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Caun’t Speak The Language
by [?]

Whenever we go to England we learn that we “caun’t” speak the language. We are told very frankly that we can’t. And we very quickly perceive that, whatever it is that we speak, it certainly is not “the language.”

Let us consider this matter. A somewhat clever and an amusingly ill-natured English journalist, T. W. H. Crosland, not long ago wrote a book “knocking” us, in which he says “that having inherited, borrowed or stolen a beautiful language, they (that is, we Americans) wilfully and of set purpose distort and misspell it.” Crosland’s ignorance of all things American, ingeniously revealed in this lively bit of writing, is interesting in a person of, presumably, ordinary intelligence, and his credulity in the matter of what he has heard about us is apparently boundless.

However, he does not much concern us. Well-behaved Englishmen would doubtless consider as impolite his manner of expression regarding the “best thing imported in the Mayflower.” But however unamiably, he does voice a feeling very general, if not universal, in England. You never get around–an Englishman would say “round”–the fact over there that we do not speak the English language.

Well, to use an Americanism, they,–the English,–certainly do have the drop on us in the matter of beauty. Mr. Chesterton somewhere says that a thing always to be borne in mind in considering England is that it is an island, that its people are insulated. An excellent thing to remember, too, in this connection, is that England is a flower garden. In ordinary times, after an Englishman is provided with a roof and four meals a day, the next thing he must have is a garden, even if it is but a flowerpot. They are continually talking about loveliness over there: it is a lovely day; it is lovely on the river now; it is a lovely spot. And so there are primroses in their speech. And then they have inherited over there, or borrowed or stolen, a beautiful literary language, worn soft in colour, like their black-streaked, grey-stone buildings, by time; and, as Whistler’s Greeks did their drinking vessels, they use it because, perforce, they have no other. The humblest Londoner will innocently shame you by talking perpetually like a storybook.

One day on an omnibus I asked the conductor where I should get off to reach a certain place. “Oh, that’s the journey’s end, sir,” he replied. Now that is poetry. It sounds like Christina Rossetti. What would an American car conductor have said? “Why, that’s the end of the line.” “Could you spare me a trifle, sir?” asks the London beggar. A pretty manner of requesting alms. Little boys in England are very fond of cigarette pictures, little cards there reproducing “old English flowers.” I used to save them to give to children. Once I gave a number to the ringleader of a group. I was about to tell him to divide them up. “Oh, we’ll share them, sir,” he said. At home such a boy might have said to the others: “G’wan, these’re fer me.” Again, when I inquired my way of a tiny, ragged mite, he directed me to “go as straight as ever you can go, sir, across the cricket field; then take your first right; go straight through the copse, sir,” he called after me. The copse? Perhaps I was thinking of the “cops” of New York. Then I understood that the urchin was speaking of a small wood.

Of course he, this small boy, sang his sentences, with the rising and falling inflection of the lower classes. “Top of the street, bottom of the road, over the way”–so it goes. And, by the way, how does an Englishman know which is the top and which is the bottom of every street?