the merits of his book. In his
treatment of the principles of pronunciation, however, Walker shows a
feeble grasp of his subject, and the most serious criticism upon his
book is that he was unduly influenced by the spelling in ascertaining
the pronunciation of a word. “In almost every part of his principles,”
says Mr. Ellis, speaking of Walker’s work, “and in his remarks upon
particular words throughout his dictionary, one will see the most
evident marks of insufficient knowledge and of that kind of pedantic
self-sufficiency which is the true growth of half-enlightened
ignorance.” Such drastic criticism upon the author of a dictionary
which was esteemed the highest authority on English pronunciation
during the first half of the last century does not invite confidence in
the results of our early orthoepists. Rather it makes us feel that none
of them is perhaps entitled to credit. Probably Doctor Johnson shared
this feeling when he exclaimed in the preface to his dictionary, _Quis
autem custodiet ipsos custodes?_

So much for the lexicographers of the eighteenth century. Let us now
consider some of the pronunciations authorized by them, which have
long since been discarded. These will serve as illustrations to bring
home to the mind of the reader the truth that our speech is slowly but
surely and constantly changing, and that English pronunciation, unlike
English spelling, has never been stereotyped in a fast, unvarying form.
They will also show how indispensable an auxiliary to our crystallized,
conventional spelling has the pronouncing dictionary become.

An interesting illustration is furnished by the word _asparagus_.
The popular pronunciation of this word in the eighteenth century
was _sparrow-grass_. This was felt by the orthoepists, however, to
be a vulgar corruption of the word, and they therefore strove with
concerted effort to stem the popular tide and to make the pronunciation
conform to abstract propriety as indicated by the spelling. Walker,
in commenting upon the pronunciation of the word, remarks, as if
apologizing for the theoretically correct form which he recommends,
that “the corruption of the word into _sparrow-grass_ is so general
that asparagus has an air of stiffness and pedantry.” Another word
with a no less interesting history is _cucumber_. This word used to
be generally pronounced _cowcumber_. The popular pronunciation of
this word as well as of _asparagus_, once so universal, has survived
even up to the present in the lingo of the illiterate whites of New
England and in the Negro dialect. This vulgar pronunciation which was
a thorn in the flesh to the eighteenth century lexicographers, it is
instructive to note in passing, was not the result of mere caprice, but
was warranted by an old variant spelling of the word. This historic
spelling, long since discarded altogether by the users of English, was
formerly very prevalent and in good literary usage. Hence little wonder
that the vulgar pronunciation for a long time contested the supremacy
with the mode of utterance now universally accepted. Even so high an
authority as Mr. Pepys refers in his “Diary” to a certain man as “dead
of eating cowcumbers.” It was not till wellnigh the middle of the last
century that the orthoepists Knowles and Smart ventured to denounce
_cowcumber_ along with _sparrow-grass_ as vulgar and therefore tabooed
in polite circles.

It is a well-established fact in the history of English pronunciation
that in the seventeenth century and far into the following century such
words as _spoil_, _toil_, _boil_, and so on, were pronounced, even in
best usage, precisely as they are uttered to-day in the Negro dialect
and by the illiterate whites among us, that is, just as if they were
written “spile,” “tile” and “bile.” This is conclusively proved by the
rhymes of Dryden and Pope.[9] It is further evident from the rhymes
of the poets of the latter half of the eighteenth century that this
archaic pronunciation persisted almost down to the beginning of the
last century. This pronunciation was regarded by the orthoepists as
antiquated and vulgar, and they did not fail to denounce it in strong
terms, warning against its use. In 1773 Kenrick records with mingled
regret and disgust that it would appear affected to pronounce such
words as _boil_, _join_ and many others otherwise than as “bile” and
“jine.” But toward the close of the eighteenth century the present
pronunciation began to prevail and “the banished diphthong,” as Nares
records with triumphant delight, “seemed at length to be upon its
return.” This same orthoepist informs us, and we may well believe
him, that it was the authority of the poets, who had pilloried the
offensive pronunciation in their verse, that retarded the progress of
the received sound of the diphthong which finally triumphed.

The early lexicographers were divided on the pronunciation of _vase_.
Indeed, two centuries have not sufficed to unite their successors in
perfect harmony on this question. The word to-day vacillates between
four received pronunciations. The great unwashed pronounce _vase_ to
rhyme with _base_ and _case_. Some pronounce the word as if written
“vaz” with “the broad a.” Others, associating it with its French
equivalent, pronounce the word “vauze.” Others still pronounce it
so as to rhyme with _amaze_ and _gaze_. Of these four pronunciations
the first is the most prevalent to-day, as it also was two centuries
ago. According to the Century Dictionary, the word was introduced into
English during the latter half of the seventeenth century, and after
the analogy of words of its class, it would naturally be pronounced so
as to rhyme with _case_ and _base_. But the recency of the word and
its familiar association with art have given rise to the attempt to
make it conform to the analogy of the French pronunciation and sound
it as if written “vauze.” The early occasional spelling of the word
as _vause_ doubtless contributed somewhat to the extension of this
latter pronunciation. This French pronunciation, says the Century, is
now affected by many. It is worth while to remark, however, that while
the Century recognizes the French pronunciation, it still gives the
preference to the old historic pronunciation, viz., that rhyming with
_case_ and _base_.

Now, in the eighteenth century some of the orthoepists favored one
pronunciation and some another. Sheridan, Scott, Kenrick, Perry and
Buchanan declared for the pronunciation rhyming with _case_ and _base_.
On the other hand, Smith, Johnston and Walker expressed themselves
in favor of “vaze.” Walker says that he has uniformly heard it so
pronounced, but adds the significant remark that the word is pronounced
according to the French fashion “sometimes by people of refinement; but
this, being too refined for the general ear, is now but seldom heard,”
This French pronunciation, however strange the comment may appear to
us in view of his wide acquaintance with English usage, the late Mr. A.
J. Ellis averred was the most familiar to him. So the struggle between
the several pronunciations of _vase_ continues still, and no one can
say which will ultimately prevail.

Another interesting illustration of vacillation of usage two centuries
ago is furnished in the pronunciation of _either_ and _neither_. Like
the word _vase_, these words show incidentally how long a time two
pronunciations of the same word may linger in good usage before either
supplants the other. There is to-day probably as much variation in
the pronunciation of _either_ and _neither_ as there was a century
and a half ago. Early in the eighteenth century the _i_ sound was
conceded by some of the orthoepists as permissible in these words. Two
authorities, Buchanan and Johnston, declared for the new pronunciation,
that is, “ither” and “nither.” But since they were both Scotchmen,
their authority was discounted. On the other hand, Sheridan and Walker
recommended the _e_ sound and used their influence to bespeak for
it general endorsement. They recognized the _i_ sound, to be sure,
but only on sufferance. From that day to the present the battle has
waged more or less fiercely between the advocates of these respective
pronunciations of _either_ and _neither_. Which will ultimately
prevail, it is impossible to determine. It may be said, however, that
analogy and history are on the side of the _e_ sound. Yet the _i_ sound
appears to be encroaching at present on the former pronunciation.
There is still another pronunciation of these words which we now
rarely hear. I refer to the old dialectical pronunciation as “ather”
and “nather.” This pronunciation was current in Doctor Johnson’s time,
though it probably did not enjoy the sanction of good usage. On being
asked one day whether he regarded “ither,” or “ether” as the proper
pronunciation of _either_, the old Doctor is said to have blurted out
in his characteristic crabbed manner, “Nather, Sir!” This pronunciation
survives now only as an Irishism.

Another class of former pronunciations surviving now as an Irishism,
or at best as a provincialism merely, is exemplified by such words
as _nature_, _creature_ and _picture_. In Dryden’s and Pope’s time
these words were pronounced “nater,” “crater” and “picter.”[10] These
pronunciations are preserved still in the Yankee dialect, as shown in
Lowell’s inimitable Biglow Papers, and of course they are frequently
heard on Irish lips. But they long ago dropped out of the speech of
polite society. There is one notable exception found in the word
figure. The variant pronunciation of this word as “figer” survives in
standard English as a heritage from the seventeenth century.

Quite as instructive an illustration of survivals in pronunciation,
is furnished by the British pronunciation of _clerk_ and _Derby_. The
English, as is well known, pronounce these words as if written “clark”
and “Darby.” They used to pronounce _clergy_ with the same vowel
sound, and many other words besides. But it is a significant sign
of the approaching change in British usage in respect to these words
that a recent British dictionary, the New Historical, in commenting on
_clerk_ admits that the American pronunciation of this word has become
somewhat frequent of late in London and its neighborhood. (Are we to
look upon this as a result of the much-discussed American invasion?)
But our British cousins are still wedded to their Derby (Darby) and
show no sign of abandoning either the old pronunciation or the custom.
Even we Americans cling tenaciously to _serjeant_ and show but little
inclination to make that conform speedily to the analogy of other words
of its class and to pronounce it in accordance with the spelling.
But, no doubt, this word, also, in the course of time, will yield to
the pressure of analogy, and our time-honored _serjeant_, with the
flight of years, is destined to be classed among those pronunciations
that have lost caste. The early orthoepists uniformly pronounced this
entire class of words as our British cousins pronounce them at the
present time, that is, as if they were written “clark,” “sarjeant” and
so on. Indeed, it is the spelling that has been the main factor in
effecting the change in the pronunciation of these words. There is a
strong tendency in English to pronounce a word as it is written, and
this tendency has been asserting itself with ever increasing force
since English spelling has been crystallized and thereby rendered less
subject to preference or caprice.

A constantly recurring question, which never ceased to vex the spirit
of the early orthoepists, was, where to place the accent in the case
of _contemplate_, _demonstrate_, _illustrate_ and similar words of
classical origin. The question at issue here is whether the stress
shall fall upon the antepenultimate or the penultimate. Even with all
the accumulated knowledge of the centuries we are no nearer a solution
of this perplexing question than were the Elizabethans. Shakespeare
could say indifferently _cónfiscate_ or _confíscate_, _démonstrate_ or
_demónstrate_. Here the battle has been waged between the scholars, on
the one hand, who insist upon strict propriety, and the uninitiated,
on the other, who follow the line of least resistance and by intuition
place the accent upon the initial syllable. As is evident at a glance,
these words come to us from the classics. The scholars therefore,
somewhat pedantically, insist upon retaining the stress on the syllable
which bore it in the original Latin or Greek. _Per contra_, the common
people, who know “little Latin and less Greek” and care not a fig for
the original accent, instinctively throw the stress upon the first
syllable, in keeping with their feeling for their mother tongue. This
feeling for the language, which the Germans call “_Sprachgefühl_,”
is, after all, a safer guide than the rules laid down by the pedants.
Candor compels us to admit that the popular tendency is more in harmony
with the genius of our vernacular. But the scholars have made a brave
fight for what we may demoniate abstract propriety, and the result,
thus far, is a drawn battle. Each side has scored some points, and
each side has had to make some concessions. Thus _balcony_, _academy_,
_decorous_ and _metamorphosis_, to cite a few concrete examples, have
finally triumphed over the earlier pedantic pronunciations, which
required the accent on the penult of these words. _Horizon_, on the
other hand, stands as a monument of a concession to the learned, since
this word in Elizabethan times had the stress on the initial syllable,
as had also the name of the month July. Popular usage in favor of the
received pronunciation of _auditor_, _senator_, _victory_, _orator_
and many similar words has achieved a decided triumph over the early
orthoepists, who, it was very obvious, were fighting a losing battle in
their efforts to retain the classical accent.

It follows that pronunciation is the resultant product of several
forces which are silently but constantly acting upon the living
language. There are, to be sure, various methods of pronunciation,
but the standard is that sanctioned by the most cultivated circles of
society. Now, it is the function of the pronouncing dictionary, and
its sole reason for existence, to determine and record the usage of
the most cultured classes. But here is where the rub comes. This is
the stumbling-block in the way of the lexicographers. It may seem,
upon first blush, that the task of the orthoepist is easy enough. But
not so in actual practice. Countless and insuperable difficulties
soon begin to loom up a little ahead in the path of the intending
orthoepist, and he finds, to his regret and his occasional disgust,
that the way he has marked out for himself is not strewn with roses. It
is an arduous undertaking which holds out but meager hope of successful
accomplishment, to make an accurate record of the pronunciation
received in any large class of society. The labor and trouble are
multiplied many times when an attempt is made to determine the best
orthoepical usage in a democracy. There is really no absolute standard
of pronunciation in English and there can not be, from the very nature
of the case, as Professor Lounsbury has clearly demonstrated in his
recent luminous book on this subject.

Yet it is unquestionably true that the pronouncing dictionary is
constantly making for uniformity of pronunciation. There is far less
difference in English orthoepy at the beginning of the twentieth
century, even despite the present diversity of good usage, than there
was at the beginning of the eighteenth century. A glance at the history
of the usage, if we may trust Professor Lounsbury, an eminent authority
on English pronunciation, will readily convince the reader of this
fact. This result is the direct outgrowth of the increased facilities
for intercourse between communities, and of the gradual diffusion of
education which the last two centuries have witnessed. With the spread
of education there go along those habits of speech which are generally
recognized to be in accord with best usage and which therefore have
most to commend them to popular favor. But till men cease to exercise
the right of choice in the mode of utterance, till men prefer, for the
sake of uniformity, to say exclusively “hóstǐle” and not “hostĩle,”
“sérvǐle” and not “servle,” “rise” and not “rice,” to mention an
example of variant usage, so long will there probably be a diversity of
pronunciation and the consequent need for the pronouncing dictionary.
This consummation so devoutly to be wished we may expect at the
Greek Kalends. We may rest assured, therefore, that the pronouncing
dictionary is here to stay.

Every man has his preference as to his pronouncing dictionary, which
he regards with more or less confidence and, may be, reverence, as
his final authority. To this he resorts in all orthoepical questions,
for final solution. This, of course, is a legitimate function of the
pronouncing dictionary. The fact is, the vocabulary of the average
educated man is so extremely limited and the vocabulary of the language
so extremely copious that there are thousands of words of a technical
character which even the most accomplished scholars have never once
heard uttered. The average educated man who knows that English spelling
is a very untrustworthy guide to pronunciation is perforce driven to
consult his Webster, or his Worcester, or his Standard, or mayhap his
Century. Only then can he pronounce an unfamiliar English word with any
assurance of propriety.

Notwithstanding the fact that every educated man has his favorite
dictionary, it is probably true that no man’s pronunciation is in
entire accord with the dictionary he habitually follows. The late
Mr. Ellis gave a suggestive test which I believe has never been
successfully challenged. “I do not remember,” said he, “ever meeting
with a person of general education, or even literary habits, who
could read off, without hesitation, the whole of such a list of words
as: bourgeois, demy, actinism, velleity, batman, beaufin, brevier,
rowlock, fusil, flugleman, vase, tassel, buoy, oboe, archimandrite,
etc., and give them in each case the same pronunciation as is assigned
in any given pronouncing dictionary now in use.” Let the reader
try these test words and see whether he pronounces this short list
according to any received authority in use at the present day.

It may not prove an altogether unprofitable inquiry how our pronouncing
dictionaries are made. Such an inquiry, if pursued, may teach us
somewhat of the methods of the orthoepists to ascertain good usage.
The method formerly adopted was very much after this fashion: The
lexicographer studies in his own library the pronouncing dictionary
of everybody who has taken the pains to compile one, whether he be
an Englishman, an Irishman, a Scotchman, or an American. He compares
these several dictionaries and records their variations. From these he
selects those pronunciations which, for any special reason, commend
themselves to his individual taste or judgment. These are usually such
pronunciations as he is accustomed to hear or himself to use. These are
published with the stamp of the lexicographer’s authority and approval,
and the dictionary is sent out into the world as so-and-so’s record of
the most approved usage.

This was doubtless the way pronouncing dictionaries used to be
compiled. But we may believe that this method is not the course
ordinarily followed by the authors of our best modern dictionaries.
If our best standard dictionaries to-day were made in this fashion,
their authority would richly deserve to be heavily discounted for
such carelessness of method. But greater efforts are made by the most
recent orthoepists, we may believe, to determine the accepted usage
in polite society. Yet, after all, the personal equation enters as an
important factor into the compilation of every pronouncing dictionary.
The author or authors who compile the dictionary naturally follow
their own preferences and prejudices in the matter of pronunciation;
and their results, even at best, repose on very restricted and
imperfect observation. An orthoepist ought not to be cocksure and
dogmatic. Indeed, the proper attitude of the author of a dictionary
is that of the late Mr. Ellis. It was quite natural that a man of his
superior scholarship and rare orthoepical attainments should have been
frequently asked as to the proper pronunciation of a particular word.

