Item of the Day: A Vocabulary (1816)

Full Title: A Vocabulary, or Collection of Words and Phrases which have been supposed to be peculiar to the United States of America. To which is prefixed An Essay on the Present State of the English Language in the United States. By John Pickering. Boston: Published by Cummings and Hilliard; Cambridge: Williard and Metcalf, 1816.

ESSAY

The preservation of the English language in its purity throughout the United States is an object deserving the attention of every American, who is a friend of the literature and science of his country. It is in a particular manner entitled to the consideration of the Academy; for, though subjects, which are usually ranked under the head of Physical Science, were doubtless chiefly in view with the founders of the Academy, yet, our language also, which is to be the instrument of communicating to the public the speculations and discoveries of our countrymen, seems necessarily “to fall within the design of the insitution;” because, unless the language is well settled, and can be read with ease by all to whom it is addresssed, our authors will write and publish, certainly under many disadvantages, though perhaps not altogether in vain.

It is true, indeed, that our countrymen may speak and write in a dialect of English, which will be understood in the United States; but if they are ambitious of having their words read by Englishmen as well as by Americans, they must write the language that Englishmen can read with pleasure. And if for some time to come it should not be the lot of many Americans to publish works, which will be read out of their own country, yet all, who have the least tincture of learning, will continue to feel an ardent desire to acquaint themselves with English authors. Let us then for a moment imagine the time to have arrived, when Americans shall no longer be able to understand the works of Milton, Pope, Swift, Addison, and other English authors, justly styled classic, without the aid of a translation into a language, that is to be called at some future day the American tongue! By such a change, it is true, our loss would not be so great in works purely scientific, as in those which are usually termed works of taste; for the obvious reason, that the design of the former is merely to communicate information, without regard to elegance of language or the force and beauty of the sentiments. But the excellencies of works of taste cannot be felt even in the best translations;–a truth, which, without resorting to the example of the matchless ancients, will be acknowledged by every man, who is acquainted with the admirable works extant in various living languages. Nor is this the only view in which a radical change of language would be an evil. To say nothing of the facilities afforded by a common language in the ordinary intercourse of business, it should not be forgotten, that our religion and our laws are studied in the language of the nation, from which we are descended; and, with the loss of the language, we should finally suffer the loss of those peculiar advantages, which we now derive from the investigations of the jurists and divines of that country.

But, it is often asked among us, do not the people of this country now speak and write the English language with purity? A brief consideration of the subject will furnish a satisfactory answer to this question; it will also enable us to correct the erroneous opinions entertained by some Americans on this point, and at the same time to defend our countrymen against the charge made by some English writers, of a design to effect an entire change in the language.

As the inquiry before us is a simple question of fact, it is to be determined, like every other quiestion of this nature, by proper evidence. What evidence then have we, that the English language is not spoken and written in America, with the same degree of purity that is to be found in the writers and orators of England?

 In the first place, although it is agreed, that there is greater uniformity of the dialect throughout the United States (in consequence of the frequent removals of people from one part of the country to another) than is to be found throughout England; yet none of our countrymen, not even those who are the most zealous in supporting what they imagine to be the honour of the American character, will contend, that we have not in some instances departed from the standard of the language. We have formed some new words; and to some old ones, that are still used in England, we have affixed with new significations: while others, which have long been obsolete in England, are still retained in common use with us. If then, in addition to these acknowledgments of our own countrymen, we allow any weight of the opinions of the Englishmen, (who must be content judges in this case,) it cannot be denied, that we  have in several instances deviated from the standard of the language, as spoken and written in England at the present day. By this, however, I do not mean, that so great a deviation has taken place, as to have rendered any considerable part of our language unintelligible to Englishmen; but merely, that so many corruptions have crept into our Enlgish, as to have become the subject of much animadversion and regret with the learned of Great Britain. And as we are hardly aware of the opinion entertained by them of the extent of these corruptions, it may be useful, if it should not be very flattering to our pride, to hear their remarks on this subject in their own words. We shall find that these corruptions censured, not be mere pretenders to learning, but (so far as the fact is to be ascertained from English publications,) by all the scholars of that country, who take an interest in American literature. In proof of this, I request the attention of the Academy to the follwoing extracts from several of the British Reviews; some of which are the most distinguished of the present day, and all of which together may be considered as expressing the general opinion of the literary men of Great Britain, who have attended to this subject. That all the remarks are just, to the extent in which they will naturally be understood, few of our countrymen will be willing to admit. . . .

 

 

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Filed under 1810's, Culture, Grammar, Language, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, Vocabulary

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