To create a nation, you need a language. Other ingredients are also required: a territory, a flag, a government, a currency, a postal service and so on. But language is the crux. Without it, you have no conversation.
Of course, new languages don’t emerge from a vacuum. They evolve slowly from other languages, acquiring their own character only after a long process of decantation. George Bernard Shaw once purportedly said that England and the U.S. are separated by a common language. That separation is what American English has achieved, not without pain, over a period spanning more than four centuries.
“The language would need to be subverted from within—to give birth to its own new vocabulary—in order to make room for the American revolutionary spirit.”
English arrived on American shores with the Pilgrims in 1620. It was the language they used to communicate with one another in their quest for religious freedom. But, inescapably, it was also the language of the persecuting environment from which they fled. Could their new nation achieve its independence with English as its main form of communication?
Nowhere, it seems, not in the Federalist Papers nor in any other historical document, did the founding generation consider the idea of replacing English with another tongue. The language would need to be subverted from within—to give birth to its own new vocabulary—in order to make room for the American revolutionary spirit. But sooner or later, the young republic would thrive in it.
At the same time, for better or worse, the founders never made English official. There is much debate as to why. They may have assumed that, by virtue of its usage, American English would eventually become a social congealer, bringing people together. They may not have imagined the debates over its dilution that would ensue as the country expanded and drew ever more immigrants to its shores, though a version of those arguments can be discerned even among the founders themselves.
was obsessed with grammar. He wrote treatises comparing English with Greek, Latin and French. And he wrote to friends about the well-being of the language, once stating that he was no friend “to what is called Purism, but a zealous one to the Neology which has introduced these two words without the authority of any dictionary.” Jefferson believed that purists opposed what was most beautiful in a language: its innovative drive. For Jefferson, that drive was what gave English its nerve, its beauty and its copiousness.
Jefferson’s political rival,
took the side of purism, or authority, arguing for an academy of American English. Many languages vest authority in legislative institutions empowered to safe-keep their health, such as the Académie Française, the Real Academia Española and the Accademia della Crusca. There was no such governing body for English in Adams’s day, nor is there now—neither in the U.S. nor anywhere else where English is used.
Adams worried that the lack of such authority undermined the consistency and panache of American English. “As eloquence is cultivated with more care in free republics than in other governments,” he wrote in “Proposal for an American Language Academy” while on a diplomatic mission to Europe during the Revolutionary War, “it has been found by constant experience that such republics have produced the greatest purity, copiousness and perfection of language.”
A century after Adams,
a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and the author of “The Red Man’s Rebuke” in 1893, was among the first indigenous writers in America to fully articulate an argument against the sovereignty of American English. Purity could only come at a price in a polyglot land. Pokagon wrote that when colonizers rejoiced in admiration “over the beauty and grandeur of this young republic,” they ought not to forget that their success came through “the sacrifice of our homes and a once happy race,” as well as of indigenous languages. Approximately three hundred native tongues, from Iroquois to Cherokee, flourished among the population when European settlers arrived and were silenced by the forced internal migration of their speakers.
“Approximately three hundred native tongues, from Iroquois to Cherokee, flourished among the population when European settlers arrived and were silenced by the forced internal migration of their speakers.”
There would be no Academy of American English, but authority came by other means.
was the first to propose an American dictionary reflecting “the parlance of the people.” The result in 1828 was “An American Dictionary of the English Language,” which incorporated new terms—“skunk” and “squash,” for instance—that Americans used. Webster reformed spelling, switching “centre” to “center” and “colour” to “color.” As he stated in his preface, his intention was to look at language as the expression of ideas, “and if the people of one country cannot preserve an identity of ideas, they cannot retain an identity of language.”
Interestingly, and controversially for future generations, Webster defined an American as “a native of America; originally applied to the aboriginals, or copper-colored races, found here by the Europeans; but now applied to the descendants of Europeans born in America.”
When Webster died in 1843 at the age of 84, his dictionary was acquired by a pair of entrepreneurial siblings in Springfield, Mass.: George and
In time, the Merriams made it stunningly successful, both commercially and in terms of critical reception. Unlike its British counterpart, the Oxford English Dictionary, which depends on a slow-moving cabal of dons at what Matthew Arnold called “the city of dreaming spires,” the Merriam-Webster dictionary is a business, which is to say that it seeks to make a profit—a very American endeavor. It still sells many thousands of copies a year.
How Americans should speak was a constant topic throughout the 19th century. One finds arguments in Walt Whitman’s views on American slang, in Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s reflections on “Indian Names” and in Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet’s case for an American variety of sign language.
Perhaps the richest document of the American vernacular from this time is
“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” published in 1884. It is a veritable fountainhead of dialects. Twain tried to give different segments of pre-Civil War society voices that were studiously authentic. At one point, young Huck, unable to reconcile the help he’s giving to his friend Jim (an enslaved man who has run away) with the social expectations of the time, tries to find comfort in prayer but fails: “It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from ME, neither. I knowed very well why [the words] wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double.”
The Civil War was a watershed in American linguistic development. During the period that followed, the efforts and refusals to redress the inequities of slavery pushed Black Americans in centrifugal directions. They developed an ethnic parlance that had roots in “Negro spirituals” but was interconnected with different urban scenes. This coincided with the arrival of successive waves of immigrants from poor parts of Europe, including Ireland, Italy and Russia.
