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British English And American English

( Originally Published 1913 )



On and Off the Stage

Purity of speech on our stage doesn't exist. Every one speaks as he likes, and audiences never notice; it 's the last thing they think of. e place is given up to abominable dialects and individual tricks, any vulgarity flourishes, and on top of it all the Americans, with every conceivable crudity, come in to make confusion worse confounded. And when one laments it, people stare; they don't know what one means. — HENRY JAMES.

IT has more than once been asserted that the worst English in the world is spoken in England. The statement sounds excessive, but on the whole it seems to be somewhere near the truth, though it is not the whole truth. The rustic dialects of some of the shires are almost unintelligible to outsiders; and what is most amazing of all, the common speech of one county persists in remaining as unlike that of another, however closely adjacent, as a turnip is unlike (to be very local) a mangel-wurzel.

Furthermore, the worst crimes against the noble language of our birth are perpetrated in the capital of the British empire; for cockney English is devoid of even the striking picturesque phrases and significant strong words that survive in the language of the countryside. Anything more atrocious in pronunciation and idiom than the English of the swarming millions of London it would be difficult to conceive. There can hardly be found anything to match it on our side of the water. And this is not a distinctively American observation, but a view frankly conceded by the en-lightened Englishman himself.

That the worst English is spoken in England is, how-ever, a half-truth only. The other half-truth is that the best English in the world — that which is most fully in accord with the native-genius and characteristic spirit of the language —is also spoken in England. In the land of extremes, where are found the worst and the best, the cheapest and the costliest, the tawdriest and the finest of everything under the sun — in that land, the hearing ear may one moment be grievously afflicted and the next gratified and charmed.

The aforesaid enlightened Englishman has been known to put the case for the defense of his mother tongue in this way : " Take a man who has come out of Oxford or Cambridge, let him move in good society, and give him now and then foreign travel enough to knock off his insularity, and there you are ! " And the enlightened American, not to be outdone in frank ness, is willing to admit that there he is indeed. What-ever excellence we may reach in the future, American English is not now the equal of British English at its very best.

Two points are noticeable in such a typical speech as the one just quoted. First, cultivated society is insisted upon as necessary to the perfecting of a good spoken style. One is tempted to say that what the dictionary is to an American, society is to an English-man. Possibly it would do no harm if we, for our part, could get the dictionary more under our feet (it is comfortable to stand on occasionally, but cumbersome to carry about), and it might be as well if the British, for their part, could be persuaded into a more friendly attitude toward the authorities, even though one of the most widely accepted, Noah Webster by name, did happen to be a Yankee.

It surprises an Englishman when his American friends fall back upon rules and references, as if language belonged exclusively to students; and it discourages an American when his British friends trust too entirely in the matter of style to their God-given instinct as native-born Englishmen. This last, not only because it makes the American feel rather out of it, but because the native instinct has been known, even in the best society, to lead toward a pronunciation and syntax more surprising than anything in any dictionary.

The other interesting point is the mention of foreign languages, which certainly affect spoken style in a way not to be ignored. In our vast land, we have no insularity to knock off ; but when vacation time comes around, we may well envy the Englishman his nearness to Germany, and especially to France. Paris has been brought, by quick boats and trains, so close to London that it is possible any day to lunch in one city and dine in the other; and yet, quickly as it may be made, the transition from the British capital to that wonderful French capital which is France itself is like passing from one world into another. In language, customs, and habitudes of thought, the difference between the two peoples, founded as it is deep in those racial traits which keep them distinct as if the seas rolled broad between, is essential and stimulating. The Englishman's annual holiday on the continent may be no better as an outing than the ordinary American vacation ; but it is undeniably different. The educated man of whatever nationality seldom changes his skies, for even a few weeks, without consciously or unconsciously limbering his tongue and gaining fluency and expressiveness in his own language.

The best British English, then, is for one reason or another not quite like the best American English. It is interesting to make comparisons; it always is interesting to compare anything British with anything American, doubtless because there is sufficient background of likeness to throw the unlikeness into high relief.

The difference is generally said to be in the accent. But in the minds of most people accent seems to be more or less confounded with inflection and emphasis. Now it is manifest to the dullest ear that the spoken language of the British Isles does indeed inflect and emphasize after its own fashion, which is not at all the fashion of American speech. But these matters have nothing to do with accent.

Inflection is merely the bending of a sentence up or down at one or more points in the length of it. It is curious to observe that wherever an English voice goes up, an American voice is pretty sure to come down; and that whenever an Englishman makes a full stop, an American " curls the sentence up at the end." (That last is an imaginative Briton's description.) The Englishman finds much entertainment in these contrasts, seeing nothing right nor wrong about any twist that a sentence may take. It is Americans who are fond of laws and who make any number of them to govern themselves. All things considered, since we live in the land of the free, and Britons never have been slaves, it is reasonable to suppose that anybody on either side of the water may bend a sentence up or down or sideways as he pleases, without being considered "incorrect." The most that may be said is that the English voice, having a way of rising a little higher and descending a little deeper than the American, is less monotonous and often rather pleasanter to the ear.

