Although Henry James titles his sermon against the devolution of spoken English “The Question of Our Speech,” he assumes much to be already answered. James appeals to his audience of collegiate women with flattery, stereotypes, and worst of all, “incontestable truths” (James 11). As a result, his speech becomes a sanctimonious collection of bandwagon fallacies desperately prescribing a tone-standard as the hallmark of a civilized vox Americana; at times, his reactionary harangue becomes so hyperbolic that it approaches a ridiculous quality reminiscent of Jonathan Swifts “A Modest Proposal.” It offends in many ways, from shady rhetorical devices to a pedantically elitist tone. Yet its worst offense by far is its interpretation of the word “civilization,” almost imperialist in its call for the educated to seize hegemony over language and its “traitors” (20).
As it is used in his speech, civilization can be interpreted to reflect a nationalistic purity of culture concerned with the preservation of a nation’s “linguistic position” (40). Initially, this definition appears harmless; and it is true, James’ concern with the status of American English within the scope of the world is not itself malicious. He is merely trying to preserve the constructs of his native language that appeal to him. In fact, many of the more favorable aspects of his speech are centered on autonomy and refer to speaking well as speaking under the “influence of observation—your own” (19). However, it is in his contention against “the forces assembled to make you believe that no form of speech is provably better than another” that is suspect (18). By assigning greater value to one aspect of culture than to another, James’ transforms the initially innocent self-observation to a more encroaching scrutiny of others.
In more ways than one, James predicates his arguments on standardization. He declares that “of the degree in which a society is civilized the vocal form, the vocal tone, the personal, social accent and sound of its intercourse, have always been held to give a direct reflection”(11). His is a worldview corrupted by aesthetic prejudice and it perpetuates the unfortunate hierarchy of how something is said as being superior to what is said. According to James, “one of the most precious conquests of civilization” is the idea of good breeding, or “secure good manners” (14). “The Question of Our Speech” utilizes such devious rhetoric, however, that it obviates its own counterargument—despite an adherence to a “civilized” vocal ideal, speech can still be uncivil. James offers no concrete list of examples of good breeding, but aforementioned instances of prejudice, flattery, and bigotry can hardly be assumed to be included.
The problematic nature of James’ view of civilization most clearly manifests itself in the portion of the speech dedicated to the omission and faulty restoration of consonants. Although not overtly stated, the focus of his criticism is on variations in...