H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
of forces is necessary. But meanwhile it may be of interest to set forth a few provisional ideas.
At the start two streams of influence upon vulgar American pronunciation may be noted, the one an inheritance from the English of the colonists, and the other arising spontaneously within the country, and apparently much colored by immigration. The first influence, it goes without saying, is gradually dying out. Consider, for example, the pronunciation of the diphthong oi. In Middle English it was as in boy, but during the early Modern English period it was assimilated with that of the i in wine, and this usage prevailed at the time of the settlement of America. The colonists thus brought it with them, and at the same time it lodged in Ireland, where it still prevails. But in England, during the pedantic eighteenth century, this i-sound was displaced by the original oi-sound, not by historical research but by mere deduction from the spelling, and the new pronunciation soon extended to the polite speech of America. In the common speech, however, the i-sound persisted, and down to the time of the Civil War it was constantly heard in such words as boil, hoist, oil, join, poison and roil, which thus became bile, hist, ile, jine, pisen and rile. Since then the school-marm has combated it with such vigor that it has begun to disappear, and such forms as pisen, jine, bile and ile are now very seldom heard, save as dialectic variations. But in certain other words, perhaps supported by Irish influence, the i-sound still persists. Chief among them are hoist and roil.104 An unlearned American, wishing to say that he was enraged, never says that he was roiled, but always that he was riled. Desiring to examine the hoof of his horse, he never orders the animal to hoist but always to hist. In the form of booze-hister the latter is almost in good usage. I have seen booze-hister thus spelled and obviously to be thus pronounced, in an editorial article in the American Issue, organ of the Anti-Saloon League of America.105
Various similar misplaced vowels were brought from England by the colonists and have persisted in America, while dying out of good
Note 104.Roil is obsolete in standard English. Krapp says that in conventional cultivated use in America a spelling pronunciation has arisen, making the word rhyme with oil. I have never encountered this pronunciation. All Americans, when they use roiled at all, seem to make it riled. [back]