“It has not unfrequently happened,” observes Mr. Ellis in his
monumental work on “Early English Pronunciation,” in reference to his
practice, when appealed to as an authority, “It has not unfrequently
happened that the present writer has been appealed to respecting the
pronunciation of a word. He generally replies that he is accustomed
to pronounce it in such or such a way, and has often to add that he
has heard others pronounce it differently, but that he has no means of
deciding which pronunciation ought to be adopted, or even of saying
which is the more customary.”

This attitude will, no doubt, commend itself to the favor of the
reflecting and judicious man much more forcibly than that spirit of
assumed infallibility which is a sure sign, in an orthoepist, of
insufficient knowledge and lack of preparation for his work. The
business of a lexicographer is to record what good usage authorizes,
not to tell us what we shall not use. The orthoepist who goes farther,
and dogmatically asserts that a given pronunciation is correct and
another incorrect, transcends the legitimate bounds of his province.
Moreover, he arouses suspicion in the minds of the thoughtful as to
his trustworthiness as a guide in matters of pronunciation. For no
orthoepist records all the pronunciations sanctioned by good usage, and
no one therefore can affirm positively that a given pronunciation of a
word may not be warranted by reputable usage in some quarter. Even so
high an authority and careful an observer as Ellis lapsed into error in
his comment upon the pronunciation of _trait_, claiming that the silent
final _t_ was an unfailing shibboleth of British practice. As a matter
of fact, the pronunciation of the final letter of _trait_, as Professor
Lounsbury has clearly shown,[11] had been recognized by English
orthoepists as allowable for more than a century. It is manifest that
one can not afford to be very positive in English orthoepy: if he
is, he will be compelled either to retract or to qualify some of his
sweeping statements.

The pronouncing dictionary is, as a general rule, a good guide to
standard usage, though it can not be relied upon implicitly. When
the orthoepists are all agreed upon a particular pronunciation, one
ought to be very chary of using one’s customary or pet pronunciation
that differs. The chances are that it is not in good repute. But
when, on the contrary, the orthoepists themselves differ, one may
reasonably infer that no statement of any one of them about the proper
pronunciation of a word, however positive it may be, ought to be
recognized as a binding authority. For no pronouncing dictionary is an
absolutely final authority. Nor can it ever justly claim to be, since
the pronouncing dictionary purports to record only such pronunciations
as are sanctioned by good usage, and good usage ever varies with the
living speech, which, like all living things, is always slowly changing
from century to century. The change is sometimes so gradual that
hardly the lapse of a century will reveal it. Again, for one reason or
another, it is so rapid in development that even a generation suffices
to record it.


[8] See A Question of Preference in Spelling.

[9] See Vulgarisms With A Pedigree.

[10] See Vulgarisms With A Pedigree.

[11] The Standard of Pronunciation in English, p. 230.


Never before was there so much enthusiasm manifested in linguistic
studies as during the last quarter of a century, and even yet there
is no indication of a waning interest. Not only have languages been
studied in their relation to one another, but dialects also have come
in for their share of attention in the pursuit of these studies.
Nor has our own country been backward in contributing, through its
dialectal and various philological associations, its quota to the
science of philology. Authors in different parts of the country have
written long and (it must be confessed, sometimes) tedious stories in
the individual dialects of their respective localities. There are books
in the dialect of the negro, as, for example, Thomas Nelson Page’s, to
mention only one writer of a large class, those in the dialect of the
Tennessee mountains, as, for example, Miss Murfee’s books, those in
the dialect of the “Georgia cracker,” as the stories of Joel Chandler
Harris, and a host of others in various parts of the country. These
books are almost like the sands of the seashore for number.

So numerous and varied are the local dialects in this country that
a contributor to the North American Review, some few years ago,
ventured the thesis that from the very nature of the diverse and
varied character of our local dialects, there can not be any such
thing as a great national novel in the United States. While this, it
must be admitted, is a somewhat extreme view, to which many do not
feel prepared to subscribe, the fact yet remains that there are marked
dialectal peculiarities in the spoken language of certain localities.
These dialectal peculiarities, however, are fast disappearing before
the onward march of the unifying influence of education, the printing
press, and the railroad. When the leavening power of education has
permeated the entire population of the country, there will result
uniformity of speech, and dialectal variations from the common norm
will linger but as a tradition.

The dialect authors, in the meantime, are doing the reading public a
service in furnishing it with entertaining stories of an elevating
character. Moreover, some of them at least, as for example, Page,
Harris and others, are rendering literature and science an ulterior
service, consciously or unconsciously, in preserving in their books
types of a people and their speech which a wave of oblivion is rapidly
sweeping away.

If one will examine the speech of the negro and the native-born
illiterate white, it matters not whether the latter be from New
England, or from the South, one will find that, excepting certain
provincialisms peculiar to their respective homes, their language has
much in common, and to the student of historic English, it exhibits
indisputable evidence of its affinity with the English of the
seventeenth century. This is obvious from such words as _hand-kercher_,
_ar_ (air), _pint_ (point), _pison_ (poison), _gwine_ (going), _arrant_
(errand), _cratur_ (creature), _arth_ (earth), all of which are common
alike to the “Yankee dialect” and to the negro dialect. The student who
is familiar with the development of the English tongue will at once
recognize these as standard, according to the received pronunciation
of the seventeenth century. But in the development of the language,
these pronunciations subsequently fell into disuse and were discarded
by standard English. They still survived, however, in the lower stratum
of society among the poor and illiterate who, denied the privileges
and advantages of an education and therefore ignorant of the most
elementary principles of grammar, inherited this speech from their
ancestors and handed it down, with but little change, from generation
to generation to their children.

The language of the seventeenth century was brought to America by the
early settlers and was taught the slaves, and the tongue which the
illiterate negroes then learned to speak they have preserved, without
any material change, down to the present generation. Since this is
the case, we can not then be surprised to find upon examination that
many of their dialectal pronunciations and locutions are to be traced
back to classic authors of an earlier period, yea, to Shakespeare
himself. In this sense it is doubtless true that many of the fossilized
pronunciations of our illiterates are much nearer the language of, and
would therefore be more intelligible to, Shakespeare and Milton than
present standard English.

Every one who has ever heard the old negro preacher giving an
“exhortation” at the close of his fervid “sarmon” knows very well that,
though the old man’s heart was perhaps right and himself on the way
to the kingdom, his conscience never for a moment troubled him about
his loose grammar. Notwithstanding his sanctification and his ecstatic
anticipation of the joys of the kingdom for which he was bound, he
had no conscientious scruples about “axin’” his “ole marster” if the
latter was at all tardy in offering him the desired help. Perhaps many
of those who were so familiar with the lingo of the old preacher never
reflected that his language, like his heart, was, after all, not very
far wrong and entirely without precedent when he “axed” for something.
He was but obeying the scriptural injunction, which, according to
Tyndale’s version, reads: “Axe and it shall be geven you.” Nor do they
know that he was following, all unwittingly, to be sure, the example
set by the first English printer, Caxton, who, in the preface to his
edition of Vergil’s Aeneid, used precisely the same expression. If then
the old parson blundered, as, according to our modern standard, he did,
he at all events blundered in good company.

In Chaucer, “the first finder of our faire language,” as his ardent
disciple Occleve rapturously, though quaintly, called him, we find the
same word. Here we find also forms long since fossilized, though still
preserved in the speech of the untutored, such as _kiver_, _driv_,
_holp_, _writ_, _rid_, etc. In “Much Ado About Nothing” Dogberry,
albeit he dislocates the dictionary in speaking of that villain who,
he prophesies, would be condemned to everlasting redemption, yet uses
grammar which, for his day, was above reproach, when he exclaimed: “O
that I had been writ down an ass!”

So we must acknowledge that no violence was done to the language,
however our sense of propriety may be shocked, when a century or so
ago a Londoner remarked to his friend who had come up from his home
in the country to see the play of “Orpheus and Eurydice,” and who was
copiously bespattered with mud, as a result of his ride: “You came up
to town, I suppose, to see Orpheus and _you rid I see_.” It would be
difficult to find in the literature of that period a more felicitous
illustration of a perfectly legitimate play on words which the
contemporary pronunciation permitted.

Shakespeare, who could not resist the temptation to make a pun whenever
opportunity offered, furnishes additional evidence of his versatility
and ingenuity in his apt recognition of the obsolete pronunciation of
many words of his time, which he turned to good account. Hence so many
of his witticisms. In “Henry IV,” for instance, Falstall says: “If
reasons were a plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason
upon compulsion,” thus playing upon the old pronunciation of _raisins_
with which we are all familiar upon the lips of the unlettered. Thus
he plays upon the antiquated pronunciation of _Rome_ as _room_, when,
in “Julius Caesar,” Cassius says of Caesar’s vaulting ambition which
o’erleaped itself:

  “Now is it Rome indeed and Roome enough,
  When there is in it but one only man.”

One of the conundrums of that period, which, by the way, could only
have belonged to that period, illustrates the antiquated pronunciation
of _chair_ as _cheer_, still current among the illiterate. “Why is a
stout man always happy?” The answer was, “Because he is cheerful (chair

It is needless to multiply random illustrations. We owe a lasting
debt of gratitude to the philologists who have labored in this field
and illuminated this subject which before was enveloped with almost
Cimmerian darkness. These amenities of philology which have been
mentioned above are but an incident of the arduous and laborious
pursuits of those philologists. Let us consider for a while some of
the results of their research which prove how the English language has

Every student who has given any attention to the historical development
of our speech knows that it has changed from age to age no less in
form than in pronunciation. Indeed, it could not be a living tongue if
it did not constantly change. The oldest form of the language which
we call Anglo-Saxon gradually changed in form and sound till Middle
English times, and then it continued to change even more rapidly
till modern times. It has undergone no small change even since the
days of Elizabeth, when our great dramatists spoke and wrote it. So
great are these changes through which our vernacular has passed that
a modern could not converse with one of his Saxon forebears of the
time of the good and great King Alfred except through an interpreter
of his own mother-tongue. If any man is skeptical on this point,
let him test himself by trying to modernize offhand a passage from
one of Alfred’s own works. Indeed, it is not necessary to go so far
back. For Shakespeare, not to mention Chaucer, may prove a rock of
offence and would no doubt appear to most of us to speak in an unknown
tongue, could we hear him speak. Surely the commentators find no end
of difficulties in interpreting his writings which have been preserved
to us. Even were we to approach Shakespeare from the vantage ground
of the famous Tieck and Schlegel translation which some patriotic
German scholars with more zeal than knowledge assert is better than the
original, no doubt, we should still encounter many hard sayings in the
master dramatist’s language. Much less therefore should we be able to
understand his spoken tongue, since spoken speech, in the very nature
of things, changes far more than written language.

However, it is not our purpose here to use Shakespeare as a concrete
illustration to show how our speech has changed even in the last few
centuries. We have chosen two other authors who flourished long after
the voice of the “sweet swan of Avon” had ceased to sing and his bones
had moulded back to dust in the quaint parish church of Stratford.
These writers are the distinguished satirists, the vigorous Dryden
and the didactic Pope. Their rhymes are a fairly accurate index to the
standard contemporary pronunciation.

Dryden has often been taxed with a certain laxity in his rhymes,
and to one not recognizing the difference between the pronunciation
current in England in the seventeenth century and that accepted at
the beginning of the twentieth century, the criticism would appear to
be well founded. But it must be borne in mind that the sounds of the
English vowels, especially, have undergone a considerable change since
Dryden’s day. We should not be surprised then if, when we apply the
present standard of English pronunciation to his rhymes, they seem
somewhat imperfect. However, this is not intended to extenuate Dryden’s
false rhymes, of which there are confessedly some; for he had neither
a sensitive ear nor a tender conscience in his work for the stage. His
motto expressed in his own words was,

  “He who lives to please, must please to live.”

Yet Dryden was, after all, no greater sinner in this respect than
others of his day, or even of the present day, whose verses furnish
such monstrosities as _has_ rhyming with _was_, _love_ consorting with
_move_,--rhymes which “keep the word of promise to the eye and break it
to the ear.” Let us now cite a few of the received pronunciations of
the seventeenth century as indicated in the rhymes of that day. It will
be observed that where these are still lingering in our speech to-day,
they are regarded simply as vulgarisms.

Such words as _please_, _these_, _seize_, _severe_, _sea_, _speak_,
_complete_, and the like were pronounced, in the seventeenth century
and in the first half of the eighteenth, in a way which, to the modern
ear, is decidedly suggestive of the Irish “brogue.” For both Dryden and
Pope pronounced these words _plase_, _thase_, _saze_, _savare_, _say_,
_spake_, _complate_: and this was the received pronunciation during
that period. Pope, therefore, whose delicate ear was easily fascinated
by the vigor and musical cadence of his master Dryden preserves but the
aroma of the old tea, in that heroic couplet upon a mock heroic subject:

  “Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,
  Dost sometimes counsel take--and sometimes tea.”

Likewise, again he says:

  “Soft yielding minds to water glide away,
  And sip, with nymphs, their elemental tea.”

Dryden pertinently asks, in his Absalom and Achitophel:

  “But when should people strive their bonds to break,
  If not when kings are negligent or weak?”

So Pope likewise pronounced _weak_ rhyming it with _take_. Both he and
Dryden offer numerous examples of _speak_ rhyming with _wake_, _sphere_
with _bear, hear_ with _care_, _retreat_ and _complete_ with _great_,
and _treat_ with the French _tête_, as in Pope’s imitation of Horace:

  “The guests withdrawn had left the treat,
  And down the mice sate, tête-à-tête.”

In the Hind and the Panther Dryden uses the now vulgar pronunciation of
_clear_ thus:

  “The sense is intricate, ’tis only clear
  What vowels and consonants are there.”

But this was a perfectly faultless rhyme then and was sanctioned by
the best usage. So the vulgar pronunciation of _key_ is the only open
sesame to this perfect rhyme in Dryden’s time:

  “’Twere pity treason at his door to lay,
  Who makes heaven’s gate a lock to its own key.”

Here also occurs the obsolete pronunciation of _says_ rhyming with
_days_, and _said_ is wedded to _maid_ and even _have_ consorts with
_slave_ and _wave_, all of which pronunciations have long ago been
repudiated by standard English and survive now only in the speech of
the rustics and upon Irish lips.

The story is told of an old Scotchman who, like some others not of
Scotch descent, occasionally draw their inspiration from an illicit
source that during a spell of serious illness he was visited by the
good minister who pointed out to him his weakness and endeavored
to persuade him to leave off his bibulous habit. When the minister
told the erring Scotchman that in heaven whither he was going there
would be no wine, he impulsively exclaimed: “I dinna ken, but I think
it would be but _dacent_ (decent) to have it on the table.” This is
precisely the way Dryden and Pope pronounced the word _decent_, and the
pronunciation still lingers as a provincialism.

Pope rhymes _nature_ with _satire_ and makes Craggs exclaim in a

  “Alas, if I am such a creature
  To grow the worse for growing greater.”

This rhyme at that time was perfect to the ear, though false to the
eye. Again, Pope wishes--

  “That all mankind might that just mean observe,
  In which none e’er could surfeit, none could starve.”

As for the atmosphere, Pope called it _aar_, making the word rhyme
with _star_, and _are_ and _were_ he pronounced occasionally _air_ and
_ware_. These pronunciations, it is interesting to note, are still
heard now and then from the lips of educated men, either as an affected
archaism or more probably from sheer force of a habit of utterance
acquired in youth.

There is another vulgarism with a pedigree which is especially to be
noted because it is never heard now except from the unlettered. Yet in
the seventeenth century this was the standard pronunciation. We refer
to the obsolete pronunciation of such words as _oblige_, _join_,
_poison_ and the like. In his Epistle to Arbuthnot in which Pope
pilloried so many of his contemporary poetasters and there left them to
the vulgar gaze of all subsequent ages, among others he damned Addison
with faint praise as--

  “Dreading e’en fools, by flatterers besieged,
  And so obliging that he ne’er obliged.”

Our _join_, _poison_, _point_, _soil_, _spoil_, and so on, would have
offended the ear of Dryden and Pope, who invariably said _jine_,
_pison_, _pint_, etc. In this respect the speech of our rustics is the
speech which Dryden and Pope spoke, though their faith and morals are
probably not those which these authors held.

In the words of Pope himself:--

  “Waller was smooth, but Dryden taught to join
  The varying sense, the full-resounding line,
  The long majestic march and energy divine.”

  “Good nature and good sense must ever join;
  To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

  “’Tis not enough, taste, judgment, learning join;
  In all you speak, let truth and candor shine.”

  “In grave Quintilian’s copious work we find
  The justest rules and clearest method join’d.”

It is interesting to observe that we still say _choir_. These words
with the _oi_-diphthong are well-nigh all of Anglo-French origin,
except _boil_, in the sense of tumor, where the Anglo-Saxon _byle_
proves that its development into the now vulgar _bile_ is regular. But
in standard English the word has been wrested from its normal course
of development, probably through association in the popular mind with
the verb _boil_, or to avoid confusion with _bile_ (secretion of
the liver), and its spelling has been changed to _boil_ to satisfy,
in Lowell’s apt phrase, the logic of the eye. But let it be said
parenthetically that logic is among the least potent factors in the
development of a language.

