Great is language, wonderful is language,
Illustrious the attribute of speech—language-using controls the rest.
Not only man and civilization, but the history of nature in all departments, and of the organic universe, brought up to date—all are comprehended in words.
All words are spiritual—nothing is more spiritual than words,
One word can pour such a flood through the soul—a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient—
O a word to clear one’s path ahead endlessly!
How curious—the immense variety of languages,
Endless unfolding of words of ages.
Each word has its own meaning, and does not stand for anything but itself—and there are no two words the same any more than there are two persons the same.
Language is the fulness, color, form, diversity of the earth, and of men and women, and of all qualities and processes.
Words are not original and arbitrary in themselves. Words are a result—they are the progeny of what has been or is in vogue;
Language was systematized and passed on from one generation to another in methods answering to what was needed.
The science of language has large and close analogies in geological science, with its ceaseless evolution, its fossils, and its numberless submerged layers and hidden strata, the infinite go-before of the present. Or, perhaps language is more like some vast living body, or perennial body of bodies;
Every sentence we articulate with our voices, and every type-line worked off from the printing presses, here, today, retains subtle, living, entirely unbroken chains of succession back through the Middle Ages, the Roman sway, Greece, Judah, India, Egypt, with arriere-threads to all prehistory, to the vanished peoples, retrospects of the past, to a hundred unknown nations—
Get in the habit of tracing words to their root-meanings.
I think I am done with many of the words of the past hundred centuries. I am mad that their poems, bibles, words, still rule and represent the earth, and are not yet superseded. I say we have here, now, a greater age to celebrate, greater ideas to embody, than anything even in Greece or Rome.
But why do I say so? I must not, will not, be impatient. The points where they differ are not near as remarkable as where they resemble.
America owes immeasurable respect and love to the past, and to many ancestries, for many inheritances—but of all that America has received from the past, from the mothers and fathers of laws, arts, letters, etc., by far the greatest inheritance is the English language—so long in growing—so fitted.
The English language befriends the grand American expression—it is brawny enough and limber and full enough. It is not a polished fossil language, but the true broad fluid language of democracy. It is the dialect of common sense. It is the speech of the proud and melancholy races and of all who aspire. It is the chosen tongue to express growth, faith, self-esteem, freedom, justice, equality, friendliness, amplitude, prudence, decision, and courage.
The English tongue is full of strong words native or adopted to express the blood-born passion of the race for rudeness and resistance: Robust, brawny, acrid, harsh, pluck, grit, effrontery, stern, resistance, bracing, rude, rugged, arrogant, haughty. These words are alive and sinewy—they walk, look, step, with an air of command. This is the tongue that spurns laws, as the greatest tongue must.
Then we have upon it great improvements to make—very great ones—
Develop language anew, make it not literal and of the elder modes, but elliptical and idiomatic.
The immense diversity of race, temperament, character—the copious streams of humanity constantly flowing hither—must reappear in free, rich growth of speech—
A language fanned by the breath of nature, which leaps overhead, cares mostly for impetus and effects, and for what it plants and invigorates to grow, tallies life and character, and seldomer tells a thing than suggests or necessitates it.
It is the medium that shall well nigh express the inexpressible.
Language is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground;
Its final decisions are made by the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea—
They give muscle and bone to every word they speak.
All others have adhered to the principle, and shown it, that the poet and savan form classes by themselves, above the people, and more refined than the people;
I show that they are just as great when of the people, partaking of the common idioms, manners, and what is vulgar.
The words continually used among the people are, in numberless cases, not the words used in writing, or recorded in the dictionaries by authority;
There are just as many words in daily use, not inscribed in the dictionary, and seldom or never in any print. The real dictionary will give all words that exist in use, the bad words as well as any. Many of these bad words are fine.
Slang, profoundly consider’d, is the lawless germinal element, below all words and sentences, and behind all poetry—the wholesome fermentation or eructation of those processes eternally active in language, by which froth and specks are thrown up, mostly to pass away; though occasionally to settle and permanently chrystallize—
It is certain that many of the oldest and solidest words we use, were originally generated from the daring and license of slang.
Slang proves a certain perennial rankness and protestantism in speech, an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism and express itself illimitably, which in highest walks produces poets and poems;
Many of the slang words are powerful words, strong words solid as logs.
The propensity to approach a meaning not directly and squarely, but by circuitous styles of expression, seems indeed a born quality of the common people everywhere.
The appetite of the people, in popular speeches and writings, for unhemmed latitude, coarseness, live epithets, expletives—this I understand because I have the taste myself as large as anyone. I like limber, lasting, fierce words, common idioms and phrases, Yankeeisms and vulgarisms.
