Boys and the Language


HOWEVER far my practice falls short of theory, I am by temperament inclined to purism. Not even a patriotic American haste to speak twice before you think, can justify, in my private view, the insertion of a half dozen merely possible antecedents between a relative pronoun and its real antecedent. I insist upon “ wanting only five,” not “only wanting five,” even though the majority against me be comparable only to the Texas election returns in its size and its heterogeneous democracy. I still shiver at the sight of a split infinitive, even though the infinitivesplitters of late have beaten the railsplitters in capturing the Presidency by a record of at least three to one.

But though I may look upon my own linguistic state of mind with a feeling of placid self-satisfaction, I am chagrined to find that I have failed utterly to transmit that state of mind as an inheritance to my two little boys. In their view language was made for boys, not boys for language. I gave to the older, at a tender age, a copy of Mrs. Dana’s How to Know the Wild Flowers. He opened to an illustration of arisœma triphyllum and cried out, “Oh! Here’s Jack-in-the-Pulpit ! I’ve sawn parts of ’im before but this is whole him!” The younger came to the dinner-table one day with some story about Lillie Jones. “Who is Lillie Jones?” I asked. “Why, papa, don’t you know Lillie Jones?” he answered. “She’s the man that mows the campus’slittle girl.” After all, the child’s point of view here was logically correct. To him, the - man - that - mows - the - campus is a thought-unit, not six separate word-signs of as many separate ideas, and the sign of the possessive at the end is a matter of course. It is only when he grows older that he w ill worry himself into incipient insanity over the rival claims of “anybody else’s” and “anybody’s else.”

Doubtless it is possible for the conscientious parent, by insistent perseverance, to get the linguistic bit into a child’s mouth at an early age, and keep it there. To do just that was a settled principle in my own system of practical parental philosophy, up to the date when my first child was born. In the confusion attending that event the system got mislaid, and our parental conduct has been guided by any chance modus vivendi we could get our hands on, pending the recovery of the approved code. Whether the fact that I really have children, and have forgotten how I used to train them when I had none, has anything to do with it or not, it remains true that at present I find more interest in watching their vigorous attempts to take such w ords as they know and make them serve their purpose than in forcing their tentative and unsophisticated efforts at self-expression at once into the hard-andfast grooves of linguistic conventionality. In thinking somewhat seriously over the future of these two little boys, I have made up my mind at least thus far, that the first point in any worthy ideal of speech for them is that they should express their thought, fully, clearly, and effectively. A child, with its meagre store of language, is somewhat in the position of the fabled woodchuck, which was just obliged to climb a tree, whether it could do so in harmony with the facts of natural history or not. He must express himself with what language is immediately at his command, or fail in more or less serious degree to express himself at all; and so his little store must be treated as thoroughly plastic, just as the language of his race, in its earlier stages, was plastic, The existence of whiten, “to make white,” is all the justification he needs for smallen, “to make small,” or lowen, “to make low.” “Jimmie Jones has n’t grown much since he was here before,” says some one. “Why, I really believe he’s ungrowed some,” answers my younger, expressing his thought clearly and fully, and delightfully unconscious of the fact that linguistic authorities do not recognize the right of this handy prefix to attach itself to this particular verb. Ought I to have stopped him right there and loaded his undeveloped memory with parallel columns of words which do and do not admit the prefix un- ? If I had done so his brother would probably not have ventured to ask, a little later, how people make un-band-painted china, and his knowledge would have been less to-day by the small amount of information which I was able to give him.

In short, I have deliberately concluded not to stifle the enthusiastic and natural desire for expression which my boys exhibit, by filling them at their tender age with the fear that they are in constant danger of perpetrating some unpardonable blunder in the use of language. When one of them asked me at table for “just one little chee,” I thought it better to repress my laughter than to repress the boy, and my remarks were confined to the probable effect of the cheese on his stomach, not to the elimination of his mistaken inference from the sound of the word. At present I want him to get the best possible sum total of results out of his necessarily limited supply of linguistic tools, just as his pioneer great-grandfather was accustomed to shoe his own horses, put hoops on his rain-barrel, renew the bottom in his wife’s washtub, “upset” his worn axe-blades and do the family cobbling, all with a combined kit of tools less in number and variety than the follower of any single one of the trades indicated is supposed to possess to-day before he is in shape to ask for the patronage of the public. There is one point, however, at which I feel no conscientious compunction in interposing immediate restraint, and that is when I detect a tendency to substitute habitually some smart-sounding expression of current slang for good English. Better a dozen innocent blunders in an honest attempt at straightforward communication of an idea than one slang expression deliberately chosen because it sounds “smart.” How I shall come out with my endeavors is uncertain, as are all things human. My hope is, first, that by less of distracting attention to mere form at the beginning my boys will get a better idea of language as an effective tool of individual expression; secondly, that increasing familiarity with good English, coupled with increasing precept, as the danger of its possible stifling effect passes away with maturer years, will stimulate a desire to use this tool in a manner which will commend itself to those best fitted to pass judgment.