So Appropriate to Our America
and the Genius of Its Inhabitants
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, my current research project explores vernacular speech in American literature and considers how it functions in relation to the development of language attitudes in American culture. For such a young country, we’ve got some pretty deeply entrenched language ideologies, and the literary arts seem to have both informed and been informed by the development of a specifically American language consciousness.
And really, I’m thinking that American literature and the literary dialect that shows up in it, especially in the 19th century, are part of the story of how American English came into being. By “American English,” I don’t mean a distinct language variety but an idealization, a cultural discourse generated in the context of a developing language consciousness that was itself a product of a post-Revolutionary political consciousness about what it means to be American. (Spoiler alert: I don’t know what it means to be American.) As I discussed in an earlier post, public conversation about what “American English” ought to be – starting with the idea that in fact it ought to be – was well underway by the 1780s. Part of what I am doing with this research project is looking at the way language consciousness informs literary and other public discourse from the early years of the republic and embeds itself in the process of defining distinctly American political, linguistic, and cultural traditions. The notion of what constitutes a “national identity” is part of my research question, which is to say that I haven’t got an answer to that one yet, but I am pretty sure that work can be done (and was done) to try to create and project a national identity without anyone knowing or agreeing on exactly what that might mean and even without anyone necessarily realizing that’s what they’re doing.
For the moment, for this post, a question I am thinking about is how “vernacular” or “dialectal” varieties of language acquire that status, which I guess is really to say how “standards,” i.e. the preferred varieties of language, get their status. In some ways, the answer to this question is fairly obvious, as I will discuss below. But for the larger project, I am interested in specific things that got said and written and done in the early days of the republic and into the 19th century, overtly as well as subtextually, to establish the relative and differential statuses of language varieties, and that’s where the analysis of literary dialect and other writing, especially about language, comes in.
For right now, though, meaning today, I am thinking big-picture with respect to the establishment of a preferred standard for American English. As I wrote in the earlier post that I keep mentioning, several influential 18th-century advocates for American independence maintained that it could not be fully achieved without the establishment of a national language. As the lexicographer and patriot Noah Webster (1758-1843) put it in 1789, “Our honor requires us to have a system of our own.” As I also noted in that post, developing a new linguistic system for exclusively American use would have been a challenging task in a new nation whose ruling class consisted primarily of English-speakers trying to establish their independence from a bunch of other English speakers, and I suggested that therefore their best alternative was to find ways to differentiate American English from British English.
I also suggested that one way of doing so would have been to identify and institutionalize a standard for American English on the basis of linguistic features (pronunciation, vocabulary, orthography) that were beginning to be associated with speakers in the US, features that by the late 18th century already encoded some of the inevitable differences that would arise between the Englishes of the two nations because of their lack of geographical proximity. For example, Webster advocated a complete overhaul of the English spelling system for American English, which in his view would not only help differentiate American English from British but would also in the process solve the messy problem of the idiosyncratic and non-phonetic spelling system for which English is still dubiously renowned. And as we’ll consider below, he was also keen on the idea of actual usage as the appropriate source for standard forms.
As I am generally fond of pointing out, authorization of a Standard American English (SAE) resulted from the institutional privileging of the language varieties spoken by people endowed with power and authority, although that’s probably not how its most enthusiastic proponents would have explained it then or understand it now. And of course, that is pretty much how it always goes down when standard varieties are institutionalized. It’s not like American English has the market cornered on this one; far from it, in fact. Webster made the case in Dissertations on the English Language (1789) for a standard based on “all the certainty and uniformity which any living tongue is capable of receiving,” which I don’t think he intended as a joke even though that sounds kind of hilarious to anyone with knowledge of historical linguistics, because they know that the sum of uniformity and especially certainty is only slightly greater than zero in any living language (and, it may go without saying, they also obviously have fairly low standards for humor, but this is only because there aren’t nearly as many good linguistics jokes as you might think). Webster also seems to have anticipated the kind of linguistic anxiety that still prevails among his countrymen and women in the 21st century; early in the Dissertations, he warns that a national failure to standardize American English could result in “inaccuracies” which could then “corrupt the national language” (18-19).
But to be fair to Webster, I have to point out that his language attitudes were complicated and interesting, that he wasn’t a pedant or a snob or an authoritarian prescriptivist who thought he owned the language and that he could therefore just make up whatever idiotic rules he liked regardless of how linguistically indefensible they might be and then try to force everyone else to go along with his own quirky preferences. Dissertations is a collection of really smart, interesting, well-informed essays about English pronunciation and grammatical structure, orthography, the history of the English language, the origins of language in general, and theories of language relatedness, among other topics. The guy knew a lot about linguistics and about the English language, and he was also a pretty damn good writer.
But it’s not easy to characterize Webster’s language attitudes, at least not in any categorical way, because they are sometimes inconsistent and even contradictory. Of course, that’s a selling point as far as I’m concerned, because I like how despite his astonishing expertise, he is thoughtful, judicious, and reasonable and rarely gives in to the dogma that tempted so many of his colleagues (and continues to torment English speakers and learners today). I like even more how he works as an unselfconscious and dynamic character in the story of American English, which he tells in a way that holds up even after 200+ years. He’s a guy who’s OK with nuance and doesn’t back down from paradox. He would have been a man after Walt Whitman’s heart, an explorer of his own contradictions. Webster is large—he contains multitudes. Like his dictionaries.
