The Broad A by Charles Dudley Warner

Story type: Essay

It cannot for a moment be supposed that the Drawer would discourage self-culture and refinement of manner and of speech. But it would not hesitate to give a note of warning if it believed that the present devotion to literature and the pursuits of the mind were likely, by the highest authorities, to be considered bad form. In an intellectually inclined city (not in the northeast) a club of ladies has been formed for the cultivation of the broad ‘a’ in speech. Sporadic efforts have hitherto been made for the proper treatment of this letter of the alphabet with individual success, especially with those who have been in England, or have known English men and women of the broad-gauge variety. Discerning travelers have made the American pronunciation of the letter a a reproach to the republic, that is to say, a means of distinguishing a native of this country. The true American aspires to be cosmopolitan, and does not want to be “spotted”–if that word may be used–in society by any peculiarity of speech, that is, by any American peculiarity. Why, at the bottom of the matter, a narrow ‘a’ should be a disgrace it is not easy to see, but it needs no reason if fashion or authority condemns it. This country is so spread out, without any social or literary centre universally recognized as such, and the narrow ‘a’ has become so prevalent, that even fashion finds it difficult to reform it. The best people, who are determined to broaden all their ‘a”s, will forget in moments of excitement, and fall back into old habits. It requires constant vigilance to keep the letter ‘a’ flattened out. It is in vain that scholars have pointed out that in the use of this letter lies the main difference between the English and the American speech; either Americans generally do not care if this is the fact, or fashion can only work a reform in a limited number of people. It seems, therefore, necessary that there should be an organized effort to deal with this pronunciation, and clubs will no doubt be formed all over the country, in imitation of the one mentioned, until the broad a will become as common as flies in summer. When this result is attained it will be time to attack the sound of ‘u’ with clubs, and make universal the French sound. In time the American pronunciation will become as superior to all others as are the American sewing-machines and reapers. In the Broad A Club every member who misbehaves–that is, mispronounces–is fined a nickel for each offense. Of course in the beginning there is a good deal of revenue from this source, but the revenue diminishes as the club improves, so that we have the anomaly of its failure to be self-supporting in proportion to its excellence. Just now if these clubs could suddenly become universal, and the penalty be enforced, we could have the means of paying off the national debt in a year.

We do not wish to attach too much importance to this movement, but rather to suggest to a continent yearning for culture in letters and in speech whether it may not be carried too far. The reader will remember that there came a time in Athens when culture could mock at itself, and the rest of the country may be warned in time of a possible departure from good form in devotion to language and literature by the present attitude of modern Athens. Probably there is no esoteric depth in literature or religion, no refinement in intellectual luxury, that this favored city has not sounded. It is certainly significant, therefore, when the priestesses and devotees of mental superiority there turn upon it and rend it, when they are heartily tired of the whole literary business. There is always this danger when anything is passionately pursued as a fashion, that it will one day cease to be the fashion. Plato and Buddha and even Emerson become in time like a last season’s fashion plate. Even a “friend of the spirit” will have to go. Culture is certain to mock itself in time.

The clubs for the improvement of the mind–the female mind–and of speech, which no doubt had their origin in modern Athens, should know, then, that it is the highest mark of female culture now in that beautiful town to despise culture, to affect the gayest and most joyous ignorance –ignorance of books, of all forms of so-called intellectual development, and all literary men, women, and productions whatsoever! This genuine movement of freedom may be a real emancipation. If it should reach the metropolis, what a relief it might bring to thousands who are, under a high sense of duty, struggling to advance the intellectual life. There is this to be said, however, that it is only the very brightest people, those who have no need of culture, who have in fact passed beyond all culture, who can take this position in regard to it, and actually revel in the delights of ignorance. One must pass into a calm place when he is beyond the desire to know anything or to do anything.

It is a chilling thought, unless one can rise to the highest philosophy of life, that even the broad ‘a’, when it is attained, may not be a permanence. Let it be common, and what distinction will there be in it? When devotion to study, to the reading of books, to conversation on improving topics, becomes a universal fashion, is it not evident that one can only keep a leadership in fashion by throwing the whole thing overboard, and going forward into the natural gayety of life, which cares for none of these things? We suppose the Constitution of the United States will stand if the day comes–nay, now is–when the women of Chicago call the women of Boston frivolous, and the women of Boston know their immense superiority and advancement in being so, but it would be a blank surprise to the country generally to know that it was on the wrong track. The fact is that culture in this country is full of surprises, and so doubles and feints and comes back upon itself that the most diligent recorder can scarcely note its changes. The Drawer can only warn; it cannot advise.