Monday, February 25, 2008

Let us purify the dialect of the tribe

The title for this post was not born out of my own imagination. I've been working my way through The Night is Far Spent: A Treasury of Thomas Howard. This author figured fairly prominently in my conversion, or reversion, if your prefer. He taught English literature at my college but "resigned" after he converted to Catholicism. This was in 1985, I believe, but the way folks talked about it I had long thought it must have happened the year before I got to the school--which was 1998. Anyway, he lived in the neighborhood and was friendly enough with the college that he returned to give a talk on "The Church of Rome in the Body of Christ" at the end of my junior year. He set about answering long simmering questions that I hadn't really had the time to articulate for myself, yet. It was that talk, more than anything, that set me irrevocably on the road back to the Church. I was privileged to get to know Mr. Howard very slightly later at parish events.

Thomas Howard is a serious anglophile. Many of the essays in this book were lectures given at Oxford. I've completed the first section "Things Literary and Literary Men" and almost the last essay is "Let us Purify the Dialect of the Tribe," a quote from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. Howard makes the case in this essay for loving language, particularly as a writer. Certainly, Howard himself is a lover of language. My one criticism of this collection of essays thus far is that it's just a bit much. When writing at book length, Tom Howard manages to temper himself a bit knowing that his reader must get through several hundred pages. In essay, article, or speech length he tries to cram himself and his love of language into just ten or twelve pages. The essays need to be read one at a time. But it is lovely. I've loved Howard's use of the English language since I first read his On Being Catholic and I'm struggling to be encouraged, rather than discouraged, as I read him now. I don't exactly want to write just like Thomas Howard, but I hope to have the same tools at my disposal: the English language. From literary references, to the most appropriate vocabulary choices, to correct use of commas. Part of the reason I don't blog more often is that I don't have the time to do justice to most of the ideas in my head.

On the whole, though, I am encouraged when I read really good writing and this essay on language has stuck with me. I remember fondly one summer in college when I was living in the dorms and became friends with someone I barely knew while classes were in session. Together we worked hard at eliminating "like" from our conversation. We were very nearly successful. I don't talk like an airhead anymore. But there's nothing like living with a three-year old to bring one's linguistic deficiencies to the foreground. Joseph has applied the adjective "stupid" to most everything in his environment over the last week or so. Joseph is above-average in the language department--everyone says so--and he often comes out with things that are the obvious result of having had quality literature read aloud to him for hours and hours out of every week (and sometimes of a single day--we're on the fourth book of the Chronicles of Narnia already). But stupid? It's just not that creative an adjective. Some things are stupid but I hope that my children are able to come up with a more descriptive word than "stupid" when they aren't satisfied with something. I guess it's up to me. I may not write often enough or well enough to purify the dialect of the masses but I suppose I can take a crack at my own tribe.

1 comment:

Robyn said...

Did Howard write that book that I read forever ago that you leant to me? I forget what it was called, but it was about a man and his wife and their "Road to Roam" or something like that. Do you remember what I am talking about?

I wish you had more time to write down the things you are thinking about. I love hearing about the crazy, wild things that you two dabble in.

It's so interesting to me that Joseph pushes the boundaries with language. Andrew pushes the boundaries with how much he can destroy the living room, or jump on his father. He is still way more physical than linguistic. Do you think Joseph uses stupid because it drives you nuts? I guess I am wondering if it is his way of being rebel kid. ;) It would make sense that a Johnston kid would rebel through ill use of language. I love it!!! Hopefully he can pick up some street lingo from your neighbors and really have a heyday!

I mean, um, I hope he finds better ways of saying that he doesn't things.