H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
Even in this department its work is very far from finished, and the Dictionary of Distinctively American Speech announced years ago (and again in 1919) has not yet appeared. Until its collections are completed and synchronized, it will be impossible for its members to make any profitable inquiry into the general laws underlying the development of American, or even to attempt a classification of the materials common to the whole speech. The meagreness of the materials accumulated in the slow-moving volumes of Dialect Notes shows clearly, indeed, how little the American philologist is interested in the language that falls upon his ears every hour of the day. And in Modern Language Notes that impression is reinforced, for its bulky volumes contain exhaustive studies of all the other living languages and dialects, but only an occasional essay upon American.
Now add to this general indifference a persistent and often violent effort to oppose any formal differentiation of English and American, initiated by English purists but heartily supported by various Americans, and you come, perhaps, to some understanding of the unsatisfactory state of the literature of the subject. The pioneer dictionary of Americanisms, published in 1816 by John Pickering, a Massachusetts lawyer,13 was not only criticised unkindly; it was roundly denounced as something subtly impertinent and corrupting, and even Noah Webster took a formidable fling at it.14 Most of the American philologists of the early daysWitherspoon, Worcester, Fowler, Cobb and their likewere uncompromising advocates of conformity, and combated every indication of a national independence in speech with the utmost vigilance. One of their company, true enough, stood out against the rest. He was George Perkins Marsh, and in his Lectures on the English Language,15 he argued that in point of naked syntactical accuracy, the English of America is not at all inferior to that of England. But even Marsh expressed the hope that Americans would not, with malice prepense, go about to republicanize our orthography and our syntax, our grammars and our dictionaries, our nursery hymns (sic) and
Note 13. A Vocabulary or Collection of Words and Phrases which Have Been Supposed to be Peculiar to the United States of America; Boston, 1816. [back]
Note 14. A Letter to the Hon. John Pickering on the Subject of His Vocabulary; Boston, 1817. [back]