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II. Exchanges and Border Crossings

Some Unexpected Exchanges in the Construction of American Identity: Henry Louis Mencken and the Australian Contribution

Anne Przewozny-Desriaux
p. 87-100

Abstract

Cet article se propose d’analyser un épisode commun à l’histoire linguistique de l’Australie et des Etats-Unis d’Amérique. Dans la première moitié du vingtième siècle, les deux nations s’attachèrent à affirmer leurs identités linguistiques comme deux communautés anglophones en compétition avec la Grande-Bretagne et la norme linguistique britannique. Ces efforts furent portés notamment par deux défenseurs opiniâtres de l’identité linguistique de l’Australie et de l’Amérique, respectivement Sidney John Baker et Henry Louis Mencken (ainsi que par deux des disciples de ce dernier, David W. Maurer et Hugh Morrison). Notre article porte sur les contextes australien et américain de cette quête parallèle et parfois commune, au travers de la correspondance entre ces deux célèbres lexicologues.

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Many thanks are due to Steven Moore who has generously given of his time to read this article and provide comments.

  • 1 The expression "major English-speaking communities" does not refer in this article to the geographi (...)
  • 2 See Kachru 1986, Przewozny 2002 and Hickey 2004 for developments. For developments on standardizati (...)
  • 3 For a comparative chronology of linguistic developments in Australia and the United States see time (...)

1Among contemporary English-speaking communities1, American English is widely considered as a major standard in the English-speaking world. Australian English has become a linguistic standard for the English-speaking world in South-east Asia and Oceania. This linguistic recognition took a long time to establish and gain acceptance.2 Australia was first settled by English speakers only 223 years ago and this must be kept in mind when one compares the linguistic and sociocultural development of that variety of English with that of American English which began with the founding of a British settlement in 1607.3

2Writing a history of the development and construction of an Australian linguistic and cultural identity (Przewozny 2002) has led to the discovery of some unpublished correspondence between famous American and Australian lexicologists. This correspondence originally nurtured the hypothesis of an American influence in the construction of young Australia’s cultural identity, from World War II onwards (Przewozny 2002, 171-238).

Paths of linguistic and cultural affirmation in the United States and Australia

3American and Australian histories have common roots but developed on a different basis, since Australia began exclusively as a penal settlement spreading from Botany Bay in 1788. Moreover the new colony provided a means to water down economic problems following the loss of the thirteen American colonies. What is most certainly a common factor in the history of both colonies is that they suffered from Eurocentric judgments on the part of the Mother country, whether criticisms were positive or negative towards the development of new social and cultural–and eventually linguistic–habits. A major British concern was to maintain political and economic ties, as well as continuity between the Mother country and her colonies. Another one was to struggle against the development of new cultural and linguistic habits, in other words against an additional risk of divergence and split. A body of literature about this developed throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Here is what Valerie Desmond condemned in his Awful Australian in 1911:

Herein the Australian differs from the American. The accent of the American, educated and uneducated alike, is abhorrent to the cultured Englishman or Englishwoman, but it is, at any rate, harmonious. That of the Australian is full of discords and surprises. His voice rises and falls with unexpected syncopations, and, even among the few cultured persons this country possesses, seems to bear in every syllable the sign of the parvenu (Desmond 1911, 17-18).

  • 4 For example an Australian linguistic complex of inferiority was logically reinforced with the adven (...)

4As far as linguistic matters were concerned, the reality of a linguistic divergence was labeled a "dysfunction" of the language and of colonial linguistic communities.4 Indeed many theories and opinions at that time used metaphors of illness or mental dysfunction, not to mention writings about the Australian loss of the palate or a hideous nasal twang, a characteristic which Australians and Americans were believed to share for decades.

5It is a basic fact that whenever a linguistic community aims at cultural affirmation, this tendency goes along with reinforced literary creation and a focus on linguistic specificities as well as major political and social events. Each of these items feeds on the others. For example let us think of the Australian nationalist period of the 1880s with The Bulletin and of the Federation in Australia in 1901, which was the time of the first codification of Australian English (Edward E. Morris’s Austral English. A Dictionary of Australasian Words, Phrases and Usages in 1898). An equivalent era had been experienced in the United States soon after the Declaration of Independence: the creation of the word Americanism by the Reverend John Witherspoon in 1781, a prolific development of such words from 1776 to 1800 (as analysed by H. L. Mencken in the twentieth century), the publication of The American Spelling Book (1789) and The American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) by Noah Webster.

  • 5 On such linguistic variations in English see Slang To-Day and Yesterday (Partridge 1935, 1): "‘Word (...)

