To Fume, Perchance to Growl: Random Vaporings on Language

The other night, sitting in the living room and communing with our useless dogs, I asked Vi what book she was reading. It was old, battered, and of many pages.

Lecciones de Lengua Castellano. Lessons in Castillian, meaning Spanish. The American edition. (“America” in Mexico denotes everything from Yellow Knife to Tierra del Fuego, not the United States.)The book was Intended, it turned out, for students in high school.

I examined it, astonished. It was a thorough study of grammar, the structure of good writing, and the elements of style in Spanish. The vocabularies were extensive with sections on Arabic, Latin, Greek, and Saxon etymologies. I doubted that any university in the United States had anything so demanding.

Or in Mexico, today. With exceptions, the Mexican schools are dismal. So must they have largely been in 1963, when the book was published. Apparently those schools that were not dismal were rigorous.

I leafed through it with a curious feeling of familiarity. I grew up as a residuum of an earlier America, that of the upper South around the end of the nineteenth century, the Virginia of Southside, of the University of Virginia. Rural, relatively isolated in an age without electronics, it retained much of the culture of Thomas Jefferson. The educated of those days were carefully literate and cared about language. Writing well was considered a mark of civilization.

The cultivated men of the times before 1900, and for that matter the women, wrote well indeed. Read the memoirs of Ulysses Grant, George Armstrong Custer, John Singleton Mosby (who studied Greek and mathematics at the University of Virginal). Their prose is strong, polished without ostentation, always clear and devoid of grammatical slips. Yet these were not scholars but soldiers of the Civil War.

This was the tradition of my father, a mathematician raised in the Prince Edward County of Virginia of the Thirties, and of my grandfather, a professor of mathematics born before 1900. And so I grew up with my English being gently corrected, with relatives reading to me from those marvelous books purportedly for children that combined faultless language with stories that continue to delight adults to day: Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, The Jungle Books, Alice, Tom Sawyer, The Wind in the Willows. (I suppose that they now would be called “dual use.”) The only modern work of similar literary quality of which I am aware is The Lord of the Rings.

My grade schools of the Fifties still taught grammar and required the diagramming of sentences, now regarded with horror as a sort of linguistic water-boarding. We learned tense, mood, voice, subjunctives and parallelism and appositives. Equally important, we learned to listen to the language as well as its content, without which decent writing is nigh impossible.

With us, the written language was primary, the spoken derived from the written. In Spanish, if I know how “ajolote” is spelled, the word is mine. Otherwise it never quite is. Today among the literarily unwashed, the spoken language becomes primary. Note how “iced tea” becomes “ice tea,” ”boxed set” becomes “box set,“ presumably a set of boxes. The people who use these confusions don’t read, perhaps barely can, and do not know how the words are spelled. Participles? Huh? Wha’?

English once had its equivalents of Lecciones de Castellana. There were Fowler’s The King’s English and American English Usage, and of course Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. These today are as well known to our gilded peasantry as the Gilgamesh Epic.

An attention to meaning existed. We knew that “sensuous” does not mean “sensual,” nor bellicose, belligerent; nor alternate, alternative; nor uninterested, disinterested; nor envious, jealous; nor historic, historical; nor philosophic, philosophical; nor it’s, its.

From The Elements of Style we learned the all-important “Omit needless words”, from Fowler:

Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
Prefer the short word to the long.
Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.

But that was then. Today usage nose-dives from the merely infelicitous to the downright annoying. Note the increasing penetration of language by that form of mispronunciation, once the marker of the lower middle class and below, in which emphasis falls on the first syllable of words. HOtel, INsurance, DEEfense, REEsources, DEEtail. It is the linguistic parallel of a facial tattoo.

And there is noun-speak. “Rainwater run-off flow control barrier system improvement programs.” Aside from the lack of clarity, the endless catenation of substantives is so ugly as to make migraine seem preferable. A satisfying solution would be a chain saw—taken to the author, the words being innocent bystanders.

Why are things that once were the common property of the cultivated now regarded as fossils predating the trilobites? One reason I think is the weakening of the barriers of class. The educated cannot maintain standards of excellence when constantly bathed by television in mangled grammar and illiterate usage.

Then there is a variant of Gresham’s Law that says bad culture drives out good. Stated more carefully, in the absence of barriers of class the values of the drains of society tend to become universal. Thus we have rap music, if such it is, hanging pants encompassing louts, piercings, and functional illiteracy. In a sentence, the vulgar have discovered that it is easier to reject higher standards than to meet them. By sheer numbers they prevail.

The death of good language is part of the larger death of all culture, springing from the same causes: the domination of society by the mob. Note the decline in the sales of books, particularly books of history, the sciences, and literature: the rapid growth in genuine illiteracy, the disappearance of symphony orchestras. We have no poets, a nation of over three hundred million being far inferior to tiny, muddy London in the Seventeenth Century. Classical music is seldom played and never written. Architecture means K Street boxes; sculpture, curious confabulations made to be sold to bureaucrats in the Parks Department.

Little hope exists of a reversal any time soon, if ever. In 1850 those deficient in schooling knew their deficiencies, and wanted to learn. Today there is an actual preference for ignorance, which is regarded as authentic or democratic and morally superior to knowing anything, which would be elitist. In politics we see a vengeful delight that control of society passes to non-European minorities without interest in any culture but that of the streets. “He is street smart,” or sometimes just “He street smart” conveys approbation that once would have been expressed by “He is a man of taste and discrimination.” Once learning or even the desire for it has been lost, they do not readily return.

The Vandals are within the gates. But they are all texting each other.

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