The English language has its origins in about the fifth century a.d., when tribes from the continent, the Jutes, the Saxons, and then the larger tribe of Angles invaded the small island we now call England (from Angle-land). Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, is preserved in Beowulf (c. a.d. 800). Middle English developed following the Norman invasion of 1066, exemplified in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c. 1400). Modern English, dating from the sixteenth century, is exemplified in the plays of William Shakespeare (1564–1616). From the time the Pilgrims landed in America (1620), the language began to take its own course in this “New World.” Expressions like “fixing to,” which had never been used in England, were “cropping up” (an expression going back to Middle English) in the colonial press by 1716.
So the American Revolution (1775–1783) not only created a new nation but also divided the English language into what H. L. Mencken, author of the classic study The American Language; An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States, called “two streams.” These streams diverged to produce different words with the same denotation (the American “trunk” of a car is a “boot” in England), different pronunciations for the same words (the American sked-ju-el is the British shed-ju-el), and different spellings (theater vs. theatre, labor vs. labour).
By 1781, the word “Americanism” had been coined by John Witherspoon, a Scottish clergyman recruited to become president of Princeton University. These Americanisms, Witherspoon wrote, were not “worse in themselves, but merely …of American and not of English growth.” The separation of the “two streams of English” was already noticeable. In his usual acerbic manner, Mencken applauded the American resistance to rules: “Standard [British] English must always strike an American as a bit stilted and precious” (p. 774).
Americans are by and large more tolerant of language differences than the English. George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), the Englishman who wrote Pygmalion (on which the musical My Fair Lady was based), wrote, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” Shaw was, like Mencken, a great debunker and exploder of pretension. “An honest and natural slum dialect,” he wrote, “is more tolerable than the attempt of a phonetically un-taught person to imitate the vulgar dialect of the golf club” (Mencken, p. 775).
Dialects: The Branches
Shaw’s comment raises a point worth highlighting: we all speak a dialect. If English, in Mencken’s phrase, divides into “two streams,” British and American, there are within those streams many creeks and branches (two Americanisms according to Witherspoon). Both Cockney and “the Queen’s English” are, after all, dialects of British English, although one carries more prestige.
Likewise, we have many dialects in the United States. Mark Twain, in his prefatory note to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, tells us that there are at least seventeen distinguishable dialects in the novel. In the early twenty-first century we find many dialects of American English as we move from the New York Bronx to Charleston, or from the Midwestern plains to the San Fernando Valley (home of the “valley girls”), or from Chicago to New Orleans (is that pronounced with the stress on the first or the second syllable: ore-leans or ore-lens?) Is there such a thing today as a “standard” American language?
The International Language
English has replaced French as the international language for many reasons: the political, military, and economic dominance of the United States since World War II (1939–1945), of course, but also the influence of American culture, especially movies, television, and rock music. We were well on our way to this position before Pearl Harbor drew us into war in 1941. Mencken attributes this partly to the “dispersion of the English-speaking peoples,” but in typical Mencken style goes on to say that those peoples “have been, on the whole, poor linguists, and so they have dragged their language with them, and forced it upon the human race.” Robert MacNeil, in the fascinating study of the English language for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS),The Story of English (1986), observed that when landing in Rome, an Italian pilot flying an Italian airliner converses with the control tower in English.
The Digital Word
Just as the printing press, widely used throughout Europe by 1500, changed our use of words, leading to new written forms such as the novel and the newspaper, so the computer has created change. E-mail, chat rooms, and Web pages have made words on the screen almost as common as on the printed page. We already see changes taking place, as onscreen language becomes more informal (often creating new words, such as “online”). Words get shortened: electronic mail becomes e-mail, which in turn becomes email. Note, however, that this is not new. “Today” was spelled “to-day” in the early twentieth century.
We many need help “navigating the shifting verbal currents of the post-Gutenberg era,” according to Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age (version 1.0, 1996, with 2.0 published in 1999). The online experience has spawned various means of conveying tone including acronyms (such as LOL for “laughing out loud” and IRL for “in real life” —as distinguished from the virtual world of cyberspace) and emoticons such as >: D for “demonic laughter” and >: P for “sticking tongue out at you.” English continues to change with influences of all kinds.
Finding Guidance Amid the Flux
The two streams continue to evolve, of course, and the purists like William Safire and John Simon continue to preach against the “corruption” of the language. But like the river, the English language will flow whither it will. Two of the most respected guides in the midst of this flux are both in third editions.
The Elements of Style, praised as the best of its kind by professional writers for over four decades, is E. B. White’s revision of his professor’s book. William Strunk’s “little book” (1918) so impressed White as a college freshman that decades later he revised Strunk’s original (which can be found on the Internet) into this thin volume in praise of conciseness and precision in writing. It has never been out of print since 1959 when the first edition was published, is still in print and praised as the best of its kind by professional writers.
The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996) shows tolerance for expressions that Henry Watson Fowler (1858–1933) would have never allowed in his first edition in 1926. The third edition, unlike the first two, lists as one of three meanings for “fix”: the “American expression ‘to be fixing to,’ meaning ‘to prepare to, intend, be on the point of.'” This guide, one of the most esteemed in print, labels it “informal” and notes that it is “hardly ever encountered outside the US.” American English continues to evolve and standards continue to change.