The American: His Language

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/August 1913

IF it were not for the fact that school teachers, as a class, are the most hunkerous and unobservant folk in all the world, the teaching of orthodox English in the public schools of America would have been abandoned long ago. Thomas Jefferson, that sure-sighted fellow, saw clearly that the language could not serve permanently the complex and expanding needs of the American people. “The new circumstances under which we are placed,” he wrote to John Waldo on August 16, 1813, “call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects. An American dialect will therefore be formed.”

This prediction, as every attentive man must know, has been amply fulfilled. American is now so rich in new words, new phrases and old words transferred to new objects that it is utterly unintelligible to an educated Englishman, and, as I shall presently show, its grammar and pronunciation have undergone great changes as its vocabulary has developed. But the poor little martyrs in the schools are still taught English instead of American—and not the fluent, racy, loose-jointed English of living and breathing Englishmen, but the heavy, precise, classical, esoteric English of Macaulay, Addison, Herbert Spencer and Matthew Arnold. Even an Englishman, native to the soil and bred in English schools, does not find this grammar book language ready to his tongue. When he sits down to write a book, a speech or a letter to The Times, he has to think the thing out in one language—the spoken English of his particular class and year—and then translate it laboriously into another language—the petrified, bloodless, clumsy English of the pundits.

Some Englishmen, true enough, know this artificial language well enough to write it almost spontaneously, just as many medieval scholars knew Latin, and as a few stray Jews, even today, know the pure Hebrew of the days before the Babylonian captivity. But the great majority of Englishmen know it only imperfectly. Some can read it without being able to write it; some can read it and understand, say, seventy-five per cent of it; others can understand only fifty per cent, or twenty-five per cent.

Finally, there are the millions who can understand only those elements of it which it has in common with the English of the people—a few of its root words and most of its connectives. When such Englishmen read a leader in The Times (which they seldom do more than once in a lifetime) they do not get the exact sense of it, nor even half the sense of it, but only the general drift of it, just as the average Jew gets only the general drift of the Talmud, and the average Italian and Russian get only the general drift of the Latin and Old Slavonic masses.

But, as I have said, the American schoolboy is forced to master the complex and senseless grammar of this foreign and mummified tongue, and even to listen to lectures upon its orthodox pronunciation. It is the master bugbear of his first six years of schooling, and it usually so disgusts him with learning that he never opens a textbook of any sort after he has once left school. And what he is thus forced to learn, unwillingly and against the sharp common sense of childhood, is not only useless to him, but even a bit dangerous. That is to say, he would bring down social odium upon himself, and often actual punishment, if he essayed to speak such a strutting, artificial language outside the schoolroom. His companions, on the one hand, would laugh at him as a prig, and his parents, on the other hand, would probably cane him as an impertinent critic of their own speech. Once he has made his farewell to the schoolmarm, all her effort upon him goes to waste, and all his own effort with it. The boys with whom he plays baseball speak American, and not English, and so do the youths with whom he will begin learning a trade tomorrow, and the girl he will marry later on, and the saloonkeepers, vaudeville comedians, shyster lawyers, business sharpers, and political mountebanks he will look up to and try to imitate all the rest of his life.

It is a bitter waste of time to teach this boy the difference, in transcendental English, between will and shall, should and would, who and whom, for in the American language no such distinctions exist. It is perfectly proper, in American, to say, “I will be forty years old tomorrow,” or “The girl who you introduced me to.” Again, it is useless to teach him that the double negative is a contradiction in terms, for he knows very well that “I don’t want no more” has a precise and intelligible meaning, and so do his sisters and his cousins and his aunts. Yet again, it is ridiculous to warn him against such forms as “I have gotten,” “Him and her were married,” “He loaned me a dollar,” “I blowed in the money,” “The bee stang him,” “The man was found $2,” “His wife give him hell,” “The baby et the soap,” “Give everybody whatever is theirn,” “It’s me,” “We taken a trip to Atlantic City,” and “Us boys killed a cat.” These transformations of the verb and the pronoun, whatever their immorality in English, are perfectly allowable in American. Some of them, such as gotten for got, are merely archaic English forms, surviving in America long after their disappearance in England, just as many other archaic English forms have survived in Ireland. But others, such as the use of the objective pronoun in the nominative case, have reached so elaborate and separate a development in the United States that their affinity with English dialectic mutations has grown almost imperceptible. And there are corresponding peculiarities in the adjective, in the verb and even in some of the prepositions. Not one of the parts of speech, indeed, has failed to yield something of its English rigidity of tense and case to the special demands of the American people.