In the light of these facts, then, we appreciate more fully the
significance of the words of Ellis, in his monumental work on Early
English Pronunciation: “For the polite sounds of a past generation
are the _bêtes noires_ of the present. Who at present, with any claim
to “_eddication_” would _jine_ in praising the _pints_ of a _picter_?
But certainly there was a time when _education_, _join_, _points_ and
_picture_ would have sounded equally strange.”

In the Yankee dialect, as we learn from Lowell’s admirable essay on
this theme in the introduction to his Biglow Papers, “the _u_ in the
ending _ture_ is always shortened, making _ventur_, _natur_, _pictur_,
and so on. This was common also among the educated of the last
generation. I am inclined to think it may have been once universal, and
I certainly think it more elegant than the vile _vencher_, _naycher_,
_pickcher_, that have taken its place, sounding like the invention
of a lexicographer to mitigate a sneeze.” When Lowell wrote these
words, very little attention had been given to the study of dialects
and their significance as exhibiting fossilized forms of a language.
But since the publication of Ellis’s excellent work on the early
pronunciation of our mother-tongue, a flood of light has been shed upon
the tortuous path of the history of English sounds. Thus we can be
sure that the speech of our illiterates, however vulgar and antiquated
it may sound to our twentieth century ears, is, at least in many
instances, the polite pronunciation of the seventeenth century. It is
the English which the Pilgrim Fathers brought over with them when they
landed on the shores of the New World.

So much for the dialect of our illiterates, the _lingua rustica_. Let
us now consider the Irish dialect which is another fruitful source
of vulgarisms with a pedigree. A moment’s reflection will suffice to
convince the reader that this speech is very closely allied in origin
with the English brought to America by the early settlers.

It is well known that the English language, as spoken by the Irish,
has a peculiarity of utterance commonly called “the Irish brogue” and
differs materially from standard English. Why this clearly marked and
distinctive mode of utterance which differentiates the English speech
on Irish lips from the same language as spoken in England and America?
As a matter of fact the English spoken by the educated sons of Erin is
the same as that used in England and America. But the language of the
Irish in the rural districts of Ireland and of those who have emigrated
to America is something quite different, and varies considerably in
idiom and pronunciation from standard English. It is this which is
usually termed “the Irish brogue.”

To get at the origin of this lingo we must go back to the time when
Ireland was settled by the English. The tongue originally spoken in
Ireland was of course the Old Irish, or Gaelic, and this was very
closely related to the Welsh and the speech of the ancient Britons who
resisted the Roman invasion under Julius Caesar. This was the tongue
of the whole of Britain when our Saxon forefathers first found their
way across the Channel from Northern Germany. This therefore was the
vernacular of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table mentioned
in the Arthurian legends.

As far back as the twelfth century, history records that the English
began to plant colonies on the Emerald Isle and to settle parts of it,
such as Forth and Bargay. But these were unimportant from our present
point of view. The English settlements in Ireland from which the
English language spread and diffused itself over the country were those
made in Ulster and the north during the reign of James I, in 1611. This
English emigration was re-enforced by the invasion of Cromwell, in
1649. So then it was during the seventeenth century that the domain of
the Irishman’s native tongue was invaded by the English speech.

It will be recalled that, inasmuch as Ireland was originally populated
by the Celtic race, it follows that the genuine Irishman is really a
Celt, not a Saxon, although he now speaks English as his venacular. He
was therefore of the same race and blood as the ancient Britons whom
our Saxon forefathers found in possession of the country when they
first came to Britain from the Continent. The British people represent
a fusion of these two races--Celtic and Saxon--with the Saxon element
predominating. According to Matthew Arnold’s dictum, it is from the
Celtic blood flowing in the veins of the Englishman that he gets his
sentiment. In his composite being, the modern Englishman combines
with his original steady-going Saxon temperament something of the
Celt’s instinct for sentiment, love of beauty, charm and spirituality,
together with something of the Norman’s tact for business. According
to Matthew Arnold, therefore, there is a commingling of these three
streams in the English race, the Celtic and the Norman both being
merged in the Saxon. As the defect of his qualities the Celt had
ineffectualness and self-will,--qualities which still mark the Irish
genius. The words of that eminent nineteenth century critic are very
suggestive as indicating the influence of the Celtic spirit upon the
Saxon, whether we are prepared to share his opinion or not. “If I
were asked,” remarks he in his admirable essay On the Study of Celtic
Literature, “where English poetry got these three things--its turn for
style, its turn for melancholy, and its turn for natural magic, for
catching and rendering the charm of nature in a wonderfully near and
vivid way--I should answer, with some doubt, that it got much of its
turn for style from a Celtic source; with less doubt, that it got much
of its melancholy from a Celtic source; with no doubt at all, that
from a Celtic source it got nearly all of its magic.”

But to return to the language of the Irish. When the English settlers
emigrated to Ulster, they carried with them the English speech of the
seventeenth century. A moment’s reflection teaches us that this was the
pronunciation of the days of Milton and Dryden which was transplanted
into Ireland. Now, it must be borne in mind that the English of that
century was transferred to a country where the native speech and method
of utterance were entirely different from those employed in England.
The effect of this was to cause some modification in the transplanted
language when the English speech came into actual contact with the
native Irish tongue on Irish soil. When English was diffused over
Ireland the native speech of which differed both in its body of sounds
and in its distinctive method of enunciation from the triumphant
language, the natives learned to speak the new tongue with their own
characteristic mode of utterance. It was but natural therefore that
the English speech should undergo a considerable alteration on Irish
lips. In similar circumstances the supplanted tongue always produces a
greater or less change in its victorious rival, not only in form, but
also in construction and idiom. Witness here the triumph of Anglo-Saxon
over the Celtic of the native Britons. As an illustration of the change
in idiom take this example of “Pidgin-English,” spoken in the treaty
ports of China. In one of those ports, an enterprising merchant with
a keen relish for the English shillings, but with little feeling for
the English tongue, is reputed to have put out over his shop door a
sign with this legend: “Groceries for sale, retail and whole-tail!” An
illustration of the difference in mode of utterance between two tongues
is furnished by the German, or even the French, method of pronouncing
our English _th_-sound. What inherent difficulty a native German or
Frenchman, in his unstudied utterance, encounters in pronouncing
such simple words as _the_, _then_, _kith_, etc.! On the other hand,
one whose vernacular is English experiences as great embarrassment
in pronouncing, without studied effort and practice, the German
_ch_-sound, as in _Bach_, _Ich_, etc., or the characteristic French _u_
sound as in _fût_, _eut_, _pu_, etc.

When therefore the Irish began to learn English in the seventeenth
century, they encountered certain difficulties peculiar to the English
speech. The dental combinations in our English tongue appear to have
proved a stumbling block to the Irish mode of utterance, and hence
such grotesque pronunciations as _tthrash_ for _thrash_, _stthraitch_
for _stretch_, _Satthirday_ for _Saturday_ and _scoundthrel_ for
_scoundrel_. In his native speech the Celt trilled his _r’s_, and
nothing was more natural then than that he should do the same thing
when he began to speak English. So to the present day the _r_ is
emphatically trilled on Irish lips, although it is decidedly un-English
to trill it. These few examples will serve to indicate the character
of some of the difficulties inherent in the English language which the
Irishman encountered in his effort to speak it. But there were other
difficulties than those of utterance which had to be overcome in
mastering the spoken tongue.

Furthermore, the English speech on Irish soil did not develop and
flourish as it did in its own habitat in England. On the contrary, it
always remained an exotic and it never kept pace in its growth and
development with the language on English soil. If Ireland had been
first depopulated and then settled by the British, the variations in
speech would have been much less conspicuous, even had they existed
at all. But that was not the case. Those conditions came much nearer
being fulfilled here in America when the Puritans and Cavaliers came
over to the New World, bringing with them practically the same English
as that carried into the Emerald Isle. For the first settlements in
America by the English colonists correspond in point of time to those
made in Ulster,--that is, the early seventeenth century. But the
English language in America was not contaminated by contact with the
Indian language and, with the exception of a few geographical names,
our speech shows almost no trace of Indian influence. Consequently
the English speech on American soil has had an entirely different
development from that which it had on Irish soil, although it is a
transplanted language in both instances. The explanation is found
entirely in the difference of environment. However, there are certain
fossilized phrases, provincialisms, vulgarisms, or what not, in
American English, which betray the affinity of the language of the
early settlers of America with that of the early settlers of Ireland.
Witness here the coincidence of our vulgar _chist_ (chest), _ingine_
(engine), _quair_ (queer), _hade_ (head), _afeard_ (afraid), _weepin_
(weapon), _kag_ (keg), _rassel_ (wrestle), _arrant_ (errand), _deef_
(deaf), _baste_ (beast), _sarmin_ (sermon), etc., with the Irish
pronunciation of these words.

There is one marked Hibernicism which has now passed far beyond the
Irish dialect. Probably many of those from whose delicate mouths we
hear it so frequently are not aware of its Irish origin. Let it be
said by way of parenthesis that the writer does not intend this remark
as an impeachment of that charming pronunciation which boasts the
sanction of those arriving at their conclusions by instinct rather than
reason; nor is the remark made in a spirit of stoical indifference to
refined and delicate feelings like that of Balthazar, the infatuated
chemist in Balzac’s Search for the Absolute. When the beautiful eyes
of his devoted wife filled with tears as she pleaded with him not to
sacrifice all his fortune and even herself in his search for diamonds,
he ruthlessly exclaimed: “Tears! I have decomposed them; they contain
a little phosphate of lime, chloride of sodium, mucin and water.” The
Hibernicism in question is the pronunciation of “gyirl,” so wide-spread
and carefully cultivated by delicate mouths in Virginia as to be
regarded a shibboleth of those “to the manner born.” (It is of course
the prerogative of woman to change her mind,--and her name, too, if she
so elects.) Other examples of this Hibernicism are _cyart_, _cyarve_,
_scyar_, _gyarden_, _gyarlic_, _gyuide_, _cyow_ and _nyow_, which
last approximates a feline note if uttered in a falsetto. The Irish
pronunciation of _sure_ extends far beyond that jargon now. Perhaps
the reader has heard the story of the good bishop’s wife who twitted
her husband about saying _shore_ for _sure_, and who, when reminded
that she pronounced the word the same way, indignantly replied, “Why,
to be _shore_, I do not!”

It must not be inferred from what has been said that the English spoken
in all parts of Ireland is uniform. On the contrary, it differs vastly
and varies with the locality. In some parts, indeed, English is not
spoken at all. But where it is spoken, it bears a striking resemblance,
as has been pointed out, to the English of the times of Dryden and
Pope, which was fossilized by emigration. The “brogue” itself is due to
the characteristic Celtic habit of utterance, and consists mostly in
the intonation, “which appears,” according to Murray, “full of violent
ups and downs, or rather precipices and chasms of force and pitch,
almost disguising the sound to English ears.”

Thus it is evident that not a few of the expressions which now survive
only as provincialisms, or vulgarisms, in the speech of the illiterate
were once in entire accord with polite usage. Many of the locutions
heard now in the negro dialect can boast really an aristocratic
pedigree and, several generations ago, enjoyed the sanction of the
highest orthoepical authority. But these pronunciations, somehow,
drifted out of the main current of standard speech and at present
appear only as jetsam and flotsam in the back-water of our English
tongue. Yet they serve to indicate how extensively our language has
been altered and modified even in modern times, after it found its way
to the New World. The modifications and changes, however, both in idiom
and pronunciation, would have taken place, even if the English speech
had never been transplanted into foreign territory. Conclusive proof of
this is furnished by a comparison of present-day British English with
the English of two centuries ago as spoken in the mother country; and
this, though not explicitly stated, is implied in the discussion of the
theme in the foregoing paragraphs.


It is a recognized fact that there is a considerable variation in
the English language as spoken by the two great branches of the
Anglo-Saxon race. The English people differ from the American people
in the use of our common speech not only in their characteristic mode
of pronunciation and orthography, but they also differ from us in no
less striking a manner in the use of certain idioms and household
phrases, which constitute the small change of our every-day speech.
This difference is the natural outgrowth of the separation of the two
peoples by the estranging ocean, which is of necessity a great barrier
to complete intercourse. To be sure, the fact that the English people
and the American people have distinct national entities with the
resulting difference, during the last hundred years, of national ideals
and pursuits, has had the natural and inevitable effect of widening the
breach between the speech of the two countries. No doubt the present
variation will be accentuated more and more as the years go by, and the
language of Great Britain and of America, far from becoming absolutely
identical in pronunciation and idiom with the flight of centuries, will
go on developing with an ever-increasing divergence from the common
standard. If this be true--and certainly the facts as to the present
tendency seem to warrant such a conclusion--the final result may be the
unique linguistic phenomenon of two separate and distinct tongues, if
such a thing be not an impossibility.

Before pointing out the variations of our American English from British
English, it may be interesting to note the source of our American
vernacular, and the contributing causes of the chief variations from
the authoritative standard of the mother country.

When our Saxon forefathers found their way to the shores of this
western continent and here established their permanent abode, the
settlers naturally brought with them the language of their native
country. This was, of course, the noble tongue of Shakespeare and
Milton. Our British cousins who criticize our English so freely
and cast reproach upon it as if it were a mere jargon, a barbarous
_patois_, evidently lose sight of the fact that it boasts the same high
pedigree as their own much-vaunted Elizabethan speech. When the English
language was first transplanted in American soil, it was identical in
orthography, orthoepy and idiom with the speech of the mother country.
But the transplanted tongue, having a new and different habitat,
began at once to adapt itself, however imperceptibly, to its changed
environ and new conditions. Nor was the connection with the parent
stock a sufficiently close and vital bond of union to prevent the
English speech on American lips from undergoing at least some slight
modification in the course of time, as a natural consequence of the
altered conditions in the new world.

It is a well-established linguistic principle that a language
inevitably undergoes a slight change, determined by the varying
conditions, as long as it is spoken. When a tongue ceases to be spoken,
then and only then does it cease to change and become a dead language,
as, for instance, Latin and Greek. This fact of the gradual change in a
living language is demonstrated through the difficulty one experiences
in understanding the English of Chaucer, or even of Shakespeare, for
the matter of that, although he is not so far removed from the present
age. If a living tongue underwent no alteration with the lapse of
years, then why should not Anglo-Saxon be as readily intelligible to us
as modern English?

Furthermore, a language is affected in its development by contact with
a foreign tongue and by outside influences, such as the climate. The
first of these reasons is so apparent to all that it hardly deserves
comment. But not so the second. Yet the influence of climate on a
living language is very fruitful of change. Ready proof of this is
furnished in our own country in the soft, musical utterance of the
south in contrast with the rather shrill and forceful habits of
enunciation characteristic of the north. In Europe, for example, the
vast preponderance of the harsh, guttural character of the German
tongue offers a glaring contrast to the smooth, liquid notes of the
pure Tuscan speech. This is the reason why Italian appeals so strongly
to music lovers and to all who have an ear trained to be especially
sensitive to sound. Now, this difference between German and Italian,
as respects the musical character of the two languages, is doubtless
to be explained in large measure as the result of climate conditions
extending through many long centuries. If by some violent political
upheaval the Italians were transported to the extreme northern part
of Europe, it is altogether probable that their speech in the course
of centuries would lose much of its native vocalic development, much
of its melody, and become harsh and strident, somewhat like the
Russian language. It follows, therefore, that the English speech on
American soil has undergone some slight modification, in consequence of
climatic influence. Perhaps this explains the variation of the American
pronunciation of the long _o_-sound as in “stone” and “bone” from the
British norm. But the difference in climate between the two countries
is not sufficiently marked to produce any very radical departure.

A striking feature of the English speech on American lips is the
leveling of the long _a_-sound heard in such words as “past,” “fast,”
“plant,” “command,” “dance,” “path,” etc. This could hardly be the
result of climatic influence, however, for it does not appear that
the climate has had the effect of producing any modification in the
pronunciation of such terms in any part of America. The prevailing
pronunciation of these terms is the same, at the south and at the north
alike. Such a variation must, therefore, be inherent in the natural
growth of the English language on American soil. For it must be borne
in mind that just as the English speech, as any other living organism,
has been growing and developing during the centuries in England, so,
likewise, in America it has been growing and developing during the
last three centuries, but not necessarily in the same manner. Those
employing the language in Great Britain and in the United States are no
longer a homogeneous people with the same national ideals and destiny.
On the contrary, they are two separate and distinct nations with
different forms of government and with different aims and aspirations.
Add to this the fact that the nations have been estranged by political
differences which resulted in wars and that they are separated by
the physical barrier of a vast ocean. In the face of these obstacles
it is not at all surprising that the English speech has not gone on
developing _pari passu_ on both sides of the Atlantic. The wonder is
that the present variations are not really greater and more striking
than they are.

