« PreviousContinue »
Art. II.--THE SPEECH OF AMERICANS.
RARE BEN JONSON said that language most
shows a man ; and, indeed, speech reveals so much that it is, perhaps, no exaggeration to say that the soul of a people, the quality of their deepest life, the secret of their spiritual state, is discovered by the new meanings that old words have gained, and the old meanings that they have lost, and even in the modifications in pronunciation of them that have taken place.
I do not profess to speak with any authority upon the vexed question of the relative merits or demerits of the speech of the two great nations which have English as their mother tongue. To be in a position to judge impartially and adequately, it would be necessary to have been born and educated in both countries and to have mingled freely with all classes of society, in every English county and in every American state. This initial impossibility accounts, in great measure, for the grave and often ludicrous errors into which all have fallen, even those learned in philological science, who have attempted the task. What hope, then, is there for an unlearned Scot who was at school in England and has spent many years furth of all lands in which English is the common tongue, hearing and perforce speaking other languages than his own? Yet, to one poor negative qualification, I may dare to lay claim. By virtue of long residence abroad, my ear has not become dull to the peculiarities in speech of either, and quick only to those of the other, country. When, is an American school, a child is uncorrected for saying "he done it," my
ear is certainly offended; but not more than when, in an English school, there is no challenge of " he had got,” in which no less than in the American phrase, preterite and past participle are confused. And if, in common with most Englishmen, I foolishly resent the American constant
use of the word "sick" in the sense of Shakespeare and the liturgy of the English Church, I resent equally, and with equal folly, in common with all Americans, the English occasional use of the word “ stink” in the direct fashion of the Gospel according " to St. John. This is my infirmity; and I have learned in suffering what, in these paragraphs, I seek to express in piose.
In neither England nor America is the mother tongue as well spoken as in either Germany or France. The minutiæ of the complicated grammar of their respective languages is and must be carefully drilled into French and German children in the schools; and between those who have, and those who lack, the mastery of these languages, speech makes a gulf which is necessarily
fixed than that which separates educated from uneducated among a people whose language, like the English, has few grammatical changes. Absolute accuracy of speech is rare, in both England and America, by reason of the very ease with which relative correctness may be gained in the English tongue ; and to English and Americans alike, in the matter of speech, as in many other matters, one has constantly to say: "Who art thou that despisest thy brother?"
Many Americans have assiduously taught me, in correct English phrasing, the nice shades of meaning of American slang which, as it appeared to me, is different from, more expressive, and not more vulgar
than English slang; and such of it as is unstained by vulgarity or unweakened by foolish extravagance of idea or phrase, although, unfortunately, not such alone, is gradually making a place for itself in the speech of Americans and Englishmen, to the enlargement, if not the enrichment, of our common language. Against the evils of this process, the increase and diffusion of education is the only defence. The court of final appeal upon language, in every country, is all the speaking-people of the country ; and they, by their own usage, enforce their own decrees which may be modified, but are never wholly determined, by the presumptive authority vested in precedent or in the rules and standards which purists provide in a conscious effort towards the logical precision and symmetrical completeness which no language has ever attained. Language is a living organism ; and as the specific experience of those by whom it is used grows larger and more complex, it responds to meet the exigencies of this expansion, yielding new terms, or new shades of meaning to old terms; and, therefore, only by common education, giving fineness of feeling, and an instinct of consideration, for the instrument of common communion, can its perpetual increase in strength and beauty be ensured. This is especially true of America, For there, the tendency is stronger than in England to consider the speech of any men, as any man himself, as good as any other; and this application of a principle that is deemed democratic is pushed to an extreme by those, and they are many, who forget that in speech, as in art and morals and everything that man undertakes, the freedom and originality are spurious which cannot move along other than novel paths and which refuse to obey those simple outward laws which have
been sanctioned by the authority of the foremost men and the experience of mankind.
Yet as the level of popular education in America is, at least, not lower-I rank it higher-than in England, I was not surprised to find the average speech in America not less accurate or refined than in England, when I compared it not with the speech of the cultured section of English society, which is the misleading comparison that is ordinarily made, but with the average speech in England—the only just comparison. The American voice differs from, and to the undoubted advantage of, the English in inflection and pitch. In pronunciation, however, the American seemed to me to excel in distinctness and the Englishman in distinction; and this, perhaps, is what was meant by W. D. Howells when, in a reference to Harvard, he spoke of the “beauty of utterance which, above any other beauty, discriminates between us and the English,” and by Professor Jowett who said that in his lecture room at Oxford, he had seen pass before him “several generations of inarticulate speaking Englishmen.” The superior distinctness of the American is due, I suppose, to conscious efforts, as the superior distinction of the Englishman is due to habitual and unconscious ease, in conforming, each in his measure, to the standard which educated persons in both countries, even in America, accept.
Strenuous, and not unsuccessful, efforts are made in American day schools and night schools to counteract the pernicious effects of foreign influence upon the English speech. The number of new foreign words or phrases grafted on the language is remarkably small relatively to the number of foreign immigrants, whose influence is greatest upon pronunciation, especially of complex consonantal sounds; and such alterations in
speech as result from the fusion of the heterogeneous