But let us begin with the simple personal pronouns. Here is an attempt at their declension in American:

 

First Person

                        Singular                                  Plural

 

Nom.               I                                               We

Poss.                My                                          Our (ourn)

Obj.                 Me                                           Us

 

Second Person

 

Nom.               You                                         Yous

Poss.                Your (yourn)                           Your (youm)

Obj.                 You                                         Yous

 

Third Person

 

Nom.               He, she, it                                They

Poss.                His, her, hisn, hern, its           Their (theirn)

Obj.                 Him, her, it                             Them

So far, so good. This declension accounts for many familiar American isms. For example, “Give everybody whatever is theirn.” For example, “Yous usen’t to use it.” For example, “Don’t mix up ourn and yourn.” And many others of a familiar sound. But a brief inspection is sufficient to show that it does not account for a form equally familiar—to wit, the form revealed in “Us fellows have often went broke.” Here, it must be plain, we have a transfer of us, in the first person plural, from the objective case to the nominative. And much the same phenomenon is seen in “Them men are Swedes,” and in “Him and her are brothers and sisters,” and in “Us and them are neighbors.” An American does not say “we and they”; he says “us and them.” He does not say “those men”; he says “them men.” He does not use “he and she” as a subject; he uses “him and her.”

Well, what does all this indicate? It indicates, in the first place, that the plural pronoun in American, whenever it is hitched to its corresponding noun so as to form the subject of a sentence, takes the inflectional form of the objective case. It indicates, in the second place, that two or more singular pronouns, whenever they are joined together by prepositions for the same purpose, undergo the same change. The which may be reduced, for convenience, to a single rule—the first scientific contribution, so far as I know, to the grammar of the American language —to wit:

Whenever an American pronoun used as the subject of a sentence is joined to its corresponding noun or to another pronoun, it takes the form of the objective case.

But is this the whole story? Isn’t it a fact that certain plural pronouns undergo the same change, even when standing alone? For example, what of “Them are the kind I like”? What of “Them were the men I seen”? Here we have plain inflections to the objective form, and yet the pronouns stand alone and are not connected with their corresponding nouns. An apparent extension of our pioneer rule, but, after all, it is only apparent. The truth is that in both of these examples, and in all other such examples, the corresponding noun is either concealed by ellipses, or standing a step or two away. “Them are the kind I like” is merely a shorter form of “Them kind are the kind I like,” and three times out of five the American actually inserts the missing noun. And even when he doesn’t, he commonly makes up for it with interest by inserting a more specific noun, as in “Them men (or oysters, or poker hands, or false teeth, or clergymen) are the kind I like.” In brief, this change of the plural pronoun to the objective case is fully covered by our rule, and so no extension is needed to account for it. When the plural pronoun stands indubitably alone—i. e., when its corresponding noun would be obviously redundant, or must be imagined as part of a preceding and wholly separate sentence—then it retains the nominative form. The American does not say “Them went home”; he says, “ They went home.” And in the same way he does not say, “Us are soused;” he says, “We are soused.”

If we now turn to the verbs, we shall find a similar disharmony between English and American, though here the American forms are often matched by identical forms in archaic or dialectic English. The American perfect participle of get, for example, was in good usage in England in Dryden’s day and is still encountered in a number of county dialects. But not many educated Englishmen of today use gotten: they prefer the more euphonious if less regular got. In the same way they prefer the irregular struck to the regular stricken as the perfect participle of to strike in the passive voice. An English lawyer moves in court that certain testimony be struck out; his predecessor in Coke’s day moved that it be stricken out; his American colleague of today clings to the older form. Thus with other American conjugations. The tendency to make irregular verbs regular, as revealed in such forms of the past tense as throwed, knowed, mowed, drawed and heared, is one which spoken American shows in common with most of the other colloquial forms of English. And so is the tendency to bring the irregular conjugation of verbs of similar sound into harmony, as, for instance, in the use of skun for skinned, obviously a false analogy from spin and spun, win and won.

