Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Diminishing language and culture

Clive Hicks-Jenkins vignette for Glimmerglass
No one in the English speaking world can be considered literate without a basic knowledge of the Bible. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., James Trefil, Joseph Kett, The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (Houghton Mifflin, 1993)
Late night and early morning exchange...

Me: I would say that if you can read Shakespeare, well, then you can read anything else in the English language.

RT (who is teaching at the college level in what used to be called the Bible belt): Students, however, remain convinced that Shakespeare did not write his plays and poems in English. It is, apparently to students, a foreign language that no one speaks in the 21st century. Really.

Me: Part of the problem for current students from the deep South is that many used to grow up with the King James Bible or some early translated version (and some with the 1928 revised or the Cranmer Book of Common Prayer.) Accustomed to those, they could read anything. But we can't count on any Bible literacy any more, and we choose to reduce that gorgeous language full of rhetorical tropes to pablum. And now I hear so many complaints that many young people cannot read language that is beautiful and contains depths and long-established rhetorical figures.
    Older translations refreshed the target language (English) by bringing in the Hebrew as much as possible. The KJV enlarged not only the language but also the conceptual apparatus of English speakers, as more or less common words and concepts like table and cup and staff took on the religious aura of the psalm.
     If we were talking about poetry, it would be a tragedy to keep texts from surprising us, to tell Lear to be just one thing, to do as little as possible.... Clive James' lament returns: translation and linguistic theories emasculate Scripture, depriving it of much of its linguistic, cultural, and political potency, and perhaps even of its religious power...
     --Peter J. Leithart, Deep Exegesis (Baylor University Press, 2009)


  1. Catholics have been re-discovering their most common prayers in the re-translation of the Nicene Creed for instance and now almost two years later, the congregation doesn't trip over "consubstantial with the Father" and "incarnate of the Virgin Mary." I love that the language became more so rather than less so because one has to focus when saying it, hear it and not just murmur over it.

    1. On Saturday, somebody told me that there's a new version of The Book of Common Prayer in the works--a dreadful idea! The group headed by Leo Malania did quite enough... I loved Fae Malania, who is uncredited but wrote some bits of the current Episcopal prayer book, but I prefer my Anglican reprint (I think it's the 1552 version.)

      I remember somebody (who?) telling a story about a Jesuit priest teaching young African boys literature in English. They had no problem with Shakespeare, he said, because they had already met beautiful, challenging language through the church.

    2. Yes. And I have wondered what sort of English majors our current kids make, with their ignorance of the classical world and the Bible. It must be strange to try and read classic works with no background.

    3. Marly, at my former and current Bible-belt state-supported colleges, English majors no longer are required to take courses in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton; in fact, those specifically focused, single-author courses do not exist. But English majors can fill out their foundations by taking courses in things like feminist literature, post-colonial literature, and LGBT literature. This brave new world of politically-correct liberal progressive "literacy" is not unusual; most university programs are equally dismal. My insistence upon the "canonical" authors has made me a dangerous conservative among the enlightened secular progressives, people for whom the Bible, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton are aberrations perpetrated on culture by DWM (dead white men).

    4. Oh, that's a bit unexpected--I thought in the deep South, things would be a bit more conservative in the sense of conserving the canon's works of classic literature.

    5. Unexpected but true. The evaporation of older required courses has happened over the past two decades. I am shocked. The inmates are now running the asylum in the English departments; in other words, the people who dominate the department have been thoroughly indoctrinated in the secular-humanist-progressive-anticonservative game-plan. And the accreditation authorities are equally insane. But maybe it's just me. Perhaps I am the one who is insane.

  2. And see my latest anti-academia rant at Beyond Eastrod . . . even though I have landed on my feet with another job at another school, and while I know I should mind my P's and Q's, I remain the slightly insane iconoclast . . .

    1. Fairly sweeping, RT! Good luck with this fall's classes.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.