6During World War I, those who paid attention to language had noticed dialectal differences between various English speakers from different countries who found themselves as soldiers in European trenches.5 This new awareness of such linguistic diversity in English resulted in many glossaries about "language at war" flourishing in the United States, in Britain and in Australia (even though this diversity was viewed as amounting to merely "interesting curiosities", to paraphrase Eric Partridge in Bevan 1953).

The Australian contribution: from lexicological competition to cooperation

7From World War I to World War II there arose a general preoccupation with intellectual effervescence and the quest for identity which had to be effected through language. A quest for affirmation or strengthening of linguistic identity was taking place in Australia but also in the United States to a certain extent. When World War II broke out, linguists and amateur lexicologists who produced written evidence of dialectal variations on both sides of the North Pacific Ocean jumped at the opportunity to assert the linguistic identity of their own dialects as national standards. As early as 1942 many British and American troops were sent to Australia and were soon amazed at the linguistic differences they heard and read. Linguistic diversity in English had become a tangible fact while major changes had been occurring from a geopolitical point of view: Australia became more independent from a political point of view. This was what Tsokhas (1994, 879) calls the "unreality of imperial unity."

  • 6 This correspondence consists mainly of personal thoughts and galleys, letters of introduction for l (...)

8Among famous non-professional linguists or lexicologists in the English-speaking world were Henry Louis Mencken and his followers David Maurer and Hugh Morrison in America, and Sydney John Baker in Australasia (in other words Australia and New Zealand). It was their correspondence–starting in 1941–which encouraged some mutual linguistic esteem between Australia and America.6 Mencken, Morrison and Maurer unreservedly pushed Baker in his quest to defeat the Australian cultural inferiority complex through a basic principle they all agreed on, namely that language equals culture.

9In those years Sidney Baker considered that the lexicographical tradition in America was an example to pursue. In fact for various reasons it was not difficult to follow the line. Like Mencken, Baker was a well-known journalist with a similar sometimes acerbic state of mind and hatred of "shamans of language". Just like Mencken he had a deep interest in words and particularly in popular speech, slang and criminal argots. Baker organized his own lexicological surveys thanks to his connections and jobs as sub-editor of the ABC Weekly, or literary editor for the Sydney Morning Herald. He had close connections with literary authors in Australia, in particular with the Jindyworobaks who fought against the general feeling of an Austral uprooting and who were encouraged from Ireland by William Butler Yeats and the Abbey Theatre. Just as Mencken had been working in the United States for the defense of Americanisms, Baker would indefatigably defend and promote Australian identity through language and literature, eventually creating what we might see as a national linguistic herbarium.

  • 7 For example see Mencken (1919, 205) on the word damn, one of "these plainest words as upon a sort o (...)
  • 8 What counted here was not really the British origin of a word or its etymology but the degree of it (...)

10What was pleasant about slang from the point of view of Mencken and Baker was that as a "lingua franca",7 slang did not suffer from geographical boundaries, or social and aesthetic distinctions. Slang was not seen as a corruption of language but as "the gaping maw of the proletariat" as Mencken would put it (Baker 1945, 15). Both amateur lexicologists would pay attention to the origins of words,8 to the frequency and liveliness of their use in literary works and daily usage. For both writers the goal was to bring out the historical, cultural and social depth of linguistic usage.

11But competition existed between Mencken and Baker who were in search of the greatest linguistic vigor in their own variety of English. Some symbolic factors were at stake too. For Baker there was the need to provide the Australian speaker with confidence in his language and culture at last. Australia would not be a "nation of imitators" anymore. Baker aimed to demonstrate what was in the process of being accepted for the American variety of English: that although there was a lively process of linguistic borrowing and absorption in Australia, the Australian dialect was capable of provoking interaction with American and British English too. The American historical model–and Mencken himself as a model for Baker–would stimulate an Australian consciousness of distinction and confidence within the linguistic community.

  • 9 In particular Baker thought that deeper links existed between the West Coast of America and Austral (...)

12Several analogies can be made between the experience of the United States and Australia. Wasn’t Australia traditionally labeled "a Yankee land beneath the Southern Cross" (Cowan 1886)? Somehow both colonies had had to face and to resist geographical isolation from the British political and cultural centre.9 Both colonial communities had developed a modified type of English. Both linguistic communities had experienced the contempt of Britain for their way of speaking which had been seen as proof of laxity on the dangerous path to democratic impulses (see Przewozny 2002 for developments). Still, according to Baker’s famous American correspondents, a major distinction had developed between America and Australia: there existed a choice (in fact or fiction) on the part of American speakers to ignore all British condemnations of the American language, whereas the Australian community was subjected to its cultural and linguistic inferiority complex. The American model was therefore a positive model to follow.

