Title Reviewed:
American English

Author Reviewed:
Albert H. Marckwardt

Allan H. Orrick


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 54, Issue 4, pp 407-408

Article Type:
Book Review

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American English. By Albert H. Marckwardt. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958. Pp. xi, 194. Appendix, index. $4.50.)

Professor Marckwardt has used his skill and learning to produce an essentially non-technical work on American English. Unlike so many popularizers before him, however, he has not sacrificed rigor to the assumed taste of a linguistically naive audience, nor does he shy away from inherent difficulties of his subject in order to concentrate on the opposite extremes of the commonplace and the bizarre. From the nature of the subject, this is primarily a descriptive work, but Professor Marckwardt does have a thesis: there is a "close interaction of linguistic and cultural factors in the growth of American English" (p. viii). Beginning with a chapter on Elizabethan English, a "highly variable and complex" language which made divergence easier, he attempts to support his thesis through discussion devoted largely to the American part of the English vocabulary. He includes chapters on dialects and proper names, which should be of particular interest to local and regional historians, and a final chapter on the future of English.

When Professor Marckwardt demonstrates that new words were coined, or borrowed, or old words given new meanings because the physical environment of America differs from that of England and because America has developed unique customs and institutions, his theory is quite sound; and when he traces the American proclivity for hyperbole and "mouth-filling terms" back to the exuberance of the frontier or our great number of euphemisms to the position of women in nineteenth century society, he is still on safe ground. However, when the author finds a cause and effect relationship between a purported "independence of spirit and lack of regard for accepted tradition" (p. 108) and the by no means uniquely American linguistic practices of grammatical change, backformation, blending, and compounding, he jumps from fact to conjecture; and when, in the chapter entitled "The Colonial Lag," he implies that a general American conservatism resulting from transplanting is accountable for our retention of seventeenth and eighteenth century pronunciations, he moves from conjecture to metaphysics. No matter how striking the parallels between facets of culture and linguistic tendencies may seem, it can be proved that purely linguistic features such as pronunciation, inflection, and word formation were affected one way or another by a speech community's desires, spirit, or beliefs.

Failure to make every aspect of the development of American English conform to a superimposed scheme hardly detracts from the real worth of Professor Marckwardt's study; the language itself, as it was and as it is, is still laid out before us, and that after all, is the purpose of the book. Consequently, this book can be consumed with profit and with pleasure by the intelligent general reader, by scholars from other fields who want to know or need to know something about the English language in America, and by specialists in language study. Unfortunately, the Oxford University Press can not be complimented for its part in the work. Necessary words are omitted on pages 16 and 184, the make-up of pages 34-35 is amateurish and confusing; on page 173 one whole line is dropped out and another line repeated; finally, the binding is so poorly done that the reviewer's copy came unsewn before it was read.

Rutgers University, Allan H. Orrick

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.