May 11, 2004

by Joe Sobran

     When I was in high school, preparing for the 
intellectual challenge of college, I took pains to 
strengthen my vocabulary. I became a stickler for the 
proper use of words that are commonly misused: 
"transpire," "infer," and "enormity," for example.

     But a funny thing happened. Instead of increasing my 
ability to communicate, I found myself linguistically 
isolated. When I used these words in what the books 
assured me was the "correct" sense, nobody understood me! 
I had learned, in effect, to speak a useless private 
language! I wound up avoiding many of the words I'd 
worked so hard to acquire. To be consistently "correct" 
was to be a crank.

     When I got to college, my linguistics professor 
explained that language is in constant flux, and that as 
"incorrect" usages become prevalent, they eventually 
become "correct." Words only mean what people agree that 
they mean; there is no "real" meaning vouchsafed by the 
dictionary. Dictionaries only tell you what words have 
meant in the past; they can't prescribe what they'll mean 
in the future.

     It all made being an English major seem rather 
futile, but I stuck it out anyway, if only because I 
hoped someday to get paid for teaching Shakespeare. Today 
I possess a fairly large obsolete vocabulary: I can tell 
you what thousands of words used to mean.

     I'm resigned to change in language, but it also has 
its disturbing side. The more the language alters, the 
harder it becomes to understand the past. The English of 
Chaucer has long since become a semi-foreign language. 
The same will soon be true of Shakespeare, whom we 
already need footnotes to help us through. And then 
Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Johnson, and so on. To all but 
scholars, the books of the past become closed books. They 
generously repay the effort of study, but that effort may 
be more than most people can afford or want to expend.

     Even the U.S. Constitution is written in a language 
increasingly remote from our own. What was plain English 
two centuries ago is a good deal less plain to us. The 
language of THE FEDERALIST PAPERS, which explain the 
Constitution, is even less accessible. Will we soon have 
to read the Constitution in translation?

     For me, this is the tragic side of linguistic 
change: It keeps cutting us off from communication with 
our own ancestors, sealing us off from any wisdom they 
have to offer us. A reader of the classics no longer 
feels like a participant in a great conversation cutting 
across time; he feels like a lonely, even slightly 
eccentric, specialist.

     The great writers of the past knew their own past. 
The way Shakespeare and Milton write shows their 
awareness of the French and Latin roots of English in 
their own times; ancient resonances and continuities give 
both music and meaning to their words. That remained 
true, to some extent, of most educated writers through 
the nineteenth century. The English language, then as 
always, was changing, but they used it with a sense of 
responsibility to the past. Even when new words were 
coined, they were often based on Latin and Greek roots to 
give them anchorage and to avoid sheer novelty. Change 
was kept gradual and to some degree rational.

     Today, more and more, new words just pop up without 
that sort of connection to the past. Consider the word 
"racism." The philosopher David Stove observed that it 
never appeared in the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY before 
1971; today it's everywhere. "You wonder," Stove 
remarked, "how journalists could possibly have managed 
without this word until recently."

     Since "racism" looms so large in today's vocabulary, 
you also wonder how writers as eloquent as Shakespeare, 
Milton, James Joyce, and T.S. Eliot managed to get 
through their entire lifetimes without using, even once, 
the word Jesse Jackson uses every five minutes. Possibly 
they were verbally impoverished, and Jackson has added 
nuance to human expression; or possibly the word itself 
is evidence of impoverishment. It suggests a language 
molded less by Shakespeare than by Stalin, better suited 
to expressing crude political attitudes than niceties of 

     George Orwell saw not only the poverty but the 
danger of a language that had become purely contemporary. 
A language without roots, without the authority of 
generations implicit in its usages, is the perfect 
instrument for tyranny.


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