As for emphasis, it sounds plausible to declare that important words must be stressed. But then, what are the important words in any sentence? To us, the English seem almost as likely to come down upon prepositions and conjunctions as upon verbs and nouns, while to the English our emphasis is just as unaccountable, and is apt, moreover, to sound jerky and labored, re-calling the schoolboy's definition — that emphasis means putting more distress in one place than in another. And discussions about the relative importance of this word or that usually resolve themselves at last into mere differences of opinion.

But as regards accent, which always, outside of verse, means pronunciation accent, we may be definite without danger of falling into pedantry or opinionism. English being a highly derivative language, the firm accent which distinguishes a root syllable from its pre-fixes and suffixes is of the utmost value ; and it is a fact that the best of British English achieves this clean accentuation without indistinctness elsewhere in the word. The failure to mark the primary accent by a sharp percussion is what causes the American drawl, with which our ears are so constantly assailed that we hear it with indifference. Nothing illustrates it much better than the old sentence out of Martin Chuzzlewit — " No such lo-ca-tion in the ter-ri-to-ry of the great U-ni-ted States."

In the word " territory," for example, the primary accent very obviously should fall upon the first syllable, and the secondary accent (much lighter) upon the third, the other syllables being unstressed. A degenerate British utterance (all too common, as has been intimated) would make the word ter-ri-try. The drawling American strikes the third syllable quite as hard as the first. The perfect utterance, to which we are rarely treated anywhere, by anyone, on the stage or off, is firm on the first syllable and then light on the third, in which the long vowel sound is carefully conserved.

As for such words as lo-ca-tion, sal-va-tion, political, pre-cise-ly, they are, if possible, even worse in the drawl with which our very walls re-echo ; for their first syllables have properly no accent at all.

It is perhaps digressing to say that in the preservation of pure vowel sounds in unaccented syllables there is no doubt that the service of the Anglican church, familiar to Englishmen throughout so many generations, has exerted an influence. The choir boy who chants " Restore those who are penitent " is fairly safe in later years not to indulge in such crudities as " r'store and " penit'nt "; and if he intones " quietness " and " trusted " so that the final syllables are not lost under the vast roof that bends above him, his common par-lance is the less likely to be marred by " quietnus " or " trustid."

A good accent, then, has to do with pronunciation rather than with inflection or emphasis, and properly means the vigorous stressing of root syllables, without prejudice to the distinct and audible utterance of unstressed syllables, or the purity of their vowel sounds, long or short. We are apt to say that such an accent makes the utterance very neat and shows cultivation ; but it does far more. Fidelity to the genius of our language, to its characteristic mode of growth and expansion, lends it individuality by setting it off from other living languages, and brightens and strengthens and vitalizes the whole diction. Best of all, it confers an effortless fluency and distinctness which, to be quite fair, we have yet to master in our country.

At this point there is always some one to protest that the American drawl is no worse than the English indistinctness, which in its aggravated form is so maddening to the unaccustomed. On the whole, it is probably not so bad. But we should be less inclined to such futile comparisons if we had a standard which would make both drawl and indistinctness objectionable.

The Actor's Responsibility

Everyone agrees that the stage might do. much for our long-suffering language; but whether actors or audiences are most to blame for the depression of the " standard " of which we hear so much, it would be hard to say. The responsibility seems to be distributed. Certainly at present the American actor's influence upon his mother tongue is not always beneficial.

Leaving accent out of count altogether, as too fundamental to be easily perfected, one often hears in reputable presentations of our best plays such afflicting diction as this : " I wuz supprised t' hear it. I cannot bullieve it. It is a mustake." And when the hero is overwhelmed with " r'morse," the slurring is (or should be) as disillusioning as a sneeze in the midst of an apostrophe.

It is possible that the over-valuation of dialect by both dramatists and actors has in recent years exerted a baleful influence upon purity of speech. The dialects of the Scotch, the Irish, the Negroes and the Yankees may be " quaint " and " fascinating," but, after all, they have been used to create some very cheap effects. As the late T. B. Aldrich once said (he abhorred dialect), the English language is too rich and sacred a thing to be thus mutilated and vulgarized. It might be worth while to try making a sensation with a fine accent now and then. At present it could hardly fail to have a quaintness of its own.

British Accent

British accent is often considered to be a superficial matter. Not infrequently the actor who has laboriously drilled himself into saying bean for been and nyther for neither and carstle for castle seems to think he is highly cultivated. But the firm, clean pronunciation accent that marks the best of British English is for many reasons difficult of cultivation. It is based upon a knowledge of derivatives, and it implies a loyal admiration for our own language as contradistinguished from other languages and dialects. It brings, however, its own rewards, not the least of which is the inevitable curing away of many small errors and crudities.



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