Slight (but in my defense, awesome) digression here: Webster really was a guy after Whitman’s heart, or because Webster had about 60 years on Whitman, maybe it would make more sense to say it the other way around, that Whitman was a guy after Webster’s heart. Whitman was a student of historical linguistics and the English language, and according to a terrific book by Ed Folsom, Walt Whitman’s Native Representations (Cambridge UP, 1994), he also loved dictionaries and especially Webster’s and shared the lexicographer’s affection and admiration for American English. As Folsom observes (1994:15), “Whitman believed that the American language, which would evolve as English became expressed in the American way, would become ‘the medium that shall well nigh express the inexpressible’ (Leaves of Grass (727-28).”
So, pretty awesome, I know. Anyway, about Webster and his multitudes. For one, his calls for standardization are unmistakable and a key theme throughout the 432-page Dissertations:
[T]here are . . . important reasons, why the language of this country should be reduced to such fixed principles, as may give its pronunciation and construction all the certainty and uniformity which any living tongue is capable of receiving. . . . Nothing but the establishment of schools and some uniformity in the use of books can annihilate differences in speaking and preserve the purity of the American tongue. A sameness of pronunciation is of considerable consequence in a political view; for provincial accents are disagreeable to strangers and sometimes have an unhappy effect upon the social affections. (19-20)
And this founding father of American English suggests a less than democratic approach to the project of standardization:
To cultivate and adorn [the language] is a task reserved for men who shall understand the connection between language and logic, and form an adequate idea of the influence which a uniformity of speech may have on national attachments. (18)
But his position seems to be complicated if not contradicted by an openness to the realities of language change that is uncharacteristic of his time (and of ours) as well as a similarly forward-thinking sense that standards ought to be determined by observing the way real speakers actually use language:
No man, whatever may be his rank and abilities, has a right to reject a mode of speech, established by immemorial usage and universal consent. Grammars should be formed on practice; for practice determines what a language is. . . . The business of a grammarian is not to examine whether or not national practice is founded on philosophical principles; but to ascertain the national practice. (204)
But Webster credits this idealistic-sounding position to a more practical reality, namely that “the general practice of a nation is not easily changed” (205), that constructing new norms at odds with how most people actually talk and then trying to impose them on a nation of speakers is clearly a fool’s errand. He was certainly right about that, the persistence over hundreds of years of some pretty astonishingly stupid prescriptive rules notwithstanding. We need only look at the continued existence and even flourishing of stigmatized linguistic features and language varieties for evidence that total reform is impossible, regardless of where you might stand on its desirability. As Webster also said,
the only effect that an attempt to reform it can produce, is, to make many people doubtful, cautious, and consequently uneasy; to render a few ridiculous and pedantic by following nice criticisms in the face of customary propriety; and to introduce a distinction between the learned and unlearned, which serves only to create difficulties for both. (205)
Anyway, to some extent, Webster’s own beliefs about standardness, as well as the developing cultural discourses and language ideologies to which he gives voice are inherently contradictory. But then, so much about standard-language ideology is contradictory. For one thing, despite its socially privileged position, Standard American English has no real identity of its own. Its existence depends entirely on the existence other ways of speaking that are not standard. It is identifiable not by any characteristics of its own but only by what it lacks: stigmatized features, the existence of which it depends on for its own value and status. This is ironic given the resources spent on the teaching of SAE and the perpetuation of its ideology, i.e. that it has intrinsic value above all other varieties of American English, that therefore its speakers have greater value as well, that everyone should speak SAE or at least want to, and that all other varieties should be eradicated. Apparently it is terribly distressing to some people who value SAE to have to be subjected to the use of nonstandard features. It must be distressing because why else would some defenders of SAE seem to feel that they have no choice but to be unkind in response? (See the links above and below for evidence if you doubt this.) But if the efforts to eradicate nonstandard varieties were to succeed, there would no longer be any status at all attached to SAE, which could be a disappointing turn of events for some of its champions, for whom feeling superior to others is apparently part of the charm.
I think Webster was better than that, though. For one thing, he overtly rejects the ideology that certain speakers have ownership rights to the language that are not shared by other speakers. But on the other hand, he also seems to assume that some speakers are better qualified (and perhaps have a greater right?) than others to do the work of ascertaining if not determining the prevailing usage norms of American English. In addition to commentary like the example above (i.e. that standardization is “a task reserved for men who shall understand the connection between language and logic, and form an adequate idea of the influence which a uniformity of speech may have on national attachments”), this assumption is also indicated by his frequent use of literary examples that would have been inaccessible to most Americans in 1789 to illustrate linguistic features and especially to exemplify what he considered correct and appropriate usage. These examples are in his own words appeals to “the authority of…good writer[s] in the language” (201) and generally exclude usage norms of rural, nonwhite, and non- or semi-literate speakers. Ironically, most of these examples are taken from British-authored texts.
So while I continue to ponder Webster, the process of standardization in American English and American history, and the zeal of self-appointed guardians of the language, I’ll leave it to Whitman to take us home.
These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands—they are not original with me;
If they are not yours as much as mine, they are nothing, or next to nothing;
If they are not the riddle, and the untying of the riddle, they are nothing;
If they are not just as close as they are distant, they are nothing.
This is the grass that grows wherever the land is, and the water is;
This is the common air that bathes the globe.
(Leaves of Grass, 347-52)
Note: The title of this post, “So Appropriate to Our America and the Genius of Its Inhabitants,” is borrowed from Walt Whitman’s 1856 essay “America’s Mightiest Inheritance,” in which he celebrates the English language.
The usual disclaimer applies: I am a professor of English linguistics, so I am like totally credible and everything, but this blog has not been vetted or peer reviewed and therefore is not to be considered a scholarly source for anyone out there who might be looking for information for a research paper. Also, these are my original words, and while some of what is posted herein is based on widely known and available information, that doesn’t mean you can take my words or my ideas and use them as your own. That’s plagiarism and it isn’t right, so don’t do it.
All images in this post are in the public domain.