Myriad hybrid languages now reshaped the American soundscape and became manifest in the popular culture that the U.S. consumed and exported in the first half of the 20th century. Claude McKay, in his poetry, made Jamaican Creole come alive in American English. Paul Laurence Dunbar,
Zora Neale Hurston
(“What dat ole forty year ole ’oman doin’ wid her hair swingin’ down her back lak some young gal?”) and
added a surfeit of ebullient voices from the Black diaspora. Mary Antin’s memoir “The Promised Land” recounts her odyssey as a Russian girl in Boston learning English.
“American English doesn’t really need protection. It consumes everything in its reach, while also keeping its flexible structure intact.”
Anti-Italian acrimony and mockery of Italian speech seeped into the press in the early 1920s, surrounding the scapegoating of anarcho-syndicalists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The lively pidgin spoken by Japanese American soldiers in a division from Hawaii in World War II is featured in Martin Minoru Iida’s lyrics to the war song “Go for Broke.” And Henry Roth, an immigrant from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in his novel “Call It Sleep,” depicts the adventures of a 6-year-old Jewish boy on New York’s Lower East Side, using a Yiddishized English for parts of the narrative: “‘Jost you waid!’ Maxey spat out venomously. ‘Ask me fuh sompt’n youse guys. Bubbikiss you’ll ged!’”
One of the most accomplished—and feisty—chroniclers of the transformation of American English was
the irascible Baltimore journalist and editor, who spent a generous portion of his long career examining slangs, accents and localisms in his multivolume 1919 book, “The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States.” Ever-cantankerous, Mencken chronicles the vicissitudes of the language of Irish, Italian, German, Polish and Slavic speakers, among many others. He thoroughly disliked the idea of a prescriptive grammar. In his view, parlance arises in the kitchen, at the bar, on the street—wherever people express themselves freely.
Mencken believed that America’s values—individualism being the most exemplary—and the enormous expanse of its land made American English substantially more complex than British English. Global interaction was vital to that complexity: “A living language,” he posited, “is like a man suffering incessantly from small hemorrhages, and what it needs above all else is constant transactions of new blood from other tongues. The day the gates go up, that day it begins to die.” Counter to Adams’s concern for protecting English from the “barbarians,” Mencken opined that “the notion that anything is gained by fixing a language in a groove is cherished only by pedants.”
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS
What do you consider to be the defining features of American English? Join the conversation below.
Here I should say that I am myself a lover of linguistic pollution. I came to the U.S. from Mexico—and thus to English—in 1985, and I’ve been in awe of the ingenuity of American English speakers ever since. My first exposure to its multifarious character was in the New York City subway, where I attuned my then innocent ear to the intermingling tonalities of a typhoon of tongues. The profusion of sounds hypnotized me. What was the meaning behind it?
It took me a while to reach a conclusion, yet once I did there was no turning back: American English doesn’t really need protection. It consumes everything in its reach, while also keeping its flexible structure intact. Originally a Germanic language spoken by the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians, and recalibrating itself through encounters with the Normans, the Vikings, the Bretons and the French, it has magisterially expanded its horizons, especially since the 1800s, by going from the British Isles to just about everywhere else.
Translation is at the core of the American experiment. To translate is to create bridges, to find common ground, to push beyond one’s own parochialism. It is also, inevitably, about making the U.S. global. Translators are linguistic refreshers: They alert us to etymologies, expand our vocabularies and remind us that we aren’t alone in trying to decipher the universe. Our existence depends on constantly climbing up and down the Tower of Babel.
Yet the history of linguistic xenophobia in America is intense. Propelled by anti-German sentiment during World War I, in 1918 Iowa Gov. William L. Harding forbade people in his state to use any language other than English—even on the telephone. And Teddy Roosevelt, on his deathbed in 1919, announced that there was only one language for Americans and that was the English language. While perhaps not as heated as in the past, such efforts continue to divide America.
Perhaps not incidentally, they come at a time when more non-Americans speak American English than ever before. Though not the language spoken by the most people in the world (Mandarin Chinese wins that distinction), it is unquestionably the most important for business, education, scientific research and entertainment. A global vernacular that is everyone’s favorite “second” language, American English is less grounded—less local—than it used to be. For every native speaker of American English in the world, there are approximately a dozen more non-native American English speakers.
Keeping a syntactic order in place under these circumstances is challenging, and social media has pushed American English into a paroxysmal state. Punctuation is erratic, and spelling is unstable. Brand names, acronyms and texting abbreviations are now an integral part of the language. The LGBTQ movement has succeeded in contesting gender pronouns, such that Merriam-Webster declared “they” the word of the year in 2021, and automatic translation machines, such as Google, deconstruct codes in ways that make English seem frenzied.
Were Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Noah Webster to walk among us again, they might not feel that this is the language they helped to create. Still, if there is a lesson to be learned from history, it is that American English thrives through contradictions.
From the start, this nation’s language has existed in a state of constant innovation. Frank Zappa once said that “all the good music has already been written by people with wigs and stuff,” meaning that it was time to turn ugly music into new good music. In language, the good isn’t the opposite of the bad but simply its companion. American English is of the people, by the people and for the people. It answers only to them.
—This essay is adapted from Mr. Stavans’s introduction to a new volume he has edited, “The People’s Tongue: Americans and the English Language,” recently published by Restless Books. He is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College.
Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8