|Whitakers Almanack, 1893|
Maybe it's my reawakened interest in old books that leads me to wonder about our evolving language. I've been reading lately in a textbook titled Essays & Essay-Writing, an anthology of personal essays selected from The Atlantic Monthly and authorized for use in English classes at the Grade 12 level. It was published in 1933 and my copy comes complete with names scrawled in the frontispiece and flyleaves and the scribbled notes tell me that this copy was read (or, at least, possessed) by a series of senior students at B.L.C.H.S, which may be Blaine Lake Central (?) High School.
An essay called “The Flavor of Things” by Robert M. Gay chronicling the author's defective relationship to mathematics contains the following sentence about people who love that particular discipline:
Permutations and combinations and the doctrine of chances filled their souls with elation; they would rather wander over the area of a parallelogram than over the greenest meadow under heaven, collecting angles and sides as another would daisies and buttercups, and chasing the unknown quantity as another might a butterfly (p. 17).
One can hardly read this today without visions of quills and inkwells, oak desks and tweed-jackets-with-elbow-patches springing to mind. The written word has changed a great deal since 1933, not only in the abandonment of antiquated diction (word choice) but in the aversion to long sentences, elaborate metaphors and the eschewing of contractions, slang and colloquialisms.
A present-day version of Gay's sentence might well read, “Some guys really dig math.”
I worry some days about the consequences of abandoning sensory writing and enlarged vocabulary, about the increasing inability to deal with complex sentence structures. I may be considered a language Luddite for such apprehensions, reinforced, possibly, by the style in which I've chosen to write this essay. Indeed, I've been accused in the past of writing in an archaic style that makes comprehension difficult. (Someone said to me about my book, What I Meant to Say Was . . . that they enjoyed what I'd written, even though they didn't understand much of it!)
Go back to my first paragraph for a moment. If I had asked you to point to the frontispiece or flyleaf in a book, would you have been able to do it with confidence? These terms are book jargon, of course, and you don't have to know what they mean to be a connoisseur of literature, but I've long been of the opinion that a larger vocabulary is better than a smaller one, especially if being able to understand what's going on in the world and/or participating in significant dialogue matters to you. Likewise, if you want to read past page 5 in Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's The Grand Design with some understanding, a broad—as opposed to a narrow—vocabulary is almost mandatory.
I don't know how the students of the Thirties fared with Essays and Essay-Writing, although I have noticed that some of the easier essays—language-wise—were more marked up than the more complex ones, a pretty good indication that the teachers using the text deferred to the apparent comprehension levels of their classes.
In these days of the diminishing use of books for learning about the world, the questions, “what are we losing?" and "what have we lost?” seem relevant to me. Are you a bibliophile like me? Do you know what a bibliophile is? Do you share my concerns about language evolution?
If so, let me hear from you and we can start a Language Complainers' Club! Be a nice change from complaining about the Harper Conservatives.