Another contributing cause of variation of American English from the
British norm must not be overlooked, the more especially as it has
proved a prolific factor. In our new country some conditions of life
arose which were totally unlike those existing in the old country.
Such strange conditions called imperatively for the invention of new
names and thus gave rise to the employment of new phrases and new
locutions. These had to be coined immediately for the emergency. Since
the most distinctive traits of the American are initiative and wealth
of resource, no time was lost in making such additions to the English
speech as seemed to supply a felt need, and that, too, without any
special reference to British models and precedents. Hence a large
class of terms distinctively American and bearing upon their face
the trade-mark “made in America” found their way into the English
vocabulary on this side of the Atlantic, much to the disgust of the
British precisians and purists, who proceeded forthwith to put these
new coinages under the ban and to brand them with the bend sinister
of “Americanism.” Of this class are many terms indicating mechanical
inventions and appliances, such as “elevator” instead of the British
“lift,” to mention only a single example of a long catalogue of useful
things which American genius has given to the world. Here also belong
numerous words expressing things associated with modern transportation
and rapid transit, such as “street-car,” “railroad,” etc.

Perhaps it may be well just here to call attention to some of the
ordinary terms and expressions heard in England which strike an
American as being quite odd and peculiar. It is to be presumed that
the good Britons will not be offended if we, using the same license
as themselves, venture to call such expressions “Briticisms.” Let it
be distinctly understood, however, that this is not intended as an
opprobrious epithet, but only to signify a word or an idiom which is
peculiar to Great Britain and not familiar in America. For surely the
English people have the right to employ whatever terms they may choose
both in their colloquial and in their written speech.

If an American in London wishes to use a language that is readily
understood, when he goes to the ticket-office he must call it the
booking office of the railway station. There he must ask the clerk, or
rather the “clark,” for a first single or a second return, instead of
a single fare (first-class) and a round trip (second class). He must
then have his luggage labeled, not his baggage checked, and, having
secured his brasses or labels, not his checks, he sees his box, not his
trunk, put in the proper van and then takes his seat in the carriage,
not in the car. Before the train starts off, the guards slam the doors
of the carriages, turning the handles, and at the conductor’s whistle
the engine-driver starts his locomotive-engine. The points all being
set for a clear track ahead, the train speeds along the metals, passing
perhaps a shunting-engine about the station and a train of goods-vans.

The variation of British from American usage is not more noteworthy in
railway parlance than in other circles. If an American goes shopping
in London, he must call for a packet, not a paper, of pins; a reel,
not a spool, of cotton. If he desires to buy a pair of shoes, he must
call for boots, unless he wishes low quarters or Oxford ties; if a
pair of overshoes, he must ask for footholds or galoshes; if a soft
felt hat, he must ask for a squash hat, or if he prefers a Derby,
he must ask for a billy-cock hat or a bowler; if he wishes a pad of
paper, he should request a block of paper. If he goes to a restaurant,
he indicates whether he desires his meat underdone, not rare; if he
wishes corned beef, he calls for silversides of beef; if beets, he
calls for beetroot; if chicken, he calls for fowl; if a cereal of any
sort, he calls for corn; if cold bread, he must order cut bread; and
if he desires pudding, pie, jam, preserves or candy, he must order
sweets, short for sweetmeats. If the waiter should fail for any reason
to give him a napkin, an American should ask for a serviette; and when
he has finished his repast, he is handed a bill which he may pay with
his cheque, or, if he prefers, with the cash from his purse, not his

If in England you find no bowl and pitcher in your room, you are
expected, as previously observed,[12] to call for a jug and basin,
since there a pitcher means only a little jug and a bowl is used
exclusively for serving food in. On the street, instead of a letter
box near a lamp post, you see a pillar box near a lamp pillar, and
you perhaps meet a person pushing a perambulator, called “pram”
for short, instead of a baby-carriage. For dry-goods you go to a
mercer’s, where you will find white calico sold for muslin. For cloth
you go to a draper’s, for wooden ware to a turnery, for hardware to
an ironmonger’s, for milk, butter and eggs to a cow-keeper’s or a
dairy, and for fish, game and poultry to a fish shop. If you desire
any of your purchases sent to your address, you order them sent by
express-carrier, carriage paid.

If at any time you desire the services of a scrub-woman to clean
your apartments, you send for a charwoman. If you wish to have some
furniture upholstered, you request the upholder to undertake the work
for you. If you need the services of a doctor, you call in a medical
man. You must be careful to address surgeons and dentists by the common
democratic title “mister,” since the English custom does not warrant
you to address them as “doctor.” If you are well, to your inquiring
friends you are reported “fit,” if unwell, “seedy,” if sick, invariably

To an American ear British orthoepy offers quite as noteworthy
surprises as the idiomatic diction does. Of course it is to be
presumed that there should be more or less marked variations in the
matter of habitual utterance of certain sounds, especially the long
_o_- and the long _a_-vowel, as in “fast,” “dance,” “sha’n’t,” etc.,
which are at striking variance with American usage. Indeed, these
sounds are so characteristic that, like the English custom of ending
almost every sentence with a question, when clearly natural and not
an affectation, they serve as a shibboleth of British nativity. But
notable eccentricities are to be observed in the English mode of
pronouncing many proper names such as Derby, pronounced “darby”;
Berkeley, pronounced “barclay”; Magdalen, pronounced “maudlin”;
Cadogan, pronounced “kerduggan”; Marylebone, pronounced “merrybone”;
Cholmondeley, pronounced “chumly”; Marlborough, pronounced “mobrer”;
Albany, pronounced so that the first syllable rhymes with Al- in
Alfred, etc. It is unnecessary to multiply examples. Suffice it to
say that there is a large class of these words the spelling and
pronunciation of which seem to an American rather curiously divorced.
Certainly American usage offers no parallel where there is so complete
a divorce of orthoepy from orthography. American usage makes for
phonetic spelling and tends to make the conventional pronunciation and
spelling conform somewhat, at least.

Having drawn attention to a few Briticisms, we are now prepared to
discuss some of our Americanisms which seem to excite in the pure
minds of the English precisians alternate feelings of disgust and
indignation. Let it be premised, however, that it is not proposed to
include ordinary slang in the present discussion. It must be admitted
that too much slang is employed even in polite circles, not to mention
the speech of those who make no pretense to refinement and culture.
But one should not confuse vulgarisms with so-called Americanisms,
just as one should not confuse vulgarisms with legitimate slang.
The discriminating student distinguishes between ordinary slang and
legitimate slang. The vulgar slang of the street is, of course, to be
universally condemned and tabooed. Legitimate slang, on the contrary,
performs an important function in the development of a living language.
It is not to be inconsiderately ostracized, therefore, and put under
the ban as the chief source of corruption of our vernacular, as certain
of our purists, in their zeal without knowledge, tell us and attempt to
maintain. It is idle for them in their self-appointed rôle of guardian
of the pristine purity of the English tongue to endeavor to defend so
unsound and so indefensible a thesis. For legitimate slang, far from
being an unmitigated evil and a constant menace to the purity and
propriety of our noble tongue, is standard English in the making, is
idiom in the nascent state before it has attained to the dignity of
correctness of usage. To change the figure, legitimate slang is the
recruiting ground whence come the new and untried words which are to
take the place in the vernacular, of the archaic and obsolete words,
dropping out of the ranks. But it is aside from the main purpose of
this chapter to discuss the relation of slang to standard usage (cf.
“What is slang?”) and hence this only in passing.

By an Americanism, as here used, is meant a word, phrase, or idiom of
the English tongue, in good standing, which has originated in America
or is in use only on this side of the Atlantic. It will be seen,
therefore, that all mere slang expressions, even though they be of
American origin, are barred from the present consideration. In his
dictionary of “Americanisms,” Bartlett gives a large collection, many
of which the above limitation, of course, excludes.

Of reputed Americanisms, as one might surmise, there are several
classes to be distinguished, without any very clearly defined line
of demarcation separating them. One class includes a large number
of phrases which had their origin in England and were transported
thence to our shores by the first settlers who came from the mother
country and established themselves in Virginia and Massachusetts. In
the last analysis these locutions appear to be transplanted British
provincialisms, not a few of which came over in the _Mayflower_. Some
of our British critics who are not as familiar with the history of the
English language as they might be do not hesitate to deliver an offhand
opinion, pronouncing an apparent neologism an Americanism, when as a
matter of fact the expression shows a good English pedigree extending
back many generations. A more intimate acquaintance with the history of
our common speech would save them the embarrassment from such a glaring
blunder. But it is so easy to fall into the careless habit of branding
as an Americanism an unfamiliar idiom or a phrase that is rarely heard
in England. This convenient term has thus become in England a reproach,
inasmuch as a certain stigma, somehow, attaches to it in the British
mind. But for all that, like charity, it covers a multitude of sins,
sins of keen prejudice, no less than of crass ignorance.

Many of the so-called Americanisms are really survivals of Elizabethan
English and boast a Shakespearean pedigree, although they are no longer
heard in the country of that consummate master of our speech.[13]
Somehow, they seem to have drifted out of the main current of British
English. Perhaps they have been caught up by an eddy and carried into
one of the provinces where they are still preserved, as they are in
America, fresh and vigorous. A moment’s reflection will show that
we Americans come rightly by our Elizabethan English. For surely
New England, Maryland and Virginia were settled by those who spoke
the tongue of Shakespeare, even though they did not all hold the
faith and morals of Milton. Many of these settlers--both Puritan and
Cavalier--were college-bred men, graduates of Oxford and Cambridge.
Therefore they inherited the best traditions of the English speech and
transmitted it uncorrupted to their children. Nor were their children
wilful traducers and corruptors of the King’s English, but contrariwise
they conserved it and safeguarded its purity quite as sedulously as the
inhabitants of the mother country. Thus the English speech was handed
down, undefiled, from one generation to another, in America. Hence some
words and phrases of good Elizabethan usage have been preserved in
America, which long ago became obsolete and dropped out of the living
speech in England, where the growth of the language was, of course,
not arrested by the rude shock incident to its being transplanted in a
foreign country.

Let us now point out a few examples of reputed Americanisms, social
pariahs which have lost caste and no longer move in polite circles in
England. An interesting example is found in the word “fall” used in the
sense of autumn. Both these terms are in favor in America, although the
pedants, following the lead of British critics, proscribe the use of
“fall.” We are told it is not employed in standard English, and hence
must be censured as provincial. Yet “fall,” which enjoys a certain
poetic association with the fall of the leaf, can offer in its support
the high authority of Dryden, who employed it in his translation of
Juvenal’s satires:

  What crowds of patients the town doctor kills,
  Or how last fall he raised the weekly bills.

In his “Northern Farmer,” Tennyson used the offending word, but of
course under the cloak of a provincialism. Still Freeman did not deign
to employ it. Commenting on it, he remarks: “If fall as a season of the
year has gone out of use in Britain, it has gone out very lately. At
least I remember perfectly well the phrase of ‘spring and fall’ in my

Another good illustration of a word still surviving in American
usage, but long ago discarded in England, is “sick” in the sense of
ill. British usage restricts the meaning to nausea, employing ill to
describe a man suffering with a disease of whatever sort. Yet “sick”
is supported by the very best literary authority. The term occurs
again and again in Elizabethan literature. Reference to Bartlett’s
concordance will convince even the most skeptical that the word
abounds in Shakespeare, and that, too, in passages where the correct
interpretation leaves no doubt that “ill” is meant. Suffice it to
cite only an example or two: In “Midsummer Night’s Dream” (act 1,
scene 1), Shakespeare makes Helena say, “Sickness is catching”; again
in “Cymbeline” (act 5, scene 4), we read, “Yet am I better than one
that’s sick of the gout”; and in “Romeo and Juliet” (act 5, scene
2), we read, “Here in this city visiting the sick.” Not only so.
“Sick,” in the American acceptation, has an unbroken line of the best
literary authority from Chaucer, “that well of English undefiled,”
down to Doctor Johnson, whose dictionary defines the word in reference
to a person afflicted with disease. American usage, furthermore, is
supported by the King James version, in which “ill” is nowhere found,
and also by the Anglican Church ritual. It is needless to multiply
citations. If Americans sin in the improper use of “sick,” it may be
urged in extenuation that they can at least plead a long array of
illustrious and unimpeachable authority and are in good company.

The use of “well” as an interjection is mentioned by Bartlett in
his dictionary as one of “the most marked peculiarities of American
speech.” Moreover, he adds, “Englishmen have told me that they could
always detect an American by the use of this word.” If this is an
infallible hall-mark of American speech, then American English is
nearer the tongue of Shakespeare than British English of the present
day. For the word “well” in the sense of an interjection occurs again
and again in Shakespeare. In “Hamlet” (act 1, scene 1), Bernardo
asks, “Have you had a quiet guard?” Francisco replies, “Not a mouse
stirring.” Whereupon Bernardo adds, “Well, good-night.” Again in
“Midsummer Night’s Dream” (act 3, scene 1):

_Bottom._ And then indeed let him name his name, and tell them plainly
he is Snug the joiner.

_Quince._ Well, it shall be so.

In Beaumont and Fletcher’s “Captain” (act 3, scene 3), we find an
excellent example in the line, “Well, I shall live to see your husbands
beat you.” No one, of course, would think of charging Tennyson with
using unidiomatic English. Yet, in “Locksley Hall,” you read:

  “Well--’tis well that I should bluster.”

Surely it is superfluous to cite further examples from English authors
showing that American usage in the case of “well” as an interjection
is perfectly good English, even if the locution is censured by British
pedantry and never heard on British lips.

The trite and hard-worked “guess,” as characteristic of American speech
as the much-abused “fancy” is of British speech, furnishes another
conspicuous example of a reputable word in Elizabethan English which
has become obsolete in England, but is still preserved on this side of
the Atlantic. There is no doubt that our constant employment of this
good old Saxon word to do service on every occasion and to express
every shade of thought from mild conjecture to positive assertion is
somewhat inelegant; and this circumstance has perhaps contributed to
bring the overtaxed phrase into disrepute with our kin across the sea.
Yet there is abundant warrant in Elizabethan usage for the familiar
notation we give “guess” in our every-day speech, although it is
generally confined to its strict meaning of conjecture in that period
of the language. We find it used in the familiar sense of “think” in
several passages in Shakespeare, notably in “I. Henry VI.” (act 2,
scene 1):

  Not altogether; better far, I guess,
  That we do make our entrance several ways.

Likewise, in “Measure for Measure” (act 4, scene 4):

_Angelo._ And why meet him at the gates and redeliver our authorities

_Escalus._ I guess not.

So, again, in the “Winter’s Tale” (act 4, scene 3):

_Camillo._ Which, I do guess, you do not purpose to him.

But this meaning of “guess” is common throughout the entire history
of English literature, for the word has always borne the sense of
think, cheek by jowl with its specific meaning of conjecture. It is so
employed by Chaucer and Gower in early times and in the last century
by Sheridan and Wordsworth, certainly good literary authority enough.
However, this meaning of the term appears to have died out in the
present-day British speech, and the word is there employed strictly in
the sense of conjecture, its lost sense being supplied by “fancy.” Now,
as between the Briton’s “fancy” and the American’s “guess,” there may
not be much choice. But certainly the employment of “guess” which our
British cousins claim to be a shibboleth of American nationality does
not indicate any misuse of our mother tongue, as they contend.

Only one more case shall be adduced in illustration, to wit, our
word “baggage,” which the other half of the Anglo-Saxon race has
discarded for “luggage.” Here again, as elsewhere in the exercise of
our prerogative, we have demonstrated our independence of the mother
country in the matter of our speech and have chosen one term while the
English people have adopted another, to designate the same thing. Both
words have a good literary pedigree extending several centuries back.
Shakespearean usage seems about equally divided, perhaps, with the
odds in favor of “baggage.” The Shakespearean coinage “bag and baggage
and scrip and scrippage,” which falls from the lips of Touchstone in
“As You Like It,” and which enjoys the familiarity of a household
word, ought to have given “baggage” a wider currency, especially in
the author’s own country. But language, like the heathen Chinee, has
ways that are dark, if not tricks that are vain, and does not develop
according to logic or our _a priori_ conceptions. Between the Briticism
“luggage” and the Americanism “baggage” it appears, therefore, to be
a drawn battle. So the British have nothing to reproach us with on
this score, since convention has adopted “baggage” on one side of the
Atlantic and “luggage” on the other.

