As I wrote a while back on my linguistics blog, I am working on a research project that explores vernacular speech in American literature and considers how it functions in relation to the development of language attitudes in American culture. For a relatively young country, we’ve got some pretty deeply entrenched language ideologies, and the literary arts seem to have both informed and been informed by the development of a specifically American language consciousness.
One question I think about a lot is how “vernacular” or “dialectal” varieties of language acquire that status, which I guess is really to say how “standards” (i.e., the preferred varieties of language), get their status. In some ways, the answer to this question is fairly obvious, as I will discuss below. But for the larger project, I am interested in specific things that got said and written and done in the early days of the republic and into the 19th century, overtly as well as subtextually, to establish the relative and differential statuses of language varieties, and that’s where the analysis of literary dialect and other writing, especially about language, comes in.
For right now, though, for this post, I am thinking about the big picture, the wider cultural contexts surrounding the establishment, institutionalization, and ongoing preservation of a preferred standard for American English.
Much more below the fold.
As I wrote a while back in a post titled "Webster’s Third Is 50, But…," public conversation about what “American English” ought to be – starting with the idea that in fact it ought to be – was well underway as early as the 1780s. Part of what I am doing with this research project is looking at the way language consciousness informs literary and other public discourse from the early years of the republic and embeds itself in the process of defining distinctly American political, linguistic, and cultural traditions. The notion of what constitutes a “national identity” is part of my research question, which is to say that I haven’t got an answer to that one yet, but I am pretty sure that work can be done (and that plenty of it was done) to try to create and project a national identity without anyone knowing or agreeing on exactly what that might mean and even without necessarily realizing that’s what they were doing.
As I wrote in "Webster’s Third Is 50," several influential 18th-century advocates for American independence maintained that it could not be fully achieved without the establishment of a national language. As the lexicographer and patriot Noah Webster (1758-1843) put it in 1789, “Our honor requires us to have a system of our own.” As I also noted in that post, developing a new linguistic system for exclusively American use would have been a challenging task in a new nation whose ruling class consisted primarily of English-speakers trying to establish their independence from a bunch of other English speakers, and I suggested that therefore their best alternative was to find ways to differentiate American English from British English.
I also suggested that one way of doing so that was actually plausible would have been to identify and institutionalize a standard for American English on the basis of linguistic features (pronunciation, vocabulary, orthography) that were beginning to be associated with speakers in the U.S. and that by the late 18th century already encoded some of the inevitable differences that would arise between the Englishes of the two nations because of their lack of geographical proximity.
For example, in Dissertations on the English Language, in an appendix titled “On the Necessity, Advantages and Practicability of Reforming the Mode of Spelling, and of Rendering the Orthography of Words Correspondent to the Pronunciation,” Webster advocated a complete overhaul of the English spelling system for American English, which in his view would not only help differentiate American English from British but would also in the process solve the messy problem of the idiosyncratic and non-phonetic spelling system for which English was then and is still dubiously renowned. 
It is part of my day job to point out that the process of establishing and authorizing what we call Standard American English (SAE) was not (and is not) at all socially just. Pointing this out outside of work is also a habit that gets me into trouble fairly regularly with some of my Facebook friends, some of whom I have come very close to losing when I have been unable to refrain from commenting on the scourge of linguistically themed "e-cards" that people post sometimes. These e-cards are shared for ostensibly for humorous purposes, but they make pronouncements about language and usage that actually help to perpetuate a culture of linguistic gate-keeping in English that originated initially in a classist resistance to the rise of a middle class in England and the consequent expansion of literacy, an ideology that later turned out to be similarly accommodating to racism. (They can also be really mean.) That historical context seems to come as news to a lot of people, many of whom really ought to know better. So do the related revelations that there is nothing linguistically superior about SAE compared to the other varieties that speakers of American English use and that the status of SAE as the "correct" way to speak is entirely the result of the institutional privileging of the language varieties spoken by people endowed with power and authority. What a surprise.
