“In the old music of his native tongue.”
John Greenleaf Whittier, “Miriam” (1871)
I was yesterday sitting with a friend who was born and raised in the heart of Appalachia, and who upon opening a box lunch remarked that he “had eaten bigger sandwiches.” The remark was not out of place, since the sandwich was diminutive, but my immediate thought was that it had been a long time—too long—since I last heard this sort of idiomatic American speech. My people were not from Appalachia, but the menfolk were fond of ironic understatement, and hearing that “old music” moved me with a nostalgia like that which is said to have moved Swiss mercenaries when they heard a cowbell in some foreign land.
I pity and often admire people who must conduct their lives in a second language, and I know many people born to English who make a hash of their mother tongue, but I still miss the language my grandfathers spoke. This was not the King’s English, but a rustic regional vernacular of the upper Midwest. It might have made a schoolmarm weep, but it was at least free of the dry pedantry of bureaucratic English, the preening pomposity of academic English, and the robotic flatness that eviscerates the English of our nomadic elite.
The old music has been replaced by a grating cacophony of a barbarous English.
There are, never forget, learned barbarians, just as there are men of a deep culture who cannot sign their names. I just said that our nomadic elite eviscerates English, and I said this because they are so often strangers to the bowels of the language. They are learned barbarians who speak a gutted tongue, and who wear this gutted tongue as a shapeshifter wears his skinsuit.
Robert Burns used a similar analogy in a letter written in 1794. There he wrote:
“These English songs gravel me to death. I have not that command of the language that I have of my native tongue. I have been at “Duncan Gray,” to dress it in English, but all I can do is deplorably stupid.”
Burns could “dress it in English,” but this dress was “deplorably stupid” because it did not really fit the body that it clothed. And, as he said, shoving the one onto the other “graveled” him to death, by which he meant it was an everlasting grind. When a stone crusher grinds stone into small fragments, we call the results gravel. When a barbarian grinds our language into sausage meat, the result is barbarous English.
Non-native speakers are not solely to blame for the sausage meat with which our ears are daily stuffed. The grating solecisms of their gutted language are compounded with the barbarous jargon of the bureaucracies and the academy, and whole mess is seasoned with a gross demotic dressing.
These ungenerous thoughts passed through my mind as I listened to this morning’s homily, or rather to the sounds with which our new assistant pastor hoped, and failed, to put his thoughts into words. He seems to be a thoroughly nice young man, but his pronunciation is poorly adapted to ready apprehension of his meaning, and he often appears to be sounding out words for the first time.
Not so very long ago, Latin was the language of the Catholic mass, although I believe the homily was given in the local tongue. Thus the yokels understood the lesson and were astonished by the mystery of everything else. After less than a century of lucidity, the Catholic mass is returning to its natural form of astonishing mumbo jumbo, this time taking the homily with it. But barbarous English has replaced Latin as the mumbo jumbo of holy mystery in our multi-culti world.