William Barnes, English ‘lingual conservative’

English scholar William Barnes on his reasons for seeking to ‘purify’ the English language:

“I am a lingual conservative’, and it is therefore that I wish to see a purer, and more self-enriched tongue, instead of being a jargon of four or five others.” – from Gentleman’s Quarterly, ‘Formation of the English Language’, 1833

I suppose you might call Barnes a ‘lingual nationalist’, in that he believed that English people should speak the English language, and that their language was unique, and deserved preservation in its original form, as much as possible.

He campaigned against the tendency, especially among the learned, to use Latinate words or other foreign words, where a good straightforward English word would do. He immersed himself in the various folk-dialects of England, mainly that of Dorset, which he thought was one of the purest, that is, most truly folk-English, dialects, freest from the foreign influences. Though many educated people thought of regional and especially rural dialects as being simply corrupted or ignorant forms of the standard speech, Barnes and others like him recognized that they were a sort of language of their own, and that they were just as valid forms of speech as the language taught in schools, maybe even more so, given the artificial, foreign-influenced modern English.

Interestingly for Americans, some of the older, Anglo-Saxon words and phrases were brought to this country by the first colonists, and persisted here whereas they were replaced in the mother country by Latinate words. The most widely-known example is our word ‘fall‘, for the season of the year we are now entering. Of course standard British English uses the Latin-derived ‘autumn’. The French word is ‘automne‘, so maybe this word entered the English language via Norman French.

In Barnes’ own words, quoted in the book, William Barnes, Linguist, by Willis D. Jacobs

Barnes on English lng changes_2017-09-11_031033

I can agree to a great extent with Barnes. Maybe it’s a romantic notion, not easy to prove in a ‘scientific’ way, but it seems that the language of a folk is a reflection of the soul or spirit of that people, or at least of their collective mind. I don’t know that Barnes promoted any such theory, so I’m not attributing that belief to him, but it seems he thought that the folk-speech of the people should be preserved; maybe because it is distinct and peculiar to that people and their way of life.

I think of the English language as being a very rich language, in part because of the Latin/Norman French contribution to the vocabulary, so I am not as inclined to try to ‘cleanse’ those influences from the English language, and from a strictly practical point of view, it would be very hard to do that, and I don’t think our current cultural Marxist educational system would wish to make the English language more ‘exclusive’ and less inclusive. If anything, the educational establishment wants to ‘globalize’ and ‘enrich’ our language with more ‘diverse’ elements.

Still, there’s nothing stopping ethnopatriots and ethnonationalists from consciously reviving some of our ancestors’ (or, as Barnes would have us call them, our ‘fore-elders‘) words. In fact a good many of those old English phrases or terms, surviving in various dialects, are still in usage, at least in the United States. For example: “outskirts”, for ‘environs’ or outlying areas, “neighbourhood” for ‘vicinity’, or “upshot” for conclusion. Those examples are from a list of his, quoted in ‘William Barnes, Linguist.’

Many of the words that Barnes recommends are compound words, made from two single-syllable English words, and are therefore easy to understand, even if we haven’t heard them used before. For instance, ‘Forewit’ for caution or prudence.  ‘Hindersome‘ means obstructive. ‘Earth-tillage‘ is self-explanatory.

The King James Bible seems to use a lot of simple English terms, as in this verse:

“The LORD shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.” Ps. 121:8

I think the word ‘preserve‘ may be the only non-English derived word there.

George Watson writes here on the ‘dual origins’ of English, that is, its Germanic origins and its later ‘Romance’ influence. He mentions the issue that Barnes was concerned with in his time: that the less-educated classes, the ordinary folk, do not usually speak the more literary kind of English, and even educated people fall back on the Germanic English words when in a more informal setting.

“The British filter their language, both in speaking and writing, using Germanic words for popular or childish conversation and admitting Romance words for learned and technical usage—or for ironic effect. If that amounts to a mild national difference between Britain and the United States, that is because Americans often have a fainter sense of the double derivation of English and are in consequence more polysyllabic.

[…] Since Romance terms often reflect a higher rank, or education, or state of sophistication, they can boast a higher prestige than Germanic; though there are exceptions, and in the days of the U and non-U controversy it was diverting to be reminded that Germanic “napkin” is of higher standing than Romance “serviette.” Another is a difference of length. There are rather few Romance monosyllables in English; and exceptions like the verb “to pant” are somehow surprising to learn. (The word is ultimately related to Greek “phantasia.”) Much of our Germanic vocabulary, by contrast, has been left as words of one syllable, as a consequence of the collapse of English terminal inflections in the later Middle Ages.”

This is what strikes me about many of the memorable passages in the King James Bible, like the psalm I quoted above: the plain, one-syllable words, with their simplicity.

I confess I like the richness of the full English vocabulary, which may extend to over 400,000 words.  But how many people make use of this array of words?

The February 14, 2000, issue of Time magazine reported some disturbing news: in 1950 the average 14-year-old had a vocabulary of 25,000 words. By 1999, the average 14-year-old’s vocabulary had dropped to only 10,000 words, less than half. This is disturbing because a person’s vocabulary reflects his or her overall general knowledge.

It seems few people really use the full treasury of words that is the English language. Is this in part because, as Barnes said, the ‘educated’ form of our language is inaccessible to a good many people? Would ‘reforming’ our language amount to dumbing it down even further, or would it remove some of the communication problems between the more educated and intelligent, and the less gifted? But wait; we’re all supposed to be equal in capacity for learning, and equally able to achieve.

Any attempt to reform our language would be out of the question for the cultural Marxists who are in charge; it’s too loaded with sociological implications. Still, Barnes’ ideas were interesting and he did a great service to English speakers by recording and preserving these old words and dialects, and offering new coinages.



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