  • 10 "Language is the expression of ideas; and if the people of one country cannot preserve an identity (...)

13These elements were at the root of what can be called the historical catching up of Australian English with American English, on the way to its endocentric and exocentric recognition and standardization. If The Australian Language (first edition in 1945) was a daring title based on Mencken’s own famous The American Language (first edition in 1919), Sidney Baker had chosen to refer systematically to the claims of Noah Webster in 1828,10 not Henry Mencken in 1919. Baker (1945, 7) denounced what he called a "nonentity-megalomania common to all young countries" which America had experienced in her young days, before Noah Webster started to work on the cultural and linguistic distinctiveness of America. Baker (ibid.) concluded that "Apologetic foot-shuffling has always been a feature of colonial adolescence."

14Still Baker’s title The Australian Language was used as an Australian linguistic declaration of independence, but without any period of linguistic gestation which would have usually suited a dialect on its way to its standardization and institutionalization.

A new impetus in the construction of American linguistic identity

15The American support for the adolescent Australian linguistic community can be understood in so far as Australia was encouraged to follow the American path to linguistic independence. More surprisingly somehow, for Henry Mencken and American lexicologists in the nineteen forties, there was still a need to confirm the autonomy of the American language. One might think that this was already well established, with the creation of the American Dialect Society in 1889 (and American Speech: A Quarterly of Linguistic Usage, published on behalf of the American Dialect Society and founded in 1925), or the publishing of the Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles by W. A. Craigie and J. R. Hulbert in 1936. But the Australian shift towards the affirmation of its linguistic identity served as new impetus for the American variety’s affirmation as one of the two main standards in the English-speaking world, as the correspondence between Baker and Mencken and disciples helps to illustrate.

  • 11 As stated in Mencken’s letters to Baker in March or August 1942 for example.

16Henry Mencken had been interested in the writings of Baker since 1941 with the publishing of New Zealand Slang. A Dictionary of Colloquialisms.11 Before that year Mencken’s references to Australasian dialects in his famous book simply supported his view that American English was superior to other varieties of colonial English in terms of liveliness and interaction. According to him, "This ingenious device [of inserting expletives into other words, to give them forensic force] has been borrowed by the Australians, who are great admirers of the American language, but they use bloody instead of goddam, no doubt as a concession to Empire solidarity" (Mencken 1936, 316).

17Baker rapidly came to criticize Mencken’s writings, sending him letters showing how the American writer had been mistaken on various points:

  • 12 All letters quoted are taken from Baker’s Papers and Research Papers as stated in our list of refer (...)

I am delighted to have your notes on the use of bush and Hon. I also note what you say about the interpolation of bloody and other such expletives. Finally, I’ll certainly bear in mind your protest against my identification of the Australia dialect [sic] with Cockney. To an American ear, of course, the two sound much alike. I am glad to have your assurance that they differ [Letter of Mencken to Baker, 26 August 1942].12

18The letters served various purposes. The first aim was to exchange argots and slang samples (the latter purpose being of course a constant characteristic of Mencken, Maurer and Morrison’s exchanges with Baker). Here is a typical example by Mencken:

Johnnycake - This is an Americanism at least a century old. Its history has been investigated, and seems to be pretty clear. The johnny is derived from journey. A journey cake was a hard loaf of bread made by the early pioneers before starting on trips into the wilderness.

Let her go Gallagher - This has been familiar in America for many years. I incline to believe that it originated in England.

Ringer - In the United States ringer means one who fraudulently substitutes himself for another, or enters a place where he is not wanted. The difference between the American and Australian significances is interesting indeed.

For many years past I have been trying to introduce the Australian wowser into the United States, but without much success. Another Australianism that delights me is bullsch, with its derivatives. Still another, is gum-digger [sic] for dentist, and a fourth is grasshopper [sic] for a waiter and an out-door picnic (Letter of Mencken to Baker, 3 March 1942].

19The second purpose was to find external linguistic allies who had no Eurocentric bias and who were for most of them knowledgeable connoisseurs of the sum of work that such compilations as The American Language or The Australian Language meant. Hence Hugh Morrison’s harsh words about the English conduct towards American and Australian speakers:

In regard to the second point, I suggest that the Australians do as the English did. They can teach children in school that the Australian accent is universally admired and that British accents are universally detested. The journalists here, when they interview an Englishman, should always say that he talks with an abominable, ear-splitting, nauseating English accent, etc. That is just the way the English treat the Americans. The result is that it is an unusual Englishman, whether he talks Cockney, Yorkie, Cornwall or what not, who is not extremely proud of his "beautiful speech" [Letter of Morrison to Mencken on Oct. 8 1947, on "a bone to pick with Mr. Baker"].

