Date of Award

6-1986

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Major

English

Major Professor

John H. Fisher

Committee Members

Thomas Heffernan, Henry Kats, Barney Reaves

Abstract

This dissertation examines H. L. Mencken's attitudes toward language and the forces that shaped those attitudes. This study also traces the development of The American Language, assesses the influence of this work on language studies in America, and examines Mencken's place in the field of linguistics.

Three types of material are surveyed in this study: the body of H. L. Mencken's writing that reflects his attitudes toward language; the definitive secondary material which focuses on Mencken's interest in American English; and the background material necessary to establish a social, historical, political, and linguistic context for Mencken's ideas.

This study concludes that H. L. Mencken's attitudes toward American English were shaped by a number of factors--his upbringing in the middle-class household of a German-American cigar maker, his experiences as a journalist, his early reading in Dialect Notes, his experience as a magazine editor and essayist. Though Mencken became adept enough in language study to produce The American Language, his chauvinistic treatment of American English and his methods of collecting information barred him from the ranks of the professional linguists. He was--and is--considered an amateur, a dilettante, a man unsophisticated in linguistics.

Mencken's lasting value is that he set before a growing community of linguists a work which inspired other philologist to collect and analyze. The thesis of The American Language was but one of many catalysts for American linguistic study in the twenties and thirties. It is important because it came from a sophisticated man of letters who twitted the professionals into action.

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