Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 50.djvu/427

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been validated.

cases give evidence in their speech that all the scholastic training to which they have been subjected has not sufficed to counterbalance the influence of their everyday surroundings: they will recite a rule of grammar and violate it in the same breath.

Now, we do not belong to the school of those who think that the ultimate appeal in all questions of language must be to the usage of the past, and who contend for the standard forms of speech as a man might for "the faith once delivered to the saints." We agree rather with a great historian and admirable writer, Sir Francis Palgrave, who says that few have done so much harm to literature as "the martinets of language"; adding that "whenever the era arrives in which artificial rules for style or language are accurately laid down and painfully obeyed, then literature is approaching her climacteric." We agree, too, with the more ancient author of The Art of Poetry, who says in effect that happy experiments in enriching a language, at one time with words recovered from antiquity and at another with new and expressive words struggling for recognition, are always in order. It is one thing, however, to do as Palgrave advises, and set the expression of thought and feeling above the mere observation of artificial rules; it is another to disregard all rules through simple indolence and lack of idealism—lack of respect for the vehicle of thought. It is one thing to do as Horace advises and strive to strengthen and enrich the speech we use, and another to throw the door open to every vulgar 'invention and conceit of the hour.

We can not better define the evil with which we have to contend than by describing it (in words just used) as a total "lack of idealism" in the use of language. Considering that articulate and significant speech forms the great line of distinction between man and the brutes, considering the infinite riches of thought and feeling, the treasures of experience, the varied presentments of human life that are stored up in language, it would not seem excessive if something of reverence toward language considered as an exalted power and prerogative of the human mind were imparted to the young and made through education a common possession of all normal human beings in a civilized state. That, however, would appear to be, in any broad sense, past hoping for. But what the many pass by with indifference, if not contempt, the few may if they like appropriate. The question which some at least ought to consider is whether there are not great and solid advantages connected with an accurate knowledge and practical mastery of the English language. Of course, we believe very strongly that there are, and it would not be difficult to discuss these advantages at length under the three heads of intellectual, moral, and æsthetic. Accuracy and precision of speech means, or at least tends strongly toward, accuracy and precision of thought. Many persons have but little distinct consciousness of the words they use, and to try to hold them to any precise meaning is hopeless. The way to remedy such defect of thought is through careful and strenuous drill in the verbal expression of thought—such drill as language studies properly conducted will bestow—aided by scientific drill in the observation of facts. To what extent mental dishonesty is favored by vagueness and indefiniteness of speech it is almost needless to observe. Taking finally the æsthetic view, if any value is set upon distinction of mind, upon purity of taste, upon sensibility to the harmonies of which language is capable, and sympathy with all the nobler