Imágenes de páginas

comed. Its hey are no living tone English P.

the development or expression of thought. The specimens of the literature of this early age of the English are interesting, only because they mark the changes in structure and vocabulary. And yet at this time we may consider our language as fully formed. Its grammatical structure and its general features were what they are now. Changes have been made, and others will take place, for a living tongue cannot become stereotyped in its forms. Caxton, the first English printer, who lived in the latter part of the fifteenth century, thus speaks of the changes that were made in his day: “Our language, as now used, varyeth far from that which was spoken when I was born. For we Englishmen be born under the domination of the moon, which is never steadfast, but ever wavering; waxing one season, it waneth and decreaseth another season ; and common English that is spoken in one shire varyeth in another.”

The good effect of the study of classical literature is seen in many of the English writers before the age of Elizabeth. Some of the most cultivated scholars, instead of affecting foreign idioms, were almost purists in style. Sir John Cheke, Greek professor at Cambridge, proposed to strike out of the vocabulary all words not Saxon.

The reign of Elizabeth is a marked epoch in the history of the language. The best scholars and writers labored to preserve the strength and vigor of the native tongue. The time for the critical cultivation of the language had come. Roger Ascham, the tutor of Elizabeth, recommends to him who would write well in any tongue, the counsel of Aristotle, “to think as the wise man, to speak as the common people.” He had the true idea of the chief element of a nation's language; it must be the speech of the common people. The language of the writers of the age of Elizabeth was much the same as the English of the present day. Dr. Johnson does not exaggerate when he says: “From the authors who rose in the time of Elizabeth, a speech might be formed adequate to all the purposes of use and elegance. If the language of theology were extracted from Hooker and the translators of the Bible, the terms of natural knowledge from Bacon, the phrases of war, policy, and navigation from Raleigh, the dialect of poetry from Spenser and Sidney, and the diction of common life from Shakspeare, few


ideas would be lost to mankind for want of English words to express them.”

For a while after the age of Elizabeth we find an increasing tendency to use Latin derivatives and idioms. This is not to be ascribed to an increased attention to the study of the classics, but mainly, perhaps, to the fact that Latin became the language of intercourse for scholars, and many learned men used it in their correspondence, so that it, insensibly perhaps, affected their style. This, as Coleridge says, “gives a stately march, and sometimes a majestic, organlike harmony to their diction." To such an excess was this tendency carried, that passages from some of these writers could be selected that would be scarcely understood by the ordinary English reader. Thus Sir Thomas Browne in the following passage hardly uses a Saxon word if he can find or coin a Latin equivalent: “Who were the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, were a question above antiquarianism, not to be resolved by man, nor easily perhaps by spirits, except we consult the provincial guardians or tutelary observators. Had they made as good provision for their names as they have done for their relics, they had not so grossly erred in the art of perpetuation. But to subsist in bones, and be but pyramidally extant, is a fallacy in duration. ... Pyramids, arches, obelisks, were but the irregularities of vain-glory and wild enormities of ancient magnanimity. But the most magnanimous resolution rests in the Christian religion, which trampleth upon pride, and sits upon the neck of ambition, humbly pursuing that infallible perpetuity unto which all others must diminish their diameters, and be poorly seen in the angles of contingency. To subsist in lasting monuments, to live in their productions, to exist in the names and predicament of chimeras, was large satisfaction into old expectations, and made one part of their elysiums. But all this is nothing in the metaphysics of true belief.”

Dr. Johnson at a later period complained of these innovations, and yet to some extent imitated them : not so much in introducing new Latin derivatives, as in profusely employing such as he found in use.

Had there not been a reaction soon after the period of which we have been speaking, we should have lost much of the simplicity and manly vigor of our tongue. In this reaction the critics rejected many that are now deemed good English words. Despicable, imbibe, destructive, obsequious, ponderous, were condemned because they sınelled too much of Latin.


There was a vitiated style, which prevailed to some extent as early as the latter half of the sixteenth century, which has left its traces in the language. This is caricatured by Scott in “The Monastery,” in the character of Piercie Shafton. It has been described as consisting in “ pedantic and far-fetched allusion, elaborate indirectness, a cloying smoothness, and drowsy monotony of phrase, alliterating, punning, and other such puerilities." Sir Philip Sidney ridiculed these affectations; and in “Love's Labor Lost,” Shakspeare makes Holofernes give his opinion of Don Adriano de Armado, who affected this style. “His humor,” says Holofernes, “is lofty, his discourse peremptory, his tongue filed, his eye ambitious, his gait majestical, and his general behavior vain, ridiculous, thrasonical. He is too picked, too spruce, too affected, too odd as it were, too peregrinate as I may call it. He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument. I abhor such fanatical phantasms, such insociable companions, such rackers of orthography as to speak dout fine when he should say doubt, det when he should pronounce debt.And yet even from this affected style our language may have gained in euphony.

