• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On The English Language

November 2019

The length to which my linguistic reach extends, despite the daily exigencies by which I’m stimulated to increase it, isn’t especially long. Try as I might, it seems I haven’t limbs of sufficient length, nor lips of sufficient agility, nor, for that matter, a mind of sufficient capacity for the acquisition of more tongues than just one. In studying the speech patterns of a nation to which my own is foreign, in examining the grammatical idiosyncrasies of a land upon which my feet have never set foot, in attempting to absorb the patois of a tribe different from that of which I am a native son, I’m simply too overwhelmed by the burden. I’m discouraged, deaf, and, most importantly, mute.

As is my stature, as is my temper, the reach with which I’ve been endowed for the acquisition of multiple languages is embarrassingly short. I know not whom to thank for this vital attribute of which I’ve been completely deprived. Maybe it’s a teacher, perhaps a parent, upon whose negligence I ought to lay my blame. Nevertheless, my ability is almost entirely stunted, and it seems not to be an impediment beyond whose restraints I can hope to grow. Even a tenuous and childlike grasp of another language, supplementary to the one in which I was educated and raised, would be an achievement for which I could only pray. A fluidity and a waxing confidence in its use, a proud display of its mastery upon any grandiloquent and bilingual occasion, would be an end of which I couldn’t even dream.

It’s a truth as frustrating as it is sad, but it’s a truth nonetheless. Casting all dreamlike notions of bilingualism aside, it’s a reality to which I’ve been made stubbornly to submit. That said, if nothing else, criticism of oneself and reflection upon one’s own shortcomings and faults never is, in my opinion, a meditation vainly pursued. More often than not, a bit of good can come from this sort of selfish investigation—perhaps even an inducement to improve one’s lot. And while I think that the future of a foreign language included in my repertoire is bleak and very quickly fading (there seems to be, if my anecdotal observations prove correct, something of an inverse relationship between one’s advancement of age and the ease with which he comes into possession a new language), I hope thus to be stimulated. And so, I shall criticize, reflect, and pursue that which always evades my grasp: the bulky weight and the subtle intricacy of the garnering of a second language.

The attainment of a multiplicity of languages, the procurement of the title of “polyglot”, never was, in the opinion of my youth, a special aim for which I had a strong desire. Really, there was never an impetus nor a necessity to know more languages than one. You see, I was reared in a suburban and almost entirely “white” community in the southern half of the state of New Jersey—a region of the world of whose claims to ethnic diversity very little is spoken. Most, if not all of the people by whom I was surrounded spoke—with varying degrees of fluency, aptitude, and intelligibility—some form of what we might call English. A refined speaker of this tongue might categorize it as a somewhat deviant, half-baked, or abused form, but it was English nonetheless.

In the worst of cases, there was, in its use (or, better yet, in its abuse) a strong Philadelphian undertone in which it was bathed. There was an infiltration of neglected “g’s” and overused “cuz’s” (an abridgment of the word, “cousin” for those unaccustomed to this tongue. It was, I should add, a claim of familiarity that I always opted, on the basis of ineloquence, to reject).

The English in which I was raised was also quite permeable to the subtle influences of the New York metropolitan area. “A’s” and “O’s”, in the mouths of those to whom the Empire State is home, are most audibly distorted (think of those city-slickers pronouncing the words “talk” and “long”. Now think of those pronunciations without cringing). At its best, straying from the provincial constraints of its colloquialisms and the stickiness of its cheese steaks and its big apples, the English used in this part of New Jersey was honest and clear. It was simple and direct. However lacking in refinement, it was frank enough and it was solid, not unlike its people, for daily and reliable use. It could withstand the travails of a “tri-state” existence—neighboring, as little New Jersey does, the increasingly sizable states of Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York.

While that form of English with which I was brought up was often something quite less than English as properly and elegantly it’s to be understood, it was never anything more. I’m not speaking here of a language by which my beloved English might’ve been superseded, but merely supplemented. There wasn’t, in my opinion, as well as in that of those monolinguists alongside whom I was raised, a sufficiently strong push to acquire a second language in our public schools or in our homes. There was no emphasis to expand our lingual worldview and enrich our voice. Classes dedicated to the teaching of foreign languages were given the most perfunctory attention, not only by those recipients of its instruction (namely, the students), but by those professors from whom it came.

