Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Christopher MiddletonNotes on a Viking Prow
(PN Review 10)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Lehbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
Reader Survey
PN Review Substack

This item is taken from PN Review 29, Volume 9 Number 3, January - February 1983.

THERE are 18,750 words in the new volume of the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, recently published. This means that number added since the Oxford English Dictionary itself reached the letters O-Scz, and no doubt while the printers have been busy a few more words have found their way into print-which is the modest qualification for admission into the dictionary. The boundaries of the language are being set wider and wider, like those of the former land of hope and glory. Perhaps in the end it will become co-terminous with the universe, though the present limits may well be the last to be recorded in a book. Hereafter, perhaps, the progress of the language will be recorded only on a computer and some ambitious editor may distinguish himself by extending the scope to include words stored only on other computers.

All that is of course as it should be. The Oxford English Dictionary, and no doubt its Supplement, provide endless entertainment and instruction, of a kind not likely to be diminished by the further progress now in view. But these huge compendia are dictionaries of what, exactly? Not, happily, of a language which anyone needs to know. Not even of a language which anyone in fact does know, for even the lexicographers themselves must falter. Still less are they a record of a language which anyone could use, though anyone might, of course, draw on any part of it. Language is not a heap of words, but an articulated system through which a conversation may be held, more or less satisfactorily as the participants share more or less understanding of and interest in the subject-matter. There must be a common structure, a radical syntax more or less taken for granted, and as much common meaning attached to the terms as the current subject-matter requires. The really large-scale dictionary is an encyclopaedia of words rather than a guide to a language.

The question is whether there is now an English language one could have a guide to. The normal state of mankind is to get along without any such guide, and Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, or the Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française, are the products of very special circumstances. There have been other manifestations of highly self-conscious moments in the development of languages-Dante's De Vulgari Eloquentia, for example, or Du Bellay's Deffence et Illustration de la Langue Francoyse. All these phenomena suppose that a conscious improvement of a language is possible, or that a standard of correctness is possible or desirable. Such correctness is now usually thought of as one of the rigours imposed by a dominant class, and so it largely is, though in the literate and sophisticated societies which produce dictionaries and literary manifestoes, there is an interplay between the dominant class proper and those whose claim to superiority rests on what used to be called intellectual attainments-a clerisy, in fact. In our own day the notion of correctness is usually more or less frowned upon. This has some advantages, and some foolish pedantries have been put to flight. On the other hand, it can be argued that a notion of correctness in speech and writing is not so nefarious as it is sometimes made out to be.

Some measure of common agreement about what the language is, there must certainly be; it is the very nature of it to be conventional. How much of a common pattern does there have to be? For ordinary day-to-day encounters between strangers, the requirements are fortunately minimal, and travellers in all ages have got by with a few words, or nothing at all, of the language of the people around them. But a complicated set of conventions has to be accepted before anything of more than a hand-to-mouth character can be said. These are the famous 'cultures' we live in, and in which words play so important a part. The contemporary world is not less absurd than its predecessors, in this respect. If it was unsatisfactory that the language of the castle or the big house should exercise an undue pressure on the speech of the population at large, it is not less so that every social group that pops up should be supposed to possess a language of equal charm and effectiveness. Indeed, in the modern world, the chances of language being contaminated at source are probably greater than at any time in history, and if this is so the need for a critique of language is also greater than ever before-which is not to say that most attempts in this direction are not likely to be ridiculous and all of them, perhaps, of very small effect.

Coleridge's criticism of Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads is much to the point here. There was probably more than Coleridge allowed to Wordsworth's claim to have based his poetic language on that of people in 'low and rustic life', but there is certainly much force in Coleridge's argument that such language, 'purified' as Wordsworth claimed to have purified it, was much the same as anyone else's, similarly purified. Wordsworth of course assumed the right of men of his time and class to determine what correct speech was. The most significant part of Coleridge's critique, from our point of view, is however his insistence that the 'peasants' of his day were using phrases which, 'three or four centuries ago were the exclusive property of the universities and schools', and which had gradually 'passed into common life' by way of the pulpit. This slow transfusion no doubt gave the country language of the late eighteenth century a digested quality beyond anything which can be heard today, and for us the verbal influences which play on everybody's speech, from worlds outside his experience, are multifarious and powerful-and in one form and another play on the ears of the population at large for many more hours a week than the most dutiful of our forebears ever spent listening to sermons. The sources of this hail of words are far-flung and miscellaneous, like the sources of the Supplement, and if it will take some time to hear 18,750 new words in this way, there are certainly more than can be digested by any of us into decent and homely speech. The exposure through radio and television is less to what can properly be called spoken English than to scripted speech, which is something different. The allegedly 'aural' culture is largely at the mercy of what is ordinarily a pretentious and semi-literate sub-art.

The purification of language is the common purpose to which all good writers contribute more or less, whether or not they ever give a thought to such an objective. For some ways of saying things are better than others, which means also that some are worse than others. The standard is not the practice of any social class, as such, and Coleridge's reproof to Wordsworth for his phrase about 'the real language of men' has a new force in a world exposed for so many hours a day to so much pseudo-demotic nonsense. The real problem is to keep alive, amidst the almost overwhelming institutional pressures of our time, a language which will really serve in the ordinary, unforced, unpaid exchanges between people. Not what will be tolerated by a large audience on radio or television, not what will look plausible in a Ph.D. thesis, but what can sensibly be said by one person to another, without hope of public or reward, is the true basis of literature. One would like to think that a literary magazine could help to keep such a language alive and that, whether in prose or verse, its contents differed from this (alas ideal) common language 'only by the superior number and novelty of the thoughts and relations which they had to convey'. How far has PNR lived up to this standard? Whatever the answer to that question, it is by that exacting standard that it will in the end be judged.

This item is taken from PN Review 29, Volume 9 Number 3, January - February 1983.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image