So much for this interesting class of Americanisms which repose on
standard Elizabethan usage, but are social outcasts in the land of
their birth. There is another class of Americanisms which are not
bolstered up by a long literary pedigree, inasmuch as they originated
on American soil and were not imported from the Old World. As compared
with the class just considered, these latter are mere _parvenus_,
without any illustrious ancestral history to commend them. This class
of Americanisms is composed of phrases which have found their way into
our speech from various foreign sources. They have been introduced
into our tongue from our contact with diverse peoples from remote
parts of the globe. They constitute a small residuum of terms and
phrases, the presence of which in our vocabulary attests the fact of
our relations with different nations of the earth. For instance, in
the early history of our country, we had to do with the Indians, and
so borrowed from them certain terms especially pertaining to natural
objects. We also had relations with the French, and consequently
borrowed from them sundry phrases employed in official parlance, such
as “bureau of information,” for which British usage prefers “office”;
“exposition” for the British “exhibition,” and the like. Let these few
examples represent the class. It is apparent here that we have made a
slight departure from British usage. But it does not follow that our
speech, for this reason, is less pure or less idiomatic. Both American
usage and British usage show that the respective nations have decided
to employ Romance importations in official language, but they have
adopted different terms for the same object. This proves, in the first
place, the independence of the two great English-speaking nations even
in the matter of language, and, in the second place, the wide-reaching
influence of French as the recognized official and diplomatic language
during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

In addition to these two distinct classes of Americanisms there is a
third class composed of phrases and expressions which have not yet
attained to the dignity of universal currency throughout the entire
country. These are rather provincialisms which are peculiar to certain
localities. This class, therefore, does not command the importance
which the first two classes already considered do. In a heterogeneous
population like ours, made up of people from every nationality under
heaven, it is quite natural that in certain localities there should
exist some eccentricities of speech, some departures from the received
standard--in a word, some provincialisms. It need hardly be recalled
that parts of our vast country were settled by other nations than the
English, as, for instance, New York by the Dutch and Louisiana by the
French, to mention two specific cases bearing on the point in question.
The people of these respective states, when they were incorporated into
the union, of course, did not immediately forsake their native modes
of speech and inherited vocabulary for pure, unadulterated Saxon. When
the vast southwest territory was made a part of the United States, the
people in that quarter of the land spoke a lingo which had a decided
foreign complexion. What more natural, then, than that in the speech of
that portion of our land there should exist traces of this old foreign
element? Assuredly it would have been the height of artificiality and
an unprecedented proceeding for the French element of New Orleans, when
they became citizens of the United States, to have renounced their
native French names for such natural objects as “bayou,” “levee” and
the like, in order to adopt pure Saxon terms. Likewise, it was not to
be expected that the Spanish settlers in the western section of our
country, specifically California, should abandon such native terms as
“cañon” and “ranch” and so on, for the corresponding names of genuine
English origin. Thus it happens that there is a pronounced foreign
flavor, or at least a slight tang, in the eccentricities of speech
heard in certain localities of the United States. But these are mere
provincialisms and do not impair the quality of our standard speech,
which is English to the very core.

However, it was inevitable that the English language in America should
have received an influx of foreign words on American soil. But our
speech possesses a marvelous capacity for assimilating non-Saxon
elements from whatever source. Hence the various foreign elements,
such as Indian, Dutch, French and Spanish, to mention only the chief
importations, have all been absorbed without any appreciable alteration
in the constitution of our English speech, and only traces here and
there are seen of non-Saxon elements surviving in a word or an idiom as
an enduring monument to the influence of other tongues upon our own on
American soil. Some of these foreign loans, it is true, are confined
to certain localities, and consequently are to be viewed in the light
of solecisms, or at best provincialisms. They circulate freely in a
limited area, but are not recognized as legal tender throughout the
length and breadth of the country. Such expressions are confined
chiefly to the western portion of the United States and very rarely
find their way east. It is questionable whether they are entitled to
be termed Americanisms except in the most liberal interpretation of
that phase, because they are not everywhere current and are not readily
intelligible, not “understanded of the people.”

It seems appropriate at this juncture to say a word concerning dialects
in America. The assertion is sometimes made that there are no dialects
in America, that the railroad and printing press, the two potent and
indispensable agencies in our modern civilization, have leveled out all
eccentricities and peculiarities of speech and reduced our language to
a uniform standard throughout our entire country. This statement is, in
the main, true. Yet it requires only a little reflection to see that
the assertion is not absolutely accurate and in accord with the facts.
Certainly a brief residence in the several principal sections of the
United States would bring convincing refutation. There is the western
dialect, as implied in the comments in the preceding paragraph. There
is also the Yankee dialect of New England, the salient features of
which Lowell described very fully in his famous “Biglow Papers.” There
is no less truly the southern dialect with its definite peculiarities
of idiom and utterance. These dialects are quite sharply defined by
their respective characteristics of colloquial speech. Each dialect
has its own phrases and locutions familiar enough within its own
geographical divisions, but not readily understood, perhaps unknown,
elsewhere. For instance, the native southerner “reckons” and “don’t
guess,” whereas the Yankee “to the manner born” does not “reckon,” but
“guesses” _à tort et à travers_. As for the western dialect, it is said
that three elements enter into its constitution, _viz._, the mining,
the gambling and the cowboy element, a rich vein of billingsgate
running through each. An effort has been made by our writers of fiction
to register and record the salient features of these respective
dialects incidentally in their stories, but the shades and gradations
of speech are not easy to reflect and preserve on the printed page with
the corresponding local color. Hence the work has been but partially
done, and nowhere with complete success.

We Americans are far less trammeled by dialectal inconveniences and
perplexities, however, than are the English people. For in Great
Britain there is much less uniformity of speech than with us, and the
difference between the language of a Scotchman and that of a Devonshire
man is almost infinitely greater than the difference between any two
American dialects. But the dissimilarity of the British dialects is
historic and dates back from time immemorial. The story of Caxton, the
first English printer, is well known, how the good merchant from a
southern shire, when he inquired for eggs of a good wife in a northern
shire, could not make himself understood, his southern dialect being
mistaken for French. To be sure, the dialectal differences are not so
great to-day as they were in those remote times, largely as the result
of the printing-press Caxton set up in Westminster. But even yet the
differences between the dialects of the extreme parts of the British
Isles is so pronounced as to be a barrier to complete interchange of

It appears from the foregoing that the indictment of corrupting the
English language which certain British critics have brought in against
the American people is not a true bill, since no count has been
established. Our British critics seem loath to acknowledge any American
rights in our common language. Americans have as much right to
enrich the English vocabulary with useful words as the English people
themselves. We also have as just a claim as they to revive and preserve
an obsolescent phrase or idiom. Because a given English word is no
longer in use and esteem in England, but is recognized as standard
usage in the United States, it does not follow that it is not good
English. The number of those using the English language in America far
exceeds the population of England, and the English speech is just as
vigorous and virile in America as it is in the parent country. Indeed,
it has given indubitable proof of its vitality and vigor on American
lips by adapting itself to the infinite variety of new conditions in
this new country and by the added flexibility, strength and richness
as exhibited in its augmented vocabulary. English now is the language
of the American people as well as of the English people. It is,
therefore, no longer proper or scientific to speak of the queen’s or
of the king’s English. Such a phrase is really an anachronism in the
twentieth century, when the English-speaking subjects of King Edward
are numerically inferior to those not owing allegiance to Britain’s
sovereign, who speak the same tongue. Moreover, it is manifestly not in
keeping with the eternal fitness of things, as well as unscientific,
for our British kith and kin to stigmatize an idiom or a phrase in good
American usage as a provincialism simply because it is not current in
Great Britain. The Britons have no more right to attempt to prescribe
and limit the growth of the English tongue than we have. Nor do
they enjoy an exclusive prerogative of determining whether a given
expression, be it a new coinage or a survival from a former period,
shall live and flourish or decline and perish in the English tongue.
No sovereign, no nation can determine this, either by decree or by
statute. The most that the British can say in derogation of an alleged
Americanism is that it is current only in America and is not authorized
by British usage. But this does not make it un-English, if it bears the
American sign manual.

It is perfectly absurd for the British critics to condemn Americanisms
offhand and to attempt to read them out of the language, simply because
they are not in accord with British usage. In so doing they give proof
of their insularity and fail to exhibit a spirit of liberality and
sweet reasonableness. Indeed, they seem disposed, at all events, to
take themselves too seriously as guardians of the English language. It
is well enough for a critic to throw his influence on the side of the
preservation of the purity and propriety of speech. But it is sheer
folly to allow one’s pedantry to go to such a length as Malherbe, that
“tyrant of words and syllables,” who on his death-bed angrily rebuked
his nurse for the solecisms of her language, exclaiming in extenuation
of his act, “Sir, I will defend to my very last gasp the purity of the
French language.” It is related of him that he was so fatal a precisian
in the choice of words that he spent three years in composing an ode on
the death of a friend’s wife, and when at last the ode was completed,
his friend had married again, and the purist had only his labor for
his pains. Now your true British pedant seems to think it his bounden
duty to reject summarily every word or expression which does not bear
the pure English hall-mark, and that as for Americanisms they are
an abomination which must inevitably work the speedy corruption and
ultimate decadence of the noble English tongue. Such an one, whether
from his precisianism or his prejudice, fails utterly to recognize in
Americanisms conclusive evidence of the inherent potency, vigor and
vitality of the English language on American lips.


[12] See A Question of Preference in English Spelling.

[13] See Vulgarisms With A Pedigree.


To the purist slang is an unmitigated evil which makes for the gradual
corruption and decadence of our vernacular. The pedant who is a
martinet regards all slang with absolute contempt and abhors its use,
because he believes slang spells deterioration for our noble tongue.
Such an one takes his self-appointed guardianship of the language very
seriously and deems it his bounden duty as a curator of our English
speech, not only himself to spurn the use of slang, but also to inveigh
against all those who employ it habitually or occasionally. The baneful
influence of slang, he tells us, is sweeping like a mighty tidal wave
over the English language, debasing it and corrupting its very sources.

Nor is the precisionist alone in entertaining this alarming view. For
many others who are not sticklers for strict propriety and correctness
of speech share, to some extent, the same opinion, although they feel
no special concern as to the final outcome. However, it is reassuring
to reflect that the best-informed among us and those whose thorough
knowledge entitles them to speak with authority do not take so
gloomy and pessimistic a view of the future of the English language.
They inform us that the fears of the pedants and pedagogues--the
half-educated--are never destined to be realized.

“Strictly speaking,” says Professor Lounsbury, than whom there is
no higher authority in America on the history of English, “there is
no such thing as a language becoming corrupt. It is an instrument
which will be just what those who use it choose to make it. The words
that constitute it have no real significance of their own. It is
the meaning men put into them that gives them all the efficacy they
possess. Language does nothing more than reflect the character and the
characteristics of those who speak it. It mirrors their thoughts and
feelings, their passions and prejudices, their hopes and aspirations,
their aims, whether high or low. In the mouth of the bombastic it
will be inflated; in the mouth of the illiterate it will be full of
vulgarisms; in the mouth of the precise it will be formal and pedantic.
The history of language is the history of corruptions--using that
term in the sense in which it is constantly employed by those who are
stigmatizing by it the new words and phrases and constructions to which
they take exception. Every one of us is to-day employing expressions
which either outrage the rules of strict grammar, or disregard the
principles of analogy, or belong by their origin to what we now deem
the worst sort of vulgarisms. These so-called corruptions are found
everywhere in the vocabulary, and in nearly all the parts of speech.”

Yet the feeling of the pedants and purists reflects the traditional
attitude of professional men of letters in respect to the so-called
corruptions that have been creeping into English during the last few
centuries. It may be worth while to give some of the utterances of
our representative English authors on this subject, showing how great
solicitude they felt for the purity of our language in consequence of
the increasing slang introduced into English. But before doing this,
let us make a brief digression, in order to discuss what is meant by
slang, which appears to be the source of the alleged corruptions of our

In the first place one must differentiate slang from cant. It is
evident, on a careful analysis, that much of the reputed slang now
current is really cant, not slang, in the proper sense of the term.
Both cant and slang are closely allied and have a kindred origin. This
is the reason for the confusion of the two in the popular mind.

Cant is the language of a certain class or sect of people. It is the
phraseology, the dialect, so to say, of a certain craft or profession
and is not readily understood save by the members of the craft
concerned. It may be perfectly correct according to the rules of
grammar, but it is not perfectly intelligible and is not understood
by the people. It is an esoteric language which only the initiated
fully comprehend and are familiar with. For example, the jargon of
thieves is called cant, as is also the jargon of professional gamblers.
Slang, on the other hand, belongs to no particular class. It is a
collection of words and phrases, borrowed from whatever source, which
everybody is acquainted with and readily understands. It is not uncouth
gibberish intelligible only to a few. It is composed of colloquialisms
everywhere current, but homely and not refined enough to be admitted
into polite speech. Such expressions may be allowed a place in certain
departments of literature, as familiar and humorous writing, but they
are objectionable in grave and serious composition and speech.

Now, slang is reputed to have had its origin in cant, specifically
“thieves’ Latin,” as the cant of this vagabond class is called. Indeed,
this appears to have been the only meaning of slang till probably the
second quarter of the last century. In “Red Gauntlet,” published in
1824, Scott refers to certain cant words and “thieves’ Latin called
slang”; and the great romancer seems to have been fully aware that
he was using a rather unknown term which required a gloss. Sometime
during the middle of the last century, so Professor Brander Matthews
informs us, slang lost this narrow limitation and came to signify a
word or phrase used with a meaning not recognized in polite letters,
either because it had just been invented or because it had passed out
of memory. If it is true that slang had its beginning in the _argot_
of thieves, it soon lost all association with its vulgar source, and
polite slang to-day bears hardly a remote suggestion of the lingo of
this disreputable class. In so short a period--but little more than
a half century--has the word, as well as the thing it signifies,
separated itself from its unsavory early association and worked its way
up into good society.

Of slang, however, there are several kinds. There is a slang attached
to certain different professions and classes of society, such as
college slang, political slang and racing slang. But it must be borne
in mind that this differentiation has reference to the origin of the
slang in the cant of these respective professions. It is of the nature
of slang to circulate more or less freely among all classes of society.
Yet there are several kinds of slang corresponding to the several
classes of society, such as vulgar and polite, to mention only two
general classes. Now, it is true of all slang, as a rule, that it is
the result of an effort to express an idea in a more vigorous, piquant
and terse manner than standard usage ordinarily admits. In proof of
this it will suffice to cite _awfully_ for _very_, employed by every
school-girl as “awfully cute”; _peach_ or _daisy_ for something or
some one especially attractive or admirable, as “she’s a peach”; _a
walk-over_ for any easy victory, _a dead cinch_ for a surety, and
the like. But it is not necessary to multiply examples of a mode of
expression which is perfectly familiar to all. Every man’s vocabulary
contains slang terms and phrases, some more than others. Often the
slang consists of words in good social standing which are arbitrarily
misapplied. For although much current slang is of vulgar origin and
bears upon its face the bend sinister of its vulgarity, still some of
it is of good birth and is held in repute by writers and speakers even
who are punctilious as to their English. Some slang expressions are
of the nature of metaphors, and are highly figurative. Such are _to
kick the bucket_, _to pass in your checks_, _to hold up_, _to pull the
wool over your eyes_, _to talk through your hat_, _to fire out_, _to
go back on_, _to make yourself solid with_, _to have a jag on_, _to
be loaded_, _to freeze on to_, _to freeze out_, _to bark up the wrong
tree_, _don’t monkey with the buzz-saw_, and _in the soup_. But of the
different kinds of slang and of its vivid and picturesque character
more anon.

Let us now, after this digression as to what constitutes slang, return
to the former question of the historical aspect of slang, which
was engaging our consideration. Though the name is modern, slang
itself is, in reality, of venerable age, and was recognized in the
plebeian speech of Petronius, the Beau Brummel of Nero’s time, whose
“Trimalchio’s Dinner” is replete with the choicest slang of the Roman
“smart set.” The humorous pages of François Rabelais, also, have a
copious sprinkling of slang expressions and invite comparison with the
productions of some of our own American humorists, who depend not a
little upon the vigorous western slang to enhance the effectiveness of
their humor. But it is more to the point to cite historical instances
among our English authors, especially those who set themselves the
burdensome, yet thankless, task of striving to preserve the primitive
purity of our speech.

The greatest representative of this number in English literature,
excepting Addison, is Swift, the famous dean of St. Patrick’s. He was
impelled by a desire amounting almost to a passion, it is said, to hand
down the English language to his successors with its vaunted purity and
beauty absolutely unimpaired. In an essay in _The Tattler_ of September
28, 1710, he gives vehement utterance to his feelings on the shocking
carelessness and woeful lack of taste in the use of the vernacular
exhibited by his contemporaries. He affirms that the conscienceless,
unrefined writers of his day were utterly indifferent as to the effect
of their deplorable practice upon the future of the English tongue
and brought forward, in proof of his contention, numerous examples of
solecisms which he alleged were constantly employed, to the corruption
and deterioration of the language.

