Concerning the American Language by Mark Twain
--[Being part of a chapter which was crowded out of "A Tramp Abroad."--
There was as Englishman in our compartment, and he complimented me
on-- on what? But you would never guess. He complimented me on my
English. He said Americans in general did not speak the English
language as correctly as I did. I said I was obliged to him for his
compliment, since I knew he meant it for one, but that I was not
fairly entitled to it, for I did not speak English at all--I only
He laughed, and said it was a distinction without a difference. I
said no, the difference was not prodigious, but still it was
considerable. We fell into a friendly dispute over the matter. I put
my case as well as I could, and said:
"The languages were identical several generations ago, but our
changed conditions and the spread of our people far to the south and
far to the west have made many alterations in our pronunciation, and
have introduced new words among us and changed the meanings of many
old ones. English people talk through their noses; we do not. We say
know, English people say nao; we say cow, the Briton says kaow; we--"
"Oh, come! that is pure Yankee; everybody knows that."
"Yes, it is pure Yankee; that is true. One cannot hear it in
America outside of the little corner called New England, which is
Yankee land. The English themselves planted it there, two hundred and
fifty years ago, and there it remains; it has never spread. But
England talks through her nose yet; the Londoner and the backwoods
New-Englander pronounce 'know' and 'cow' alike, and then the Briton
unconsciously satirizes himself by making fun of the Yankee's
We argued this point at some length; nobody won; but no matter, the
fact remains Englishmen say nao and kaow for "know" and "cow," and
that is what the rustic inhabitant of a very small section of America
"You conferred your 'a' upon New England, too, and there it
remains; it has not traveled out of the narrow limits of those six
little states in all these two hundred and fifty years. All England
uses it, New England's small population-say four millions-use it, but
we have forty- five millions who do not use it. You say 'glahs of
wawtah,' so does New England; at least, New England says 'glahs.'
America at large flattens the 'a', and says 'glass of water.' These
sounds are pleasanter than yours; you may think they are not
right--well, in English they are not right, but 'American' they are.
You say 'flahsk' and 'bahsket,' and 'jackahss'; we say 'flask,'
'basket,' 'jackass'--sounding the 'a' as it is in 'tallow,' 'fallow,'
and so on. 'Up to as late as 1847 Mr. Webster's Dictionary had the
impudence to still pronounce 'basket' bahsket, when he knew that
outside of his little New England all America shortened the 'a' and
paid no attention to his English broadening of it. However, it called
itself an English Dictionary, so it was proper enough that it should
stick to English forms, perhaps. It still calls itself an English
Dictionary today, but it has quietly ceased to pronounce 'basket' as
if it were spelt 'bahsket.' In the American language the 'h' is
respected; the 'h' is not dropped or added improperly."
"The same is the case in England--I mean among the educated
classes, of course."
"Yes, that is true; but a nation's language is a very large matter.
It is not simply a manner of speech obtaining among the educated
handful; the manner obtaining among the vast uneducated multitude must
be considered also. Your uneducated masses speak English, you will
not deny that; our uneducated masses speak American it won't be fair
for you to deny that, for you can see, yourself, that when your
stable-boy says, 'It isn't the 'unting that 'urts the 'orse, but the
'ammer, 'ammer, 'ammer on the 'ard 'ighway,' and our stable-boy makes
the same remark without suffocating a single h, these two people are
manifestly talking two different languages. But if the signs are to
he trusted, even your educated classes used to drop the 'h.' They say
humble, now, and heroic, and historic etc., but I judge that they used
to drop those h's because your writers still keep up the fashion of
patting an before those words instead of a. This is what Mr. Darwin
might call a 'rudimentary' sign that as an was justifiable once, and
useful when your educated classes used ,to say 'umble, and 'eroic, and
'istorical. Correct writers of the American language do not put an
before three words."
The English gentleman had something to say upon this matter, but
never mind what he said--I'm not arguing his case. I have him at a
disadvantage, now. I proceeded:
"In England you encourage an orator by exclaiming, 'H'yaah!
h'yaah!' We pronounce it heer in some sections, 'h'yer' in others,
and so on; but our whites do not say 'h'yaah,' pronouncing the a's
like the a in ah. I have heard English ladies say 'don't you'--making
two separate and distinct words of it; your Mr. Burnand has satirized
it. But we always say 'dontchu.' This is much better. Your ladies
say, 'Oh, it's oful nice!' Ours say, 'Oh, it's awful nice!' We say,
'Four hundred,' you say 'For'--as in the word or. Your clergymen
speak of 'the Lawd,' ours of 'the Lord'; yours speak of 'the gawds of
the heathen,' ours of 'the gods of the heathen.' When you are
exhausted, you say you are 'knocked up.' We don't. When you say you
will do a thing 'directly,' you mean 'immediately'; in the American
language--generally speaking--the word signifies 'after a little.'
When you say 'clever,' you mean 'capable'; with us the word used to
mean 'accommodating,' but I don't know what it means now. Your word
'stout' means 'fleshy'; our word 'stout' usually means 'strong.' Your
words 'gentleman' and 'lady' have a very restricted meaning; with us
they include the barmaid, butcher, burglar, harlot, and horse-thief.
You say, 'I haven't got any stockings on,' 'I haven't got any
memory,' 'I haven't got any money in my purse; we usually say, 'I
haven't any stockings on,' 'I haven't any memory,!' 'I haven't any
money in my purse.' You say 'out of window'; we always put in a the.
If one asks 'How old is that man?' the Briton answers, 'He will be
about forty'; in the American language we should say, 'He is about
forty.' However, I won't tire you, sir; but if I wanted to, I could
pile up differences here until I not only convinced you that English
and American are separate languages, but that when I speak my native
tongue in its utmost purity an Englishman can't understand me at all."
"I don't wish to flatter you, but it is about all I can do to
understand you now."
That was a very pretty compliment, and it put us on the pleasantest
terms directly--I use the word in the English sense.
[Later--1882. Esthetes in many of our schools are now beginning to
teach the pupils to broaden the 'a,' and to say "don't you," in the
elegant foreign way.]