Posts Tagged ‘Alexander Pope’

Caring for Words, VIII: Witnesses to Hope

Monday, January 1st, 2018


On New Year’s Day, with the Twelve Days of Christmas more than half-spent, it’s time to remember that a diseased language may be restored to health. However long it may take to persuade politicians, parties, and other political organizations to change their ways, readers and writers who care for words can cultivate healthy language habits. Some of these are practical matters of reading and writing. Others are more complex and demanding. Great voices from the Western tradition call to us. Long-excluded voices – voices that survived and even flourished under the most dreadful conditions – are ready to share unwelcome but necessary truths.

Restoring a language to health cannot mean reconstructing an idealized past. There is much from our tongue’s history we should conserve, including some treasures discarded in the name of a ill-defined but zealously imposed “progress.” Yet the past is strewn with linguistic corpses best left entombed, remembered as cautionary tales, mistakes along the way: alienating names, hateful descriptions, abstractions we kill for. Leavening the best of the Western tradition with words and voices that will no longer be marginalized – that’s a challenge full of promise and peril. I have too much confidence in human imperfection to believe we will set things aright, once and for all. Pessimist that I am, I have reason to hope.

With due respect to Orwell (see below), language is an organism as well as an instrument, or say it’s an ecosystem with a particular genius. It bears cultivation but not exploitation. The latter only worsens the malady we wish to heal. There are voices aplenty who show us ways to cultivate a healthier language, who “consult the genius of the place,”* as they go about their business. From their witness, I draw radical hope. (more…)