Swift made a threefold division of the barbarous neologisms which
were introduced in his day. It is interesting to observe his several
classes of these locutions that were contrary to all rules of
propriety. The first class was made up of abbreviations in which only
the first syllable or part of the word had to do duty for the entire
word, as _phiz_ for _physiognomy_, _hyp_ for _hypochondria_, _mob_
for _mobile vulgus_, _poz_ for _positive_, _rep_ for _reputation_,
_incog_ for _incognito_ and _plenipo_ for _plenipotentiary_. The second
class included polysyllables, such as _speculations_, _battalions_,
_ambassadors_, _palisadoes_, _operations_, _communications_,
_preliminaries_, _circumvallations_ and other ungraceful, mouth-filling
words, which Swift alleged were introduced into the language as a
result of the war of the Spanish succession then in progress. His
third class embraced those terms which were, to quote his own words,
“invented by certain pretty fellows, such as _banter_, _bamboozle_,
_country put_ and _kidney_.” “I have done my utmost,” he pathetically
remarks, “for some years past to stop the progress of _mob_ and
_banter_, but have been plainly borne down by numbers and betrayed by
those who promised to assist me.”

Two years later Swift addressed a public letter to the Earl of Oxford,
the Lord High Treasurer, deprecating the approaching decadence of the
English tongue and earnestly urging some sort of concerted action for
correcting and improving the vernacular. The language, the letter
recited, was very imperfect and daily deteriorating. The period of its
greatest purity, Swift went on to say, was that from the beginning
of Queen Elizabeth’s reign to the breaking out of the civil war of
1642. His perturbed mind was filled with mingled feelings of grief and
indignation as he pointed out in this letter the growing corruptions
then so apparent even in the writings of the best authors, and more
especially as he was compelled to admit that not only the fanatics of
the commonwealth, but also the court itself, had contributed to bring
about the sad condition of the language.

It is not worth while to speak in detail of Swift’s fanciful and
quixotic scheme for purging the language and keeping it pure. But it is
interesting to observe, in passing, that his urgent appeal to the prime
minister to become the guardian and curator of the English tongue was
utterly fruitless and, what is more, that his direful predictions as to
the speedy decay of English have never been verified. Furthermore, some
of those very neologisms which Swift criticized so unrelentingly are
now recognized in polite speech and bear the stamp of approval as the
_jus et norma loquendi_. Of his second class of barbarisms well-nigh
all are to-day accepted as standard English and are without a trace of
slang. With his first and third classes, however, fate has not dealt
so kindly, for these words are still under condemnation, save _mob_,
which has forced its way to recognition in good usage as a necessary

Toward the end of the eighteenth century appeared another champion of
the preservation of the purity and propriety of the English speech.
This was James Beattie, a learned Scotchman. For some reason or other,
the Scotch seemed extremely solicitous about the English language
during the eighteenth century--a solicitude that was not appreciated by
the British lexicographers and least of all by Dr. Johnson. In a letter
written in 1790, Beattie took occasion to speak of the “new-fangled
phrases and barbarous idioms that are now so much affected by those who
form their style from political pamphlets and those pretended speeches
in Parliament that appear in the newspapers.” “Should this jargon
continue to gain ground among us,” he assures his correspondent, in
a doleful mood, “English literature will go to ruin. During the last
twenty years, especially since the breaking out of the American war, it
has made alarming progress.... If I live to execute what I purpose on
the writings and genius of Addison, I shall at least enter my protest
against the practise; and by exhibiting a copious specimen of the new
phraseology, endeavor to make my reader set his heart against it.”

In order to emphasize the damage resulting to the language from the
neologisms which were creeping in, Beattie conceived the clever plan of
privately printing a series of “Dialogues of the Dead,” which purported
to be the production of his son deceased a few years before. The
most interesting of these “Dialogues” is the report of an imaginary
conversation between Dean Swift, a bookseller and Mercury, in which
the worthy dean expresses himself as greatly shocked and disgusted
at the outlandish English used by the bookseller; and he calls on
Mercury to translate the _patois_ into good English. In response to
Swift’s earnest request, Mercury says among other things: “Instead
of _life_, _new_, _wish for_, _take_, _plunge_, etc., you must say
_existence_, _novel_, _desiderate_, _capture_, _ingurgitate_, etc.,
as--a fever put an end to his existence.... Instead of a _new_ fashion,
you will do well to say a _novel_ fashion.... You must on no account
speak of _taking_ the enemy’s ships, towns, guns or baggage: it must
be _capturing_.” Other words which were censured as improper by this
phantom critic were _unfriendly_ and _hostile_ for which _inimical_ was
recommended; _sort_ and _kind_, in place of each of which _description_
was to be used. Some of the locutions then in vogue which especially
offended good taste, according to Beattie, were _to make up one’s
mind_, _to scout the idea_, _to go to prove_, _line of conduct_, _in
contemplation_, and _for the future_. Furthermore, the frequent use
of _feel_, which threatened to supplant the verb _to be_ in such an
idiom as “I am sick” and drive it from its rightful domain, aroused the
learned Scotch purist’s apprehension as to the final outcome, as did
also the growing tendency to employ _truism_ for _truth_, _committal_
for _commitment_, _pugilist_ for _boxer_, _approval_ for _approbation_
and _agriculturist_ for _husbandman_.

No doubt Beattie believed with Swift that the influx of such
pedantic Latinisms as _desiderate_ and _ingurgitate_ and the like
would result in impairing the purity of our speech and perhaps hasten
its declension. Nor did he look with favor on the growing fashion
to use monosyllables, though of pure Saxon origin, so much affected
by some writers during that period. Both of these tendencies were
of temporary vogue; yet they served to arouse the fears of the
ultra-conservatives as to the fate of the English language. One might
suppose that, dreading the then threatening invasion of Latin terms
as they clearly did, they would have hailed with delight the revival
of Saxon monosyllables as a favorable offset. But even this did not
allay their fears and was rather interpreted as a harmful symptom.
Time, however, has demonstrated fully that the fears of those purists
were unwarranted and that their dire predictions as to the future
of English were founded on a very imperfect knowledge of linguistic
development. A cursory examination of Beattie’s lists reveals the fact
that of the verbal innovations and offending phrases which he put under
the ban, the genius of the language has adopted not a few, and that,
too, without impairing in the least the purity of the English tongue
or its capacity for expressing the finest shades of thought. So far
from losing, the language has gained in its capacity for expressing
nice distinctions of thought and feeling, as a result of its marvelous
absorptive power.

It has thus been shown that in the eighteenth century there were not
wanting those--purists or what not--who entertained and expressed
no little concern as to the ultimate effect upon our speech of
the multitude of neologisms and asserted improprieties that were
introduced. Did space permit, utterances of a similar character by
nineteenth-century writers, from Walter Savage Landon down to critics
of far less renown, might be brought forward as evidence to show that
the watch-dogs of our speech were as numerous and as alert as ever. Nor
is their tribe yet extinct. Ever and anon, even in the last few years,
some prophet of evil is heard to raise his voice in vigorous protest
against the increasing use of slang as foreboding the decadence of our
vernacular. But the warning is not heeded; and the English language,
like the real living thing that it is, goes on developing according to
the subtle principles of speech development.

The laws governing speech development are very imperfectly known.
Consequently none can foretell how a given tongue may develop. The
language appears to be independent of one’s individual habit of
speech; yet it is the sum total of the individual habits of speech
that constitutes the language. No man makes a language; no man can
make it. Not even the greatest monarch on earth can, by decree or
fiat, predetermine the course of development of the language of his
subjects. Language is an involuntary product and does not result from
any determined concert of action. Yet it is modified and changed by
various influences. As long as it is alive and spoken, it is constantly
changing and will not remain “fixed” according to the whimsical desire
of the purist. When it ceases to be used upon the lips of the people as
a medium of communication of their thoughts and feelings, then it will
cease to change and grow and will become “fixed.” But when a language
is no longer spoken, it is characterized as dead. It is in this sense
that we call Latin and Greek dead languages, although they survive in
modern Italian and modern Greek, respectively.

It follows, therefore, that it is the height of folly for any one,
no matter how highly esteemed as an author, to attempt the rôle of
reformer of the speech. Such an one is destined to have only his labor
for his pains. He can not directly purge the language of its neologisms
and improprieties of usage. These violations of standard usage which
offend good taste, strange as it may seem, furnish indubitable evidence
of the vitality of the speech; for from these contraband expressions
come the new terms and idioms which are to take the place of the
obsolete words which drop out of the vocabulary.

Viewed in this light, slang assumes a different aspect, and it
becomes evident that it performs a certain necessary function in the
development of language. It is no longer proper, therefore, to refer to
slang with supreme contempt and to condemn it offhand as an unmitigated
evil which ought to be forthwith extirpated from the language. For, as
an eminent authority has observed, slang is the recruiting ground of
language and is, in reality, idiom in the making. It has been pointed
out how some of the slang expressions of the eighteenth century which
fell under the censure of Swift and Beattie are now found upon the
pages of our best authors and are heard upon the lips of our most
polished and elegant speakers. Since this is true, no verbal critic can
at the present time affirm of a polite slang expression now in vogue
that it is destined never to work its way up into good usage, or of a
foreign locution that it will never be domiciled in our speech. Nor can
he determine, in the case of a new coinage which is a candidate for
adoption into the literary language, just when it is taken over from
that doubtful borderland between slang and standard usage.

Seeing, then, that slang really has a function to perform in the growth
of speech and, therefore, that it is worthy of serious consideration,
let us examine some of our modern English slang and study for a short
while its origin and history.

Professor Brander Matthews, in an admirable paper on the subject,
divides slang into four classes, and we can hardly do better than to
follow his general classification. The first class embraces those
vulgar cant expressions which are the survivals of thieves’ Latin or
St. Giles’ Greek, and those uncouth, inelegant terms which constitute
the vernacular of the lower orders of society. This is the kind of
slang heard in the police courts, the kind the newspaper reporter
too frequently resorts to, in order to give spice to his account. It
has been introduced into literature by some of our recent novelists,
notably Dickens. The second class of slang is not quite so coarse,
and includes those ephemeral phrases and catchwords which have a
fleeting popularity and which, because they meet no real need, are soon
forgotten utterly. They live but a day and pass away, leaving behind
no trace of their existence. Of this class are campaign slogans and
such inane expressions as _where did you get that hat?_ _chestnut_,
_rot_, _I should smile_ and many others equally stupid. It is these two
classes of slang that have brought the term into disrepute and merited
contempt. For this sort of slang is very offensive to delicate ears and
justly deserves the speedy oblivion which overtakes it.

The other two classes of slang, on the contrary, are of a finer
type and have a reason for their being, something to commend them
to popular favor. It may well be that from this type new idioms and
phrases are recruited into our literary language. However, a certain
stigma attaches to this better variety of slang, also, in the judgment
of many, simply because it is slang. Yet it is heard on the lips of
educated and cultured speakers, much to the disgust of those who
are fastidious as to the propriety of usage. When it is employed in
the written speech, the more careful writers brand it with inverted
commas, the barbarian earmarks which attest its social inferiority.
Occasionally a bold writer like Mr. Howells breaks down these barriers
which convention has set up and gives a polite slang expression the
stamp of his approval and authority. In this way these social outcasts,
the pariahs of our literary speech, are now and then elevated to the
dignity and rank of good society, and finally establish themselves in
standard English.

Of these two classes of slang serving some useful end as feeders to the
vocabulary and idiom of our language by which its wasting energy is to
be repaired, the first embraces those archaic phrases and terms which
are revived after long disuse and again brought into service. Restored
after several generations of neglect, they now appear to be entirely
new coinages and are only received as other probationers. The second
class is composed of absolutely new words and expressions, frequently
the product of a happy invention and, generally, racy and forceful. As
instances of the first class may be mentioned _to fire_, in the sense
to expel forcibly or dismiss, _bloody_ in the sense of very, _deck_ in
the sense _pack_ of cards and similar historic Elizabethan revivals.
Such locutions have a good literary pedigree, now and then boasting the
authority of Shakespearean usage. But this is not always apparent and
such long-obsolete phrases are, therefore, accounted mere _parvenus_.
For example, in King Henry VI. we read:

  Whiles he thought to steal the single ten,
  The king was slily fingered from the deck.--3 Pr.,v.1.

and again in Shakespeare’s 144th sonnet:

  Till my good angel fire my bad one out.

The vulgar _bloody_, more common in England than in America, is an
inheritance from the classic age of Dryden, who even uses the coarse
phrase “bloody drunk” in his Prologue to “Southerne’s Disappointment.”
Swift furnishes a slight variation from this in “bloody sick,”
occurring in his “Poisoning of Curll.” The more fruitful province of
polite slang is the second class, which is made up of the clever
productions of the present age. It is from the best of these coinages,
above all, that the worn-out energies of our vocabulary and idiom are
repaired. These raw recruits of slang are severely disciplined and
tested by hard preliminary service. If in this test an individual slang
expression proves useful and is seen to fill an actual need, it is
admitted eventually into the fellowship of standard English. But if, on
the other hand, its utility is not established, it is relegated to the
limbo of useless inventions where oblivion soon engulfs it.

Let us now review a few specimens of the best type of our modern
slang. But perhaps it is safer simply to mention the alleged slang
and not undertake to decide which of these expressions are slang and
which standard English. For it is no easy matter to trace the line
of cleavage between the legitimate technicality of a given craft or
profession and polite slang. For instance, are _corner_, _bull_,
_bear_ and _slump_, so familiar in financial parlance, mere technical
phraseology or slang? How is one to classify such political terms
as _mugwump_, _buncombe_, _gerrymander_, _scalawag_, _henchman_,
_log-rolling_, _pulling the wires_, _machine_, _slate_ and _to take the
stump_? If these are mere technical terms, surely _boycott_, _cab_,
_humbug_, _boom_ and _blizzard_ have passed beyond the narrow bounds of
technicality and are verging on that dubious borderland between slang
and standard English. Furthermore, are _swell_, _fad_, _crank_, _spook_
and _stogy_ to be considered slang or good English? Each of these terms
is supported by the authority of some of our best writers. _Swell_, to
cite only one example, is bolstered up by the authority of Thackeray,
who in his “Adventures of Philip” writes: “They narrate to him the
advent and departure of the lady in the swell carriage, the mother of
the young swell with the flower in his buttonhole.” Again, how is one
to regard _fake_, _splurge_, _sand_, _swagger_, _blooming_ (idiot), _to
go it blind_, _to catch on_, and that vast host of similar racy and
vivid phrases which, if slang, still do duty for classic English in
common parlance?

A glance at some of our slang idioms shows that they are borrowed
from the cant of various crafts and callings. Some are borrowed from
the technical vocabulary of the stage, some are taken over from the
phraseology of sporting life, while some bear the stamp of various
other vocations. Take as an illustration _fake_, or, better still,
_greenhorn_, which has forced its way to recognition in standard
English. At first _greenhorn_ was applied figuratively to a cow or
deer or other horned animal when its horns are immature. In the
“Towneley Mysteries” it is applied to an ox, for example. Later it was
extended to signify an inexperienced person, or one who, from lack of
acquaintance with the ways of the world, is easily imposed upon. The
former application where the term was used in allusion to an immature
horned animal is a legitimate metaphor. The latter use when applied
to an inexperienced person was doubtless recognized as an extension
of the metaphor and as slang. But the word filled a need in the
vocabulary and was at length admitted into the guild of good usage.
Another illustration is furnished by _mascot_, a recent importation
from the French. This word originated in gambler’s cant and signified
a talisman, a fetish, something designed to bestow good luck upon its
possessor. The term, despite its unsavory association, somehow has
commended itself to popular favor and now seems not to offend the
most refined taste. _Slump_, though not so hackneyed, may serve as an
example in point also. As a provincialism this word denotes soft swampy
ground, or melting snow and slush. Later by transferred meaning it came
to characterize in the financial world the melting away of prices, as
a slump in the market--a vivid picture which is more interesting as a
linguistic phenomenon than as an actual fact.

The history of slang teaches that words, like people, may be divided
into two general classes, high and low, or refined and uncouth. “In
language as in life,” as Professor Dowden puts it, “there is, so to
speak, an aristocracy and a commonalty, words with a heritage of
dignity, words which have been ennobled, and a rabble of words which
are excluded from positions of honor and trust.” Now, some writers
select only the choice and noble words to convey their ideas, leaving
the coarse and vulgar words, terms without a pedigree, as it were, in
the bottom of the inkhorn, for those who desire them. Other writers
again have less cultured tastes and do not scruple to employ now and
then plebeian words, to set forth their thoughts and feelings.

