H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
as we shall see, was far more a reformer of the American dialect than a student of it. He introduced radical changes into its spelling and pronunciation, but he showed little understanding of its direction and genius. One always sees in him, indeed, the teacher rather than the scientific inquirer; the ardor of his desire to expound and instruct was only matched by his infinite capacity for observing inaccurately, and his profound ignorance of elementary philological principles. In the preface to the first edition of his American Dictionary, published in 1828the first in which he added the qualifying adjective to the titlehe argued eloquently for the right of Americans to shape their own speech without regard to English precedents, but only a year before this he had told Captain Basil Hall12 that he knew of but fifty genuine Americanismsa truly staggering proof of his defective observation. Webster was the first American professional scholar, and despite his frequent engrossment in public concerns and his endless public controversies, there was always something sequestered and almost medieval about him. The American language that he described and argued for was seldom the actual tongue of the folks about him, but often a sort of Volapük made up of one part faulty reporting and nine parts academic theorizing. In only one department did he exert any lasting influence, and that was in the department of orthography. The fact that our spelling is simpler and usually more logical than the English we owe chiefly to him. But it is not to be forgotten that the majority of his innovations, even here, were not adopted, but rejected, nor is it to be forgotten that spelling is the least of all the factors that shape and condition a language.
The same caveat lies against the work of the later makers of dictionaries; they have often gone ahead of common usage in the matter of orthography, but they have hung back in the far more important matter of idiom. The defect in the work of the Dialect Society lies in a somewhat similar circumscription of activity. Its constitution, adopted in 1889, says that its object is the investigation of the spoken English of the United States and Canada, but that investigation, so far, has got little beyond the accumulation of vocabularies of local dialects, such as they are.
Note 12. Author of the once famous Travels in North America; London, 1820. [back]