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Editor's Note, March/April 2004

On Language

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, March/April 2004 | Volume 25, Number 2

“It’s been held that we can estimate the value of any particular civilization by the quality of the literature it provides,” says the poet Anthony Hecht. “It is a way of articulating the aspirations, ambitions, the hopes, the anguish of people and it’s therefore a valuable record of the state of the soul of a people.”

In this issue of Humanities, we take a look at the way we express ourselves, from the cadences of poetry to the slang of the streets. Hecht talks with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole about the path that led to his becoming a poet, beginning with his fascination with the poetry of John Donne and George Herbert, and the idiosyncrasies of language. “Sometimes I can fall in love with a poem, for instance by a French poet, and find that I simply haven’t got a way to convey it in English. I can love it without being able to find the right words to give an equivalent in English.”

Defining the peculiarities of English--or more precisely, American English--is a theme in this issue. Two book series and a new film are lending an ear to American speech. Volume two of The Historical Dictionary of American Slang continues the work of tracking phrases such as gung ho and AOK as they make their way into the lexicon. “People have a choice of what kind of language they use,” says co-editor Jesse Sheidlower. “It’s not so much that people don’t know the standard usages. There are situations that require standard discourse, but those represent a small part of everyday discourse.”

The dictionary traverses the worlds of many in-groups--teenagers, athletes, musicians, and even criminals. The poet Walt Whitman saw a “lawless” quality in the slang he admired. “It is certain that many of the oldest and solidest words we use, were originally generated from the daring and license of slang.”

The slang dictionary’s older cousin, the Dictionary of American Regional English, is preparing volume five of its projected six. Joseph M. Romero, a lexicographer who did a stint at the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, muses with editor Joan Houston Hall about the quirkiness of words.

“Everyone,” says Susan Mills, “has something to say about language.” She has put her views on celluloid as the executive producer of a film called Do You Speak American?, which airs this fall. The film visits a half-dozen towns across the country and finds there is no agreed-upon way to speak the language. Expression takes many forms--and is affected by region, economics, education, ethnicity, and social status. “When people talk about how they speak,” comments linguist Barbara Johnstone, “they are talking about who they are, and what it means to live where they live.”

Words, words, words. Walt Whitman gets the final one: a caution to those who get mired in etymology. “Language is not an abstract construction of the learned or of dictionary makers,” Whitman writes, “but something arising out of the work, needs, joys, tears, affections, tastes of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.”