H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
obvious errors in the work of earlier inquirers. But its very dependence upon quotations limits it chiefly to the written language, and so the enormously richer materials of the spoken language are passed over, and particularly the materials evolved during the past twenty years. One searches the two fat volumes in vain for such highly characteristic forms as near-accident and buttinski, the use of sure as an adverb, and the employment of well as a sort of general equivalent of the German also.
These grammatical and syntactical tendencies are beyond the scope of Thorntons investigation,81 but it is plain that they must be prime concerns of any future student who essays to get at the inner spirit of the language. Its difference from standard English is not merely a difference in vocabulary, to be disposed of in an alphabetical list; it is, above all, a difference in pronunciation, in intonation, in conjugation and declension, in metaphor and idiom, in the whole fashion of using words. A page from one of Ring W. Lardners baseball stories contains few words that are not in the English vocabulary, and yet the thoroughly American color of it cannot escape anyone who actually listens to the tongue spoken around him. Some of the elements which enter into that color will be considered in the following pages. The American vocabulary, of course, must be given first attention, for in it the earliest American divergences are embalmed and it tends to grow richer and freer year after year, but attention will also be paid to materials and ways of speech that are less obvious, and in particular to certain tendencies of the grammar of spoken American, hitherto not investigated.
Note 81. His two volumes, however, do not exhaust the materials gathered by him. He informed me in 1920 that he had enough matter collected to make three volumes. But his agehe was then beyond 75dissuaded him from attempting to prepare it for the press, and so he planned to deposit it at Harvard University, for the use of some future philologist. In 1917 he appealed to various rich men for funds to complete and publish his work, but to their lasting infamy, they were uniformly too unappreciative to guarantee the success of this record of American self-expression. See his letter in Dialect Notes, vol. v, p. 43 (1919). [back]