Sunday, July 8, 2012

The American Language

1963, 1977 Knopf edition
H. L. Mencken, "with annotations & new material by Raven I. McDavid, Jr., with the assistance of David W. Maurer"
The American Language
Original and purchase price unknown
Worn paperback

Mencken issued his first edition back in 1919, but he kept updating it, and then this one-volume abridgement came out Nov. 11, 1963.  (Yes, right before JFK died.)  So there's almost as long a span between those editions as there is between '63 and now.  As such, it offers a layered picture of the state of American English.  There are references to Mencken's pals Sinclair Lewis and Anita Loos, but there are also such contemporary figures as Castro and Elvis.

Mencken argues that the American version of English is not a bastardization of the British version but a clear, hearty language (or at least dialect) in its own right.  He covers various aspects of American, from "foreign influences" to slang.

Perhaps because I'm almost 90 years younger than Mencken and grew up in Southern California rather than Baltimore (where he was born and died), I disagree with some of his conclusions, or at least see them as no longer applying.  American seems a lot more mumbly, less distinct a language than in his time.  The schwa sound is more prevalent.  To take one example, I seldom hear the first L in "fulfillment" pronounced, while he claims that Americans are better about that than the British.

It's impossible to read the book without thinking of changes that the next decades, or even years, would bring.  He sees ridiculous given names as a product primarily of Okie mothers, and I can just imagine his sarcasm about, for instance, Frank Zappa's progeny.  His abridger's name is interesting in that McDavid is a Southern white man born in 1911, but "Raven" makes me think of Raven-SymonĂ©.

The impact of English culture on the American language would be very different if McDavid had waited just a year, or even a few months, for "The British Invasion."  I would argue that J. K. Rowling brought a new wave of Anglophilia among the young, and it is funny to see here that "muggles" used to mean "reefers."

(Also, it's good to read pro-American quotes from Alistair Cooke long before Masterpiece Theater.)

I think this is a good abridgement but there are some avoidable reduncancies.  McDavid's updatings, sometimes quite wry, blend well with the original text.

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