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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 56.djvu/517

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their influence on the world would be in every way powerful for good.




The ordinary school education in language and grammar is doubtless responsible for the impression which we find existing in so many minds that, in all matters of verbal expression, there is some one absolute standard of authority to which it implies simply ignorance not to bow—some supreme court, as it were, empowered to decide for us what words we are to use, how we are to pronounce them, and what rules of syntax we are to follow. It would be difficult, doubtless, to impart to children or very young people the wider and more scientific view of language, inasmuch as they need, in the first place, clear guidance as regards usage rather than correct theory. The idea, therefore, with which they grow up, if their school studies take any hold upon them at all and if no wider culture comes to change their way of looking at things, is that some very wise man made an infallible grammar and another very wise man an infallible dictionary, and that no one need be in doubt in regard to what is orthodox in language who has access to these tables of the law. We have known grown-up persons to turn away with a very skeptical air, and a kind of look as if they had found out a weak spot in your educational armor, when they were told that really it was impossible to say which of two pronunciations of a word was right and which was wrong—that either might be employed without mortal offense against elegance of speech or good breeding.

A hidebound view of language tends so much to narrow thought on general subjects that it seems to us of importance that the true and scientific view of the subject should be brought forward whenever opportunity offers. Mr. William Archer, the well-known English critic, contributed an article not long ago to the Pall Mall Magazine which might be read with much advantage by pedants and purists, and all blind followers of authority. He takes the broad ground that language is a transcript, as it were, of life, and that as life widens and becomes more varied, language must do the same. It must reflect the fancy, the imagination, and the humor of the day, and not merely the fancy, imagination, and humor of past generations. If we want a language that is fixed and unalterable in its forms we must seek one that has ceased to be spoken by men. Even then we can not always get absolute decisions. Cicero is perhaps the best standard of Latin prose, but no competent critic would say that his writing was flawless. We know that grammatical questions were much debated among the ancients, and we have no doubt that many such questions were left unsettled. In a living language there must be unsettled questions. There is a constant struggle for life going on among the words and phrases with which men endeavor to express their ideas, and, at a given moment, it is impossible to say which shall prosper, this or that. The word or phrase that prospers—that commends itself, after adequate trial, for expressiveness, convenience, or euphony, or for any combination of useful qualities—will survive and become classic; the expression that has nothing special to commend it, beyond its novelty and slanginess, will probably pass, after a brief and partial currency, into the vast limbo of the unfit. All we can say of a word at a given moment is how far it has actually become current and what kind of society it keeps. What its fortune will be we can only guess. Just as in the financial