Do You Speak American?

REVIEW: ‘The People’s Tongue: Americans and the English Language’

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April 30, 2023

Ilan Stavans, a multilingual Mexican-American writer and professor of humanities at Amherst College, has compiled an exuberant anthology of polyphonic splendor to illustrate the sweep, diversity, and wide register of American English. The People’s Tongue begins in the 16th century with a letter written by Anne Winthrop, mother of the Puritan John Winthrop to whom we owe the phrase "a city upon a hill," and ends with writings of rapper Kendrick Lamar, novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, and linguist John McWhorter. It is a needed anthology, compiled, it seems, with all the enthusiasm and questioning and curiosity one would hope for.

Even as it comes laureled with blurbs from writers and scholars of the highest status, the book seems ever so out of step with the rising sense in recent years, among many people who care about language (or at least say they do), that our speech and writing must be surveilled and questioned at every turn. And so we are implored to watch for telltale signs of not only bias and hate but also what sounds suspiciously like any opinion that happens to be at odds with prevailing winds. Not so in The People’s Tongue, which places passion before politics and comes off as robustly and unapologetically American.

During the Founding Era, differing notions on how to oversee the development of English in America and what to say of its relationship with British English gave rise to competing ideologies that, in one form or another, are still with us today. The People’s Tongue includes John Adams’s 1780 "Letter to the President of Congress," proposing an "American Academy for refining, improving, and ascertaining the English Language." Adams made his case, interestingly, not by cataloguing the verbal misfires of his fellow citizens in the manner of a grammar vigilante. Instead he blamed the absence of an academy for the lack of a grammar or dictionary of public authority—and this but 25 years after Samuel Johnson brought out his still-celebrated dictionary.

Stavans has paired Adams’s proposal with Thomas Jefferson’s 1813 letter to John Waldo, which cited usage itself as the "arbiter of language," one "giving law to grammar, and not grammar to usage." Of the two Founders, Adams began with the problem of authority in language, asking, To whom can we appeal for rulings on correctness and eloquence? Jefferson instead dwelt on the specific circumstances of the American experiment and recommended an improvisatory approach to language, citing future needs that could not yet be named.

"The new circumstances under which we are placed, call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects," wrote Jefferson. Instead of looking to the past, this young, practical-minded nation would invent and name things on the fly. "Necessity obliges us to neologize."

More than a few observers of the time understood language to be a building block of the new nation. Its presumed significance took the form of a deference toward dictionaries and an emphasis on what is specifically American. Noah Webster is, of course, the major figure here. In 1786, as he traveled and gave the lectures that came to fill out his Dissertation on the English Language, he wrote to Ben Franklin, "The favorable reception my lectures have generally met with encourages me to hope that most of the Americans may be detached from an implicit adherence to the language and manners of the British nation."

In the introduction to his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, as this anthology shows, Webster wrote of language as a matter of national unity: "Language is the expression of ideas; and if the people of one country cannot preserve an identity of ideas, they cannot retain an identity of language." Literature, too, was profoundly important. Webster quoted Samuel Johnson (about whom he didn’t always have nice things to say), writing, "The chief glory of a nation arises from its authors." In its definitions, Webster’s 1828 dictionary patriotically cited the authority of "Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jay, Madison" and so on, placing these names alongside British greats "Boyle, Hooker, Milton, Dryden, Addison… ."

Dictionaries continue to loom large in The People’s Tongue, maybe too large. Stavans includes two essays that comment at length on the great controversy over Webster’s Third, the unabridged dictionary published by Merriam-Webster in 1961. They are, certainly, the two most widely read pieces of lexicographical criticism in the half century that followed. (Allow me to out myself here as the author of a book on Webster’s Third and one who has read and reread both essays.) The first, "The String Untuned" by Dwight Macdonald, first published in the New Yorker and collected in Against the American Grain, is the truer of the two, as it provides a good description of how the dictionary was made and a caustic account of the thinking behind it, based in part on Macdonald’s visit to Merriam-Webster, where he interviewed its editor Philip Gove. Macdonald committed elementary errors, though. He misread cross-references at knowed and masses and made a hash of the dictionary’s handling of disinterested and uninterested. These errors plus Macdonald’s unfailing condescension add up to a not fair hearing for this important but beleaguered dictionary. Macdonald did, however, spend significant time reading pages and pages of Webster’s Third, which cannot be said for David Foster Wallace.

In his 2001 essay "Present Tense," first published in Harper's, Wallace fashioned himself as one bred, from early on in life, to be a connoisseur of usage and dictionaries. Only when Wallace tried to show readers what an awful dictionary Webster’s Third was by quoting at length from what he called its "now classic introduction," he ended up quoting another book entirely, recycling a bit of midcentury propaganda from the National Council of Teachers of English that was quoted in Macdonald’s essay (and in another by Gove himself) and which, as an important point of fact, appears nowhere in Webster’s Third. In addition, Wallace’s essay (by far the longest piece of writing included in The People’s Tongue) repeats errors first made by Life magazine and others in the 1960s while taking cheap shots at the New Critics and midcentury linguist Charles C. Fries and presenting those cheap shots as all you need to know about them. Gove and Webster’s Third failed in various respects (an off-putting writing style and poor usage labeling, to mention two), but a key portion of Wallace’s sometimes charming essay must be discounted as the classic self-own of a literary showboat.

Of course, one reads an anthology on American English not so much for individual brickbats as for the chance to travel the long, eventful road from The New England Primer to the Founders to Lincoln to Twain to Mencken to Toni Morrison, and it is here that The People’s Tongue really succeeds. It might have been twice or thrice as long, but, as is, it has velocity. "Racy" is a word that has been used to describe the American vernacular, and that sense of stripped-down vitality is in evidence here. From Simon Pokagon, a leader of the Potawatomi, discussing Indian place names to The Joys of Yiddish to Kendrick Lamar’s musing, "I got hustle, though, ambition flow inside my DNA," the selections give urgent voice to a multitude of yearnings.

The People’s Tongue is a powerful read on the whole, but it also succeeds within its own inner circles, offering points and counterpoints from various spots on the cultural and political spectrum. In addition to the essays by prescriptivists Macdonald and Wallace, there are writings by lexicographers Peter Sokolowski and Jesse Sheidlower. In addition to the Catholic Mexican-American memoirist Richard Rodriguez writing about learning English at school and thus gaining entry to American public life, there is a loud and belligerent defense of Spanglish by Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa who counts the days "until the white laws and commerce and customs will rot in deserts they’ve created." James Baldwin’s defense of Black English may seem overwrought, but Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel lecture gives us an early playbook for a lot of contemporary thinking about language writ large and even individual words.

Morrison's argument draws a line from George Orwell’s exasperation with bureaucratic euphemism to the current sense, among progressives especially but not exclusively, that language can be a form of violence and an instrument of oppression. Underlying this hypersensitivity toward language is a striking philosophical stance that Morrison as a novelist seems particularly attuned to, the idea that language not only shapes but gives birth to human reality: "Narrative," she writes, "is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created." A radical idea, yes, it also seems, from this vantage point, very American.

The People’s Tongue: Americans and the English Language
Edited by Ilan Stavans
Restless Books, 458 pp., $35

David Skinner writes about language and culture. He is the author of The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published.