Being as I am a shade-tree writer, tinkering with these essays as with a ’54 Merc on blocks behind the garage, I find myself grieving for what was once quite a language. English grows ugly and lapses into deformity. My mail creaks under the weight of misused pronouns and homeless participles. People seem to spell by ear: “Your” and “you’re,” “it’s” and “its” are mixed like salads. The young assert that “me and him was talking,” and really don’t know better. Perhaps three people in the United States know what a contraction is. Many believe that a verb agrees with the object of the nearest preposition.
Words seem to have become more puzzling than they once were, even to the purportedly educated. A list of confusions is easily compiled. “Partly” doesn’t mean “partially;” nor historic, historical; nor philosophic, philosophical; nor sensuous, sensual; nor religiosity, religiousness; nor belligerent, bellicose; nor feminine, effeminate; nor continuous, continual; nor effete, epicene; “It is important that you do not smoke” is not the same as “It is important that you not smoke.” “The new airplane is five times faster than the old” probably doesn’t mean anything at all; if it does, it means “The new airplane is six times as fast as the old.” The word “disingenious” doesn’t exist, though I hear it from the educated. (“Disingenuous” is meant.)
Are there real writers out there under fifty? I mean distinctive writers and fine craftsmen, the Mark Twains and Ambrose Bierces and Hunter Thompsons and Joseph Hellers that once made the United States a font of genuine if eccentric talent. They may exist. If so, they aren’t promoted.
We have allowed the schools to fall into the hands of fools and charlatans, and we pay the price.
A language in a high state of development is a lovely and a precise instrument, but a fragile one. English at its peak—which might, very arbitrarily, have been the time of Chesterton, Galsworthy, C. S. Lewis and Tolkien—was limber, yet hard-edged and surgical when it needed to be. You could write a sonnet in it but also a textbook of physics, without ambiguity. A robust subjunctive gave it a subtlety that is the purpose of subjunctives, and the curious mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Grecolatinate vocabulary gave it a complex but flavorful texture (if textures can be flavorful).
But no longer.
Good English (or French, or Spanish, or Chinese) depends on a cultivated elite to preserve it. A pride in language is needed to prevent degradation from seeping upward from the lower classes, and only careful schooling instills the fine distinctions that make the difference between the literate and those who recognize words vaguely, like half-forgotten relatives.
In England the aristocracy and its schools, as for example Oxford and Cambridge, maintained linguistic standards; in ancient Rome, the ruling classes who studied under the great rhetoricians. In the United States the tradition survived awhile in a variety of schools. My own experience was of Southern colleges such as William and Mary and Hampden-Sydney (in which latter my grandfather was professor of mathematics).
As is usual in civilizations not yet in decline, people at these institutions cared about language and literature. I remember that we played a parlor game in which the contestant called out numbers, as for example 234, 2, 6. He was then read whatever word was found on page 234, column two, entry six of a massive unabridged dictionary. He was expected to spell it, and give its etymology and first and second meanings. People do not, I think, play that game today.
Today of course we have no elites of any influence, and we are prescriptively hostile to what is called “elitism.” Elitism is simply the idea that the better is preferable to the worse. Why anyone with good sense would be against it escapes me. The unwashed have discovered that it is easier to ignore the language than to learn it. Given that the unwashed now run the schools, that, as we say, is that. I do not know how one repairs the chain once it is broken.
The unworthy like to argue, almost as if they had some slight idea what they were talking about, that any language is acceptable provided that it communicates. The problem with unschooled and degraded English is precisely that it doesn’t communicate well. In an America that has embraced the tastes and standards of the black ghetto, I occasionally see it written that Ebonics is a language to be respected as much as English. Oh? It is an unwritten language, which might seem to put it at some slight disadvantage to a language that has had a rich literature since at least the fourteenth century. (I’m not sure that pre-Chaucerian English is quite what I think of as English.)
But how in Ebonics does one say, “The entropy of a closed system tends to remain the same or to increase”? I will avoid parody. A more important question is how do decreasingly literate professors write textbooks of subjects that have to be explained clearly? As the distinctions between words are lost, as the grammar degenerates toward bumperstickerhood, people can no longer express, and perhaps cannot think, things that once they could have.
Language does not exist only to convey logical complexities or to make abstractions crystalline. Words can be as beautiful as a sunset, a truth probably discovered five thousand years ago. The difference is that a sunset is accessible to anyone. No training is needed to love those great gaudy skyscapes that flow across the heavens like incandescent dunes. They stand on their own.
To appreciate literature requires intimate familiarity with the language. Art is freedom exercised within rules. (There. We’ve settled that.) Just as you cannot tell good jitterbugging from bad if you do not know the structure of the dance, so you cannot tell good writing from bad if you don’t know how the language works. Few any longer learn the rules.
Of what provenance is this awful drabness? I can only guess. We fill the universities with people who have no business being there. We then accept their values. The country has embraced almost lasciviously a radical egalitarianism whose pretences can be maintained only by dragging all to the level of the lowest. Television bathes us all in the moral and cultural drains from which there is no escape. Elites can exist only when they can isolate themselves. They no longer can.
Fred Reed [send him mail] is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.