Correspondence

Mencken and After

If Noah Webster was the father of English-language spelling reform, H.L. Mencken was the strong son making good his inheritance.  Mencken’s claim was to be the father of the American language.  He named it.  As with mountains and planets, the one who names is honored with immortality, and The American Language, first published in 1919, was the work of H.L. Mencken.  Until then, American English was regarded as a sturdy cadet branch of English.  Our language, said Mencken, is ours and no other’s.  It dwells in a respectful relationship with the King’s English but is different and coequal.  No one had said this before, and no book to my knowledge was titled “The American Language.”  He declared independence.  And the reviewers loved it, both in the U.S. and in England, where he was highly praised for being “genuinely American.”  Mencken shoulder-charged a door that was already ajar, and on oiled hinges.

He was on to something both grand and subtle: an appreciation of the ways in which American usage differs from the parent tongue.  These were vast.  We can pass quickly over the spelling changes that Webster inaugurated, which were modest and innocuous.  They have never been augmented.  An English writer for U.S. publication will find his spelling silently altered, as do Americans writing for the English press. ...

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