H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
cheering spectacle of one grammarian exposing, with contagious joy, the grammatical lapses of some other grammarian. And nine times out of ten, a few pages further on, I have found the enchanted purist erring himself.1 The most funereal of the sciences is saved from utter horror by such displays of human malice and fallibility. Speech itself, indeed, would become almost impossible if the grammarians could follow their own rules unfailingly, and were always right.
But here we are among the learned, and their sins, when detected and exposed, are at least punished by conscience. What are of more importance, to those interested in language as a living thing, are the offendings of the millions who are not conscious of any wrong. It is among these millions, ignorant of regulation and eager only to express their ideas clearly and forcefully, that language undergoes its great changes and constantly renews its vitality. These are the genuine makers of grammar, marching miles ahead of the formal grammarians. Like the Emperor Sigismund, each man among them may well say: Ego sum supra grammaticam. It is competent for any individual to offer his contributionhis new word, his better idiom, his novel figure of speech, his short cut in grammar or syntaxand it is by the general vote of the whole body, not by the verdict of a small school, that the fate of the innovation is decided. As Brander Matthews says, there is not even representative government in the matter; the posse comitatus decides directly, and despite the sternest protest, finally. The ignorant, the rebellious and the daring come forward with their brilliant barbarisms; the learned and conservative bring up their objections. And when both sides have been heard, there is a show of hands; and by this the irrevocable decision of the community itself is rendered.2 Thus it was that the Romance languages were fashioned out of the wreck of Latin, the vast influence of the literate minority to the contrary notwithstanding. Thus it was, too, that English lost its case inflections and many of its old conjugations, and that our yes came to be substituted for the gea-se (= so be it) of an earlier day, and that we
Note 1. Sweet, perhaps the abbot of the order, makes almost indecent haste to sin. See the second paragraph on the very first page of vol. i of his New English Grammar. [back]