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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Future of Our Tongue

By Thomas Raynesford Lounsbury (1838–1915)

[History of the English Language. 1879.]

WHAT is to be the future of our tongue? Is it steadily tending to become corrupt, as constantly asserted by so many who are laboriously devoting their lives to preserve it in its purity? The fact need not be denied, if by it is meant that, within certain limits, the speech is always moving away from established usage. The history of language is the history of corruption. The purest of speakers uses every day, with perfect propriety, words and forms, which, looked at from the point of view of the past, are improper, if not scandalous. But the blunders of one age become good usage in the following, and in process of time grow to be so consecrated by custom and consent that a return to practices theoretically correct would seem like a return to barbarism. While this furnishes no excuse for lax and slovenly methods of expression, it is a guaranty that the indulgence in them by some, or the adoption of them by all, will not necessarily be attended by any serious injury to the speech. Vulgarity and tawdriness and affectation, and numerous other characteristics which are manifested by the users of language, are bad enough; but it is a gross error to suppose that they have of themselves any permanently serious effect upon the purity of national speech. They are results of imperfect training; and, while the great masters continue to be admired and read and studied, they are results that last but for a time. The causes which bring about the decline of a language are of an entirely different type. It is not the use of particular words or idioms, it is not the adoption of peculiar rhetorical devices, that contribute either to the permanent well-being or corruption of any tongue. These are the mere accidents of speech, the fashion of a time which passes away with the causes that gave it currency: far back of these lie the real sources of decay. Language is no better and no worse than the men who speak it. The terms of which it is composed have no independent vitality in themselves: it is the meaning which the men who use them put into them, that gives them all their power. It is never language in itself that becomes weak or corrupt: it is only when those who use it become weak or corrupt, that it shares in their degradation. Nothing but respect need be felt or expressed for that solicitude which strives to maintain the purity of speech: yet when unaccompanied by a far-reaching knowledge of its history, but, above all, by a thorough comprehension of the principles which underlie the growth of language, efforts of this kind are as certain to be full of error as they are lacking in result. There has never been a time in the history of Modern English in which there have not been men who fancied that they foresaw its decay. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century on, our literature, whenever it touches upon the character of the vehicle by which it is conveyed, is full of the severest criticism; and its pages are crowded with unavailing protests against the introduction of that which now it hardly seems possible for us to do without, and, along with these, with mournful complaints of the degeneracy of the present, and with melancholy forebodings for the future. So it always has been: so it is always likely to be. Yet the real truth is, that the language can be safely trusted to take care of itself, if the men who speak it take care of themselves; for with their degree of development, of cultivation, and of character, it will always be found in absolute harmony.

In fact, it is not from the agencies that are commonly supposed to be corrupting that our speech at the present time suffers: it is in much more danger from ignorant efforts made to preserve what is called its purity. Rules have been and still are laid down for the use of it, which never had any existence outside of the minds of grammarians and verbal critics. By these rules, so far as they are observed, freedom of expression is cramped, idiomatic peculiarity destroyed, and false tests for correctness set up, which give the ignorant opportunity to point out supposed error in others; while the real error lies in their own imperfect acquaintance with the best usage. One illustration will be sufficient of multitudes that might be cited. There is a rule of Latin syntax that two or more substantives joined by a copulative require the verb to be in the plural. This has been foisted into the grammar of English, of which it is no more true than it is of modern German. There is nothing in the usage of the past, from the very earliest times, to authorize it, nothing in the usage of the present to justify it, except so far as the rule itself has tended to make general the practice it imposes. The grammar of English, as exhibited in the utterances of its best writers and speakers, has, from the very earliest period, allowed the widest discretion as to the use either of the singular or the plural in such cases. The importation and imposition of rules foreign to its idiom, like the one just mentioned, does more to hinder the free development of the tongue, and to dwarf its freedom of expression, than the widest prevalence of slovenliness of speech, or of affectation of style; for these latter are always temporary in their character, and are sure to be left behind by the advance in popular cultivation, or forgotten through the change in popular taste.

Of the languages of Christendom, English is the one now spoken by far the largest number of persons; and from present appearances there would seem to be but little limit to its possible extension. Yet that it or any other tongue will ever become a universal language is so much more than doubtful, that it may be called impossible; and, even were it possible, it is a question if it would be desirable. However that may be, its spread will depend in the future, as it has in the past, not so much upon the character of the language itself, as upon the character of the men who speak it. It is not necessarily because it is in reality superior to other tongues, that it has become more widely extended than they, but because it has been and still is the speech of two great nations which have been among the foremost in civilization and power, the most greedy in the grasping of territory, the most successful in the planting of colonies. But as political reasons have lifted the tongue into its present prominence, so in the future to political reasons will be owing its progress or decay. Thus, back of everything that tends to the extension of language, lie the material strength, the intellectual development and the moral character, which make the users of a language worthy enough and powerful enough to impose it upon others. No speech can do more than express the ideas of those who employ it at the time. It cannot live upon its past meanings, or upon the past conceptions of great men which have been recorded in it, any more than the race which uses it can live upon its past glory or its past achievements. Proud, therefore, as we may now well be of our tongue, we may rest assured that, if it ever attain to universal sovereignty, it will do so only because the ideas of the men who speak it are fit to become the ruling ideas of the world, and the men themselves are strong enough to carry them over the world; and that, in the last analysis, depends, like everything else, upon the development of the individual; depends, not upon the territory we buy or steal, not upon the gold we mine, or the grain we grow, but upon the men we produce. If we fail there, no national greatness, however splendid to outward view, can be anything but temporary and illusory; and, when once national greatness disappears, no past achievements in literature, however glorious, will perpetuate our language as a living speech, though they may help for a while to retard its decay.