H.L. Mencken > The American Language > Subject Index > Page 217
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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956).  The American Language.  1921.

Page 217
 
discourse, will switch to the purer a-sound when he wants to show reverence. The broad a in father seems to have very little influence upon cognate words. Save in New England one never hears it in gather, lather and blather, and even there it is often abandoned for the flat a by speakers who are very careful to avoid the latter in palm, dance and aunt. Krapp says that the broad a is used in “some words of foreign origin,” notably lava, data, errata, bas-relief, spa, mirage and garage. This is certainly not true of the first three, all of which, save exceptionally, have the flat a. Garage, as one time, threatened to acquire the flat a, too, and so became a rhyme for carriage, but I believe that a more correct pronunciation is prevailing. In a number of other classes of words the pronunciation of the a varies. In patriot and its derivatives, for example, the a is sometimes that of hat and sometimes that of late. In radish the a is sometimes that of cab and sometimes a sort of e, hard to distinguish from that of red. In such proper names as Alabama, Montana, Nevada and Colorado the flat a is commonly heard (especially in the states themselves), but a broad a is not unknown. The usual pronunciation of again and against gives them a second a indistinguishable from the e of hen, but the influence of the schoolmarm has launched a pronunciation employing the a of lane.
  The other vowels present fewer variations from standard English. A spelling pronunciation often appears in pretty, making the first syllable rhyme with set; it always rhymes with sit in standard English. The use of the long e in deaf, though ardently advocated by Noah Webster, has almost disappeared from cultivated speech; it persists, however, in the vulgate, and is noted in Chapter IX. In the same way the i-sound, as in sit, has disappeared from get, yet, chest and instead; even the vulgate is losing it. So, again, the old ai-sound, as in laid, has vanished from egg, peg, leg and their cognates, though here the vulgate preserves it. As Krapp shows, the neutral e, toward which all our vowels seem to be tending,  27
Note 27.  This tendency is not confined to English. The same neutral e is encountered in languages as widely differing otherwise as Arabic, French and Swedish. “Its existence,” says Sayce, in The Science of Language, vol. i, p. 259, “is a sign of age and decay; meaning has become more important than outward form, and the educated intelligence no longer demands a clear pronunciation in order to understand what is said.” Here, of course, decay means phonetic decay; the word has no reference to the general vigor of the language. [back]

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