And of course, that is pretty much how it always goes down when standard varieties are institutionalized. It’s not like American English has the market cornered on this one. Far from it. See, for example, the Academie Francaise, which was founded in 1635 and continues its tradition of exclusivity today. Its website announces as its primary purpose “de travailler, avec tout le soin et toute la diligence possibles, à donner des règles certaines à notre langue et à la rendre pure, éloquente et capable de traiter les arts et les sciences,” which means, more or less, to work carefully and diligently to establish and maintain rules for the French language and to make it "pure" and "eloquent" and therefore worthy for use in speaking or writing, especially about lofty topics such as art and science. (And check out Francophonie Avenir, whose business is apparently to protest the encroachment of foreign words into the French language. Their campaign is illustrated with particular passion in the essay linked here, in which the author rails against the use of the English word email by French speakers and refers to Microsoft founder Bill Gates as Guillaume Desportes. Good times.)
All this is to say that language consciousness is not in any way a uniquely American phenomenon nor one that is unique to speakers of English but that it manifests itself in a multitude of ways across cultures.
Anyway, Webster made the case in Dissertations for a standard based on “all the certainty and uniformity which any living tongue is capable of receiving,” which I don’t think he intended as a joke even though that sounds kind of hilarious to anyone with knowledge of historical linguistics, because they know that the sum of uniformity and especially certainty is only slightly greater than zero in any living language (and, it may go without saying, linguists also obviously have fairly low standards for humor, but this is only because there aren’t nearly as many good linguistics jokes as you might think). Webster also seems to have anticipated the particular kind of linguistic anxiety that still prevails among his countrymen and women in the 21st century, when early in the Dissertations, he warns that a national failure to standardize American English could result in “inaccuracies” which could then “corrupt the national language” (18-19).
But to be fair to Webster, I have to point out that his language attitudes were complicated and interesting, that he wasn’t a pedant or a snob or an authoritarian prescriptivist who thought he owned the language and that he could therefore just make up whatever idiotic rules he liked, regardless of how linguistically indefensible they might be, and then try to force everyone else to go along with them. Dissertations is a collection of really smart, interesting, well-informed essays about English pronunciation and grammatical structure, orthography, the history of the English language, the origins of language in general, and theories of language relatedness, among other topics. The guy knew a lot about linguistics before there really even was such a thing and about the English language, and he was also a pretty damn good writer.
But it’s not easy to characterize Webster’s language attitudes, at least not in any categorical way, because some of them are inconsistent and even contradictory. Of course, that’s a selling point as far as I’m concerned, because I like how despite his astonishing expertise, he is thoughtful, judicious, and reasonable and rarely gives in to the dogma that tempted so many of his colleagues (and continues to torment English speakers and learners today). I like even more how he works as an unselfconscious and dynamic character in the story of American English, which he tells in a way that holds up even after 200+ years. He’s a guy who’s OK with nuance and doesn’t back down from paradox. He would have been a man after Walt Whitman’s heart, an explorer of his own contradictions. Webster is large—he contains multitudes. Like his dictionaries.
Slight (but in my defense, awesome) digression here: Webster really was a guy after Whitman’s heart, or because Webster had about 60 years on Whitman, maybe it would make more sense to say it the other way around, that Whitman was a guy after Webster’s heart. Whitman was a student of historical linguistics and the English language, and according to a terrific book by Ed Folsom, Walt Whitman’s Native Representations (Cambridge UP, 1994), he also loved dictionaries and especially Webster’s and shared the lexicographer’s affection and admiration for American English. As Folsom observes (1994:15), “Whitman believed that the American language, which would evolve as English became expressed in the American way, would become ‘the medium that shall well nigh express the inexpressible’ (Leaves of Grass, 727-28).”
