August 25th, 2012In Praise of the Englishby Dena Hunt

…language. Kevin recently posted an excerpt from the inimitable Fr. George Rutler, a mini-masterpiece of lucid prose. There is another, ”Anger Management,” on the Crisis page yesterday, a cool drink of water for anyone whose mind may be wandering in the desert. A few bits should illustrate:

“Anger as a deadly sin is like an oil spill instead of oil for energy.”

 “I do not know which is worse: sinful anger, which thinks that it is just, or timidity, which thinks that it is charitable.”

“In the history of social pathology, neurotic people have camouflaged their psychosis in righteous causes. John Brown was a fanatic whose uncontrolled temper made him a mockery of martyrdom, but that did not discredit the abolition movement. The pro-life movement is the noblest cause of our days, and it is not less so for the few mentally disturbed people who wrap themselves in its mantel.”

And so on.

What Fr. Rutler is so very able to do is discriminate. Discrimination as an intellectual skill has fallen on hard times in these modern days because those who set the standards for public thought are under a malevolent influence which, if you read Fr. Rutler’s essay in its entirety, you will be able to discern.

Discrimination is necessary for clarity of action, of motivation, of thought. And Fr. Rutler uses the greatest verbal arsenal in the world for that purpose—the English vocabulary. It’s different. How? Great literature is written in every major language, but English has way more than its share, for such a small nation. Why is that? It has nothing to do with the British empire, the Industrial Revolution—none of that sort of thing. It’s because English has the greatest vocabulary in the world. Really. One tiny example comes to mind: Germans go to the butcher’s to buy fleisch, but English distinguishes between flesh and meat. English makes such distinctions possible.

In its history, Britain was invaded by everybody and his brother, but unlike others, its native language was not displaced by conquering Romans and sundry tribes from Scandinavia, Germany, France, etc. Instead, it simply adopted and assimilated the vocabulary of its conquerors into its own constantly expanding lexicon. Over time, the English language became broader, deeper, and richer than other more fixed linguistic structures, more capable of nuance and subtle shades of meaning than any other language.

Now, let’s fast forward to another consideration: Although it has other purposes, the single most important purpose of language is the articulation of imagination, of abstract thought. And there we arrive at Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Chesterton—or Father George Rutler, et al. As an antidote for some of the recent anti-English rants here, it may be good to think for a moment about the English language, in which some of those rants were expressed so well. 


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