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"The Standard of Usage in English," by Thomas R. Lounsbury (1908)

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Sign in Ovid, New York, marking the birthplace of Thomas R. Lounsbury

A professor of English and linguistics at Yale University, Thomas R. Lounsbury (1838–1915) was one of the most notable scholars of his day. As brilliant on the page as he was cantankerous in the classroom, Lounsbury published numerous works on major literary figures and on the history and structure of the English language.

The Standard of Usage in English: Is English Becoming Corrupt? (Harper & Brothers, 1908) grew out of a series of articles that Lounsbury had written for Harper's Magazine. Don't be put off by the grim title: the book is not a prescriptive grammarian's lament--far from it. As Jim Quinn has observed (in American Tongue and Cheek, 1980), "Thomas R. Lounsbury, the dean of American grammarians in his day, was writing a book that poked fun at language correctors."

The following excerpts from the opening and closing pages of the first essay in The Standard of Usage in English demonstrate that concern about the decline of language has had a long history in English:

There seems to have been in every period of the past, as there is now, a distinct apprehension in the minds of very many worthy persons that the English tongue is always in the condition of approaching collapse, and that arduous efforts must be put forth, and put forth persistently, in order to save it from destruction.
But as Lounsbury points out, such efforts to "save" and "fix" the language have never succeeded--and doubtless never will.

The Standard of Usage in English: Is English Becoming Corrupt?

by Thomas R. Lounsbury (1838-1915)

No one who is interested in the subject of language can have failed to be struck with the prevalence of complaints about the corruption which is overtaking our own speech. The subject comes up for consideration constantly. Reference to it turns up not infrequently in books: discussion of it forms the staple of articles contributed to magazines, and of numerous letters written to newspapers. Lists of objectionable words and phrases and constructions are carefully drawn up. The frequency of their use is made the subject sometimes of reprobation, sometimes of lamentation. There exists, it appears, a class of persons who,either through ignorance or indifference, or often through both combined, are doing all in their power to corrupt the English tongue. Their efforts are too largely successful. There is accordingly no salvation for the speech unless heroic measures are taken to guard it from the perils threatening its purity. Sleepless vigilance is required. Grammatical sentinels must always be on the watch-towers, ready to raise the cry of warning or alarm the moment they discern the approach of the least of these linguistic foes.

The Fear That Language Is on the Road to Ruin

About this state of things, it is to be added, there is nothing new. There seems to have been in every period of the past, as there is now, a distinct apprehension in the minds of very many worthy persons that the English tongue is always in the condition of approaching collapse, and that arduous efforts must be put forth, and put forth persistently, in order to save it from destruction. The study of our literature--perhaps it would be better to say the study of views about our literature--shows that from an early period there has existed a vague fear that the language is on the road to ruin. Signs are remarked that indicate plainly to the unhappy observer that it is moving unmistakably on the downward path. These foretellers of calamity we have always had with us; it is in every way probable that we shall always have them.

A certain uniformity is to be found in the attitude they exhibit towards the speech, no matter what period it is to which they belong. They keep in view--at least they profess to keep in view--the duty of refining and purifying it. They are filled with profoundest anxiety for its future. They view with concern or with alarm its decline. An undertone of melancholy, indeed, pervades most of the utterances of those who devote themselves to the care of the language. Though precautions of every sort may be taken, it is implied that in all probability they will turn out to be ineffectual.

Golden Ages of Speech

Now and then the view has been expressed that the golden age of the speech is in the present, though it is almost invariably accompanied with the assertion that it has already begun to degenerate. But this is far from being the opinion usually held. There is one particular, indeed, in which the prophets of woe bear to one another the closest resemblance in the lamentations to which they give utterance. They are always pointing to the past with pride. In some preceding period, frequently not very remote, they tell us that the language was spoken and written with the greatest purity. It had then attained the acme of perfection at which it is capable of arriving. But since that happy time it has been degenerating. The old unpolluted speech is gone or at any rate is going. Corruptions of all kinds are not merely stealing in, they are pouring in with the violence of a tidal wave. Slang, unnecessary words, ungrammatical locutions, phrases borrowed from foreign tongues, especially from the French, replace and drive out the genuine vernacular. Slipshod methods of expression abound in the speech of the majority, and creep unobserved into the writings of good authors. On every side the outlook is dreary beyond expression.


Continued on page two

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