But beside these widespread aberrations, met with in Irish-English, Scotch, Cockney and other English dialects as well as in American, there are a number of American forms, in use from end to end of the United States, which are native to the soil. For example, the use of left as the past tense form of to let and the similar transformation of to find into found. It is true enough that an American newspaper reporter, deliberately trying to write book English, will say that a magistrate let one prisoner off with a warning and fined another a dollar, but it is equally true that every policeman in the courtroom will say that the first prisoner was left off and that the other was found. But perhaps I had better present a few typical American conjugations, illustrative of this and other points:

 

Present                                    Past                             Perfect Participle

 

Arrive                         Arrove                         Arriven

Be                                Bean                            Ben

Begin                          Begun                          Began

Bring                           Brung                          Brang

Bust                             Busted                         Bust

Climb                          Clumb                                     Clumb

Cling                           Clang                          Clung

Creep                          Crep                            Crep

Come                           Come                           Came

Crow                           Crowed                       Crew

Deal                            Dole                            Dole

Dive                            Dove (pro. doave)       Dove

Do                               Done                           Did

Drag                            Drug                            Drug

Draw                           Drawed                       Drew

Drink                           Drunk                          Drank

Drown                         Drownded                   Drownded

Eat                               Et                                Ate

Fight                           Fought                         Fitten

Fine                             Found                          Found

Fling                           Flang                           Flung

Flow                            Flew                            Flown

Fly                               Flew                            Flew

Freeze                                     Froze                           Friz

Get                              Got                              Gotten

Give                            Give                            Gave

Go                               Went                           Went

Hear                            Heerd                          Heerd

Heat                            Het                              Het

Hide                            Hidden                        Hid

Keep                            Kep                             Kep

Know                          Knowed                       Knew

Lend                            Loaned                        Lent

Lie                               Laid                             Laid

Ring                            Rung                           Rang

Run                             Run                             Ran

Say                              Sez                              Said

Sec                              Seen                            Saw

Sing                             Sung                            Sang

Sit                               Set                               Set

Skin                             Skun                            Skun

Slide                            Slid                             Slidden

Sling                           Slang                           Slung

Sneak                          Snuk                            Snuk

Spin                             Span                            Spun

String                          Strang                         Strang

Sting                           Stang                           Stung

Swim                           Swum                          Swam

Swing                          Swang                                     Swung

Throw                         Throwed                      Threwn

Wring                          Wrang                                     Wrung

 

Here we have examples of a number of characteristically American peculiarities of conjugation. For example, there is the confusion of words apparently identical, such as fine and find, leading to the use of found for finded. Again, there is the drawing of false analogies between words which rhyme but are otherwise unrelated, such as deal and steal, leading to dole instead of dealt, and dive and drive, leading to dove instead of dived. Yet again, there is the persistence of an original vowel sound through one or both inflections, as in give and hear. Yet again, there is the smoothing down and easing of speech by apocope, as in the use of kep for kept, crep for crept and het for heated. Yet again, there is the transfer of an error in the conjugation of one word to the conjugation of other words of similar sound, as in the case of brung and rung as past tense forms of bring and ring: a borrowing from the American inflection of sing, which is sung and not sang in the past tense. Yet again, there is the obvious tendency to heighten the effectiveness of speech by substituting harsh, brassy vowels for soft ones, as in the use of stang, swang, slang and flang. Finally, there is the persistent transfer of the English perfect participle into the simple past tense, and vice versa, as in the use of throwed for threw and drawed for drew, and in the confusion of did and done, saw and seen, run and ran, drank and drunk.