Bad presidents, bad judges, bad editors, the long ranks of political suckers, monopolists, cry down the use of strong, cutting, beautiful, rude words.
I have pleasure in the use, on fit occasions, of words of opprobrium, resistance—traitor, coward, liar, shyster, skulk, doughface, trickster, mean cuss, backslider, thief, impotent, lickspittle.
The black dialect furnishes hundreds of outré words, many of them adopted into the common speech of the masses of the people. The black dialect has hints of the future theory of the modification of all the words of the English language. Then we should have two sets of words, male and female as they should be, in these states, both equally understood by the people.
The spelling of words is subordinate. For many hundred years there was nothing like settled spelling.
Also, the forms of grammar are never persistently obeyed, and cannot be.
What is the curious rapport of names? It is a profound, vexatious, never-explicable matter—this of names. I have been exercised deeply about it my whole life.
I have been informed that there are people who say it is not important about names—one word is as good as another if the designation be understood. I say that nothing is more important than names.
Names are magic. A delicate subtle something there is in the right name—an undemonstrable nourishment—that exhilarates the soul.
My arous’d child’s heart, pleas’d with the sound of my own name, repeating it over and over,
I stand apart to hear—it never tires me.
To you your name also;
Did you think there was nothing but two or three pronunciations in the sound of your name?
Names are a test of the aesthetic and of spirituality. Names are the turning point of who shall be master. No country can have its own poems without it have its own names—to make them show who they are, what land they were born in, what government, what genius, mark, blood, times, have coined them with strong-cut coinage.
The full history of names would be the total of human, and all other, history.
Thus does all human interest hang around names. All men experience it, but no man ciphers it out.
The great writers must have digested all these things—passed lexicons, etymologies, orthographies, through them and extracted the nutriment.
Slowly, eternally, inevitably, move the souls of the earth, and names and words are their signs,
Every soul has its own individual language, no two have exactly the same language,
Every existence has its idiom, everything has an idiom and tongue, often unspoken, or lamely, feebly, haltingly spoken; but a true fit for that man, and perfectly adapted to his use.
The truths I tell to you or any other, may not be plain to you, mostly because I fail to translate them fully from my idiom into yours;
If I could do so, and do it well, they would be as apparent to you as they are to me; for they are truths.
I illuminate feelings, faults, yearnings, hopes,
Tidings old, yet ever new and untranslatable,
I too am untranslatable.
Were you thinking that those were the words,
Those upright lines? those curves, angles, dots?
No, those are not the words,
The substantial words are in the ground and sea,
They are in the air, they are in you;
Earth, suns, moons, the rude visage of animals and trees—all these are words,
Air, soil, water, fire—those are words,
Beauty, reality, manhood, time, life—the realities of such as these are the earth’s words.
I myself am a word with them,
(My name is nothing to them,
Though it were told in the three thousand languages, what would air, soil, water, fire, know of my name?)
Not only the dictionary of the English language, but the grammar of it, has yet to be written,
I say the great grammar and the great dictionary of the future must embody the earth—
The dictionaries of words that print cannot touch.
They are calm, subtle, untransmissible by print,
They are imbued through all things conveying themselves willingly.
The workmanship of souls is by the inaudible words of the earth,
With her ample back towards every beholder,
Conveying a sentiment and invitation:
I utter and utter, I speak not, yet if you hear me not of what avail am I to you?
To bear, to better, lacking these of what avail am I?
The earth, I see, writes with prodigal clear hands and certain to be understood in time.
To her children the words of the eloquent dumb great mother never fail,
The true words do not fail—
Underneath the ostensible sounds, the august chorus of heroes, the wail of slaves,
Persuasions of lovers, curses, gasps of the dying, laughter of young people, accents of bargainers,
Underneath these possessing words that never fail.
Say on, sayers!
Delve! mould! pile the words of the earth!
All merges toward the presentation of the unspoken meanings of the earth.
Work on—it is materials you bring, not breaths,
(The best of the earth cannot be told anyhow.)
Work on, age after age!
When the materials are all prepared and ready, the architects shall appear,
I swear to you the architects shall appear without fail,
I swear to you they will understand you and justify you,
They shall perceive that you are not an iota less than they,
You shall be fully glorified in them
The workmen, possessed with an indescribable faith, go on age after age in their work,
The masters know the earth’s words and use them more than audible words—
Here comes one among the well-beloved stonecutters and plans with decision and science and sees the solid and beautiful forms of the future where there are now no solid forms—
And at last come architects and use each in its place the stones they had cut.
NEXT: POETRY AND THE POET