The American Language by H.L. Mencken

Henry Louis (‘H.L.’) Mencken ( was inspired by ‘the argot of the coloured waiters’ in Washington, as well as one of his favourite authors, Mark Twain, and his experiences on the streets of Baltimore. In 1902, he remarked on the ‘queer words which go into the making of ‘United States’. The American Language (1919) was preceded by several columns in The Evening Sun. Mencken eventually asked ‘Why doesn’t some painstaking pundit attempt a grammar of the American language… English, that is, as spoken by the great masses of the plain people of this fair land?’  He answered his own question.

In the tradition of Noah Webster, who wrote the first American dictionary, Mencken wanted to defend ‘Americanisms’ against a steady stream of English critics, who usually identified them as borderline barbarous perversions of the mother tongue. Mencken assaulted the prescriptive grammar of these critics and American ‘schoolmarms’, arguing, like Samuel Johnson in the preface to his dictionary, that language evolves independently of textbooks. The book discusses the beginnings of ‘American’ variations from standard English, the spread of these variations, and American names and slang. According to Mencken, American English was more colourful, vivid, and creative than its British counterpart. A landmark work for anyone fascinated by the development of language.

482 pages in Waking Lion Press paperback edition

ISBN 978-1434103260

H.L. Mencken

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