One might suppose on first blush that the dictionary ought to be a
safe guide in the choice of words. A moment’s reflection, however,
is sufficient to convince one that the dictionary can not be relied
upon always for this desired knowledge. It is the lexicographer’s
office to make a complete register of the vocabulary of the language;
and so, to make his work exhaustive, he frequently records many slang
words in his dictionary. Yet the practise of our dictionary-makers,
it must be admitted, varies widely in this respect, some being far
more exclusive than others. Our former lexicographers, as for instance
Doctor Johnson, exercised a stricter censorship than is the custom
at present. But it is not correct always to infer, in the case of an
unrecorded word of questionable usage, that the author excluded it of
set purpose. It may possibly be omitted from oversight. It seems to be
the custom of our lexicographers now to make as complete a record as
possible of all polite slang, but to brand it “slang.” This plan is, of
course, altogether distasteful to the pedants and pedagogues who make
a fruitless effort to curb and check the vocabulary of a language by
rejecting all words of questionable usage. Whatever is not in harmony
with established usage, whatever is not authorized by standard speech,
the pedants and half-educated utterly reject. Now, heretofore our
dictionary-makers have not been entirely above and beyond this narrow
and circumscribed view. It was this fact that prompted Lowell, in the
preface to his famous “Biglow Papers,” to express himself in these
vigorous words: “There is death in the dictionary; and where language
is too strictly limited by convention, the ground for expression to
grow in is limited also, and we get a _potted_ literature--Chinese
dwarfs instead of healthy trees.”

The truth is, it does not fall legitimately within the province of the
lexicographer to settle the question whether a polite slang term of
recognized fitness and utility should be deemed good English or not. No
man, however competent a scholar he may be, has the right to determine
the growth and development of our language. Yet such a practise means
this in the last analysis. There are not a few words and idioms in
English that have neither logic nor reason to commend them, but are the
product of analogy, as _it_, _its_ and _you_, instead of the strictly
correct _hit_, _his_ and _ye_, to use a familiar example; and yet
these analogical formations, which at first were mere slang, long ago
drove our proper pronouns from the field. This change took place in
the last two or three centuries, and that, too, in the very face of
the vaunted authority of Shakespeare and the King James Version. No
doubt the pedants and purists opposed this change as utterly illogical
and contrary to the natural order of development and growth of our
English speech; but they were gradually borne down. It is the vast body
of those who use the language, the people, not the lexicographers and
scholars solely or chiefly, who are the final arbiters in a matter of
this kind. It is the law of speech as registered in the usage of those
who employ the language that decides ultimately whether a given phrase
shall survive or perish; and this is done so unconsciously withal that
the people are not aware that they are sealing the destiny of some
particular vocable. This silent, indefinable, resistless force we call
the genius of the language.

It is hoped that the spirit of this paper will not be misunderstood.
The article, let it be distinctly and emphatically stated, is not
intended as a brief for slang--far from it. It is written simply to
call attention anew to the fact that slang is not to be absolutely
condemned as the main source of corruption of our speech, as some
assert, but that, contrariwise, it is an important factor in the growth
of our vernacular and serves--at least, the best of it--a useful
purpose in repairing the resulting waste which necessarily occurs in
English as in every spoken language.


Much is said and written nowadays as to the prevalence of slang and bad
English. It is a matter of common regret both in academic circles and
elsewhere that our English tongue is not now spoken and written with
its traditional purity and propriety. As to the truth of this complaint
there is probably some ground for doubt, but it is not proposed here
to discuss this question. The mere fact of the existence of slang and
bad English implies that there is a norm, a standard of propriety of
English speech, to which polite usage ever aims to conform. It is this
standard that ratifies a given idiom or locution and stamps it with
the hall-mark of propriety, thus establishing its usage as approved.
Any signal departure from this standard is at once branded a solecism
and consequently recognized as a provincialism, or slang. It is here
proposed to inquire what constitutes standard English, how it arose,
how it is maintained.

The science of language comes to our aid in this inquiry and teaches
us how a language grows and develops. Before the dawn of this new
science it was supposed that the standard speech was determined by
court usage as reflected in the language of the ruling class and the
courtiers. This select body of people was believed to set the fashion
in speech, as in other things, and the educated and cultured of the
country were thought to follow their lead as a matter of course. The
common people, according to this theory, accepted as final the standard
set by the nobility, and all divergences therefrom were held to be
the result of ignorance. Not only was the court dialect regarded as
indicating absolute propriety of usage, but it was supposed to be the
original form of the vernacular speech, which the masses were expected
to imitate as perfectly as they could, in their habits of speaking
and writing. The court itself, likewise holding this view, did not
hesitate to condemn and stigmatize every departure in speech from the
received dialect as a glaring solecism which made for the corruption
and ultimate disintegration of the language.

This is now an exploded theory. Modern philology has demonstrated
beyond a doubt that such an assumption is utterly false and untrue
to nature. For philology teaches us clearly that the urban dialect,
far from being the original tongue of which the rural dialects are
mere corruptions, was itself once only a provincial, barbarous form
of speech,--a lingo just as primitive and just as uncultivated as
any of its fellows,--and that its supremacy is the result, not of
any intrinsic superiority over its rivals, but of the political
predominance of those who employed it as their vernacular. Those who
used the urban dialect, by dint of their own intelligence and skill,
surpassed their rivals in the race for the primacy and were the
first, therefore, to establish the ascendency of their community.
Their supremacy once established, the inhabitants of the more highly
organized community proceeded at once to impose their rule upon their
weaker neighbors. The latter, being unable to resist the more powerful
and resourceful community, soon forfeited their independence and lost
their identity and were gradually absorbed. It is thus that political
pre-eminence of a primitive community over its rivals paves the way for
the growth and development of its speech, which is gradually extended
over the conquered until it finally supplants its fellows and itself
becomes supreme as the accepted language of the victorious and the
vanquished alike.

The philologists explain the several stages of the development of a
language, distinctly marking off each, from the crude local _patois_
to the highly developed and polished speech of a cultured nation. The
primitive tongue of a local tribe is termed a _patois_, a rudimentary
speech ill adapted to the communication of the simplest ideas. If a
_patois_ grows and develops so as to become available in vocabulary
and syntax for the expression of thought, it is called a dialect. When
a local _patois_ advances to the dialect stage, there is a marked
tendency, on the part of those employing it, to crush out its rivals
by conquest and assimilation. Consequently the triumphant dialect then
becomes the only speech of a linguistic province, and is itself perhaps
somewhat modified by the conflict from which it has emerged victorious.

Now, there may be several independent linguistic provinces. If so,
a hard struggle for supremacy follows. Eventually some one of the
provinces succeeds in establishing its political mastery over the
others, and then begins the process of linguistic expansion and
assimilation. Thus the dialect of the most powerful province or
district is at length made the speech of the entire people. In this
manner not only all the local _patois_, but all the competing dialects
also, are either absorbed, or are crushed out by the dialect of the
dominant political community.

A striking illustration of this process is furnished in the history
of the development of the Latin tongue. This dominant language which
still survives, more or less disguised, in the speech of a large part
of Europe, as well as in the speech of Latin America, and which has
so generously enriched our own English tongue, as Whitney tells us in
his “Language and the Study of Language,” was the vernacular less than
twenty-five centuries ago, of an insignificant district in central
Italy, the inhabitants of which at that remote day were but little
above savages. History is silent as to when and how this tribe found
their way into that region of the Italian peninsula. Their speech
was only one of a group of related dialects, “descendants and joint
representatives of an older tongue, spoken by the first immigrants,
which had grown apart by the effect of the usual dissimilating
processes.” There still survive remains of at least two of the rival
dialects, Oscan and Umbrian, which throw a flood of light on the
prehistoric period of Italian speech. The Latin dialect was threatened
on the north by the Etruscan, the vernacular of a civilized people
dwelling beyond the Tiber; and it was likewise menaced on the south
by the Greek language, spoken by the Hellenic colonies, long before
settled in southern Italy and Sicily. Both of these tongues are assumed
to have been superior in intrinsic character to the crude, primitive
dialect of the early Romans. But the rudimentary Latin speech spread
_pari passu_ with the extension of the Roman dominion. As the Roman
arms brought one Italian district after another under Roman sway, the
tongue of that mighty people grew apace and diffused itself throughout
the whole of Italy, gradually absorbing all the rival dialects.
Finally all the dialects of Italy were forced to acknowledge the
predominance of the speech of the conquering city on the Tiber,--from
the uncultivated Gaulish of the north to the facile and polished Greek
of the south. Thus all Italy came at last to have one uniform language,
to wit, Latin.

Yet there did not result, after all, absolute uniformity of speech
throughout the whole of Italy. For though the rival dialects had one
by one given place to the triumphant advance of the all-absorbing
Latin, still in the remote rural districts relics of the native local
dialects tenaciously maintained their foothold in the popular speech;
and like paganism before the advance of Christianity, the local
dialects were loth to relinquish their strongholds in the inaccessible
country districts. Traces of the vanquished tongues were still to be
discerned in the varying local dialects throughout the remote parts of
the Italian peninsula. Nor was the common speech of Italy everywhere
current the pure classic Latin of Cicero and Vergil. On the contrary,
the vernacular of the ancient Romans, by and large, was a far less
polished and graceful idiom, “containing already the germs of many
of the changes exhibited by the modern Italian and the other Romanic

A second shining example is found in the history of the rise of the
French language. This marvelously lucid tongue had its origin in a
little island in the Seine, at present the heart of the great city of
Paris. The language of the inhabitants of that tiny isle, to be sure,
was at first a rude lingo no whit superior to the various _patois_ of
Romanized Gaul. But the inhabitants of that vigorous district soon
gained the political ascendency over their neighbors and gradually
extended their speech throughout the whole of _Ile-de-France_. The
upshot was that the numerous local _patois_ speedily lost caste,
sinking to a lower and lower level, till they all finally disappeared,
and the dialect of Paris came to be recognized as the official language
of the entire central part of France. But there were also other
provinces of France besides that of _Ile-de-France_. Normandy, Provence
and Burgundy had meantime risen to marked political distinction, and
the speech of each of these provinces in due course attained to the
dignity of a dialect with a considerable body of literature. But no
one dialect was supreme. However, in the process of time the people
of central France established their pre-eminence, extending their
dominion over the entire country. Thus the sister provinces were,
in turn, brought under the sway of the predominant _Ile-de-France_
which imposed its dialect upon its subdued rivals. In this manner the
Parisian dialect spread over the whole of France and was destined
speedily to become the accepted speech of the country. Naturally
enough, as the Parisian dialect gained the ascendency, the Provençal,
the Norman and the Burgundian dialect each fell into decay and finally
ceased to exist as a spoken dialect, being preserved only in certain
literary monuments.

Now, the Parisian dialect did not attain to the honor of the standard
language of France without a long and hard struggle. During this
struggle the language was in process of development and underwent some
changes by attrition and contact with its strenuous rivals. In the
conflict the Parisian dialect sloughed off some of its unessentials,
its eccentricities of speech in the form of inflexions and syntax and
came forth somewhat simplified in its grammar. At the same time it
borrowed not a few idioms and phrases from its defeated rivals, thus
enriching its vocabulary and simplifying its syntax by contact with the
decadent dialects.

Thus arose modern French--a language beautifully transparent and
precise and almost as untrammeled by inflections as English is and as
admirably adapted for the conveyance of nice distinctions and fine
shades of thought. It appears, then, that modern French is developed
from one of the pristine provincial dialects which probably enjoyed
no superior advantage over its sister dialects, but which owes its
success as a literary medium to the happy circumstance that it was the
vernacular of the most important political province. Furthermore, it
is manifest that the Provençal, Norman and Burgundian dialects are in
no sense a corrupt form of the standard speech. They are rather kindred
dialects which by sheer force of political conditions were outstripped
in the race for the distinction of being chosen as the national

Let us now consider the history of the English language. The
development of the English tongue is quite similar, if not, indeed,
parallel, to the story of Latin and French. It is in order to give here
a brief survey of the origin and development of the English speech.

In the earliest period of our language it is assumed that there were
numerous _patois_ spoken by the Jutes, the Angles and the Saxons who
had settled in Britain as rovers and adventurers. True, we have no
record preserved of these several _patois_; but philology warrants the
inference that they existed. In the earliest stage of the Anglo-Saxon
speech of which history furnishes a record, these various _patois_ had
already given rise to some three or four distinct dialects commonly
designated, according to their respective geographical positions,
Kentish, Southern, Midland, and Northern. There are documents extant of
each of these early English dialects which constitute our Anglo-Saxon
literature. Now, each of these dialects (if Kentish is included
in the Southern dialect) marks a separate period in the political
history of Teutonic England. In the northern part of England, then
known as Northumbria, where the Angles settled after migrating from
the Continent, the Anglian dialect was first pre-eminent as the
literary language. This was during the eighth century when the leading
writers in that dialect were Caedmon and the Venerable Bede. In those
early times the Angles appear to have extended their control over
Mercia, too, even down to the northern banks of the Thames. However,
this district later had a local dialect of its own, apart from the
Northumbrian, and its chief literary monuments are a translation of the
Psalter and a version of Matthew’s Gospel designated the “Rushworth.”
The part of Britain south of the Thames and lying toward the west was
settled by the Saxons. Their dialect which scholars call the West-Saxon
was quite unlike the Anglian dialect; and it is distinguished above its
fellows as the dialect in which the bulk of our earliest literature
is written. The West-Saxon, therefore, from the grammatical point
of view is by far the most important of our early English dialects,
and is recognized by scholars as the standard for inflection and
idiom. But the pre-eminence of West-Saxon was of later date than that
of the Northumbrian dialect. From the death of Bede in 734 to the
accession of King Alfred in 871, it is interesting to note that no
one of the English dialects seems to have been supreme. However, from
the accession of Ecgberht in 802 the West-Saxon had been gradually
gaining its ascendency which was of course completed in the days of
King Alfred. This good king signalized his reign by a great revival of
learning, in which he himself was the leading figure. He summoned to
his court an earnest and enthusiastic body of scholars from various
parts of the world, and himself set them a worthy example of industry
and scholarship by translating into the vernacular Pope Gregory’s
“Pastoral Care,” Boethius’s “Consolations of Philosophy” and Orosius’s

After the death of King Alfred there was a sad decline in literature.
But the prowess and overlordship of Wessex had made the West-Saxon
dialect the standard literary language of England; and it continued
so till the Norman Conquest destroyed the political prestige of that
kingdom and consequently deprived that dialect of its evident advantage
as the official language. While the West-Saxon dialect was recognized,
it is true, as the literary language, still it did not entirely
supplant the Anglian and the Mercian, both of which continued to be
spoken and, to some extent, also written. But it is a significant fact
that the earlier Northumbrian poetry was translated into this southern
speech and is preserved to us only in the West-Saxon version.

West-Saxon lost its supremacy as the standard language when, as a
result of the Conquest, Norman French was adopted by the ruling class
as the cultivated speech of the realm. Still, “the native tongue,” to
quote Professor Lounsbury (History of the English Language), “continued
to be spoken by the great majority of the population, but it went
out of use as the language of high culture. The educated classes,
whether lay or ecclesiastical, preferred to write either in Latin
or French--the latter steadily tending to become more and more the
language of literature as well as of polite society.” The result was
that West-Saxon, being supplanted as the literary language by Norman
French, lost prestige and was reduced ultimately to the level of its
sister dialects, Anglian and Mercian. After the loss of West-Saxon
ascendency no one dialect was again pre-eminent in England till the
fourteenth century. For two centuries prior to that date the several
provincial dialects were employed in their respective territories;
and each had an equal chance of becoming standard English. An author,
therefore, was free to use his own local speech. To be sure, French was
the accepted language at court and in high society; but this foreign
tongue at no time enjoyed such a commanding position as to threaten the
extinction of the native dialects.

Indeed, the relation of the Norman French to the English dialects
has given rise to so much popular misconception and error that it
seems worth while, at this juncture, to indicate the true relation
explicitly. When the Normans conquered England, as the philologists
tell us, they did not seek to impose their language upon the English
people. Such a policy would have been very unwise for obvious reasons,
and would have produced untold trouble and conflict between the two
races. The Normans did not despise the English tongue. They were
content to let the natives speak their several English dialects just as
before the Conquest. Of course, the Normans retained their own French
_patois_ and had no expectation of abandoning it in favor of English,
as they had once before given up their Scandinavian vernacular for
French. Yet in consequence of the overwhelming preponderance of the
English natives over their Norman invaders it was inevitable, in the
event of a struggle for supremacy between the two tongues, that the
French should be forced to the wall. Fortunately, no such conflict was
designed by either race, and it is quite reasonable to suppose that
neither people ever seriously contemplated such a possibility.

It is evident, then, that the Norman Conquest did not tend to destroy
the English tongue in Britain, as it was once the fashion to teach. The
Norman Conquest did, however, interrupt the normal literary tradition
of the English speech. For at the time of the Battle of Hastings, as
has been intimated, the West-Saxon dialect was easily the foremost
of the English provincial dialects and seemed destined to establish
its claim as being the national speech. But the Conquest interrupted
this natural process and drove West-Saxon from its coign of vantage,
reducing it to the level of the rival provincial dialects. French
being, of course, the language of the court and the official tongue
generally, the West-Saxon dialect no longer offered any special
inducement to intending authors to employ it, as had been the case
ever since the days of King Alfred. Hence writers simply used their
respective local dialects, there being no recognized standard speech.

