A Loss for Words

PBS has been re-airing Ken Burns’ epic The Civil War the last few nights.  I missed out on it when it first aired, and have only managed to catch bits and pieces of it in the intervening years, so this is the first time I’ve really sat down and watched it from the beginning.  Needless to say, it works much better as a cumulative experience.

The strength of the program undoubtedly comes from the use of the words of the people actually involved in the events (although the comforting, syrupy drawl of Shelby Foote certainly helps).  And what’s really striking is that, while you’d expect figures like Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to offer up eloquent thoughts, your average guy toting a rifle through Virginia could express himself in ways that would put plenty of modern high school graduates to shame.

Granted, they probably weren’t going to win any prizes for spelling or grammar, but I’m willing to cut them some slack given the fact that they were probably writing from a ditch next to a battlefield where a few thousand of their comrades had just died.  And most of them probably didn’t have the benefits of our modern education system either.  Hell, to them, “grammar” was most likely their pa’s mother.  Besides, take a look at Twitter or Facebook and tell me how spelling is doing these days.  Without the excuses someone from the 1860s would have.

And it’s not like these guys were writing monosyllabic notes with crayons.  They were slinging some serious vocabulary.  Check out this bit of prose from a private explaining the ring he’s sending home to his wife:

No picuniary consideration would induce me to part with this ring, as the man whose name was designed to the commemorative by it was cherished by all Western Virginians and indeed by all who knew him; but considering the higher claims which you possess, I have concluded to send it to you with but one consideration, and that is, if Capt. Anderson has a widow , a daughter, or a son, that you deliver it to one of them as a token of the enduring and affectionate regard which a private soldier entertains for the noblest and most genuine specimen of mankind. (Source)

Okay, so he misspelled “pecuniary.”  Give him credit for swinging for the fences with that one.  And that’s 418 characters over the tweet limit, by the way.

And if that’s a somewhat verbose way of stating a fairly simple request, it just goes to show that we’ve fallen a little out of love with the language.  We used to revel in the turn of a good phrase, even a profane one if Deadwood is any indication.  Now we’ve got kids inserting phrases like “LOL” and “pwned” into actual conversation.  Internet memes have become the new metaphor.  Why take the time to express a contradictory opinion when I can slap up troll.gif?  Everything is about getting the message across in as few characters or images as possible, all destination and no journey.  We’ve reached the point where a private in the Civil War who probably hadn’t traveled more than a day’s walk from home before they put a gun in his hands had a better command of the language than a generation who literally has the world at their fingertips.

I think the seventh seal truly will have been opened when some enterprising group performs Shakespeare on Twitter, knocking Hamlet’s soliloquy down to “2B/not 2B?  #suicideornot”.


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