This last tendency is visible in Irish-English and Cockney as well as in American, but in no other dialect is the change carried to such lengths. There is gradually growing up in American, indeed, a habit of introducing it into the conjugation of all irregular verbs, regardless of whether their inflections are otherwise orthodox or not. Thus, an American is now very apt to say “I taken a trip,” and “I written a letter,” just as glibly as he says “I seen” or “I done,” and in the opposite direction he is almost as full of “I would have wrote” and “I oughtn’t to have took,” as he is of “I have began” and “The milkman has came.” The causes of this muddling of tenses I do not profess to know; all I want to point out is its effect of simplifying grammar. When the past form of to write is changed from wrote to writ or written, the verb becomes measurably more regular, following the example of to bite, and so its use becomes measurably easier. I am well aware that there is a corresponding lessening of regularity in the past perfect, but that lessening is far from compensatory, for the American keeps out of the past perfect tense as much as possible, just as he keeps out of the present perfect and the future perfect. These complex tenses are opposed to the genius of his language, which has ease of use as its first principle, and no doubt he will get rid of them entirely by and by. Already, indeed, he has well-nigh abandoned the present perfect tense: he never says “I have dined,” but always “I am through.” And the future perfect exists in American only as a fossil. Even the American newspapers, which still profess to cling to English grammar, though they make frank use of the American vocabulary, are now almost free of “will haves.” I have been unable to find a single specimen in two issues of the New York Sun. The simple future tense serves all purposes nearly as well, and in spoken American it is used exclusively.

Now add to this movement toward simplicity a strong habit of strengthening the original forms of verbs by elisions, reinforcements and other changes, as in bust, unloosen, ketch, et, sez, rile and rench (for rinse); and an equally strong habit of manufacturing entirely new ones out of nouns, adjectives or the empty air—for example, bulldoze, lynch, stump, lexow, electrocute, muss, swat, filibuster, gerrymander, dicker, boost, belly-ache, boodle and bluff—and you come to an understanding, not only of the growing philological autonomy of the spoken American of the common people, but also of its peculiar vigor. It is, indeed, an extraordinarily succinct, nervous and clangorous speech. None other of modern times is better adapted to the terse and dramatic conveyance of ideas. It would be impossible, in orthodox English, or in French or German or Italian, to get so much of assurance and command and finality into three words as the American gets into “Swat the fly!” The Englishman says “I shall”; the American says “I will” —and ten times the resolution and certainty of the English form is in the American. “I went broke” is better than “I was broken”; “het up” is vivider than “heated up”; even Professor Lounsbury admits the vast superiority of “It’s me” to “It is I.” Finally, compare “He saw his duty and he did it” and “He seen his duty and he done it”: the one is a mere statement of fact, the other is a statement plus an enthusiastic ratification and defiance.

That American is much richer than English, even than the loosest spoken English, in concise and picturesque words, precipitating ideas of considerable complexity into one or two sforzando syllables, must be evident to anyone who studies the vocabularies of the two languages. The former is full of comparatively new words—nouns, verbs and adjectives—which serve a very real need of expression, but are yet looked at askance by the English, as outlaws of speech. Of such sort are the nouns crank, boss, bluff, boodle, graft, dicker, hobo, lasso and stampede and their derivative verbs and adjectives. All of these are in universal use in America, but the English still regard them as slang. A few such American words—for example, caucus, hoodlum, lynch, maverick and canoe—have gone over into English, but a hundred times as many remain purely American. An Englishman, unless he has been in the United States, does not know the meaning of sucker, wire-puller, crackerjack, wildcat, shanty, picayune, mugwump, bonehead, powwow, windup, deadhead, cutoff, highbinder, holdup, grub stake, lockout, gerrymander, filibuster, logroller, hammock and ranch. The ideas conveyed by such words, vividly and economically, he can convey only by long and flaccid circumlocutions. The language he speaks is hunkerously inhospitable, in these later years, to reinforcement from without. Time was when every British adventurer brought home new words, but that time is past. When the Boer War gave the language mafeking, the word was immediately attacked, and today it survives only as a vulgarism. But American is constantly absorbing the foreign words brought in by immigrants, just as the American people are constantly absorbing the superstitions, prejudices and pediculida of those immigrants. Such needed words as rathskeller, bock-beer, pumpernickel, sauerkraut, frankfurter and wienerwurst came into it from the German, and such words as cafe (pronounced kaif) and fete (pronounced feet) from the French, and in the same way many Yiddish words, such as kosher and gonov, for example, are fast forcing themselves into general usage.

