Speaking out for Standard English. Barzun's brief essays are equal parts gravity, urbanity, and wit

A Word or Two Before You Go: Brief Essays on Language, by Jacques Barzun. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press. 190 pp. $14.95. Jacques Barzun's new book has Old-World charm: letter-press clarity on heavy paper, endpapers of French marble. The charm is qualified by a fierce articulation and the sadness of a lost cause: Standard English.

Equal parts gravity, urbanity, and wit, Mr. Barzun has both passion and class - and that makes him an odd, solitary figure in the dust storms raised by the fate of English in our time. He reminds me of James Woodward, star of ``The Equalizer'': an older man of reason and moral integrity, romantically worldly, a heavy in a world of ephemeral but ubiquitous evil. If moral integrity and reason counted in public debates, Barzun would finish things in less than the hour it takes for ``The Equalizer'' to run its spine-tingling course.

The storm raised by California's vote for English as the state's official language and the National Council of Teachers of English vote against making English the official language of the United States point to issues that form the core of the problem: how to reconcile democratic pluralism and democratic consensus.

Spanning more than 40 years, the 25 essays in this deceptively slim volume plead a life-long cause. At one point Barzun simply calls it a ``tragic mistake'' when we assume that all languages and dialects are of equal value. It's tragic because, in his words, ``the standard tongue is the democratic form of the language par excellence.''

Barzun speaks from experience. He has often been in a linguistic minority, sometimes a minority of one. ``It happened to me when as a youth I found myself in England speaking only French. It happened again a little later when, having learned English-English, I came to the United States and heard around me many words and pronunciations I was unfamiliar with. Fortunately, from my early days in London all the way to this very moment, I have been able to stay in touch with other people - thanks to the broad unity of the standard tongue....''

Barzun is a learned man, the author of many books. He taught at Columbia University for almost 50 years;he has lived among the educated elite, listened to them speak, read their memos and articles and books. And he has often been left almost speechless by the cant and pedantry of his colleagues. He has heard them talk, for example, of our age as ``a period of crisis.'' That would mean, he shows by checking the etymology of the words ``period'' and ``crisis,'' that our age is ``a span of time made up of turning points.'' To say that, he concludes, is to ``ridiculously flatter ourselves, and at the same time to hide an unlovely outcropping of self-pity.''

Phrases like ``period of crisis'' are a form of sophisticated slang: They exclude those who don't ``understand.'' Jargon, dialect, and slang are ``exclusive by nature.'' Cultural pluralism is cultural solipsism, writes Barzun. The only way out is Standard English.

Barzun is not a purist, and he's not a reactionary. He recognizes that Standard English is ``a creation over time by a whole people, an achievement kept in being by its speakers and in order by its literature.... The uneducated also contribute wonderful things - short-cuts in grammar and syntax that simplify, or happy transformations of learned words that keep the language plain and vivid.''

Barzun's own English is both plain and vivid - and profound: There are many good commentators on language - James Jackson Kilpatrick, William Safire, Edwin Newman - but they do not go as deep as Barzun.

Barzun starts with the frailty of the language. He practically defines man as the animal that speaks nonsense. ``Everyone who talks or writes has one remarkable gift: a limitless capacity for uttering words without sense, or contrary to their intended sense,'' he writes.

Addressing those who, with the National Council of Teachers of English, cite the hospitality of English to linguistic change while blithely ignoring the cost to communication, Barzun writes: ``There is no getting around it: Meaning implies convention, and the discovery that meanings change does not alter the fact that when convention is broken, misunderstanding and chaos are close at hand.''

Chaos indeed. Barzun's essays are sometimes artfully sustained snarls. Still, he could be thinking of himself when he mentions Samuel Johnson and the ``intrusion of elegance [and] wit such as ruined Dr. Johnson's reputation for seriousness.''

With keen compassion, Barzun argues the unpopular points that only Standard English makes self-definition possible, and that such self-definition is the result of a stream of conscious choices. Like Johnson, whose dictionary illustrates his perhaps unrivaled sensitivity to shades of meaning, Barzun feels writers should be able to defend every choice of word they make.

``It is important,'' he concludes, ``because words point to ideas and suggest feelings, which together constitute `style' in the sense of moral and intellectual fitness.'' Fitness for what, we may ask, stimulated by the idea that there is a real context for Barzun's ideal of style. Fitness for democracy, is, I think, the answer. Whatever the answer, Barzun writes a prose ``fit'' in both senses: suited to the occasion, and ready for all willing readers.

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