The wars about English are fought predominantly on the battlefields of grammar, syntax, and general usage. Unlike French, as puritan in regard to adoption as are the Japanese in regard to immigration, English has always promiscuously embraced anything that washes up on its shores. Partly because of its Norse, Teutonic, and Latinate roots; the world-spanning embrace of the British Empire; and the ease of incorporating borrowings into a declension-free structure, English has by far the richest vocabulary of any language, by some accounts exceeding a million words.
The democratic impulse that distinguishes the English-speaking nations has given English the kind of free-wheeling egalitarianism absent in countries where vestigial aristocracy survives in academies that lock down language. Anglo-American dominance and wealth have drawn into the lexicon the vocabularies of science, business, technology, art, academics, entertainment, the military, popular culture, etc., that many languages lack for want of the opportunity to develop such things so richly. And the dynamism of English allows it to discard the old as readily as it embraces the new. When was the last time you thought about a liripoop (the tail of an academic hood)?
Language wars reflect political, philosophical, and cultural divisions: ordered liberty versus careless anarchy, tradition versus progression, inquiry into the etymology of words versus disdain for their original constitution, and, not to be ignored, the freighted division between the idea that the meaning of language is rooted in objective reality and that, in the absence of discoverable truth, language means whatever the most powerful force at the moment decrees. The advance guard of ideological infection is the postmodern theories of MIT linguist Noam Chomsky. A grammar based upon the Latin was good enough for Shakespeare. Compare his style to Chomsky’s, and the case is closed.
From such deficiencies arises not constructive evolution but disfigurement, for language must have an intelligible common currency, and like any currency it requires an objective basis, judicious maintenance, shared utility, and constancy. Politicized and process-oriented American education has combined with atrocities like Twitter, texting, and other truncated, thumb-driven means of expression to do astoundingly rapid damage to an otherwise intelligent linguistic progression.
We all make mistakes, and many rules are sometimes beneficially broken, but now even professional writers, especially journalists, are largely semi-literate. Examples could fill an encyclopedia, but here are just a few that point to a lack of knowledge or care.
One reads now of a France based such and such, or even, recently, the Turkey prime minister. Next will be the America president. Too many adjectives may hobble a style, but why exterminate them? French-based is an adjectival phrase in which an adjective modifies a participle, much like the wonderful African-American contribution to the language, crazy-assed, assed being a participle from the newly minted verb ass, to endow with an ass. The crazy-assed Chomskyites might call this a descriptor.
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Pure ignorance has substituted reticent, meaning reluctant to speak, for reluctant itself, just as ideology has substituted Ms. for Miss and Mrs., all of them abbreviations for Mistress, and Miss having served quite well to make ambiguous a woman’s marital status. The New York Times is more responsible than any other actor for the rape of prepositions. It would be one thing if it confined itself to the phrase “standing on line,” New York usage for sure. But the Times will note concern on rather than for, and a study on rather than of. Now we have arriving to, advocating for (and worse, against), surrounded on two sides, and weather forecasters who think they are meatorologists.
We often hear of survivors of one thing or another. True, one may live through many a depredation, as opposed to dying. One may live through a Barbra Streisand concert or a Hillary Clinton speech as opposed to dying, but to have survived is more appropriate to having withstood a threat to life. One may correctly survive an assault which was also attempted murder. One does not survive a burglary or a micro-aggression. For years now, the Baltic Republics and their successors have been called The Baltics. This is a thoughtless analogy to the Balkans, which are mountains, plural, and are not a group of countries but a region, like the Rockies or the Alps. The Baltic is a sea, singular. One can say the Pacific nations, but not the Pacifics, although—after the Baltics—the Atlantics, the Pacifics, the Indians, and the Mediterraneans are probably next.
One could go on and on. Such objections are not, as they could be, pedantry, but rather mourning for the passage of certain habits of thought, care, and education. Attention to language is to civilization what broken windows policing is to public order and domestic tranquility. Unfortunately, those who appreciate it are probably those who already exercise it, and those who need it probably will not appreciate it.
Undoubtedly I have erred even within this column, but if anyone protests that I have he will be making my point. The evolution of language is best sharpened and polished by protest and debate showing a decent respect to the magnificent instrument of which we are the inheritors and custodians. Without such consideration the anarchy that will follow may eventually degenerate into snorts, bellows, hisses, and grunts (who are, coincidentally, my attorneys).
No one should be taken in by reflexive and fulsome professions of allegiance to the idea of unlimited linguistic flexibility, for, just as in politics, the revolutionary mind is libertine until it is accorded control, after which it enforces the eternal stasis of the grave. The first sign of a will to power is the lust for destruction. And the only chance for a language to deepen in expression and widen in application is if it can thrive in a garden of ordered liberty.
This article appeared in: Volume XVII, Number 2 of The Claremont Review of Books.
The new administration may be sorely tempted to close a showy diplomatic “deal,” the origins of which are President Obama’s extraordinary policy failures in the Middle East. With American financing rather than resistance, Iran has thrown a military bridge from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, a feat the U.S. could not equal at the height of its powers when it unsuccessfully tried to construct the Central Treaty Organization in the 1950s. Worse still, Mr. Obama’s “executive agreement” with Tehran gives it a U.S.-guaranteed path to nuclear weapons.