Nothing in the literature of the seventeenth century so much affected the language as our received version of the Bible. At a meeting of the clergy at Hampton Court in 1604 the version of the Scriptures then in use was generally disapproved, and James I. appointed fifty-four men to begin a new translation. The result of the joint labors of these scholars was published in 1611, and has been pronounced, by those who have compared the European modern translations with the original, to be the most accurate and faithful of the whole. Perhaps no language is better able than the English to seize and express the very spirit of the original. And it has been said that the translators seem to have gone in advance of the language, for the English tongue of their day was hardly equal to the work. Being so generally read by all classes, their translation tended to give uniformity and stability to the language. Most beautifully and touchingly does a Roman Catholic writer* speak of

* Dublin Review, June, 1853. FOURTH SERIES, VOL. XIII.-17


the wondrous power of our English Bible: “Who will not say that the uncommon beauty and marvelous English of the Protestant Bible is not one of the great strongholds of heresy in this country? It lives in the ear like music that can never be forgotten, like the sound of church-bells which the convert hardly knows how he can forego. Its felicities often seem to be almost things rather than mere words. It is part of the national mind, and the anchor of national seriousness. The memory of the dead passes into it. The potent traditions of childhood are stereotyped in its verses. The power of all the griefs and trials of a man is hidden beneath its words. It is the representative of his best moments, and all that there has been about him of soft, and gentle, and pure, and penitent, and good speaks to him forever out of his English Bible.”

At the restoration of Charles II. our language passed through an ordeal that tested its purity and strength. Had it not been for the Saxon element, which lies at the base of our tongue, it would have been hopelessly corrupted by the Gallicisms and colloquialisms that the courtiers of Charles made for a while popular. Instead of the inflated and pedantic style prevalent in the time of James I., there was a tendency to the opposite extreme; and in place of the stately movement of Latin derivatives, the harmony and rhythm of sentences we find in Sidney, Jeremy Taylor, and Sir Thomas Browne, the writers of this age affected a colloquial style which often degenerated into vulgar talk. So prevailing was this tendency that Coleridge says this “cavalier slang affected the divines.”

At the commencement of the eighteenth century the language, in its style and construction, settled into permanence. The writings of the essayists of this age contributed much to stay the tide of Latin derivatives, and to bring back the language to the beauty and force of the original Saxon.

Within the present century no changes have been made in the structure of the language. True, there has been a large addition of words to our vocabulary, and these, with the exception of scientific terms, for which the Greek is the common source, have mainly come from the German. Several words now in general use have quite a recent origin. Thus landsman, fatherland, handbook, and other similar words have but just become naturalized. A language has a growth. As a great philoloogist* expressed it: “An idiom is an organism subject, like every organism, to the laws of development. One must not consider a language as a product dead and formed but once; it is animate and ever creative.” Hence we may not suppose that our own tongue has attained its full growth. He who gives a new word that is really needed to the language is a public benefactor. But all such words should be, if possible, the product of native roots, and not simply foreign words with an English form.


The two chief factors of the English language are the AngloSaxon and the Latin. It is of interest to observe the relative value of the two. The general form and structure of the language is almost exclusively Saxon. What few inflections we have, as the possessive case, the comparative and superlative degree, the old form of the plural, as oxen, women, the forms for the persons of the verbs, are from this source. Even those words which are derived from Latin and Greek take Saxon inflections. The names of most objects in nature, its agencies and changes, are Saxon, as sun, moon, stars, earth, fire, day, night, morning, evening. It also gives us the names for most of the phenomena of nature, as light, heat, cold, frost, rain, snow, hail. So are nearly all the words that denote the movements and cries of animals Saxon, such as buzz, hum, clash, hiss, run, walk, leap, swim, fly, slide, glide, with a large number of others.

The Saxon gives us most of those terms that express the closest and dearest relations of the family: Father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife.

Most of the objects of common, everyday life are expressed by the Saxon. Nearly all our proverbs are Saxon.

To show the preponderance of Saxon words in general use, Sharon Turner gives the result of his comparison of a number of passages from different authors. In a passage of Shakspeare of eighty-one words, all but thirteen are Saxon. In a passage of Milton of ninety, all but sixteen. In one of Cowley, consisting of seventy-six, all but ten. In one of Hume, of one hundred and one words, all but thirty-eight.

Marsh, in his lectures on the English Language, has made a more careful comparison and a more explicit statement of the

* Wilhelm von Humboldt.

« AnteriorContinuar »