Long sheltered in this monolingual bubble, the fact that I knew but one language mattered to me very little. The lack of so dynamic and, as I’d come to learn, so mellifluous and thoughtful a skill was no impediment to a future occupation in a decidedly English-preferring world. It wasn’t until I moved away from this cautious and homogeneous suburbia of my youth that I was made to realize the ascendancy of other languages, and the relative disregard, if not outright neglect, of my mother tongue. It wasn’t until then that I questioned the value placed upon the English language—to the exclusion of all the others with which I might be met.

Southern Florida, in comparison with southern New Jersey, is different in almost every way: climatically, ethnically, economically, politically, and linguistically, the two portions of these two states share almost nothing in common. Florida is a state not only of endless vegetation and relentless heat, but of perhaps the most diverse accumulation of cultures that the United States has on display. It is, in the best sense of the word, a state of complete heterogeneity and influx. Locals, born and reared in the state, are the only species that can be deemed rare. Their nativity within the boundaries of this peninsula is a badge of honor of which they’re fiercely proud, but they are a dwindling number.

Immigrants, no matter whence they come, are a rising one. So too are they a banality—a group of people yearning for an improvement of their lots in life at which no one blinks. The state is happily rife with them and thinks little of their presence (while thinking only, in terms of the economy and the culture, of their incalculable importance). The final group by which this state is populated, “snowbirds”, who arrive but for a small portion of the year, are an importunacy by which the first two (the locals and the immigrants) are equally bothered. So too are they the source by which the economy is bolstered and so, they are tolerated as are all the rest.

And so, in all, southern Florida is home to an iridescent demographic—an insufferably hot watering hole in whose reflection every color and every shade can be seen. It is the home to Haitians, Cubans, Columbians, Mexicans, Germans, Hollanders, and Americans from the Northeast and Midwest. It's the home to recent immigrants and obstinate Confederates, dreamers and rebels alike. It is, of all the states composing what’s come to be our grand and full Union, the first upon which our earliest European settlers from the Kingdom of Spain disembarked. Thus, it might be called the oldest, certainly the most diverse and flourishing of all America’s states.

Upon my immersion into this state and its multiplicity of cultures, creeds, and mores, the recognition confronted me that my voice was no longer the one through which all other daily communication was to flow—as it had for the past two decades of my life. It was no longer to be the gatekeeper and the grand inquisitor of all communication by which all thought was to be understood. In many instances of which I thought it worthy to take note, my cherished English wasn’t a primary, nor even, for that matter, a secondary, but a rather unheralded tertiary language to which most speakers paid little mind. Often, Creole—almost always, Spanish—these were the languages to which primacy of use was granted. To be a speaker of English, as was I, felt rather more like being an interloper than an interlocutor whose thoughts and expressions were considered without a care. It was a strange and a thoroughly alienating feeling with which, I suspect, most white, exclusively English-speaking Americans in most parts of this land have very little experience.

The term “nationalism”, though perhaps originally unintended, has lately invited upon itself a noxious connotation. It’s become, much like the exceedingly abused (and, for that reason, valueless) terms “fascist” and “Marxist”, a politically dirty word. As such, it’s not an ideology to which I openly subscribe. Only with a list of solemn reservations and excited amendments would I promote the themes for which it stands. Yet it’s usually from the mouth of the nationalist, however ambiguously or inimically defined, that the strongest defense of the utility, the grace, and the inherent beauty of the English language is to be heard. This was the one, perhaps the only, argument of his by which I was enticed. Most other pundits and thinkers seem quite ill-disposed toward the language which is, much to their displeasure, an inextricable part of their Anglo-American life.

I realized this upon being notified of a book written by the conservative journalist, Richard Lowry. A contributor to the right-leaning publication, The National Review, Lowry authored in his spare time (of which I can only imagine, in the wake of an onslaught of impeachments and elections, there was exceedingly little) a book entitled, The Case for Nationalism. The Israeli author Yoram Hazony produced a work, to whose merit I can personally attest, very similarly named. Written just a year prior, Hazony’s, The Virtue of Nationalism was an international best-seller and an expectedly provocative hit. Indeed, should nationalism fail to resuscitate its image and pull itself out of its current state of disrepair, it wouldn’t be for a lack of the eloquent and persuasive writings with which these two thinkers have treated us.

In his book, Lowry defends the importance of the English language as the primary tongue with which the American people should agree to communicate. He expounded on this view which was, not so very long ago, completely uncontroversial, in the presence of Eugene Robinson on what was, admittedly for the likes of a man like Lowry, an inhospitable set on MSNBC.

