Joseph S. Salemi
I’ve always been a ferociously hard-right conservative—not just in politics, but also in matters of culture, religion, aesthetics, etiquette, social structures, and language. I don’t even like the word “conservative,” and prefer to be called an ultra-reactionary or counter-revolutionary. To illustrate what I mean, there was an incident from my childhood that touches upon something most persons would consider minor, but which for me was a flashpoint of real anger.
My mother had an old friend named Ann who lived in Southborough, Massachusetts. The two of them corresponded frequently (lengthy out-of-state phone calls were expensive in the 1950s), so there usually was a letter from Ann in our mail-slot every month or so, and my mom would give me her replies to drop at the post-box near our local church.
One day I noticed that the return address on Ann’s most recent letter was spelled Southboro rather than Southborough. And when my mom gave me her next letter to Ann to mail, I saw that she had also used the spelling Southboro on the envelope. I suppressed my anger, and with clenched teeth I asked her what was going on. My mother simply said “Oh, it’s nothing—lots of localities are dropping older spellings to simplify things. The —ugh of ‘borough’ is nothing but unnecessary dead letters.”
I blew up, with the rage that only an eleven-year-old Sicilian kid can have. “What do you mean, unnecessary dead letters?” I shouted. “That’s the proper and traditional spelling of the town’s name! It’s historically accurate! Why should anybody dare to change it?” (At the time I was fascinated by English place-names, and had kept a long list of the more unusual ones like Pontefract and Cirencester and Bognor Regis).
My mom replied “Stop shouting! It’s also happening with other words. Many people spell the word through in a simplified form as thru, and they spell the word night as nite.”
I got even redder in the face, and answered “That’s truly disgusting. You won’t find illiterate spellings like that in The Encyclopaedia Britannica.” We had the famous eleventh edition of that great multivolume treasury in our living room, and I consulted it constantly, as the ancients consulted the Delphic Oracle.
My mother sighed and said “Oh Joey, is it that important to you? They’re getting away from those old non-phonetic spellings.” And this sentence (“They’re getting away from that”) became my mom’s standard response over the years if I would complain about any change or alteration or new procedure that violated long-standing inherited norms. I’d bristle with silent fury whenever she said it. I didn’t want any goddamned changes or simplifications in my cultural inheritance, and still to this day I look upon people who promote such things as dangerous enemies.
I always thought “Who the hell are THEY? Who are these persons who are ‘getting away’ from traditional culture?” And trying to come up with an answer to that question was the beginning of my sociopolitical education. I slowly but inevitably came to realize that Western society is riddled with bacilli and parasites and invasive predators that want to wreck it in any way they can, and in every possible field of human activity. Politics, economics, education, the arts, literature, scholarship, family structures, religion, law, sexual relations—you name it, and there’s always some small dedicated clique of Fabian or Gramscian ideologues who are devoted to discrediting traditional Western cultural styles and mores, and upending them. These people are a real disease, and we’ve had them since the Enlightenment. Kevin MacDonald has analyzed this propensity in his brilliant The Culture of Critique series, but the problem is not driven by one ethnic group—great numbers of persons in the West have become reflexive traitors to their own civilization.
In regard to spelling changes, I was confirmed in my assessment when I learned that George Bernard Shaw was a proponent and supporter of radical orthographic reform in written English. I have never doubted that Shaw was a great writer, but the fact that he wanted to mutilate and degrade English spelling by making it totally phonetic is a “tell,” as professional poker players say. Shaw was so fanatical on the subject that he wrote he would welcome a civil war if by that means phonetic spelling could be imposed on English; and he even left money in his will for a society dedicated to replacing our traditional alphabet. He also hated apostrophes and hyphens, and campaigned hard for their elimination in printed texts.
