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An essay by Thomas De Quincey


Title:     Pronunciation
Author: Thomas De Quincey [More Titles by De Quincey]

To _write_ his own language with propriety is the ambition of here and there an individual; to speak it with propriety is the ambition of multitudes. Amongst the qualifications for a public writer--the preliminary one of _leisure_ is granted to about one man in three thousand; and, this being indispensable, there at once, for most men, mercifully dies in the very instant of birth the most uneasy and bewildering of temptations. But _speak_ a man must. Leisure or no leisure, to _talk_ he is obliged by the necessities of life, or at least he thinks so; though my own private belief is, that the wisest rule upon which a man could act in this world (alas! I did not myself act upon it) would be to seal up his mouth from earliest youth, to simulate the infirmity of dumbness, and to answer only by signs. This would soon put an end to the impertinence of questions, to the intolerable labour of framing and uttering replies through a whole life, and, above all (oh, foretaste of Paradise!), to the hideous affliction of sustaining these replies and undertaking for all their possible consequences. That notion of the negroes in Senegal about monkeys, viz., that they _can_ talk if they choose, and perhaps with classical elegance, but wisely dissemble their talent under the fear that the unjust whites would else make them work in Printing Houses, for instance, as 'readers' and correctors of the press, this idea, which I dare say is true, shows how much wiser, in his generation, is a monkey than a man. For, besides the wear and tear to a man's temper by the irritation of talking, and the corrosion of one's happiness by the disputes which talking entails, it is really frightful to think of the mischief caused, if one measures it only by the fruitless expense of words. Eleven hundred days make up about three years; consequently, eleven thousand days make up thirty years. But that day must be a very sulky one, and probably raining cats and dogs, on which a man throws away so few as two thousand words, not reckoning what he loses in sleep. A hundred and twenty-five words for every one of sixteen hours cannot be thought excessive. The result, therefore, is, that, in one generation of thirty years, he wastes irretrievably upon the impertinence of answering--of wrangling, and of prosing, not less than twice eleven thousand times a thousand words; the upshot of which comes to a matter of twenty-two million words. So that, if the English language contains (as some curious people say it does) forty thousand words, he will have used it up not less than five hundred and fifty times. Poor old battered language! One really pities it. Think of any language in its old age being forced to work at that rate; kneaded, as if it were so much dough, every hour of the day into millions of fantastic shapes by millions of capricious bakers! Being old, however, and superannuated, you will say that our English language must have got used to it: as the sea, that once (according to Camoens) was indignant at having his surface scratched, and his feelings harrowed, by keels, is now wrinkled and smiling.

Blessed is the man that is dumb, when speech would have betrayed his ignorance; and the man that has neither pens nor ink nor crayons, when a record of his thought would have delivered him over to the derision of posterity. This, however, the reader will say, is to embroider a large moral upon a trivial occasion. Possibly the moral may be disproportionately large; and yet, after all, the occasion may not be so trivial as it seems. One of the many revolutions worked by the railway system is, to force men into a much ampler publicity; to throw them at a distance from home amongst strangers; and at their own homes to throw strangers amongst _them_. Now, exactly in such situations it is, where all other gauges of appreciation are wanting, that the two great external indications of a man's rank, viz., the quality of his manners and the quality of his pronunciation, come into play for assigning his place and rating amongst strangers. Not merely pride, but a just and reasonable self-respect, irritates a man's aspiring sensibilities in such a case: not only he _is_, but always he _ought_ to be, jealous of suffering in the estimation of strangers by defects which it is in his own choice to supply, or by mistakes which a little trouble might correct. And by the way we British act in this spirit, whether we ought to do or not, it is noticed as a broad characteristic of us Islanders, viz., both of the English and the Scotch, that we are morbidly alive to jealousy under such circumstances, and in a degree to which there is nothing amongst the two leading peoples of the Continent at all corresponding.[1] A Scotchman or an Englishman of low rank is anxious on a Sunday to dress in a style which may mislead the casual observer into the belief that perhaps he is a gentleman: whereas it is notorious that the Parisian artisan or labourer of the lower class is proud of connecting himself conspicuously with his own order, and ostentatiously acknowledging it, by adopting its usual costume. It is his way of expressing an _esprit de corps_. The same thing is true very extensively of Germans. And it sounds pretty, and reads into a sentimental expression of cheerful contentedness, that such customs should prevail on a great scale. Meantime I am not quite sure that the worthy Parisian is not an ass, and the amiable German another, for thus meekly resigning himself to the tyranny of his accidental situation. What they call the allotment of Providence is, often enough, the allotment of their own laziness or defective energy. At any rate, I feel much more inclined to respect the aspiring Englishman or Scotchman that kicks against these self-imposed restraints; that rebels in heart against whatever there may be of degradation in his own particular employment; and, therefore, though submitting to this degradation as the _sine qua non_ for earning his daily bread, and submitting also to the external badges and dress of his trade as frequently a matter of real convenience, yet doggedly refuses to abet or countersign any such arrangements as tend to lower him in other men's opinion. And exactly this is what he _would_ be doing by assuming his professional costume on Sundays; the costume would then become an exponent of his choice, not of his convenience or his necessity; and he would thus be proclaiming that he glories in what he detests. To found a meek and docile nation, the German is the very architect wanted; but to found a go-ahead nation quite another race is called for, other blood and other training. And, again, when I hear a notable housewife exclaiming, 'Many are the poor servant girls that have been led into temptation and ruin by dressing above their station,' I feel that she says no more than the truth; and I grieve that it should be so. Out of tenderness, therefore, and pity towards the poor girls, if I personally had any power to bias their choice, my influence should be used in counteraction to their natural propensities. But this has nothing to do with the philosophic estimate of those propensities. Perilous they are; but _that_ does not prevent their arising in fountains that contain elements of possible grandeur, such as would never be developed by a German Audrey (see 'As You Like It') content to be treated as a doll by her lover, and viewing it as profane to wear petticoats less voluminous, or a headdress less frightful than those inherited from her grandmother.

