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Our Declaration of Linguistic Independence

Rob Kyff on

When in the course of human events it became necessary for Americans to write a Declaration of Independence, the document they created not only shattered their political bonds with the mother country but also declared their linguistic liberation from the British version of the mother tongue.

The declaration's author, Thomas Jefferson, darted continually between old-style British English and new-style Americanisms. He used, for instance, both the old-fashioned "hath" ("experience hath shown") and the modern "has" ("he has kept among us"). Likewise, he employed British spellings for some words ("endeavoured," "compleat," "neighbouring"), but American spellings for others ("honor," "governor").

And, just as the American patriots were moving their political capital from London to Philadelphia, they were replacing their orthographic capitals as well. For much of the 18th century it had been customary to capitalize the first letter of many nouns, but by 1776 Jefferson and other American trendsetters favored lowercase nouns. Thus, the declaration caps some nouns ("Laws," "Nature," "Life," "Liberty") but, with true revolutionary fervor, decapitates others ("events," "people," "bands").

Surprisingly, the declaration contains only one word now regarded as obsolete ("shewn" for "shown"), though "hither" ("sent hither") and "consanguinity" also sound a bit archaic.

The meaning of one key word in the declaration often confuses us today. When Jefferson wrote of the pursuit of "happiness," he meant not "bliss, joy," but the older sense of "happiness" as "good fortune, luck" (from the same root that gives us "happen").

Thus, the Founders were asking not for the right to be happy, but for the opportunity to flourish and prosper under favorable circumstances.

 

In the declaration's most critical sentence, Jefferson directly defies standard British grammar by beginning a sentence with "But." After writing the concessionary clause "Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes," he could have chosen to follow traditional usage by simply adding a "but" clause to that sentence.

Instead, he sharpened his point by blazing a whole new sentence: "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations... evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government."

That was the "But" heard 'round the world.

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Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His new book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Amazon.com. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to WordGuy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2022 Creators Syndicate Inc.
 

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