George P. Marsh
Lectures on the English Language
(London: John Murray, 1863) pp. 459-60.

Paradox Application


George P. Marsh's English Lecture XXIX

Examination of Dr. Latham's paradox of the corruption of language.

§ 2. Latham appears to me to confound the progress of natural linguistic change, which is inevitable, and the deterioration arising from accidental or local causes, which may be resisted, and he denies that there can be any such thing as the corruption of a language. All languages, he thinks, are equally intelligible, and consequently, equally what they ought to be, namely, mediums of intercourse between man and man, and hence, continues he, "in language whatever IS is right." In the concluding paragraph of the Preface to the second edition of his 'Treatise on the English Language,' he observes,--"I am not desirous of sacrificing truth to an antithesis; but so certain is language to change from logical accuracy to logical licence, and, at the same time, so certain is language, when so changed, to be as intelligible as before, that I venture on asserting that not only whatever is is right, but also that in many cases whatever was was wrong." There is in this passage a singular confusion of thought and of expression. First, it maintains the paradox that, when languages were spoken with logical accuracy, they were wrong, but now, when they have degenerated into logical licence, they are right; and, secondly, the final conclusion contradicts the premises from which it is deduced. The argument is, that language always adapts itself to the uses of those who employ it, that it changes only as they change, and that it is at all times equally well suited to the great purposes for which that faculty was given to man. If this is so, then that which was must have been right for the time when it was, upon the same principle that that which is is right for the present time. To affirm, then, as a result from the general doctrine of the constant adaptation of language to man's nature and wants, that all that at any time is in language is right, but that something which at a past time was was wrong, is not an "antithesis," but a palpable inconsistency, a contradiction in terms. Either, then, our author means that whatever is is right, and, upon the same principle, whatever was was right, but, by virtue of necessary changes in speech, much that was right is at present wrong, or he means nothing at all; and his entire proposition is at war with itself, and, as lawyers say, repugnant. But, in spite of the authority of Latham, I see no reason why, independently of the evidence of comparison between different stages of a given tongue, we may not as well speak of the corruption of a language as of the deterioration of a race. No man doubts that certain species or families of animals, man himself included, become, by change of climate, or of other natural conditions, physically inferior to what they have been in former and different circumstances, and there is unhappily equally irresistible evidence of the moral and intellectual deterioration of nations. When, then, a people, once great in mind, great in virtue, powerful in material energy, becomes enfeebled in intellect, depraved in heart, and effeminate in action, and their language drops the words belonging especially to the higher faculties and perceptions, or perverts them to sensuous, base, earthly uses, and is no longer capable of the expression of lofty conceptions, generous emotions, or virtuous resolves, are we not to say that their language is corrupted? So far, as respects the needs and conveniences of material life, it may perhaps be true that one form of it is as expressive and appropriate as another, but the theory which I am combating forgets that language is not a tool, or even a machine, but is of itself an informing vital agency, and that, so truly as language is what man has made it, just so truly man is what language has made him. The depravation of a language is not merely a token or an effect of the corruption of a people, but corruption is accelerated, if not caused, by the perversion and degradation of its sacred vocabulary; for every human speech has its hallowed dialect, its nomenclature appropriated to the service of sacred things, the conscience, the generous affections, the elevated aspirations, without which humanity is not a community of speaking men, but a herd of roaring brutes. When, therefore, popular writers in vulgar irony apply to vicious and depraved objects names or epithets set apart by the common consent of society to designate the qualities or the acts which constitute man's only claim to reverence and affection, they both corrupt the speech, and administer to the nation a poison more subtle and more dangerous, because less obvious, than the bitterest venom and with which the destructive philosophy has ever assailed the moral or the spiritual interests of humanity.

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