20Or again,

It would be easier to glorify the accent than to change it. Then too, there are some atrocious accents to be found in England, but those who speak them do not seem to be ashamed of them. It always amused me to hear h-less Englishmen in America complain that so few Americans talk with cultivated accents. The masses of the English people take upon themselves the virtues, real or imaginary, of the "uppah clawss", and never think for a minute of comparing themselves with the Americans or the Australians man for man. They think that the fact that a few hundred thousand Englishmen speak better english [sic] than the average American puts them all head and shoulders above us. The fact that there are a hundred million Americans who speak better English than the average Englishman does not bother them in the least. Then too, you mentioned the great Australian inferiority complex. I lived in New York for several years, the most cosmopolitan place that ever existed, and I had the opportunity to observe all nationalities. The favourite pastime of most foreigners in the United States is lying about their countries. The English are the worst of all. If I believed a tenth of what I heard, I would have an inferiority complex too. The fact that there are so many more English people in this country than people of any other nationality probably accounts for it. I have read things about a so-called inferiority complex that the Americans were supposed to have had early in their history, but I don’t believe it existed [underlined by Baker]. Such things usually came from the writings of English people [Letter of Morrison to Baker on Oct. 9 1947]. 

  • 13 "Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America free of (...)

21David W. Maurer (who would later publish the 1992 abridged and annotated edition of Mencken’s The American Language with R. I. McDavid, Jr.), in particular, was an eager supporter of an Austral-American solidarity in the field of linguistic identity, in a period when an Australian and American alliance was sought after;13

Dear Mr. Baker:

Your kind letter of July 25 just arrived. I thank you so much for it, and the newspaper clipping on French influences. Over here we have no way to keep in touch with what you are doing unless you send us off-prints or carbons, and your work is indeed significant to all who are working in philology or linguistics. Especially now it is important that Americans and Australians understand each other better, and I shall take every opportunity to mention your work as I write.

[Letter of Maurer to Baker on Aug. 28 1942]. 

22Finally the correspondence was a means to promote each other’s major publications on both sides of the Pacific. Many instances of this can be read in the correspondence, such as in Mencken’s letter to Baker about his recommendation of Baker’s monograph to the Carnegie brothers or the sending of the manuscript to W.W. Norton & Company on Aug. 6 1948, or Maurer’s letter on Aug. 28 1942.

23As a whole the exchanges that Mencken had with Baker provided an opportunity to develop comparative thoughts outside of the traditional linguistic binary relationship of America with Britain, or at least not within the usual schema of affirmation built on separation only (as in Mencken’s letter to Baker on Aug. 6 1948).

  • 14 There existed a tradition of a paradoxical claim that the British "have really everything in common (...)

24Still one cannot say that Mencken and Baker’s national conceptions of their varieties of English were the same, although they would intellectually rely on each other when needed. The political and cultural situations of America and Australia were certainly not comparable, and Baker could not claim an established separation of Australian English from British English in the same way as Mencken had. There were already two well-established streams of English, the British and the American, Australian English belonging to the British stream.14

  • 15 After World War I Prime Minister William Hughes (Australian Nationalist party) had asked for the in (...)

25Doing the lexicological job–with historical accuracy and a proper knowledge of the meaning of living words, without any fear of confronting interactions and borrowings from different varieties of English–was the best way for Mencken to enrich the meanings and functioning of American English and to show its vitality as a dynamic national variety of the English language. Although American English did not need any demonstration of its existence as a national variety from an endocentric American point of view, it still had to find the self-confidence firstly to compete internationally with the British standard on the basis that it clearly had a pronunciation and a vocabulary of its own. Secondly it had to reassert its own identity at a time when the balance of the British Empire was crucially questioned and the political and cultural identity of Australia increased.15

26There was ambivalence in the epistolary relationships between Mencken, his disciples and Baker, each of them knowing quite well the benefits of this correspondence. For Baker this was the assertion of the existence of a new national variety. For Mencken it meant more proof of the American predominance over any other variety of English which might be competing with American or British English. From this shared long-distance race for the recognition of linguistic identities in the English-speaking world, we have inherited thousands of wonderful pages on the lexicons of American and Australian English, still undergoing description and semantic dissection today for the sake of mutual intelligibility and distinctiveness of these major national standards of English.

