11/3/10 - american english

In today's excerpt - American culture in the late 1700s and early 1800s was more homogeneous than in European countries. In England, France and Germany, villagers on one part of the country could not understand the dialect of those in another part (a condition that was still true in China in the early 1900s), and the upper class spoke differently from them all. Americans, however, all spoke a mutually understandable dialect, and also had fewer religious customs, which created a more uniform culture, with all the attendant advantages in commerce and governance:

"Americans thought that they were less superstitious and more rational than the peoples of Europe. They had actually carried out religious reforms that European liberals could only dream about. Early Americans were convinced that their Revolution, in the words of the New York constitution of 1777, had been designed to end the 'spiritual oppression and intolerance wherewith the bigotry and ambition of weak and wicked priests' had 'scourged mankind.' Not only had Americans achieved true religious liberty, not just the toleration that the English made so much of, but their blending of the various European religions and nationalities had made their society much more homogeneous than those of the Old World.

"The European migrants had been unable to bring all of their various regional and local cultures with them, and re-creating and sustaining many of the peculiar customs, craft holidays, and primitive practices of the Old World proved difficult. Consequently, morris dances, charivaries, skimmingtons, and other folk practices were much less common in America than in Britain or Europe. The New England Puritans, moreover, had banned many of these popular festivals and customs, including Christmas, and elsewhere the mixing and settling of different peoples had worn most of them away. ... Since enlightened elites everywhere in the Western world regarded these plebeian customs and holidays as remnants of superstition and barbarism, their relative absence in America was seen as an additional sign of the New World's precocious enlightenment.

"America had a common language, unlike the European nations, none of which was linguistically homogeneous. In 1789, the majority of Frenchmen did not speak French, but were divided by a variety of provincial patois. Englishmen from Yorkshire were incomprehensible to those from Cornwall and vice versa. By contrast, Americans could understand one another from Maine to Georgia. It was very obvious why this should be so, said John Witherspoon, president of Princeton. Since Americans were 'much more unsettled, and move frequently from place to place, they are not as liable to local peculiarities, either in accent or phraseology.' With the Revolution some Americans wished to carry this uniformity further. They wanted their language 'purged of its barbaric dross' and made 'as pure, simple, and systematic as our politics.' It was bound to happen in any case. Republics, said John Adams, had always attained a greater 'purity, copiousness, and perfection of language than other forms of government.'

"Americans expected the development of an American English that would be different from the English of the former mother country, a language that would reflect the peculiar character of the American people. Noah Webster, who would eventually become famous for his American dictionary, thought that language had divided the English people from one another. The court and the upper ranks of the aristocracy set the standards of usage and thus put themselves at odds with the language spoken by the rest of the country. By contrast, America's standard was fixed by the general practice of the nation, and therefore Americans had 'the fairest opportunity of establishing a national language, and of giving it uniformity and perspicuity, in North America, that ever presented itself to mankind.' Indeed, Webster was convinced that Americans already 'speak the most pure English now known in the world.' Within a century and a half, he predicted, North America would be peopled with a hundred millions of people, 'all speaking the same language.' Nowhere else in the world would such large numbers of people 'be able to associate and converse together like children of the same family.'

"Others had even more grandiose visions for the spread of America's language. John Adams was among those who suggested that American English would eventually become 'the next universal language.' In 1789 even a French official agreed; in a moment of giddiness he actually predicted that American English was destined to replace diplomatic French as the language of the world. Americans, he said, 'tempered by misfortune,' were 'more human, more generous, more tolerant, all qualities that make one want to share the opinions, adopt the customs, and speak language of such a people.' "


Gordon S. Wood


Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815


Oxford University Press


Copyright 2009 by Oxford University Press, Inc.


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