Yesterday, I posted on a section from a section from Abbot’s Shakespearean grammar which discussed the difference in usage of the English language between Elizabeth and Victoria. I noted briefly that contemporary usage could not bear either the subtly of Elizabeth or the precision of Victoria. When writing that, I was thinking of Edward Mitchell, the Underground Grammarian.
Unfortunately, the plain English movement is probably not the result of a widespread conspiracy. That’s just wishful thinking. It’s simply one more head of the many-headed monster of muddled language and thought. If there were a conspiracy, it might conceivably be thwarted, but if we cut off the plain English head, another will grow in its place, and perhaps a more horrid one.
At one time I thought that I was the victim of a conspiracy myself. I was certain that the Admissions Office had salted my classes with carefully selected students, students who had no native tongue. Many of my students seem unable to express themselves in any language whatsoever. They aren’t utterly mute, of course. They can say something about the weather and give instructions about how to get to the post office. They are able to recite numerous slogans, especially from television commercials and the lyrics of popular songs and recent–very recent–political campaigns. They are able to read traffic signs and many billboards and even some newspapers, and they can claim certain emotions with regard to various teams and even individual athletes, whose names they often know. They can spin more or less predictable reveries about the past or the future either in very simple concrete terms or in sentimental banalities, or both. But they cannot pursue a process; they cannot say why evidence leads to a conclusion; they cannot find examples for analogies. They’ve never heard of analogies. They speak and write English as though they were recent immigrants from Bulgaria, whose Bulgarian itself had been totally obliterated on Ellis Island.
Of course, it was all an illusion, a phantom of wishful thinking. There was no conspiracy at all. They were just ordinary American students pretty much like any others. They were the typical product of our schools.
Everyone who has succeeded in learning a foreign language has come to “think” in that language, as we say, although we probably mean something even more complicated than that. Now it seems that there are millions of Americans who can’t think even in English. How is it with them? Do they plan, or do they merely fantasize? Do they solve problems, or do they simply rummage around for a suitable slogan? Are they the people Socrates had in mind in thinking about that unexamined life that wasn’t worth living? Can they examine life?
People in that condition don’t think of themselves as being in that condition because they don’t think of themselves–they don’t think at all. To think, we must devise connected chains of predications, which, in turn, require fluency in language. Those who are fluent in no language just don’t have the means for thinking about things. They may remember and recite whatever predications experience provides them, but they cannot manipulate them and derive new ones. Mostly, therefore, they will think and do those things that the world suggests that they think and do. For some of us, it must be very important that people in this condition remain in this condition, for we have obviously devised ways to see to that.
Truncheons are for louts. The great masters of social manipulation use language. They know, furthermore, that the establishment of a flexible and subtle language for the ruling classes is only half of what’s needed. The other half is the perpetuation of an ineffective and minimal language among the subjects. Ordinarily, the second half is assured by man’s natural propensity to bother himself as little as possible, but history occasionally requires that the rulers take some special pains to preserve the ignorance of their subjects. Our own recent history provides a splendid example of how this is done.
If you don’t know Mitchell, you should.
I care about this for two related, though independent reasons. First, as a citizen of a republic, I know that the ability of the republic to persist relies upon the ability of all its citizens to think and and act in a complex political area; an area which necessitates subtle aspects of law and ethics. I can’t imagine we will survive on that account. On this count, I would point also to Orwell’s Politics and the English Language.
Second, as a Christian, I profess a religion which holds, “In the beginning was the Word”. I base upon theology upon a book which is both simple and profound. The book requires great attention to words: genre, history, context. Christianity is a religion of profession: and while the original witnesses were not sophists in the Greek tradition of rhetoric, they spoke with great precision.