Walt Whitman and our changing language

walt whitman 2 The more we know the more we don’t know…in other words, as we amass awareness of our world, through whatever means you choose, it becomes evidently clear that there is so much more than meets the eye; and as our interests grow, then too do we realize that we understand only a fraction of what is available… or what is not available to the intellect.

And as this vast amount of knowledge continues to expand like a field of weeds in the summer, so too does the terminology and acronyms that accompany such information. There are professions that appear to thrive on such abbreviated phrases making outsiders feel less than adequate… for example: JSON – JavaScript Object Notation, or PCI-X Peripheral Component Interconnect Extended … (and I thought java was coffee; and when did an X stand for the word extended! ) As our knowledge base flourishes; interestingly, our conversational vernacular seems to be decreasing as well as becoming more abridged….until we whittle away a complete thought in a modified text…Not that this is bad; just… shall we say…it is like taking one bite out of the cake..by-passing the lemon filling that the baker so intended for you to savor.

Authors that were once widely read by the literate public can be a daunting task in the 21st century. But one would have to wonder why… after all, with all our technology and availability to access information, we would assume that discovering Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Joyce, Flaubert, and even Poe would be less of a challenge today. However, in defense of present day readers, we can also take into account that our language has changed; whereby words and their placement within the sentence have been modified since the days of yore.

And then too there is that pesky nuance that seems to plague us…attention span… many folks do not appear to find that they enjoy having to decipher material that takes time. For many “time” is precious and therefore immediacy is gratifying…hence abbreviations have become the norm.

On the other hand, language can be simple and at the same time complex in idea; it can evoke questions, push to the limits ideals, but with these abstractions comes “think time.” Whereby I would encourage the reader to dip into the workings of literary geniuses as one would take a walk in a forest rather than running like a deer into the thickets, for we would not like all things to change in response to our impatient world… (I imagine that those who like their spirits “aged” would wince at the idea of stepping up the process… I rest my case!)

walt whitman 3 And so I bring to you our esteemed thinker: Walt Whitman, a man who changed the face of poetry during his lifetime; believing that the everyday language of his fellow American was and should be celebrated. He glorified people in all walks of life, nature, and the landscape we know as the United States. His direct and matter of fact ways, his connection with manual labor and heart transformed the poetic ideals of the 19th century… a most radical innovation at the time of publication.

Here is Mr. Whitman speaking on behalf of the more “playful , vivid, and sometimes taboo jargon” we are all quite familiar with… from his prose essay, let us take a moment to ponder a bit from “Slang in America” (1892).

“ View’d freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all. From this point of view, it stands for Language in the largest sense, and is really the greatest of studies. It involves so much; is indeed a sort of universal absorber, combiner, and conqueror. The scope of its etymologies is the scope not only of man and civilization, but the history of Nature in all departments, and of the organic Universe, brought up to date; for all are comprehended in words, and their backgrounds. This is when words become vitaliz’d, and stand for things, as they unerringly and soon come to do, in the mind that enters on their study with fitting spirit, grasp, and appreciation.

Slang, profoundly consider’d, is the lawless germinal element, below all words and sentences, and behind all poetry, and proves a certain perennial rankness and protestantism in speech. As the United States inherit by far their most precious possession—the language they talk and write—from the Old World, under and out of its feudal institutes, I will allow myself to borrow a simile even of those forms farthest removed from American Democracy. Considering Language then as some mighty potentate, into the majestic audience-hall of the monarch ever enters a personage like one of Shakspere’s clowns, and takes position there, and plays a part even in the stateliest ceremonies. Such is Slang, or indirection, an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably, which in highest walks produces poets and poems, and doubtless in pre-historic times gave the start to, and perfected, the whole immense tangle of the old mythologies. For, curious as it may appear, it is strictly the same impulse-source, the same thing. Slang, too, is 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 crystallize…

Language, be it remember’d, is not an abstract construction of the learn’d, or of dictionary-makers, but 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. It impermeates all, the Past as well as the Present, and is the grandest triumph of the human intellect…

8 thoughts on “Walt Whitman and our changing language

  1. On quite a few occassions, since I have lived in the US, upon hearing my voice people have asked, “what part of Australia are you from?” Or “i love your South African accent!” One woman refused to believe me when i corrected her.
    This used to bother the heck out of me for the longest time, until it clicked.
    I grew up in a home where a number of different dialects were being spoken. I and my siblings were born in Yorkshire, a region of England know for it’s thick olde worldey dialect My father spoke with the Patois of Jamaica, which completely drops the TH sound. My Mum is from the south of England, and spent much of her youth in east London, and naturally adopted elements of Cockney rhyming slang.

    My parents sent me to a private high school where the clipped argot of the upper classes was the norm. I adopted this style of speaking immediately. I had to. When I came home, my neighborhood friends would ask, “why are you speaking all posh!?”

    A typical exchange in our home, (im going to use phonetics as best I can)
    Dad: Where di ting deh me ah look fah? (He’s looking for something)
    Brother: Av seen nowt me! (He doesn’t know)
    Mum: Try the apples and pears love, I can’t me dogs aint ‘alf barkin! (Try looking on the stairs. She can’t, as her feet hurt!
    Rohan: Perhaps, if you reflect upon the last occassion you saw it, it’s current location may be revealed to your memory.
    What a linquistic environment to grow up in. And we were All speaking English!
    My accent today is a mixture of all those styles i suppose, with the argot of my shoolyears being the most dominant. I can,today, completely understand, why someone would confuse my born nationality, with another English speaking one. My accent is a “Hot Mess”.
    Mr Whitman’s observations are farseeing, as the evolution of lanquage continues it,s steady course, from generation to generation. I wonder what he would think of Oxford Online’s recognition of the word, “Twerk”. Which has gained a LOT of press recently!

    • LOL; yes, I am sure Mr. Whitman would have something to say for he was not shy to speak his mind! Thank you for your wonderful comments; such a rich legacy… you are quite lucky! Regards!

    • Robert, You are not alone, there are many who do not find his style appealing; like his use of rhythm or how he begins several lines in a row with the same word or phrase, anaphora. Quite a change from the Victorian era poets! Regards!

  2. “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”, or better know as “let them eat cake”, It seems to me that only the truly hungry readers will seek enriching their knowledge, understanding, and desire for the fullness of what a great writers can bring. Therefore those who seek anything less will be left with empty words. Words expand our world, help us describe what we see, today words have become second place to pictures and technology that seems to be ever increasing. It’s a sad state of affairs.

  3. A great passage. I’ve never counted myself a huge fan of Whitman. But I still consider “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” a very beautiful and powerful poem. And this line:

    “And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.”

    And this:

    “Do I contradict myself?
    Very well then I contradict myself,
    (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

    Great, great work. Thanks for the reminder!

    • “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is one of my favorites, too! I enjoy seeing the United States through Whtiman’s eyes. Thank you for reading my posts and for your comments! Regards!

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