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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXX. The English Language in America

§ 2. The Importance of Variety in Language

To the reader of these proceedings it is made abundantly plain, taking what was said with what was implied, that in the minds of an overwhelming majority of the members, though not of all, the English language in America is in a very bad way. That this should have been their opinion might easily have been predicted. English is the most bewept of the tongues. From the days of Caxton its uncertain syntax, its perplexing variety of forms, its exotic and luxuriant vocabulary have brought distress to most of those who have taken thought of it. Compunctious visitings of an idealized Latinity have caused some to strive to regulate an apparent chaos, but all, or nearly all, to despair of stopping a heedless journey to destruction. Historically, the question turned first on matters of vocabulary, later on points of form and meaning, and at present, though the other questions are not forgotten, alarm is felt chiefly, as Henry James puts it, on account of “those influences around us that make for the imperfect disengagement of the human side of vowel sound, that make for the confused, the ugly, the flat, the thin, the mean, the helpless, that reduce articulation to an ignoble minimum … a mere helpless slobber of disconnected vowel noises.” It is because of a growing slovenliness in uttering the unstressed vowels that the British poet-laureate, Robert Bridges, is inclined to believe that English pronunciation, even in Britain, is on the road to ruin.

It seems impossible for a student of language to refuse to be stampeded by these alarms, to maintain a certain serenity before so doleful a picture of things, pending some effort to assure himself that the picture is drawn to scale, without being accused in his turn of proclaiming with a sort of blatant cheerfulness that whatever is, linguistically, is right. Such extremes of optimism and pessimism are, of course, absurd. If they seem to exist, it must be because people are talking from different points of view about different sets of facts. To attempt to steer a rational middle course between these extremes, however, demands for its success some rehearsal of the facts. And at once, to show the existence of a middle ground, over against centuries of forebodings may be placed the fact that since Chaucer’s day there has been continuously evolving, step by step with the widening experience of men, an English in which men of education everywhere in the far-flung English-speaking world could write and converse together in a way highly agreeable to any but a most inflexibly provincial taste. Amid much confusing detail it is as well not to lose sight of this central fact, that the thing we all are talking about exists. But where, and in what form?

Variety is of the essence of language. Uniformity and consistency are inventions of philosophical grammarians whose efforts are most successful when they deal with a language no longer used to satisfy elementary social needs. A living language is one of the mores of a social group; it is neither a biological growth unaffected by human intervention nor a work of art given its form for all time by a single act of human creation. Consequently it will vary within the group somewhat according to the variation in other respects to be found in the individuals comprising it, and between groups it will vary still more. Like other mores it will be subject to modification by time. But the necessity for mutual intelligibility within the group will greatly restrict the play of individual whim; between groups this force will operate somehow in proportion to the immediacy of their contacts. In a cultured city like ancient Rome or mediæval Florence a group of people might raise and maintain a literary standard around which literary people of other groups would rally. Or, again, a convenient dialect might be somewhat arbitrarily chosen for a particular literary task, as Luther chose the dialect of the Saxon chancellary for his translation of the Bible, and this dialect, with more or less conscious modification from time to time, might remain the standard literary language. In all these cases the great mass of people, not wholly uninfluenced by the literary language perhaps, would go on speaking their own dialects, just as the Romans did until their language of the street, of the camp, and of the provinces broke up into the larger groups, such as French, Spanish, and the rest, each containing within itself many smaller groups; or just as the Italians and the Germans have gone on speaking their dialects to the present day, learning their literary language as best they can besides.