What is more important, American is being enriched constantly by new words of native origin, and particularly by new words formed by compounding. The facility with which these agglutinates are manufactured does not result in clumsiness, as in German, but in an increasing clarity and ease of utterance. Such compounds as cut-off, lock-out, ice cream, log-roller, hold-up, horse-sense, ward-heeler, hog-wash, grab-bag, deskroom, dead-head, skin-game, wind-up, spell-binder, wild-cat, stamping-ground, wire-puller, monkey-shine, office-seeker, job-holder, kill-joy, crazy-quilt, dyed-in-the-wool and rabble-rouser have not only a plentiful picturesqueness, but also a genuine value. The language is the richer and the more fluent for their invention; it grows in economy as it grows in vocabulary. And that same striving for vividness and forcefulness, when applied to the sentence instead of to the single word, produces the extraordinarily lush and vigorous thing called American slang. Not even French can show a slang with more in it of novelty, daring and penetrating impudence. Such phrases as like greased lightning, like a snowball in hell, a land office business, by the skin of his teeth, beaten to a frazzle, like a dirty deuce, he handed me a lemon, from hell to breakfast, Pike’s Peak or bust, and till the cows come home, are apt, lucid and racy of the soil. And so are all the minor coins of American phrase—to make good, to go back on, to face the music, to peter out, to fill the bill, to bury the hatchet, to chew the rag, to hit the booze, to kick the bucket, to scratch the ticket, to stump the state, to acknowledge Ike corn, to nurse a grouch, small potatots, marble heart, glad rags, on the fence, on the hog, down and out, under the weather, in the neck, cold snap, up in the air, glad eye, second time on earth. What language has ever produced a more incisive and detaining phrase than yellow journal? Or better humorous words than skedaddle, sock dolager, guyascutis, scalawag and rambunctious? Or more useful abbreviations than O. K., N. G. and P. D. Q?

Naturally enough, a tongue so remarkably hospitable to reinforcements, however humble in origin, is noticeably rich in similes. There is scarcely a noun or adjective in common use, indeed, that hasn’t at least two exact synonyms, instantly understood by ninety percent of all Americans. And about such universal words as dead, married, food, whiskers, clergyman, drink, drunk and girl there cluster picturesque equivalents in almost countless swarms. I take, for example, the word whiskers. In Fanner and Henley’s Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English I can find but a dozen or so synonyms for it, and most of these are really special words used to describe facial flora of peculiar design, such as mutton chops, imperial and goatee. But here are no less than fifty American synonyms for whiskers in the general sense, and every one of them, I venture to say, would be immediately intelligible to eight Americans out of ten:

 

Alfalfa                                    Ivy

Arbutus                                   Jimpsons

Asparagus                               Jungle

Bib                                          Kraut

Brush                                      Lilacs

Bunch                                      Mattress

Bush                                        Moss

Buzzers                                   Muff

Chest protector                       Muffler

Chinlash                                  Oleanders

Crape                                      Plush

Cyprus                                    Seaweed

Dogwood                                Shrubbery

Duster                                                 Slaw

Excelsior                                 Soup trap

Ferns                                       Spaghetti

Fine-cut                                  Spinach

Flax                                         Sprouts

Foliage                                    Sweet Williams

Furs                                         Tanglefoot

Fuzz                                        Tolstois

Grandpas                                 Vines

Grass                                       Weeping Willows

Greens                                     Wild oats

Hedge                                      Windshield

 

