In 1958, Evelyn Waugh went to British East Africa, then in the last years of colonial rule, to conduct research for his biography of Msgr. Ronald Knox, the famous convert, Oxford chaplain, and translator of the Bible. In a Tanganyikan town, Waugh, one of the great masters of English style, found himself unexpectedly and not-altogether-happily addressing the eager students in a Commercial School’s secretarial course.
But let Waugh himself, his once anarchic wit now turned dry, tell the tale:
I should have known better than to put my head into that classroom. I have been caught before in this way by nuns. I smirked and attempted to get away when I heard the fateful words, “…would so much appreciate it if you gave them a little address.”
“I am awfully sorry I haven't anything prepared. There's nothing I could possibly talk about except to say how much I admire everything.”
“Mr. Waugh, these boys are wishing to write good English. Tell them how you learned to write so well.”
Like a P.G. Wodehouse hero I gazed desperately at the rows of dark, curious faces.
“Mr. Waugh is a great writer from England. He will tell you how to be great writers.”
“Well,” I said, “well. I have spent fifty-four years trying to learn English and I still find I have recourse to the dictionary almost every day. English,” I said, warming a little to my subject, “is incomparably the richest language in the world. There are two or three quite distinct words to express every concept and each has a subtle difference of nuance.”
This was clearly not what was required. Consternation was plainly written on all the faces of the aspiring clerks who had greeted me with so broad a welcome.
“What Mr. Waugh means,” said the teacher, “is that English is very simple really. You will not learn all the words. You can make your meaning clear if you know a few of them.”
The students brightened a little. I left it at that.
Give the teacher credit for quick thinking, but give Waugh the greater credit for telling the truth that English is the richest, most subtle, and yet most flexible language in the world.
It's also hard to learn, as my friends who grew up speaking Romance and Slavic languages regularly inform me. But Waugh understood that, too. In his mid-fifties, as he told those young Africans, he was still learning English. In my early fifties, so am I. And the learning, once the rudiments have been mastered, is endlessly exhilarating.
My greatest regret about my education is that I didn't take foreign languages more seriously. In this, I suspect, I'm not alone, at least among Americans whose work or recreation frequently takes them abroad. Perhaps it's because English has become the world language, perhaps it's because American educators have never figured out that the way to learn a language is to speak it (rather than begin by memorizing its grammar), language instruction is typically inept in American schools and students rarely get excited about learning a new language. (That this educational incapacity has serious security consequences has been underscored by 9/11 and subsequent events).
But even as I regret not being able to work comfortably in four or five languages, I continue to exult in English. It's frequently said that English has become the world language because of its plasticity, its ability to create and absorb new words as the technological revolution roars ahead at full throttle. There's certainly something to that. Still, I'd argue that what gives English its unique strength is not so much its flexibility as its subtlety.
Why is it important, as Waugh said, that English has several slightly-differently-shaded words for every idea? Because that gives English an unparalleled capacity to capture in language the human drama, with all its own subtle shades of difference and nuances of meaning. English gives us the human world in Technicolor, with pastels and greys and chiaroscuro as well as bright primary colors.
Is it possible to love your native language? I hope so. Because mine is eminently lovable. Why? Because it's eminently human and thus, in a sacramental perspective, eminently revelatory of the divine.
George Weigel is author of the bestselling book The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church. His latest book is Letters to a Young Catholic.
This column has been made available to Catholic Exchange courtesy of the Denver Catholic Register.