The Society for Pure English in early 20th century England

The Society for Pure English

The following article from the New York Times talks about the Society for Pure English in early 20th century England.

A Campaign for Pure English by Brander Matthews

The Society for Pure English came into being in England in 1913 at the suggestion of Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate, Henry Bradley, the successor of Sir James Murray as editor of the still unfinished Oxford Dictionary; Sir Walter Raleigh, the Oxford Professor of English Literature, and L. Pearsall Smith, author of a useful little book on the history of the English language. Among those who joined it immediately were Arthur J. Balfour, A. C. Bradley, Austin Dobson, Thomas Hardy, J. W. Mackaif, Gilbert Murray, Mrs Humphry Ward and Mrs Wharton – this last being the only American adherent, unless L. Pearsall Smith can be reckoned as another. The rallying of these men and women of letters was not more significant than the prompt adhesion of the professors of English in the various British universities: W. M. Dixon, Oliver Elton, E. S. Gordon, C. H. Herford, W. P. Ker, G. C. Moore-Smith, F. W. Moorman, A. Quiller-Couch, George Saintsbury and H. C. K. Wyld.

The Society for Pure English was just coming into being when the war began, and it remained in a state of suspended animation until after the signing of the armistice. It then emerged from its enforced hibernation and renewed its activity by issuing again, as the first of its tracts, its preliminary announcement and its list of members. This appeared nearly a year ago, and in the intervening twelve months the society has sent forth its second tract, a discussion of English Nomophones by the Poet Laureate, and its third tract, containing "A Few Practical Suggestions" by L. Pearsall Smith and a request for material to be used in the society’s later publications. One sentence in this request is emphasised by being printed in italics: “ Such contributions from overseas are especially invited.” and the sturdy Elizabethan word overseas seems to indicate desire that this could work should be helped along by us Americans.

Many years ago Lord Houghton, always friendly to the United States (as he had proved himself in the dark days of the Civil War), addressed a little lyric to an American lady in praise of our common tongue:

That ample speech! That subtle speech!
Apt for the need of all and each.
Strong to endure, yet prompt to bend
Wherever human feelings tend.
So keep it pure; expand its powers
And through the maze of civic life,
In letters, commerce, even in strife
Forget not it is yours and ours.

In these lines the lyrist besought us Americans to aid the British preserving the purity of the language which is our joint heritage. But he did not explain what he meant when he asked us to “keep it pure”. What is the impending danger to our noble tongue which we must rep[ort]? Why is there any need for the organisation of a Society for Pure English? This is the first question to which such a society must provide an answer. And this is just the question which the society did answer in its preliminary announcement, reprinted in Tract No. 1.

There is a peril to the proper development of the language in offensive affectations, in persistent pedantry and in other results of that comprehensive ignorance of the history of English which we find plentifully revealed in many of our grammars, wherein we find rules of no validity – rules either borrowed from other tongues or evolved from the inner consciousness of schoolmasters. As the Society for Pure English here asserts, there is to be seen in our periodicals abundant discussion "concerning the choice and use of special words, and the standards of style; but this is mostly conducted by irresponsible persons, who have no knowledge of the history of English, and are even without any definite ideal or right conception of what the essentials of a good language must be.” (P. 6) While opposing whatever is slipshod and careless, the society intends to oppose also "the tyranny of schoolmasters and grammarians, both in their pedantic conservatism and in their ignorant enforcing of new-fangled ‘rules’ based not on principle, but merely on what has come to be considered as 'correct' usage."

These are strong words, but they are none too strong, as the history of English will acknowledge. Many of the makers of textbooks and many of the teachers of grammar are ignorant, pedantic and tyrannical. It is high time that men who love the language, who can use it deftly and forcibly, and who are acquainted with the principles and the processes of its growth, should raise the standard of independence. The task before us is to "educate our masters" – more particularly to educate our schoolmasters. Two manifestations of the pedantic ignorance may be noted. One was the shrill outcry after the appearance of the "Recessional" because the bard of the British Empire had written "the tumult and the shouting dies." Yet any one who recalled that “moth and dust doth corrupt” might have known that Kipling had not broken the tables of the law. The other is that persistent protest against the so-called "split infinitive," e.g., "to clearly see." There is no sound reason why a writer should not split all his infinitives, if he so choose, and scores of the best writers have chosen to do it on occasion. Daniel Webster in revising one of his great speeches, deliberately split and infinitive which he had not cleft in when he was speaking, if we may rely on the shorthand transcript.