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Notes

1 The expression "major English-speaking communities" does not refer in this article to the geographical size or population numbers of each country (more than 310 million people in the USA and 21 million inhabitants in Australia today). We are more concerned to consider the cultural status of the English language in the United States and Australia, and more precisely some consequences of the development of their lexicons in relation to the construction and substantiation of Australian and American linguistic identities.

2 See Kachru 1986, Przewozny 2002 and Hickey 2004 for developments. For developments on standardization processes in British, American and Australian English see Wright 2000.

3 For a comparative chronology of linguistic developments in Australia and the United States see time chart in Przewozny 2005. It provides an illustration of the historical catching up of Australian English with the United States.

4 For example an Australian linguistic complex of inferiority was logically reinforced with the advent of four main theories aimed at describing the linguistic community: the theory of laziness, the theory of unique Cockney origins, the theory of climatic influences and that of a national and congenital inflammation of the nose (Przewozny 2002, 71-92).

5 On such linguistic variations in English see Slang To-Day and Yesterday (Partridge 1935, 1): "‘Words are the very devil!’ (Australian officer on receiving, in August, 1916, at Pozières, a confusing message)."

6 This correspondence consists mainly of personal thoughts and galleys, letters of introduction for literary agents and publishers and exchanges of monographs or periodicals. In particular ten of these letters are from Mencken to Baker (March 1942-August 1948), thirty letters from Hugh Morrison (October 1947-September 1971) plus letters between Morrison and Mencken, and five letters are addressed by Maurer to Baker (June 1942-September 1945). The correspondence is located in the Mitchell Library (NSW State Library, Sydney) and the National Library of Australia (Canberra).

7 For example see Mencken (1919, 205) on the word damn, one of "these plainest words as upon a sort of convenient Lingua Franca, [a] quick adoption of damn as a universal adjective", or Przewozny 2002 about Baker’s and Partridge’s works on English slangs.

8 What counted here was not really the British origin of a word or its etymology but the degree of its re-elaboration and morphological developments, as seen in the famous Australian noun, adjective and adverb dinkum: fair dinkum, honest to dinkum, dink, dinky, dinky-die, dinkumest… "[Br. Dial. dinkum work, a due share of work: see EDD.]" in The Australian National Dictionary (Ramson 1988, 203-5).

9 In particular Baker thought that deeper links existed between the West Coast of America and Australia than with Britain because of its neglect of Australia. He devoted much time proving this linguistically as can be observed from his various Papers.

10 "Language is the expression of ideas; and if the people of one country cannot preserve an identity of ideas [with the people of another country], they cannot retain an identity of language. Now, an identity of ideas depends materially upon a sameness of things or objects with which the people of the two countries are conversant. But in no two portions of the earth, remote from each other, can such identity be found. Even physical objects must be different." (Noah Webster quoted in Baker 1945, 6)

11 As stated in Mencken’s letters to Baker in March or August 1942 for example.

12 All letters quoted are taken from Baker’s Papers and Research Papers as stated in our list of references at the end of this article. See Przewozny (2002, appendix 3) for full quotations and analyses.

13 "Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom." John Curtin, Prime Minister of Australia, speaking at a press conference in 1941 (Black 2006).

14 There existed a tradition of a paradoxical claim that the British "have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language" (Oscar Wilde in 1888, as quoted by Algeo 1986, 369). In his provocative writings and various editions of The American Language, Mencken had insisted upon "diverging streams of English" then "two streams of English." Nowadays the metaphor is often used to explain major distinctive features of rhotic and non rhotic varieties of English.

15 After World War I Prime Minister William Hughes (Australian Nationalist party) had asked for the independent representation of Australia within the League of Nations. But the status of Australia as an independent sovereign nation was clearly stated only in 1942, when Australia finally ratified the Statute of Westminster Act (originally passed in 1931). During World War II "Menzies realized that policy differences with the UK were becoming so substantial that Australia needed to appoint an Australian minister to Japan." (Tsokhas 1994, 867).

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References

Bibliographical reference

Anne Przewozny-Desriaux, « Some Unexpected Exchanges in the Construction of American Identity: Henry Louis Mencken and the Australian Contribution », Caliban, 31 | 2012, 87-100.

Electronic reference

Anne Przewozny-Desriaux, « Some Unexpected Exchanges in the Construction of American Identity: Henry Louis Mencken and the Australian Contribution », Caliban [Online], 31 | 2012, Online since 16 March 2015, connection on 18 November 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/393 ; DOI : 10.4000/caliban.393

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About the author

Anne Przewozny-Desriaux

Université de Toulouse, UTM, CAS.

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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