Barbarous English and the Old Music

“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The old music has been replaced by a grating cacophony of a barbarous English.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.

9 thoughts on “Barbarous English and the Old Music

  1. My “Advanced Composition” students can neither speak nor write any kind of the intelligible English. They have no notion of written English, nor of grammar nor of syntax. When they “write,” they are making a transcript of what they would say. However, since they are not the inheritors of an intact oral tradition, what they say is no more intelligible than what they write. Their prose consists of PC cliches and hackneyed academic phraseology, which they do not understand and which are — truth be told — incomprehensible to those even who formulate them. English is extinct, except perhaps here at The Orthosphere.

    • My students can turn out serviceable prose if they have the prosthetic device of a computer and internet access, and if I am not overly scrupulous about plagiarism. Hand written answers on tests are generally appalling, with many falling below the prose one used to read scratched on the walls of low-class toilet stalls. Incidentally, I seldom see toilet stall graffiti any more. Could it be we are now too sub-literate for even that!

      • To be is to do: Aristotle

        To do is to be: Sartre

        Dobedobedo: Sinatra

        That was written in one of the toilets of my undergraduate days, about four decades ago. I’m not sure of the veracity of the quotations, but I’d be fairly confident one wouldn’t find many lines as clever nowadays.

      • It is possible that social media now provides an outlet for sentiments that used to be published on bathroom walls, but the decay of graffiti began before social media existed. In the men’s room closest to my office, the barely legible graffiti has been there longer than I have, which is to say at least thirty years. Toilets that receive more student traffic are still marked up, but not so much as formerly.

  2. Pingback: Barbarous English and the Old Music | Reaction Times

  3. ” ..his pronunciation is poorly adapted to ready apprehension of his meaning, and he often appears to be sounding out words for the first time.”

    I’m sorry that he was unable to bring a good homily, but I hope his spoken words indictate he is well read on his own time but lacked people with whom to discuss what he read. I find that often true of people who use words correctly but pronounce them oddly: they didn’t learn it in school but on their own. What we hear is how they came to silently say the word to themselves. Then, it is admirable.

    Of course, it the word is not used correctly, it’s not admirable at all but just laziness picking words out of a thesaurus. And that’s a shame, but gets easier by the year as technology steps in.

    • English is not his first language, and I have the feeling he does not write his own homilies, so this isn’t the problem of an autodidact. I learned most of my vocabulary by reading and have often been surprised (and a little embarrassed) when I heard a word correctly pronounced for the first time. I have great sympathy for anyone struggling in a second language because my wife’s family speaks no English, and I have spent many, many hours offending their ears with my inarticulate stammering. On the other hand, I never took a job that entailed giving long lectures in German. We have had other priests like this, and sympathy turns to irritation fairly quickly. Curiously, the thicker the accent, the more long-winded the homilist. We once had a prolix Nigerian who was just getting warmed up after 20 minutes, which is long for a Catholic homily.

  4. Having grown up in the old Latin mass, the homily was always in English. The mass itself was in Latin with some Greek. The great majority went through the motions without understanding, but anyone who cared brought a missal, which had the Latin/Greek on one page, and the English translation on the facing page. The ritual itself was elegant and ancient and very satisfying to those who cared. You learned a few words of Latin and Greek, Kyrie Elison, or something like like—Lord have mercy.

    The modern English mass is an abomination and likely heretical. Once, at a funeral, I heard the opening notes to “Amazing Grace,” the greatest hymn in English, even if it is Protestant. The lyrics, however, were not the original but some travesty.

    I am nowadays an atheist. In my old age, I would be tempted to return to the Church if the old Latin mass were restored. And Bergoglio were sent home.

  5. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 10/13/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.