nativetongue

I’ll say something about the substance of those ideas in a moment. First, it is worth pausing to register the medium in which the ideas unfold: English. Nalapat remarks that “The English language is . . . a very effective counter-terrorist, counter-insurgency weapon.” I think he is right about that, but why? Why English? In a remarkable essay called “What Is Wrong with Our Thoughts?,” the Australian philosopher David Stove analyzes several outlandish, yet typical, specimens of philosophical-theological linguistic catastrophe. He draws his examples not from the underside of intellectual life—spiritualism, voodoo, Freudianism, etc.—but from some of the brightest jewels in the diadem of Western thought: from the work of Plotinus, for example, and Hegel, and Michel Foucault. He quoted his examples in translation, he acknowledges, but notes that “it is a very striking fact . . . that I had to go to translations. . . . Nothing which was ever expressed originally in the English language resembles, except in the most distant way, the thought of Plotinus, or Hegel, or Foucault. I take this,” Stove concludes, “to be enormously to the credit of our language.”

Indeed. But why? What is it about English? I do not have an answer, but I note the fact that there seems to be some deep connection between the English language and that most uncommon virtue, common sense. I do not mean that English speakers act any less extravagantly than speakers of other tongues, but rather that English generally acts to tether thought to the empirical world. This is something Bishop Thomas Sprat dilated on in his History of the Royal Society (1667): “The general constitution of the minds of the English,” he wrote, embraces frankness and simplicity of diction, “the middle qualities, between the reserv’d subtle southern, and the rough unhewn Northern people.”

English, Bishop Sprat thought, is conspicuously the friend of empirical truth. It is also conspicuously the friend of liberty. Andrew Roberts, reflecting on the pedigree of certain ideas in the lexicon of freedom, notes that such key phrases as “liberty of conscience” (1580), “civil liberty” (1644, a Miltonic coinage), and “liberty of the press” (1769) were first expressed in English. Why is it that English-speaking countries produced Adam Smith and John Locke, David Hume and James Madison, but not Hegel, Marx, or Foucault? “The tongue and the philosophy are not unrelated,” the philologist Robert Claiborne writes in Our Marvelous Native Tongue: The Life and Times of the English Language (1983). “Both reflect the ingrained Anglo-American distrust of unlimited authority, whether in language or in life.”