Larry Hypes ...

It may have been Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “English is the sea which is nourished by tributaries from everywhere under heaven” and if he didn’t say it, he probably should have. Emerson was a Phi Beta Kappa scholar, a one-time minister, a philosopher and one of the few who early on recognized that Walt Whitman was going to be a great writer.

He was right about English. This language has grown to be the world’s largest, the language of commerce for the richest countries on Earth and a combination of tongues from not only around the world but across the centuries. An estimated two billion people speak it almost daily and there is almost no country which does not have English as a second language when it comes to trade or tourism.

More than 40 years ago when the Voyager space craft carried a universal message toward the stars on behalf of nearly 150 countries who belonged to the United Nations, the primary speech was recorded for posterity in English. Even today, some 75 percent of the planet’s mail is believed to be written in English.

All of us talk, whether we speak out loud or not – we think in words – and each of us has a vocabulary; that is, the words we daily use to communicate. Scholars believe that the “average” person uses about 300 or so words on a regular basis. Those are our friends, the ones we depend on, colleagues, family, on the phone or on other devices. Now, for some of the more linguistically gifted, that number might increase to 500 or maybe as many as 750 words stored up for daily use.

Some countries, some regions have their distinctive styles, and an old proverb stated that in some countries on the European subcontinent, “the language changes about every 20 miles.” One can quickly see that is not conducive to ease of communication or facilitation of commerce. Americans learned that lesson, in part, with the railroads. It was not uncommon at one time for railroads in the various states to have rails different distances apart so that trains from one area might have to stop and pay to have goods shipped on the next line with a different gauge. It was during Lincoln’s administration that the rails were standardized and transportation revolutionized the national economy in the following decades.

One man, Noah Webster, did about as much to promote the study and use of English as anyone of his time. Webster’s famous dictionary, first produced in 1828, was a collection of words and meanings. That dictionary was not his first widely used work on the English language, however. As a young man, he was the author of three separate tracts; one a spelling book, another a grammar collection and yet another as a reader.

We all know that the Bible remains the greatest selling book of all time. Webster’s spelling book – even during his lifetime – sold somewhere between 75 to 80 million copies which placed it second to the Good Book in terms of sales. In my own classes, I have told students that the only authors to outsell Shakespeare have been Matthew, Mark, Luke and John but we could probably add Noah (Webster, that is) to the list.

It is worth noting that Webster’s dictionary, like the earliest King James Version of the Bible “did not sell” and the great man lived with debt always at his heels in his final years.

English has its versions, even here in Four Seasons Country. As a teacher, I have certainly noticed that city kids and country do not always speak the same language because I don’t, either. Growing up in the “boonies” or near the coalfield regions has flavored the speech of many including yours truly. I talk of the graveyard and notice that the more cosmopolitan speakers who grew up with paved streets and garden clubs and such say “cemetery.”

Now, I am not at all ashamed to say that my vocabulary, enunciation and pronunciation are often directed by those better speakers. At Tazewell and certainly Graham and later Bluefield High Schools I have noticed that many of my students have an easier time with a more lofty vocabulary than I unless I work at it and I have told them so. I can speak with the best of ‘em when I have to but it does not come as naturally as it does to many of them. Often, for instance, someone will say, “You don’t sound like you when you are on the radio” or when I am making a public presentation.

That is no doubt true and I can tell it does not come without cost. Someone said that a good preacher’s 30-minute sermon requires the same effort as a laborer working an eight-hour day and there is much to be said for that. I can do it when I have to, as the old fellow said, but it ain’t all that easy.

English has certainly been good for you know who and has helped to keep food on the table for these many years. There is nothing in the world more important than communication and for that we can thank our wonderful language with its hundreds of thousands of words and variations from every corner of the world.

In conclusion, while I am thankful to understand the rudiments of grammar and have a general idea of how to spell in the most proper way, I am equally grateful to not be ashamed of the good old, rough language of my ancestors. Glad I am to be able to talk with folks no matter where I go.

Larry Hypes, a teacher at Bluefield High School, is a Daily Telegraph columnist. Contact him at

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