Slang? To be sure. But a language such as American, the common tongue of a curious and talkative people, is necessarily composed largely, if not chiefly, of what the intransigent school teacher would call slang. Slang in itself, it must be obvious, does not differ essentially from any other material of speech. All that may be validly said against it is that it is new, that it has not yet won the support of the conventional. No other objection uncovers a character that you will not find in equal flower in wholly orthodox metaphor. Say that it is extravagant and far-fetched and you also attack some of our noblest similes and hyperboles. Say that it is vulgar and you also attack Shakespeare’s “There’s the rub,” a figure grounded upon the fact that a tight shoe is uncomfortable and causes corns. No man can write English without using the slang of yesteryear; no man can speak English without using more or less of the slang of today. The distinguished trait of the American is simply his tendency to use slang without any false sense of impropriety, his eager hospitality to its most audacious novelties, his ingenuous yearning to augment the conciseness, the sprighthness, and, in particular, what may be called the dramatic punch of his language. It is ever his effort to translate ideas into terms of overt acts, to give the intellectual a visual and striking quality. The idea of defeat, of bafflement, of ludicrous defrauding, he puts into the saying that he has been handed a lemon. The idea that whiskers are, in some subtle sense, ridiculous—that the man who devotes care to their nurture indulges a foolish weakness—this he makes vivid by a host of synonyms giving concrete and visual embodiment to the concept of comedy. And so he deals, too, with other complex and difficult concepts—for example, that of sexual charm. The English poet, feeling the inadequacy of mere description, goes to timid metaphor and calls his best girl a lily or a rose; the everyday American, moved by the same impulse and less shackled by fastidious restraints, calls her a peach, a daisy, a pansy, a pippin or a bird.

Always his one desire is to make speech lucid, lively, dramatic, staccato, arresting, clear—and to that end he is willing to sacrifice every purely aesthetic consideration. He judges language as he judges poetry, not at all by its grace of form but wholly by its clarity and poignancy of content. He has no true sense of the sough and sweetness of words: all he can understand is their crash and brilliance. He is like—or, more accurately, he is himself—a musician with an abnormal development of feeling for rhythm and resonance, and no feeling whatever for phrasing and tone-color. Thus he is ever willing, on the one hand, to adopt words and expressions that are harsh and barbarous in themselves, such as sour-belly, hogwash, shin-dig, frazzle, scalawag and bulldoze, and on the other hand he is constantly boiling down and making more pungent the words that belong to orthodox English. To an Englishman there is a sharp distinction between don’t and doesn’t; to an American don’t seems just as proper in the singular as in the plural. In the same way, he always uses won’t for the more difficult sha’n’t, and always substitutes ain’t, a monosyllable, for aren’t, a dissyllable. Years ago he turned burst into bust, copper into cop, and confidence into con; of late he has continued the process by turning bunco, a simplified derivative of buncombe, into the still simpler bunk. The more subdued forms of the vowels he rejects in favor of sterner, more discordant forms. Thus the short e is yanked out of deaf, chest and kettle, and the words become deef, chist and kittle. Thus the English a in sauce gives way to a more American a and the word becomes sass. Thus the diphthong in roil, choice and hoist is reduced to a simple vowel, and we have rile, chice and hist. This last tendency was early noted by visiting Englishmen. It is probable, indeed, that it was more powerful two generations ago than it is today—as witness j’int, sile, p’inl, fine, bile, ile and rej’ice, now seldom heard—but it is still far from decadent. To the American a quoit is yet a quait, and Hofbrau, it is probable will always remain Huffbrow.

Such is American, a language pre-eminent among the tongues of the earth for its eager hospitality to new words, and no less for its compactness, its naked directness, and its disdain of all academic obfuscations and restraints. The English from which it sprung was already a language of notably simple grammar—a language that had been gradually shedding its inflections for five hundred years. But American has progressed much faster than English. As we have seen, it has already reduced its tenses from six to three, and broken down the old barriers between the nominative case and the objective, and brought about an occasional marriage between singular and plural, and declared war upon the superfluous consonant and the disguised vowel. How far it will go in each of these several directions, and in new directions perhaps yet to be indicated, is beyond all prophecy. On the one hand, its tendency to reduce grammar to mere common sense is obviously very powerful, but on the other hand, its natural evolution is constantly combated by the conservatism of school teachers, who cling fanatically to book English and devote their best energies to rehabilitating it. To what issue that war will come remains to be seen. On the one hand the spread of schools may bring the teachers a substantial victory, and American may recoalesce with English, in grammar if not in vocabulary. But on the other hand, the teachers may have to make a frank compromise, as the newspapers have already begun to make it, and as a few daring scholars—for example, the late Prof. William James, of Harvard—have showed signs of making it. If such a compromise is ever reached, the result, in short order, will be an entirely new language, as distinct from orthodox English as the langue d’oil was from the langue d’oc, or as Russian is from that compound of Slavic, Arabic and Greek elements which goes by the name of modern Bulgarian.

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076380425;view=1up;seq=645)