It is mistakenly believed by many that the purity of a language is endangered by its importation of words from other tongues. The fact is that every living language is constantly enlarging its vocabulary by importing foreign words, which are no menace to its purity if they are completely naturalised. Only devoted students of the history of English are aware of the immensity of our indebtedness to other tongues ancient and modern. The real danger to purity is when these foreign words are not assimilated, when they are not completely naturalised, when they are allowed to retain the foreign pronunciations, their foreign accents and their foreign plural[s]. The Society for Pure English is outspoken in its opposition to the mere imbedding of alien terms in English speech wherein they stand out as stumbling-blocks:

Literary taste at the present time with regard to foreign words recently borrowed from abroad, is on wrong lines, the notions which govern it being scientifically incorrect, tending to impair the national character of our standard speech, and to adapt it to the habits of classical scholars. On account of these alien associations our borrowed terms are now split and pronounced, not as English, but as foreign words, instead of being assimilated, as they were in the past, and brought into conformity with the main structure of our speech. Even words that were once naturalised are being one by one made un-English and driven out of the language and into their foreign forms; whence it comes that a paragraph of serious English prose may be sometimes seen as freely sprinkled with italicised French words as the passage of Cicero is often interlarded with Greek. The mere printing of such words in italics is an active force toward degeneration.

The principle which ought to guide literary taste is simple – either a word is English or it isn't. If it isn't English, the necessity for employing it is doubtful at best; when we are writing English we had better write in English. And if a word is English it ought to be wholly English, aptly adapted and totally assimilated. It is with a painful and aggrieved surprise that we find Professor Bliss Perry saying that “the fine arts differ as media of expression.” It is with annoyance that we note the use of curricula by Mr. Galsworthy and of fora and studia by Professor Abbott. Surely, medium and curriculum, forum and stadium are citizens of our vocabulary. And is not employee better than employé? (May I not record my regret that the unfriendly alien employé has recently appeared more than once in the editorial columns of The New York Times, which are generally unpedantic?)

There is no cause or just impediment to repertory and conservatory, whereas repertoire and conservatoire seem pedantically un-English to many of us. There is no superiority in the suddenly popular questionnaire over the good old English equivalent, interrogatory; and if questionnaire is thought to be better, why should it not suffer a sea change and become questionary? There is no excuse for calling a metal railing a grille; and as for grille-room – which is to be seen on one of the doors of a New York hotel – well, that is the ultimate abomination of verbal desolation. Probably the Society for Pure English – having confined its researches and its activities to the British Isles – has no cognizance of the fact that we Americans have anglicized brusque into brusk and risqué into risky; but we may be sure that the British organisation will heartily approve this American action. It would be pleased also (if it happened to be familiar with the technical terms of our native euchre) to note that we call the two knaves of the trump colour, the Right and Left Bower, having anglicised the word from the German Bauer.

Not only does the Society for Pure English urge the complete assimilation of foreign words; it advocates also the making of necessary new compounds not from Latin and Greek, but from English itself:

He would discourage such unimaginative and artificial formations and on principle prefer terms made of English material, which are easily understood and naturally spoken by English-speaking people. Until recent years English writers were in the habit of experimenting somewhat freely in language and to their word-coining activity we owe many of our current and most useful terms. But since Carlyle there have been until lately few experiments of this kind. Many words are added every year to the English vocabulary, but they are for the most part the deliberate creations of scientific writers, while the very men who should concern themselves with this matter stand aloof and leave it to those who by nature and profession are least sensitive to an aesthetic requirements.

No doubt this is true in the main, but it is encouraging to realise that the atrophy of the word-making habit is less obvious in the United States than it is in Great Britain. Howells, of example, once described one of his female characters as hen-minded: and he thus dowered our tongue with an excellent word of indisputable purity. We cannot but regret that it is not now possible to credit to their several inventors other American compounds of a delightful expressiveness – windjammer for one, loan-shark for another, scare-head for a third, and for a fourth that most delectable vocable pussy-footed – all of them verbal creations with an imaginative quality almost Elizabethan in its felicity, and all of them examples of the purest English. One more salient passage from the society's preliminary announcement remains to be quoted:

Believing that language is, or should be, democratic, both in character and origin, and that its best wordmakers are the uneducated and not the educated classes, we would prefer vivid popular terms to the artificial creations of scientists. We shall often do better by enquiring, for instance, not what name the inventor gave to his new machine, but what it is called by the workers to handle it; and in adopting their homespun terms and giving them literary currency we shall help to preserve the living and popular character of our speech.

This, as we all know, is exactly what Kipling has done again and again, in prose and in verse. It is what we Americans have done when we made the compound farm-hand and when we employ it in preference to the British agricultural labourer. It is what the members of the electrical profession do when they describe the electric current as juice and when they talk about a live wire.

For the acquisition of the needful knowledge of the true principles of linguistic evolution the Society for Pure English calls attention to three books. Two of its suggestions are excellent, Dr. Henry Bradley’s "Making of English" and "Spoken and Written English," both of which are ripe in scholarship, rich in common sense and devoid of pedantry. The third book is less wisely chosen; it is an anonymous discussion of "The King’s English," which is offensively insular in its attitude, not to call it insolently parochial. The attention of the officers of the society may be called to the late Professor Lounsbury’s lively and enlightening "History of the English Language" and to Professor George Philip Krapp's illuminating study of "Modern English."

Apparently the Society for Pure English is solidly established in Great Britain, and it deserves American support. It has declared its desire for American members. Application should be made to L. Pearsall Smith, who is the honorary Secretary and whose address is 11 St Leonard's Terrace, London.

Published in The New York Times, 26 September 1920.
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