How Americans Have Reshaped Language
Published: January 20, 2012
There has always been disagreement on these American shores as to just what the “best” English is. The status of Parisian French or Tuscan Italian has long been unassailable. Yet in the early 1940s, fusty Chicagoans were writing to The Chicago Tribune declaring Midwestern speech America’s “purest,” while New York radio announcers were speaking in plummy Londonesque, complete with rolled r’s. Down in Charleston, S.C., the elite’s sense of the best English involved peculiar archaisms like “cam” for “calm” and “gyardin” for “garden.”
A History of English in the United States
By Richard W. Bailey
207 pp. Oxford University Press. $27.95.
In “Speaking American,” a history of American English, Richard W. Bailey argues that geography is largely behind our fluid evaluations of what constitutes “proper” English. Early Americans were often moving westward, and the East Coast, unlike European cities, birthed no dominant urban standard. The story of American English is one of eternal rises and falls in reputation, and Bailey, the author of several books on English, traces our assorted ways of speaking across the country, concentrating on a different area for each 50-year period, starting in Chesapeake Bay and ending in Los Angeles.
We are struck by the oddness of speech in earlier America. A Bostonian visiting Philadelphia in 1818 noted that his burgherly hostess casually pronounced “dictionary” as “disconary” and “again” as “agin.” William Cullen Bryant of Massachusetts, visiting New York City around 1820, wrote not about the “New Yawkese” we would expect, but about locutions, now vanished, like “sich” for “such” and “guv” for “gave.” Even some aspects of older writing might throw us. Perusing The Chicago Tribune of the 1930s, we would surely marvel at spellings like “crum,” “heven” and “iland,” which the paper included in its house style in the ultimately futile hope of streamlining English’s spelling system.
A challenge for a book like Bailey’s, however, is the sparseness of evidence on earlier forms of American English. The human voice was unrecorded before the late 19th century, and until the late 20th recordings of casual speech, especially of ordinary people, were rare. Meanwhile, written evidence of local, as opposed to standard, language has tended to be cursory and of shaky accuracy.
For example, the story of New York speech, despite the rich documentation of the city over all, is frustratingly dim. On the one hand, an 1853 observer identified New York’s English as “purer” than that found in most other places. Yet at the same time chronicles of street life were describing a jolly vernacular that has given us words like “bus,” “tramp” and “whiff.” Perhaps that 1853 observer was referring only to the speech of the better-off. But then just 16 years later, a novel describes a lad of prosperous upbringing as having a “strong New York accent,” while a book of 1856 warning against “grammatical embarrassment” identifies “voiolent” and “afeard” as pronunciations even upwardly mobile New Yorkers were given to. So what was that about “pure”?
Possibly as a way of compensating for the vagaries and skimpiness of the available evidence, Bailey devotes much of his story to the languages English has shared America with. It is indeed surprising how tolerant early Americans were of linguistic diversity. In 1903 one University of Chicago scholar wrote proudly that his city was host to 125,000 speakers of Polish, 100,000 of Swedish, 90,000 of Czech, 50,000 of Norwegian, 35,000 of Dutch, and 20,000 of Danish.
What earlier Americans considered more dangerous to the social fabric than diversity were perceived abuses within English itself. Prosecutable hate speech in 17th-century Massachusetts included calling people “dogs,” “rogues” and even “queens” (though the last referred to prostitution); magistrates took serious umbrage at being labeled “poopes” (“dolts”). Only later did xenophobic attitudes toward other languages come to prevail, sometimes with startling result. In the early years of the 20th century, California laws against fellatio and cunnilingus were vacated on the grounds that since the words were absent from dictionaries, they were not English and thus violations of the requirement that statutes be written in English.
Ultimately, however, issues like this take up too much space in a book supposedly about the development of English itself. Much of the chapter on Philadelphia is about the city’s use of German in the 18th century. It’s interesting to learn that Benjamin Franklin was as irritated about the prevalence of German as many today are about that of Spanish, but the chapter is concerned less with language than straight history — and the history of a language that, after all, isn’t English. In the Chicago chapter, Bailey mentions the dialect literature of Finley Peter Dunne and George Ade but gives us barely a look at what was in it, despite the fact that these were invaluable glimpses of otherwise rarely recorded speech.
Especially unsatisfying is how little we learn about the development of Southern English and its synergistic relationship with black English. Bailey gives a hint of the lay of the land in an impolite but indicative remark about Southern child rearing, made by a British traveler in 1746: “They suffer them too much to prowl amongst the young Negroes, which insensibly causes them to imbibe their Manners and broken Speech.” In fact, Southern English and the old plantation economy overlap almost perfectly: white and black Southerners taught one another how to talk. There is now a literature on the subject, barely described in the book.
On black English, Bailey is also too uncritical of a 1962 survey that documented black Chicagoans as talking like their white neighbors except for scattered vowel differences (as in “pin” for “pen”). People speak differently for interviewers than they do among themselves, and modern linguists have techniques for eliciting people’s casual language that did not exist in 1962. Surely the rich and distinct — and by no means “broken” — English of today’s black people in Chicago did not arise only in the 1970s.
Elsewhere, Bailey ventures peculiar conclusions that may be traceable to his having died last year, before he had the chance to polish his text. (The book’s editors say they have elected to leave untouched some cases of “potential ambiguity.”) If, as Bailey notes, only a handful of New Orleans’s expressions reach beyond Arkansas, then exactly how was it that New Orleans was nationally influential as the place “where the great cleansing of American English took place”?
And was 17th-century America really “unlike almost any other community in the world” because it was “a cluster of various ways of speaking”? This judgment would seem to neglect the dozens of colonized regions worldwide at the time, when legions of new languages and dialects had already developed and were continuing to evolve. Of the many ways America has been unique, the sheer existence of roiling linguistic diversity has not been one of them.
The history of American English has been presented in more detailed and precise fashion elsewhere — by J. L. Dillard, and even, for the 19th century, by Bailey himself, in his underread “Nineteenth-Century English.” Still, his handy tour is useful in imprinting a lesson sadly obscure to too many: as Bailey puts it, “Those who seek stability in English seldom find it; those who wish for uniformity become laughingstocks.”
John McWhorter’s latest book is “What Language Is (and What It Isn’t and What It Could Be).”