The Illustrious Illiterate

THERE is an enviable independence about the illiterate — those people of mettle who say, ‘If grammar gets in my way, so much the worse for grammar’; those simple philological rationalists for whom syntax is a sort of supernaturalism, and the pursuit of rhetorical propriety the observance of a hollow ritual.

Professor Bradley, in his Making of English, tells of illiterate Englishmen who, having settled in Germany, lived there for years speaking German as if it were English — that is, without observing any of the rules of German grammar. Declensions and conjugations they simply ignored. Der Männ remained for them der Mann, whether he was nominative, genitive, or dative, and in the plural he became die Männ, the die being a slight but not a weak concession to national differences.

What superb rationality, what unostentatious courage this is, to sweep away as with a wave of the hand, the barbarous paraphernalia from which not even Kultur, with all its efficiency, could snip a shred. Surely, these were the same Britons who in moments of exaltation were accustomed to sing that they never, never, never, never, never would be slaves. For it should be remembered that these English clerks and counter-jumpers were readily understood, and that, while their German customers might be as pusillanimous in the presence of Grammatik as they chose, they themselves would concede not a single -er or -en of their liberty.

The English were formerly greatly our superiors in this regard, but like us, because of the spread of compulsory schooling, have latterly lost their fine independence. There are no Sairy Gamps nowadays, or Mrs. Jupps, or Tony Wellers, or Christopher Vances, who knew how to keep grammar in its place; nor are there any Dogberrys, or Mrs. Malaprops, or Miss Bateses, or Mrs. Nicklebys, who displayed a noble originality, a truly benevolent despotism, in their use of words. They, and not we, were truly the masters of English. Refusing to be bullied by it, they thoroughly subdued it to their wills, and made it fetch and carry and do tricks and come to heel. As for us, if by any chance we say, ‘Every one take their places,’ or ‘They gave it to he and I,’ we are overcome with chagrin; and yet these syntactical liberties are mere bagatelles in comparison with the bland disregard of syntax and usage of these English immortals. It is their utter obliviousness of the existence of syntax and usage which makes them great. Our best efforts have a touch of consciousness, due to the fact that illiteracy is no longer a matter of self-gratulation in this country. A remark that I overheard in the street the other day is a case in point. ‘He laid,’ one woman was telling another, ‘in a comose condition.’ I wished to congratulate her on having achieved a double liberty in one short sentence, — ‘bad grammar’ and a kind of malapropism; but she was too obviously proud of her refinement.

Our colored Uncles and Mammies, however, have not yet been contaminated by culture, and we could learn freedom from them if we would. When our Annie says, ‘I ain’t never goin’ to trade with no niggers no mo’,’ I can only admire, but cannot imitate except jocularly, for I am a teacher of English. When she asks me whether I ‘ever done et one of these yere Smifsonian hams,’ I listen with delight, for the idea of the Smithsonian Institution smoking hams is a true flight of unconscious fancy. When she says, ‘Dat chile’s Gran’pap suttenly do analyze her,’ — meaning, as some bright spirit guesses a week later, ‘idolize,’ — I recognize a dusky sister-in-spirit to Dogberry.

Little Dot, aged five, offers daily to teach Annie to speak ‘ creckly, but Annie values her freedom and replies, ‘Law, honey, ’t ain’t no use tryin’ to break in a ole mule’; and yet little Dot herself does very well, even if she is the daughter of a teacher of English. I heard her singing to-day that the birds were flewing over the trees; a moment ago she reminded me that I had n’t gave her her cake, and told me that the kitten was climbing up on Anne and I’s table. It is, however, a sad reflection that in a year or two the language will have asserted its tyranny over her, and she will have become as servile as her father.

The ‘bad grammar’ that one hears on the street and in the cars is usually a poor thing; it is only when a humorous genius seizes upon it and raises it to a higher power that its full beauty is disclosed. Sairy Gamp and Mrs. Jupp (in the Way of All Flesh) want only style to be great stylists. There are still places, nevertheless, even in this country, in which perfect mastery of English is to be found. A friend has discovered one such in Iowa, and quotes the miniature masterpiece of an old lady, declaring it to be representative of the usual diction of the locality. ‘ If I’d knowed I could have rode,’ said she, ‘I would have went.’ In its compendiousness, conciseness, and quiet air of complete autonomy this sentence seems to me a classic.

I have observed that most very literate people, and English teachers more than all, have a sneaking liking for bad English, and indulge in it in private whenever they feel that they can safely do so. Bad English is evidently natural English, and to use it is as much of a test as to put on one’s old clothes. To say, ‘I done it,’ ‘I seen it,’ ‘Ain’t it,’ and ’I have saw,’ to one’s wife, is a great relief. The trouble is that one is always liable to say such things in the presence of a guest who, one supposes, is a sympathetic spirit; only to spend the following week wondering whether the guest really did understand that one knew better. Thus culture doth make cowards of us all.