Marckwardt – American English

Marckwardt, Albert. American English. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958. Print.

In his book American English, Albert Marckwardt attempted to map out a middle-ground approach to understanding the English language in America. Marckwardt situated American English as rooted in British English, but existing as its own variety due to the socio-cultural influences that are distinctly American. In its formative stages, Marckwardt asserted, American English was shaped by the languages of the Indigenous people that were living on the land that later became  the United States as well as the French, Dutch, Spanish, and others. At the same time, the  “frontier spirit” led to more separation and independence from European influences. As a result, Marckwardt described features of American English that are distinctly connected to American culture and would not be understood by foreigners,  such as “compound” (88). Examples of compounds include “baseball,” and “soap operas.”

Marckwardt acknowledged regional variations, and cited Kurath, but he did not consider all variations equal. He described the “language of the uncultivated” ass distinguished by inflectional characteristics (146). He too, like Krapp (1924) viewed “substandard” American English as a mere holdover of outdated forms of standard English (147). While Marckwardt is clear that this “standard” American English is more socially desirable, he also admitted that it was illusive even for the “well-educated”:

“Unquestionably the easy transition from one social class to another in the United States has resulted in a very hazy line of demarcation between what is acceptable and what is considered illiterate. According to the most rigorous schoolbook standard, some of the language employed in American legislative councils and in business life would not pass muster. The awareness of this, combined with an unrealistic treatment of language in our schools, has resulted at times in a defiance of these questionable standards.” (150)

Many of these questions and the accompanying defiance still persist today.

Marckwardt concluded that despite the different variations of the English language spoken within the U.S. and abroad, it is still highly unified and a single language (170). At the same time, Marckwardt argued that American English had outgrown the use for restrictive grammar standards and taboos which reflect an overall “negative approach to language” (184). For Marckwardt, the positive future and development of the English language were dependent upon adopting a “faith in intuition” regarding language and “giving attention to the broader aspects of structure and evolving tendencies of the language” (184).

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One thought on “Marckwardt – American English

  1. Pingback: Dictionary Of Regional American English — A Fun Distraction | Gadaboutblogalot's Blog

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