Excuse this digression, reader. What I wished to explain was that, if a man in a humble situation seeks to refine his pronunciation of English, and finds himself in consequence taxed with pride that will not brook the necessities of his rank, at all events, he is but _integrating_ his manifestations of pride. Already in his Sunday's costume he has _begun_ this manifestation, and, as I contend, rightfully. If a carpenter or a stonemason goes abroad on a railway excursion, there is no moral obligation upon him--great or small--to carry about any memento whatsoever of his calling. I contend that his right to pass himself off for a gentleman is co-extensive with his power to do so: the right is limited by the power, and by that only. The man may say justly: "What I am seeking is a holiday. This is what I pay for; and I pay for it with money earned painfully enough. I have a right therefore to expect that the article shall be genuine and complete. Now, a holiday means freedom from the pains of labour--not from some of those pains, but from all. Even from the memory of these pains, if _that_ could be bought, and from the anticipation of their recurrence. Amongst the pains of labour, a leading one next after the necessity of unintermitting muscular effort, is the oppression of people's superciliousness or of their affected condescension in conversing with one whom they know to be a working mechanic. From this oppression it is, from this oppression whether open or poorly disguised, that I seek to be delivered. It taints my pleasure: it spoils my holiday. And if by being dressed handsomely, by courtesy in manners, and by accuracy in speaking English, I can succeed in obtaining this deliverance for myself, I have a right to it." Undoubtedly he has. His real object is not to disconnect himself from an honest calling, but from that burthen of contempt or of slight consideration which the world has affixed to his calling. He takes measures for gratifying his pride--not with a direct or primary view to that pride, but indirectly as the only means open to him for evading and defeating the unjust conventional scorn that would settle upon himself _through_ his trade, if that should happen to become known or suspected. This is what I should be glad to assist him in; and amongst other points connected with his object, towards which my experience might furnish him with some hints, I shall here offer him the very shortest of lessons for his guidance in the matter of English pronunciation.

What can be attempted on so wide a field in a paper limited so severely in dimensions as all papers published by this journal _must_ be limited in obedience to the transcendent law of variety? To make it possible that subjects _enough_ should be treated, the Proprietor wisely insists on a treatment vigorously succinct for each in particular. I myself, it suddenly strikes me, must have been the chief offender against this reasonable law: but my offences were committed in pure ignorance and inattention, faults which henceforth I shall guard against with a penitential earnestness. Reformation meanwhile must begin, I fear, simultaneously with this confession of guilt. It would not be possible (would it?) that, beginning the penitence this month of November, I should postpone the amendment till the next? No, _that_ would look too brazen. I must confine myself to the two and a half pages prescribed as the maximum extent--and of that allowance already perhaps have used up one half at the least. Shocking! is it not? So much the sterner is the demand through the remaining ground for exquisite brevity.

Rushing therefore at once _in medias res_, I observe to the reader that, although it is thoroughly impossible to give him a guide upon so vast a wilderness as the total area of our English language, for, if I must teach him how to pronounce, and upon what learned grounds to pronounce, 40,000 words, and if polemically I must teach him how to dispose of 40,000 objections that have been raised (or that _may_ be raised) against these pronunciations, then I should require at the least 40,000 lives (which is quite out of the question, for a cat has but nine)--seeing and allowing for all this, I may yet offer him some guidance as to his guide. One sole rule, if he will attend to it, governs in a paramount sense the total possibilities and compass of pronunciation. A very famous line of Horace states it. What line? What is the supreme law in every language for correct pronunciation no less than for idiomatic propriety?

'_Usus_, quem penes arbitrium est et jus et norma loquendi:'

usage, the established practice, subject to which is all law and normal standard of correct speaking. Now, in what way does such a rule interfere with the ordinary prejudice on this subject? The popular error is that, in pronunciation, as in other things, there is an abstract right and a wrong. The difficulty, it is supposed, lies in ascertaining this right and wrong. But by collation of arguments, by learned investigation, and interchange of _pros_ and _cons_, it is fancied that ultimately the exact truth of each separate case might be extracted. Now, in that preconception lies the capital blunder incident to the question. There _is_ no right, there _is_ no wrong, except what the prevailing usage creates. The usage, the existing custom, _that_ is the law: and from that law there is no appeal whatever, nor demur that is sustainable for a moment.



[1] Amongst the Spaniards there _is_.

[The end]
Thomas De Quincey's essay: Pronunciation