[T]here are . . . important reasons, why the language of this country should be reduced to such fixed principles, as may give its pronunciation and construction all the certainty and uniformity which any living tongue is capable of receiving. . . . Nothing but the establishment of schools and some uniformity in the use of books can annihilate differences in speaking and preserve the purity of the American tongue. A sameness of pronunciation is of considerable consequence in a political view; for provincial accents are disagreeable to strangers and sometimes have an unhappy effect upon the social affections. (19-20)And this founding father of American English suggests a less than democratic approach to the project of standardization:
To cultivate and adorn [the language] is a task reserved for men who shall understand the connection between language and logic, and form an adequate idea of the influence which a uniformity of speech may have on national attachments. (18)But his position is complicated if not contradicted by an openness to the realities of language change that was uncharacteristic of his time (and is uncharacteristic of ours) as well as a similarly forward-thinking sense that standards ought to be determined by observing the ways that real speakers actually use language:
No man, whatever may be his rank and abilities, has a right to reject a mode of speech, established by immemorial usage and universal consent. Grammars should be formed on practice; for practice determines what a language is. . . . The business of a grammarian is not to examine whether or not national practice is founded on philosophical principles; but to ascertain the national practice. (204)But Webster credits this idealistic-sounding position to a more practical reality, namely that “the general practice of a nation is not easily changed” (205), that constructing new norms at odds with how most people actually talk and then trying to impose them on a nation of speakers is clearly a fool’s errand. He was certainly right about that, the persistence over hundreds of years of some pretty astonishingly stupid prescriptive rules notwithstanding. We need only look at the continued existence and even flourishing of stigmatized linguistic features and language varieties for evidence that total reform is impossible, regardless of where you might stand on its desirability. As Webster also said,
the only effect that an attempt to reform it can produce, is, to make many people doubtful, cautious, and consequently uneasy; to render a few ridiculous and pedantic by following nice criticisms in the face of customary propriety; and to introduce a distinction between the learned and unlearned, which serves only to create difficulties for both. (205)If only the ridiculous and pedantic could have been as few as he predicted.
So to some extent, Webster’s own beliefs about standardness, as well as the developing cultural discourses and language ideologies to which he gives voice are inherently contradictory. But then, so much about standard-language ideology is contradictory. For one thing, despite its socially privileged position, Standard American English has no real identity of its own. Rather, its existence depends entirely on the existence other ways of speaking that are not standard. It is identifiable not by any characteristics of its own but only by what it lacks: stigmatized features, the existence of which it depends on for its own value and status. This is ironic given the resources spent on the teaching of SAE and the perpetuation of its ideology, i.e., that it has intrinsic value above all other varieties, that therefore its speakers have greater value as well, that everyone should speak SAE or at least want to, and that all other varieties should be eradicated.
If some of the reactions to uses of linguistic features and language varieties that are not considered standard are any indication, apparently it is distressing to some of the people who value SAE (or fetishize "correctness"), or whatever they imagine SAE to be, to have to be subjected to these features and varieties. It must be distressing, because why else would some of the defenders of SAE (as genuinely clueless as some of them seem to be) seem to feel that they have no choice but to be unkind in response? Maybe they don't realize that if the efforts to eradicate nonstandard varieties were to succeed, there would no longer be any status at all attached to SAE, which could be a disappointing turn of events for some of its most vocal champions, for whom feeling superior to others is apparently part of the charm.
I think Webster was better than that, though. For one thing, he overtly rejected the ideology that certain speakers have ownership rights to the language that are not shared by other speakers. But on the other hand, he also seems to assume that some speakers are better qualified (which may or may not suggest a greater right) than others to do the work of ascertaining if not determining the prevailing usage norms of American English. For example, he includes frequent citations of literary examples that would have been inaccessible to most Americans in 1789, in order to illustrate linguistic features and especially to exemplify what he considered correct and appropriate usage. These examples are in Webster's own words appeals to “the authority of ... good writer[s] in the language” (201), and they exclude usage norms of rural, nonwhite, and non- or semi-literate speakers. Given his insistence on American linguistic independence and his lament elsewhere in the Dissertations over the lingering attachment of Americans to English literature ("for the taste of her writers is already corrupted, and her language on the decline," p. 20), it is ironic that most of these examples are taken from British-authored texts.
Do I contradict myself?So while I continue to ponder Webster, the process of standardization in American English and American history, and the zeal of self-appointed guardians of the language, I’ll turn it back over to Whitman one more time to take us home.
Very well then . . . . I contradict myself;
I am large . . . . I contain multitudes.
Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, 1855 edition
These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing or next to nothing,
If they do not enclose everything they are next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.
Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, 1855 edition
1. See Ronald Wardhaugh’s Proper English: Myths and Misunderstandings about Language (Wiley-Blackwell, 1999), especially Chapter 6, “Some Consequences of Literacy,” for a nice historical overview of the weirdness of English spelling. Google Books preview linked here.
The title of this post, “So Appropriate to Our America and the Genius of Its Inhabitants,” is borrowed from Walt Whitman’s 1856 essay ”America’s Mightiest Inheritance" (pdf alert), in which he celebrates the English language.