The Living Language

On a recent visit to Bryn Mawr Book Store, my neighborhood’s pre-owned book shop (may it never lose its lease or its charmingly fusty decor!), I came across a gently worn hardcover edition of E. B. White’s Writings from The New Yorker (1927-1976).

It only took me a few flips through its pages to land on piece called “The Living Language,” published in the February 23, 1957, issue of the magazine, which recounts the era’s heated debate over standards for usage and cites the ungrammatical Winston ad (mentioned in my last post) as evidence of Madison Avenue’s marketing ploy to butcher the language to bring home the bacon. (I doubt such a strategy would raise any eyebrows today, the standards of popular usage having fallen so far and so low.)

EBW describes the thin line he and his fellow editors must walk to keep peace between a handful of sober grammarians” and “an army of high-spirited writers” and states that he seen firsthand “the nasty chop that is kicked up when the tide of established usage runs against the winds of creation.” Toeing the editorial party line he writes,

Through the turmoil and the whirling waters we have reached a couple of opinions of our own about the language. One is that a school child should be taught grammar — for the same reason a medical student should be taught anatomy. Having learned about the exciting mysteries of an English sentence, the child can then go forth and write any damn way he pleases.


His conclusion stays true to his liberal-mindedness (in language as in politics), yet its crafting is so elegant and word-perfect that it could only have been penned by a master wordsmith and thus makes the case for learning the rules before breaking them:

The living language is like a cowpath: it is the creation of the cows themselves, who, having created it, follow or depart from it according to their whims or their needs. From daily use, the path undergoes change. A cow is under no obligation to stay in the narrow path she helped make, following the contour of the land, but she often profits by staying with it and she would be handicapped if she didn’t know where it was or what it led to.

Personal Reflections

I highly recommend the French film “Entre les murs” (“The Class”), which won the 2008 Palme d’Or at Cannes and is nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Film. A quasi-documentary filmed in a real public high school in a diverse quartier of Paris, it depicts the universal challenge faced by today’s teachers as they try to balance upholding academic standards and engaging students for whom those standards appear (are?) irrelevant. Explaining the subtleties of the “imparfait subjunctif” tense to a spirited group of teens from immigrant families, the teacher realizes he is futilely defending a dead language, but soldiers on in the faint hope that a command of the subjunctive might raise his students’ status in tradition-bound French society. I left the theater with equal sympathy and respect for teachers and the students everywhere, as they labor to understand each other’s biases.

A Huron Village landmark since as at least the early 1970s, maybe longer! Photo from the store's website.

A Huron Village landmark since as at least the early 1970s, maybe longer!

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