Monday, July 4, 2011

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...

Happy Fourth of July, language hippies! Today in America, we celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which symbolizes the start of our Revolutionary War against Britain and the birth of the United States as a country. We celebrate the nation and its founders, whose vision of America has survived 235 years to today. And we praise Thomas Jefferson in particular as the brilliant writer and thinker whose passionate words declared our nation's independence to the world.

Too often, it seems, we don't go back and look at those words (although anyone who wants to can do so here). But there are important lessons, both political and otherwise, that can be learned from a fresh review of the document. The signed version of Jefferson's declaration, in its final wording, begins as follows:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

It is immediately striking to any native speaker of English today that Jefferson does not write the same way that we would. This first sentence, which is certainly not atypical of Jefferson's writing style throughout the Declaration, is much longer than the sentences we are more used to reading. There are also several strange instances of capital letters, which nearly any grade school teacher would mark as incorrect. And I know that if I had written this first sentence of the Declaration, I would not have placed commas in every place that Jefferson has. By the common standards of today, the Declaration of Independence is riddled with such grammatical oddities.

How can we explain the fact that the Declaration would not escape the red pen of a twenty-first century editor? Jefferson, educated as a young man at the College of William and Mary, was by all accounts an incredibly brilliant individual. Was he never taught how to correctly craft an English sentence? Was he somehow ignorant as to the proper rules of grammar?

Obviously, this is not the case. Rather, the common standards of what is grammatical, what is acceptable, and what is proper in the English language have shifted from Jefferson's time to our own. This is what language does: it shifts, it mutates, and it is not the same from year to year or generation to generation. As a result, the grammatical sentences of someone else -- particularly of someone removed from us in time or space -- often strike us as unusual, and therefore incorrect. It is easy to forget the inherent mutability of language, and to claim that any unfamiliar patterns in the language must be "ungrammatical" as a result.

The rules of language can differ from one person to the next, whether that second person lived two hundred years ago or is alive and well down the street from the first. Today as we celebrate the birth of America through Thomas Jefferson's famous words, let us endeavor to remember this fact, and to accept as legitimate and worthy all of the speech of our fellow souls.


  1. Way to sneak in a W&M shout out, hehe...

  2. Great choice of literature to support your focus here. Fun to realize how much the language has changed. In Turkish, it has changed even faster and much further. The founder of Turkey's most famous speech given in the early 1920's is uninteligible to today's audience and has been translated twice now to update it into today's language!