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 We’re Losing Shakespeare! 

May 11, 2004 
When I was in high school, preparing for the intellectual challenge of college, Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.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.

[Breaker quote: But will he be missed?]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 meaning.

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.

Joseph Sobran

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