A minor foible of a part-time crackpot? Well, consider this: Shaw was also a dedicated supporter of terrorism and the assassination of monarchs in the years prior to World War I; he believed that left-liberalism should be forced on everyone regardless of their choice; he was in favor of a thoroughgoing hard-line socialism; he was an uncritical admirer of Stalin and other dictators; he hated democracy if the vote went against him; and he hoped that the British Empire would become the basis for an eventual worldwide “Federation” that would liquidate thousands of undesirables.
Do you see the connection, dear reader? The man was hell-bent on changing the entire world, and scrupled at nothing to accomplish it. His mania to change English spelling was merely one small symptom of the comprehensive mental disease that we call “left-liberalism.” Shaw was also ferociously anti-tobacco, and thought that Western clothing was too tight on the body. Minor peeves like this are frequently signs of a rabidly authoritarian tendency, like the desire of that old idiot Bernie Sanders to put America on the metric system, where we would be forced to measure in kilograms and centimeters instead of pounds and yards. When you ask “Why?” you never get a straight answer from Bernie, which is a dead giveaway that pure authoritarian power-lust is driving his demands.
Left-liberals lust after social control, and the major manifestation of that lust is the impetus to make all activity standardized and uniform and free from any idiosyncrasy or local variation. They talk a good game about freedom and liberty and independence, but in fact they are partisans of absolute regulation and lockstep bureaucratic dictates. Next to Red China, the most hideous dictatorship on earth today is the European Union, which is strangling its member nations with freedom-crushing Diktats and ideological browbeating from snotty bureaucratic scum in Brussels.
But let’s return to Southborough. What irks certain people about that spelling? It’s not a problem for anybody who knows English. Self-appointed reformers will give you the typical hackneyed shpiel about streamlining education, or saving time, or making things easier for foreign and slow students, or getting in sync with modernity—all of which are cover stories for the real reason that’s driving them. The thing that irritates left-liberals is the ungovernable irregularity of it. They can’t stand things that have simply grown up, naturally, in the course of human history, like certain irregular verb forms and unpredictable spellings. Why do you think liberal dreamers invented the absurd fake language of Esperanto, and still hope for its spread around the world? Individual human historical languages trouble them. They hate the irreducible individuality of them, their fixation in time and place, their arbitrary rules of grammar, their emotional resonance with national identities and commitments, their historical haeccitas. If you can’t see the direct connection between hatred of such things and left-liberal power-lust, you’re blind. Or more likely you’re part of the problem.
I once spoke with a woman (a fellow teacher) about differences in languages. I pointed out that ancient Greek had a wide range of participles, each of which carried a variation of nuance in it that affected time, or aspect, or voice. I’ll never forget her exasperated and impatient reaction. “Who NEEDS all that?” she raged. “Why complicate meanings will all of that involved trivia? Language needs to be SIMPLE!”
I thought to myself: Language needs to be simple? Does this woman have any idea of the richness and complexity of traditional languages, and how they have developed into things of the most delicate intricacy? Is she aware of the long centuries of development that went into the making of English, or French, or German, or Italian, or any other human language that comes to us as a gift of history?
And you can connect her truculent attitude with the more general impulse in modern society to question the very existence of individual nation-states, cultural exclusion, and national identity. Why should there be different places like England, or Portugal, or Germany, or the Ukraine, with their different languages and customs and laws and lifestyles? Why should these unfortunate historical accidents be allowed to exist? Get rid of them all—and change Southborough to Southboro.
In reference to our little world of formal poetry, I see the same attitude in a small group of persons who are emotionally and ideologically committed to enforcing a certain metrical rigidity on traditional and long-accepted practices of composition. The rejection of the many small variations and substitutions that canonical English poets have used when producing our finest verse is part and parcel of this arrogant and definition-driven mindset. It would be one thing if these ideologues merely practiced what they preach in their own poems. But they are obsessed with imposing their abstract rules on the rest of us. That’s the telltale sign of the internal enemy.
Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize. His upcoming books, Gallery of Ethopaths, and a collection of critical essays, are forthcoming.