As Mr. Obama denuded the Mediterranean of armed American naval vessels and backed off supposed red lines, Russia re-established itself in the Middle East after having been almost completely excluded during the previous nine presidential terms. The result of such astounding American incompetence has been genocidal wars and the metaphorical transformation of the regional security situation from gunpowder into nitroglycerin.
It threatens to become even worse, in that with the presence of rival great powers, the processes at work may leap the bounds of their containment in the Middle East and unravel the long peace of Europe. Because of the March 7 meeting of the American, Russian, and Turkish military chiefs, and simultaneous Russian signals that it is ready, for a price, to abandon its support of Iran, Iran–as documented by the Middle East Media Research Institute–is in a state of “shock.” It knows that it cannot stand against the might and favorable geographic position of a combination of these forces and the proximate Sunni states. President Hassan Rouhani recently rushed to Moscow, but his meetings there were conspicuously opaque about the future of Iran in Syria.
Excluding Iranian troops and arms from Syria and Lebanon would be a major achievement, which could have been a feature of the Obama foreign policy before Russia reinforced in Syria. American, Saudi, Turkish, and Jordanian air power might easily have laid an air blockade across the 1,000 miles from Tehran to Damascus, and kept the few roads in wide-open country clear of overland supply. Needless to say, Iran would have found the sea route unavailing.
Even now, with a Russian air component in western Syria, it is unlikely that Moscow would risk breaking a blockade any more than it attempted to breach the 1962 quarantine of Cuba, for the reason that it could not then and cannot now project power into the area of contention with even a small fraction of the force that would resist it. As the Soviets did in the Cuban crisis, Russia might resort to nuclear bluffing, but it would be only that. Its interests in the Levant, which, given its lack of power projection and capable allies, it cannot exploit, would not be worth an empty threat that it would then have to withdraw.
Nonetheless, nuclear brinkmanship is hardly to be considered lightly. So, given that the U.S. failed to capitalize on its open opportunities before Russia came on the scene, should it not now take the opportunity to begin putting Iran back into its cage by striking a deal with Russia?
No, because this is not the only way to do so, and the price, if indeed Russia would fully cooperate, would be to bless the developing Russian alliance with a mischievous and eminently separable-from-NATO Turkey, and, much more consequently, the lifting of sanctions related to Crimea and Ukraine.
That Russia is shy of the madness of Iran and foresees such a trade as (from a column in Kommersant) opening a “window of opportunity for Donald Trump’s diplomacy,” has been suggested by various Kremlin ventriloquist dummies. According to a U.S. intelligence report, the ever injudicious Vladimir Zhirinovsky proclaimed on the eve of the U.S. election that if Mr. Trump won, “Russia would ‘drink Champagne’ in anticipation of being able to advance its positions in Syria and Ukraine.”
In a Syria-Ukraine trade-off, the Trump administration would not merely lend weight to the accusation that because of the president’s mysterious admiration for Vladimir Putin it is unduly partial to Russia. It would also legitimize the breaking of treaties, the seizing of territories, and the instigation of war not in a subsidiary Third World theater of maneuver but in Europe itself.
The United States should not go down this road. Europe in its current disarray is hardly bereft of Putin-friendly business interests, political factions, and politichiens from dinosaur communists to Marine Le Pen. Even the gentlest push may flip it on sanctions. This would be a cardinal error on the scale of Chamberlain’s betrayal of the Czechs, Roosevelt’s too-easy abandonment of Eastern Europe, Acheson’s mistake in excluding Korea from the American defense perimeter, U Thant’s 1967 withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Force from the Sinai, and April Glaspie’s confusing signals to Saddam Hussein. Each of these perhaps momentarily attractive concessions ended in war.
The trade would confirm to Mr. Putin that leveraging prior American fecklessness with only a low-cost and unsustainable intervention in the Middle East was able to change the international order in Europe to his advantage. Logically, he would look next to the Baltic states. Crimea and eastern Ukraine are different from the former Soviet republics on the Baltic, given the NATO tripwire force in the latter. But it is only a token presence, and a Russian blitzkrieg from Kaliningrad and the east could conquer them in a day. Without the ability to bring strong conventional forces to bear quickly, would NATO go nuclear to reclaim them? It would not.
Harvesting Russian “concessions” in the Middle East in return for legitimizing its aggressions in Europe would teach Moscow that, given time, the West will accept its conquests. If history is a guide, Russia would then advance to the kind of tragic miscalculation that spurred Hitler to invade Poland. Just as tragic is the pattern that when seduced to concede, the West gives a false impression of its ultimate resolve, and eventually stumbles into war.
Mr. President, if such a trade is offered, do not take it. It would be a very bad deal.
First published in the Wall Street Journal (Online); 29 Mar 2017.
In the tumultuous sixties, as an undergraduate at Harvard (for which I have prayed for forgiveness most of my life), I was disappointed again and again by the common Victorian and early twentieth-century convention of beginning a chapter with lush description and then abandoning it in favor of social interaction, philosophical reflection, and plot development. Nature was treated mainly as a stage direction: “Night. Wind in the pines. Soldiers around a campfire.” Even such details as those were to me more evocative and meaningful than much that followed, dry and disconnected from the universal language of creation that is the grammar and syntax of great art because it is the language given to us in the fullest and deepest measure.
Falling Into Eternity continued at First Things March 2017.