Page images
PDF
EPUB

sufficient to change the whole aspect of their dialects. The languages of highly civilized nations, on the contrary, become more and more stationary, and seem sometimes almost to lose their power of change. Where there is a classical literature, and where its language is spread to every town and village, it seems almost impossible that any further changes should take place. Nevertheless, the language of Rome, for so many centuries the queen of the whole civilized world, was deposed by the modern Romance dialects, and the ancient Greek was supplanted in the end by the modern Romaic. And though the art of printing and the wide diffusion of Bibles, and Prayer-books, and newspapers have acted as still more powerful barriers to arrest the constant flow of human speech, we may see that the language of the authorized version of the Bible, though perfectly intelligible, is no longer the spoken language of England. In Booker's Scripture and Prayer-book Glossary 1 the number of words or senses of words which have become obsolete since 1611, amount to 388, or nearly one fifteenth part of the whole number of words used in the Bible. Smaller changes, changes of accent and meaning, the reception of new, and the dropping of old words, we may watch as taking place under our own eyes. Rogers 2 said that “ contemplate is bad enough, but balcony makes me sick," whereas at present no one is startled by contemplate instead of contémplate, and balcony has become more usual than balcony. Thus Roome and chaney, layloc and goold, have but lately been driven from the stage by Rome, china,

1 Lectures on the English Language, by G. P. Marsh: New York, 1860, p. 263 and 630. These lectures embody the result of much careful research, and are full of valuable observations.

? Marsh, p. 532, note.

8.

lilac, and gold, and some courteous gentlemen of the old school still continue to be obleeged instead of being obliged. Force, in the sense of a waterfall, and gill, in the sense of a rocky ravine, were not used in classical English before Wordsworth. Handbook,2 though an old Anglo-Saxon word, has but lately taken the place of manual, and a number of words such as cab for cabriolet, bu88 for omnibus, and even a verb such as to shunt tremble still on the boundary line between the vulgar and the literary idioms. Though the grammatical changes that have taken place since the publication of the authorized version are yet fewer in number, still we may point out some. The termination of the third person singular in th is now entirely replaced by

No one now says he liveth, but only he lives. Several of the irregular imperfects and participles have assumed a new form. No one now uses he spake, and he drave, instead of he spoke, and he drove; holpen is replaced by helped; holden by held ; shapen by shaped. The distinction between ye and you, the former being reserved for the nominative, the latter for all the other cases, is given up in modern English ; and what is apparently a new grammatical form, the possessive pronoun its, has sprung into life since the beginning of the seventeenth century. It never occurs in the Bible ; and though it is used three or four times by Shakespeare, Ben Jonson does not recognize it as yet in his English Grammar.3

It is argued, therefore, that as language, differing thereby from all other productions of nature, is liable to historical alterations, it is not fit to be treated in the

1 Marsh, p. 589.

2 Sir J. Stoddart, Glossology, p. 60. 3 Trench, English Past and Present, p. 114; Marsh, p. 397.

same manner as the subject matter of all the other physical sciences.

There is something very plausible in this objection, but if we examine it more carefully, we shall find that it rests entirely on a confusion of terms. We must distinguish between historical change and natural growth. Art, science, philosophy, and religion all have a history; language, or any other production of nature, admits only of growth.

Let us consider, first, that although there is a continuous change in language, it is not in the power of man either to produce or to prevent it. We might think as well of changing the laws which control the circulation of our blood, or of adding an inch to our height, as of altering the laws of speech, or inventing new words according to our own pleasure. As man is the lord of nature only if he knows her laws and submits to them, the poet and the philosopher become the lords of language only if they know its laws and obey them.

When the Emperor Tiberius had made a mistake, and was reproved for it by Marcellus, another grammarian of the name of Capito, who happened to be present, remarked that what the emperor said was good Latin, or, if it were not, it would soon be so. Marcellus, more of a grammarian than a courtier, replied, “ Capito is a liar; for, Cæsar, thou canst give the Roman citizenship to men, but not to words.” A similar anecdote is told of the German Emperor Sigismund. When presiding at the Council of Costnitz, he addressed the assembly in a Latin speech, exhorting them to eradicate the schism of the Hussites. “ Videte Patres," he said, “ ut eradicetis schismam Hussitarum.” He was very unceremoniously called

to order by a monk, who called out, “Serenissime Rex, schisma est generis neutri.”] The emperor, however, without losing his presence of mind, asked the impertinent monk, “How do you know it?” The old Bohemian school-master replied, “ Alexander Gallus says so.” “And who is Alexander Gallus ?” the emperor rejoined. The monk replied, “ He was a monk.” “ Well,” said the emperor, “and I am Emperor of Rome; and my word, I trust, will be as good as the word of any monk.” No doubt the laughers were with the emperor ; but for all that, schisma remained a neuter, and not even an emperor could change its gender or termination.

The idea that language can be changed and improved by man is by no means a new one. We know that Protagoras, an ancient Greek philosopher, after laying down some laws on gender, actually began to find fault with the text of Homer, because it did not agree with his rules. But here, as in every other instance, the attempt proved unavailing. Try to alter the smallest rule of English, and you will find that it is physically impossible. There is apparently a very small difference between much and very, but you can hardly ever put one in the place of the other. You can say, “I am very happy," but not “ I am much happy," though you may say “I am most happy.” On the contrary, you can say “I am much misunderstood,” but not “I am very misunderstood.” Thus the western Romance dialects, Spanish and Portuguese, to

1 As several of my reviewers have found fault with the monk for using the genitive neutri, instead of neutrius, I beg to refer to Priscianus, l. vi. c. i. and c. vii. The expression generis neutrius, though frequently used by modern editors, has no authority, I believe, in ancient Latin.

gether with Wallachian, can only employ the Latin word magis for forming comparatives : -Sp. mas dulce ;

Port. mais doce ; Wall. mai dulce : while French, Provençal, and Italian only allow of plus for the same purpose: Ital. più dolce; Prov. plus dous ; Fr. plus doux. It is by no means impossible, however, that this distinction between very, which is now used with adjectives only, and much, which precedes participles, should disappear in time. In fact, “ very pleased and “very delighted” are Americanisms which may be heard even in this country. But if that change take place, it will not be by the will of any individual, nor by the mutual agreement of any large number of men, but rather in spite of the exertions of grammarians and academies. And here you perceive the first difference between history and growth. An emperor may change the laws of society, the forms of religion, the rules of art : it is in the power of one generation, or even of one individual, to raise an art to the highest pitch of perfection, while the next may allow it to lapse, till a new genius takes it up again with renewed ardor. In all this we have to deal with the conscious acts of individuals, and we therefore move on historical ground. If we compare the creations of Michael Angelo or Raphael with the statues and frescoes of ancient Rome, we can speak of a history of art.

We can connect two periods separated by thousands of years through the works of those who handed on the traditions of art from century to century ; but we shall never meet with that continuous and unconscious growth which connects the language of Plautus with that of Dante. The process through which language is settled and unsettled combines in one the two oppo

« PreviousContinue »