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From Hwæt to Whattup: A Bibliography of the History of English (July 2014): The American Language

by Edwin Battistella

The American Language

The study of English in the United States fell to American scholars.  Julie Tetel Andresen’s Linguistics in America, 1769-1924 gives a readable history of early American linguistics, paying attention to Native American languages and to the study of language by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Noah Webster, John Pickering, and Albert Gallatin, among others.  Webster’s contributions to the study of the American language—including his “dictionary war” with lexicographer Joseph Worcester, his failures as an etymologist, and his attempts at spelling reform—are recounted in David Micklethwait’s Noah Webster and the American Dictionary.[1]

In the first decades of the twentieth century, American scholarship took a new direction; it began defending the American language.  George Philip Krapp’s two-volume The English Language in America drew on nineteenth-century dictionaries and dialect studies to describe the vocabulary, spelling, pronunciation, and grammar of American speech.  Krapp’s efforts were eventually overshadowed by H. L. Mencken’s The American Language, first published several years before Krapp’s work, but revised in 1921 before settling into a fourth edition, with two supplements, by the 1940s.  (Two decades later Raven McDavid Jr., with David W. Maurer, released an abridged fourth edition, with annotations and new material.)  A rare piece of good scholarship by an amateur, Mencken’s work combined lively (sometimes scathingly opinionated) writing and detailed research.  Mencken took aim at pedants and reveled in colloquial speech and slang.

The American Dialect Society’s journal American Speech, published since 1925, provides scholarly work about a wide range of American English in forms usually accessible to general readers.  The society’s long-running series “Publications of the American Dialect Society” (PADS), which has put out at least one monograph every year since 1944, features more specialized academic studies.[2]


[1] Worcester had worked as assistant on Webster’s dictionary, but when he published an abridgment of Webster’s work in 1827 and his own comprehensive dictionary in 1830 Webster accused him of plagiarism.  The battle for market share of the dictionaries raged until about 1864, carried on (and won) after Webster’s death by publishers George and Charles Merriam, who had bought the rights to Webster’s work.

[2] Early PADS monographs include Lorenzo Dow Turner’s Notes on the Sounds and Vocabulary of Gullah and Problems Confronting the Investigator of Gullah as well as studies of maple sugar language in Vermont, oil refinery terms in Oklahoma, hemp words, the argot of the racetrack, the vocabulary of marble playing, the language of jazz musicians, expressions from Herman Melville, and a word list of construction terms.