Norman French and the several English dialects were now spoken side
by side, and continued so for quite a long while. What more natural,
therefore, than that each tongue should exercise some influence upon
the other, however slight? It is usually stated that French influence
hastened the decay of English inflections. But the English had begun
to lose its inflections even before the coming of the Normans and to
rely more largely upon position and prepositions to indicate case
relations. No doubt, French influence accelerated this tendency. French
influence was also a factor in modifying the idiom and vocabulary of
the English tongue. But each language, as Anglo-Norman students assure
us, reacted upon the other mutually; and the speech of the invaders was
influenced by the English of the natives just as much as English was
influenced by French.

The truth is, the influence of Norman French upon English was not so
important in itself, as far as any immediate effect was concerned; but
it paved the way for the subsequent influence of Parisian French which
swept like a mighty tidal wave over England, leaving a considerable
residuum and deposit in our speech alike in idiom and in vocabulary.
Norman influence upon our tongue was, therefore, chiefly indirect,
not direct. When Anjou was subdued by Philip Augustus of France in
1204, Normandy was forfeited by the English crown and from that day
Norman French influence on English was practically at an end. But the
Parisian dialect soon extended its sphere into Britain and began to
exert a decided influence upon the English speech. In the fourteenth
century English scholars industriously turned their attention to
French literature, either adapting or closely translating many
specimens. Norman French now gave place to the Parisian dialect which
had established itself as the standard speech for all the provinces
of France. English scholars who crossed the Channel, as many now
did, learned the French of Paris; and when they returned to their
native shores of Albion, they brought with them the best French of
Paris. Having lost caste, the Norman dialect was no longer esteemed
fashionable in polite society and consequently it fell to the lot of
Parisian French to honor the heavy drafts which the English tongue
made during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries upon the French
language, for the enrichment and augmentation of its vocabulary. Nor,
indeed, did the French importations into our speech cease even then.
They continued, only with slightly diminished activity, during the
Elizabethan and succeeding ages, down to the present time. However,
during the last few centuries our vernacular has not borrowed so
copiously from that source, although we still draw heavily on French in
our art parlance.

Yet despite the French invasion, English held its own as the
vernacular of the people, yielding but very little ground, except in
its vocabulary, to the foreign tongue. So far from retreating before
the vigorous onslaught of French influence, our sturdy English speech
actually advanced its position and succeeded in driving French from its
former stronghold of the court and high society. For the descendants of
the Normans who were overwhelmingly in the minority, seeing that they
were compelled by sheer force of circumstances to speak English also,
gradually abandoned French as their mother-tongue and were finally
content to use the language which was understood by everybody in the
kingdom. Thus the English vernacular at last triumphed over French as
the language even of the governing class in England; and French fell
into disuse and survived as a spoken tongue only in polite society and
among scholars, as an accomplishment.

So much for the true relation of French to English in the history of
our speech. But to return to the question of the rise of the standard
literary language in England. As has been pointed out, from 1066
to 1300 there was no recognized standard of English speech. In the
existing confusion of provincial dialects there was felt an urgent need
for a uniform speech throughout the entire country. The perplexity
resulting from the babel of unfamiliar English dialects in use at the
time of the introduction of printing was keenly felt by the people
themselves, but by none more than by Caxton, who set up the first
printing press in England. Now, Caxton himself used London English, as
a rule. But he experienced no little embarrassment when he began to
print books, because he was uncertain as to which dialect he should
employ. In the prologue to his version of Vergil’s Aeneid he freely
confesses his inability to determine which of the varying dialects he
should adopt. Commenting on the dialectal differences he complainingly
remarks: “And that common English that is spoken in one shire varyeth
from another. Insomuch that in my days happened that certain merchants
were in a ship in Thames, for to have sailed over the sea into Zeeland,
and for lack of wind they tarried at the foreland and went to land for
to refresh them. And one of them named Sheffield, a mercer, came into
an house and axed for meat and specially he axed after eggs; and the
good wife answered that she could speak no French. And the merchant
was angry, for he could speak no French, but would have had eggs and
she understood him not. And then at last another said that he would
have eiren; then the good wife said that she understood him well. Lo,
what should a man in these days now write, _eggs_ or _eiren_? Certainly
it is hard to please every man because of diversity and change of

This incident related by Caxton serves to illustrate how almost
unintelligible the southern dialect had become to the inhabitants
of the northern part of England in the early fifteenth century. The
several dialects spoken in England had diverged so much as to result
in a serious handicap on trade and a practical embargo on letters.
The Northern, the Southern and the Mercian (the last now split into
two minor dialects distinguished as east and west) had each risen to
the dignity of a literary language. But no one of them was recognized
as the triumphant dialect, destined to vanquish all its rivals and
to establish its sway over the entire country. At this juncture
circumstances, somehow, conspired to raise the East Midland dialect to
the primacy, enabling it to extend itself over the whole country as
the received language, the national speech. This dialect had much to
commend it to favor. To begin with, this dialect occupied a somewhat
central position geographically and so offered a compromise to the
inhabitants of the extreme northern and southern portions of England,
whose dialects were so far apart. In the second place, East Midland was
the dialect of London, the great commercial center--the emporium--of
Great Britain. It was also the dialect of the famous university towns
where the flower of the English nobility was trained. Furthermore,
it was the dialect of the Court and Parliament whenever they spoke
English. Finally, it was the dialect of Wycklif’s version of the Bible
and of Chaucer, “that well of English undefiled” whose refreshing
stream of song carried joy and gladness to every part of the island.

It is sometimes said that Chaucer’s poetic genius moulded the literary
language of England. This is a pleasant illusion, but not quite in
accord with the facts. Chaucer, in conformity to the custom of the
times, simply wrote in his native dialect. That dialect, it is true,
happened to be the dialect of the chief city of the realm and of
the most powerful elements in the state, the ruling class. It was a
mere accident that Chaucer spoke and wrote this same dialect as his
vernacular. In no sense did Chaucer create the London dialect. Nor
did he make it the received literary language, the standard speech of
the English people. This dictum was once accepted, but needless to
add it is now discredited by scholars. Yet Chaucer’s influence as the
foremost English author of his age was assuredly not without weight in
establishing the dialect of London as the standard literary language
of the kingdom. It is a significant fact that this dialect (which
was the dialect of the Court) had attained the distinction of being
the literary language of England, by the first half of the fifteenth
century, though perhaps it was a mere coincidence that this was only a
short time after Chaucer’s death. It is quite possible, yea probable,
that the East Midland dialect would have established its supremacy
as the standard language of England even if Chaucer had written his
works in French, or Latin, or Scotch. But it is not unreasonable to
suppose that an author of such rare and commanding genius as Chaucer
contributed not a little to hasten the process of the spread of his
native dialect and its acceptance as the standard language of the
realm. The acknowledged excellence of his poetic works tended, no
doubt, to stamp the dialect in which they were written as literary
English and furnished a sufficient guaranty, in after years, that his
language was classic English.

The effect of the establishment of the East Midland dialect as the
standard language of England was soon observed in the rapid declension
and ultimate disuse of all the rival dialects. For as soon as the
dialect of London was recognized as supreme, no author could be
expected to court oblivion by employing any of the decadent provincial
dialects as his medium of expression. Hence all the provincial dialects
hitherto employed now either fell into disuse, or survived only as a
mere local _patois_ without any literary pretensions--a rustic lingo
heard only on the lips of the illiterate and uncultured. Such was the
fate of the various Middle English dialects, Scotch only excepted.
The Northern dialect, or Scottish, seems to have maintained itself
for quite a considerable time. Indeed, Scottish was recognized as
the standard language of Scotland as long as that northern kingdom
preserved its independence. Down to the time of James the First,
therefore, there was a dual standard in the language of Great Britain,
the English of London which was the vernacular of England and the
Scottish of Edinburgh, which was the vernacular of Scotland. In 1603,
upon the accession of James the First, the Scottish as a literary
tongue was abandoned in favor of standard English, as a result of the
political organic union of Scotland with England. From that time to the
present there has been only one standard English language for Great
Britain. Yet the language spoken in Scotland preserves not a few traces
of the old Scotch dialect mingled with standard English, which imparts
to it its Scotch characteristics. This is more particularly noticeable
in the speech of the common people and occasionally in the works of
a popular poet like Burns, although his language contains very few
strictly Scotch words.

It has been shown how standard English was enriched in vocabulary and
idiom by contact with the French language. It is to the Norman Conquest
that our speech is largely indebted for its double vocabulary which
gives English a unique place among modern languages. The skeleton of
our English tongue has always remained Teutonic, despite the unusually
large number of words it has assimilated from French and other foreign
sources. In our vocabulary, which has been so vastly swollen by our
French borrowings, the native English words, if one may venture to
make a rough distinction, are employed to signify objects of domestic
association, homespun ideas and thoughts, while the words of Romance
origin are reserved to express objects that are associated with luxury
and delicate culture and to convey subtle shades of thought. When two
or more words are used to signify very much the same thing, the genius
of the English speech tends to differentiate and to restrict the words
to separate and special senses. This, of course, makes the language
more flexible and more facile as a medium of expression.

Just as English was enriched by contact with French, so it has been
improved, though to a less extent, by attrition and contact with
its sister dialects. By elbowing its way to the front through the
various dialects which jostled it, the dialect which developed into
standard English naturally lost by attrition most of the grammatical
peculiarities that hampered it. It was, of course, a decided advantage
to the London dialect, in its struggle for the distinction of the
standard speech, to throw off such inflections as proved a hindrance
to its complete development. Most philologists used to regard the loss
of superfluous inflections a symptom of decadence in a language. Now,
however, such a process is regarded a sign of virility and progress.
“The fewer and shorter the forms, the better,” affirms the eminent
Danish philologist Jespersen. “The analytical structure of modern
European languages is so far from being a drawback to them that it
gives them an unimpeachable superiority over the earlier stages of the
same language.” This high authority even goes so far as to declare that
“the so-called full and rich forms of the ancient languages are not a
beauty, but a deformity.”

Thus in the process of its development standard English was gradually
freed of many of its pristine grammatical encumbrances, to take its
place in the front rank of living tongues as the best equipped for a
universal language. And the end is not yet. For the work of simplifying
is still in progress. The history of our speech from the fifteenth
century down to the present day proves nothing more conclusively than
that English tends ever to become more and more simple in inflection
and syntax. Witness the dwindling use of the subjunctive mood, which
has been almost driven from the field of modern English syntax by the
constantly encroaching indicative. Another example in point is the
transfer of the function of the absolute case from the dative, an
oblique case, to the nominative. This shifting has been accomplished
since the time of Milton, who represents the transitional period. It is
evident then that the tendency of standard English is in the direction
of simplicity, and its future growth will, no doubt, be along the line
of least resistance. Certainly its _vis inertiae_ seems destined,
unless acted upon by some violent external force, to move in that

It need hardly be added that standard English, like every spoken
language, has undergone change, from age to age. Some words become
obsolete and drop out of the vocabulary. New words are coined to
take their places, and if, after a period of probation, they prove
acceptable, they are received into good usage and are recognized as
standard. In this manner the waste that necessarily occurs in living
English, as in every living language, is repaired. Thus the English
speech grows, adapting itself to the many and varied conditions which
are exacted of it as the medium for the communication of thought for
the millions of people in every quarter of the globe who use it. Here
and there slight variations from the normal, slight departures from
the standard, are made. But unless the locutions which constitute
these departures possess extraordinary vitality and force, unless they
persist with dogged tenacity and supply a real need in the language,
they are doomed to perish without leaving any appreciable effect upon
the standard speech.

What, then, determines standard English? The reply, in a nutshell,
is the usage of the best writers and speakers. Standard English is
determined by the habitual manner the learned and cultured employ to
express their thoughts and feelings in words. The customary mode of
expression now in vogue among the most careful users of English has
been inherited from the generations of writers and speakers who have
employed our speech in the centuries past as their vernacular. The
leading English authors from Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton,
Dryden, Swift, Johnson and a host of others, down to the living
writers, have each in his way contributed to make our standard literary
language. Each of these, it is true, has influenced standard English in
some degree. No one can fail to see the impress which such an eccentric
writer as Doctor Johnson, the literary dictator of the eighteenth
century, stamped upon the standard English of his age. Our speech
shows no less distinctly marked traces of the influence of Addison. For
Addison’s admirable style, with its characteristic grace, crispness and
lightness of touch, even Johnson himself warmly commended, although
the great Cham’s innate tendency to the stilted, the turgid and the
ponderous prevented him from approximating in his practice what in
his preaching he so ardently held up for the imitation and emulation
of others. To mention another concrete example, in more recent times
standard English has been swayed somewhat by Macaulay’s passionate love
of antithesis and of the periodic structure of the sentence. Attention
might be called, likewise, to the influence of Gibbon’s chaste and
classic style (albeit a trifle heavy and wearisome at times) upon our
standard literary language, or to the influence of another prominent
author whose style is still more unique and distinctive--Thomas
Carlyle. Away back in the early history of English one may observe
in the style of the West-Saxon translator of Bede’s “Ecclesiastical
History” a trick of repetition which has made a lasting impression
on our standard speech; and it still survives in such familiar
tautological phrases as “really and truly,” “bright and shining,” “pure
and simple,” “without let or hindrance,” “toil and delve,” “confirm
and strengthen,” and “lord and master.” All of these locutions, as
Professor Kittredge informs us, in his suggestive book, “Words and
Their Ways in English Speech,” are in high favor, and are recognized as
standard English. Euphuism is a movement that swept over Elizabethan
English in the wake of the tidal wave of ink-horn terms, materially
affecting the standard speech. Even Shakespeare could not quite resist
the fashion of Euphuism, and his English is indeed slightly colored
thereby. Another trick of style which has cropped out here and there,
from the days of Spenser down to the present age, is that of employing
archaic terms with the intent to revive them. On the score of this
affectation the most flagrant sinner among modern authors is William
Morris, whose writings furnish a veritable treasure-trove of curious
and amusing archaisms. But it is not worth while to multiply examples.
Let those already given suffice to illustrate how standard English has
been swayed, from time to time, even by the devices and attractions of
dame fashion.

It is to be noted, in conclusion, that standard English is no longer
confined to the usage of any given locality, as was the case in
the early history of the language. The English language spoken in
London does not now enjoy the distinction of determining the standard
universally accepted. A special mode of utterance or a special idiom is
not now regarded proper simply and solely because it is sanctioned by
London usage. Indeed, that British metropolis appears rather to have
broken with its enviable past and worthy traditions in the matter of
its English, for London is now recognized as the home of the “cockney”
dialect. Nowhere more than on the lips of the native Londoner is the
purity of our noble tongue in jeopardy. Strange to say, the English
vernacular of the native Londoner has, of late years, fallen into
disrepute by reason of its abounding improprieties, its teeming
provincialisms and its solecisms. No educated man who professes English
as his mother-tongue would, to-day, think of making his speech conform
to the usage of London as reflected in the local dialect. It used to be
the custom to take London English as a model; but not so now, since the
local speech has become so corrupt as to prove a constant menace to the
purity of the living tongue. Perhaps it should be added, in order to
forestall adverse criticism, that standard English is, of course, heard
in London, as elsewhere, upon the lips of the educated and cultured.
But it is worth while to emphasize this fact, even at the risk of
repetition, that standard English is no longer confined to any given
locality or to any one country, for the matter of that, but is written
and spoken in America, in far-off India, and in other remote parts of
the world as well as in the British Isles. For wherever the English
language is employed, whether written or spoken, in accordance with
the best traditions of that rich, flexible and copious tongue, there
standard English is found, in whatever quarter of the globe it may be.

Transcriber’s Notes

Page 10: “linguistc ideal” changed to “linguistic ideal”

Page 14: A missing footnote anchor was added.

Page 29: “St. James Gazettte” changed to “St. James Gazette”

Page 73: “early pronunication” changed to “early pronunciation”

Page 85: “in consequenec” changed to “in consequence”

Page 90: “mode of pronuncing” changed to “mode of pronouncing”

Page 102: “the quailty” changed to “the quality”

Page 105: “not owning allegiance” changed to “not owing allegiance”

Page 108: “very seriiously” changed to “very seriously”

Page 113: “English lierature” changed to “English literature”

Page 115: “cvil war” changed to “civil war”

Page 123: “the senes of very” changed to “the sense of very”

Page 129: “let is be distinctly” changed to “let it be distinctly”

Page 130: “what constiutes” changed to “what constitutes”

Page 149: “Danish philologist Jesperen” changed to “Danish philologist

Page 150: “constantly encoraching” changed to “constantly encroaching”

Page 152: “no less distainctly” changed to “no less distinctly”

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "Questions at Issue in Our English Speech" ***

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