H. L. Mencken's The American Language, 4th Edition

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

''The American Language'' is writer H.L. Mencken's study of American English, which caused controversy at the time for advocating a descriptivist view of English grammar and usage. The 4th Edition, published in 1948, is the final version Mencken published before his death.

Mencken and American Language

Writer H.L. Mencken, known as the 'Sage of Baltimore', is a revered figure in American journalism. As a reporter and columnist, mainly working in his hometown of Baltimore, Mencken became known in the early decades of the twentieth century for his witty and cynical views of American life and culture, such as his famous maxim, 'Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.'

But Mencken had another side to him. When not giving his caustic take on the events of the day, he was a serious student of linguistics, the scholarly discipline dedicated to the study of language. His major work in linguistics is The American Language, an epic study of the usage of American English. Mencken first published The American Language in 1919 and revised and expanded it throughout his career, culminating with the fourth edition published in 1948. It would be the final edition, as Mencken retired that same year due to a stroke, and passed away in 1956.

Title page of second edition (1921)
American Language

Descriptivist and Prescriptivist Grammar

The American Language is important for its advocacy of a descriptivist approach to language, as opposed to a prescriptivist approach. At the time Mencken published The American Language, descriptivist language was highly controversial, but thanks to Mencken and other twentieth century scholars, it has become the dominant approach to language in the field of linguistics.

Prescriptivist language basically assumes that there is a 'correct' way to use language. It is preoccupied with laying out specific rules for language usage and policing 'right' and 'wrong' uses of grammar and other aspects of language. The classic image of the school teacher marking up sentences with a red pen to fix a student's language mistakes is an example of prescriptive language. In the early 20th century, it was the predominant way of thinking about language.

Descriptivist grammar, on the other hand, argues that language does not exist in textbooks, but in the real world, where people actually use it. Under this theory, language is constantly changing and evolving as everyday people use it, so attempting to lay down a set of universal rules is useless. Descriptivists like Mencken argued that the job of linguists should be to study language as it used by everyday people and examine how it changes over time.

The American Language

Mencken wrote The American Language in large part to defend American English against prescriptivist critics, many of them British, who saw American English as an unsophisticated corruption of 'proper' British English.

He fought back against these stuffy linguists and 'schoolmarms' by cataloging English as it was actually used by everyday Americans. The American Language opens with a history of what Mencken calls the 'diverging streams' of English and a defense of American English as equally sophisticated as British English.

The book then examines the various aspects of American English including pronunciation, spelling, grammar, highlighting in particular how they have diverged from British English but not become less sophisticated. Mencken then spends a large portion of the book examining American slang, or informal words that have not yet been accepted as 'proper'. Mencken argues against the prescriptivists by showing how slang terms can serve an important function in communication.

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