Robinson, an ordinarily incisive reporter for The Washington Post, looked with suspicion at Lowry as the latter explained to him (and the liberals by whom he was surrounded) the importance of English as this nation’s primary language of choice. Upon hearing this, most could be felt, if not seen to be rolling their eyes. Its education in the schools and its prioritization in the commerce of ideas, Lowry argued, should be something upon which we, as a country, universally agree. It’s not, as he contended, a language irreverently to be subordinated to infrequent and stifled use. It’s not to be a language by which, after having used it, we should be embarrassed and ashamed. It’s not a language diffidently to be uttered behind clenched and unforthcoming teeth out of the mouth of a drooping head. It should, on the contrary, be a language deeply ingrained in our bones, daily practiced in our discourse, perfectly refined in our readings, proudly expressed in our exclamations, and universally used from coast to coast—be that coast contiguous with the border of Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean Sea.

I’ll admit, fully and from the outset, my partiality leans toward the opinion of which Lowry is so uniquely convinced. In the estimation of an English-speaker such as myself, Lowry’s is a position, it should come as no surprise, in whose utterance my own predilection finds a warm and genial friend. His is a stance behind which I can align my own. I find echoing in his elevation of English as the vital language upon which this nation was built the ringing drumbeat of my own personal, now peculiar thought.

Yet it’s not English for English’s sake that I think Lowry is correct. English is an invaluable and, at times, even a delectable language behind which our support collectively ought to gather. But is it, in our impartial evaluation, the most mellifluous of languages known to and spoken by man? Now there is a subject worthy of our exploration and, probably, of our very heated debate.

Is it, I ask, the most effervescent, the most descriptive, and the most memorable of tongues to which we've been exposed? Is it the most poetic, the most arresting, the most playful, and the most fun of all those countless dialects by which our air has become tickled and saturated? Is it the most nimble and forceful in eliciting an idea, the most capable of forwarding the contemplation of a thought? Is it not only the most cautious and discerning, but the most trenchant and acute? Is it the most warmly-inclined toward the application of prose, the most precisely-tuned toward the pursuit of science, and the most expressive of the thoughts of the literary muse to which our species has been so salubriously exposed?

Since that tower of Babylon collapsed upon the weight of its own impious reach, has English come the closest to scraping, once again, that grumbling belly of God? Is it the strongest and the most resilient of all edifices of speech yet to have been built? Will it not soon ascend to an even higher level atop whose ceiling we can’t, as of yet, even imagine ourselves perched? Is it a divine dialect, the apotheosis of speech? Is it, in conclusion, the language to which all those other vulgar tongues aspire, or the ideal—as if Platonically conceived—of which all those lesser languages merely participate?

Sir Philip Sidney, second most famous of all Elizabethan poets (William Shakespeare, of course, being the first), thought differently when it came to his assessment of the English language. He was unequivocal in thinking it the quintessence of all speech. Might we accuse him of a bias toward his native tongue? Might we assail him of being blindly Anglo-centric? If we must, so too must I accuse myself. To him, to me, to English above all else, there is no language superior to our own.

In his Defense of Poesy, his masterful work of prose for which, ironically, he’s become most famous, Sidney bestows upon the English language the primacy of which we moderns (if we find ourselves in the camp of a Robinson) think it so undeserving. Some people, he admits, will say that English is a “mingled” language. That is, to say, a language at whose core and in whose very constitution many borrowed pieces are to be found. But is there, I wonder, anything at all wrong with being not quite so purely bred?

English is, as is the nation in which it’s most commonly spoken and of which it is, at least till this point, the chief and official language, an amalgamation of ideas from every corner of the land. Aryan (or Indo-European) at its spring and source, Greek and Latin at its base, French in its refinement, German in its sentiment, and Spanish in its exuberant vitality and life, English is the polyphonic and grateful result. English, imbued with all, is a discriminating inheritor of all that’s best been said. It is a copious vessel of speech. “And why not so much the better”, Sidney says, in “taking the best of both the other” and, as the world expands its boundaries and us, our appetite for words à la carte, of all?

I won’t retreat from my goal of learning a second language—however heavy a burden it may be. I won’t forgo this noble attempt, this polyglot’s pursuit—however unlikely it is successfully to end. A dauntless soldier striving for the epaulets of good and variable speech, I’ll trudge through convoluted conversations and tongue-twisting grammar books and apps if only slightly to expand the palate of my narrowly English tongue. But I’ll not forget those vintage words of Sidney, nor those most recent ones of Lowry. A nationalist by any other name, I'll not, at least on this point, fail to elevate my own native tongue. English is, despite all the abuse by which it’s been cudgeled, excoriated, and abused, a beautiful and a useful language. We should be proud to have it; prouder still, to speak it.

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