Page images

mis again with the lower classes to repel foreign inva. sion; when literary occupations are discouraged, palaces burnt, monasteries pillaged, and seats of learning destroyed, - it is then that the popular, or, as they are called, the vulgar dialects, which had formed a kind of undercurrent, rise beneath the crystal surface of the literary language, and sweep away, like the waters in spring, the cumbrous formations of a by-gone age. In more peaceful times, a new and popular literature springs up in a language which seems to have been formed by conquests or revolutions, but which, in reality, had been growing up long before, and was only brought out, ready made, by historical events. From this point of view we can see that no literary language can ever be said to have been the mother of another language. As soon as a language loses its unbounded capability of change, its carelessness about what it throws away, and its readiness in always supplying instantaneously the wants of mind and heart, its natural life is changeù into a merely artificial existence. It may still live on for a long time, but while it seems to be the leading shoot, it is in reality but a broken and withering branch, slowly falling from the stock from

which it sprang. The sources of Italian are not to be - found in the classical literature of Rome, but in the

popular dialects of Italy. English did not spring from the Anglo-Saxon of Wessex only, but from the dialects spoken in every part of Great Britain, distinguished by local peculiarities, and modified at different times by the influence of Latin, Danish, Norman, French, and other foreign elements. Some of the local dialects of English, as spoken at the present day, are of great importance for a critical study of English,

and a French prince, now living in this country, deserves great credit for collecting what can still be saved of English dialects. Hindustani is not the daughter of Sanskrit, as we find it in the Vedas, or in the later literature of the Brahmans: it is a branch of the living speech of India, springing from the same stein from which Sanskrit sprang, when it first assumed its literary independence.

While thus endeavoring to place the character of dialects, as the feeders of language, in a clear light, I may appear to some of my hearers to have exaggerated their importance. No doubt, if my object had been different, I might easily have shown that, without literary cultivation, language would never have acquired that settled character which is essential for the communication of thought; that it would never have fulfilled its highest purpose, but have remained the mere jargon of shy troglodytes. But as the importance of literary languages is not likely to be overlooked, whereas the importance of dialects, as far as they sustain the growth of language, had never been pointed out, I thought it better to dwell on the advantages which literary languages derive from dialects, rather than on the benefits which dialects owe to literary languages. Besides, our chief object to-day was to explain the growth of language, and for that purpose it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the constant undergrowth of

dialects. Remove a language from its native soil, tear " it away from the dialects which are its feeders, and you

arrest at once its natural growth. There will still be the progress of phonetic corruption, but no longer the restoring influence of dialectic regeneration. The language which the Norwegian refugees brought to

Iceland has remained almost the same for seven centuries, whereas on its native soil, and surrounded by local dialects, it has grown into two distinct languages, the Swedish and Danish. In the eleventh century, the languages of Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland are supposed 1 to have been identical, nor can we appeal to foreign conquest, or to the admixture of foreign with native blood, in order to account for the changes which the language underwent in Sweden and Denmark, but not in Iceland.2

We can hardly form an idea of the unbounded resources of dialects. When literary languages have stereotyped one general term, their dialects will supply 1 fifty, though each with its own special shade of meaning. If new combinations of thought are evolved in the progress of society, dialects will readily supply the required names from the store of their so-called

superfluous words. There are not only local and provincial, but also class dialects. There is a dialect of shepherds, of sportsmen, of soldiers, of farmers. I suppose there are few persons here present who could tell the exact meaning of a horse's poll, crest, withers, dock, hamstring, cannon, pastern, coronet, arm, jowl, and muzzle. Where the literary language speaks of the young of all sorts of animals, farmers, shepherds, and sportsmen would be ashamed to use so general a term.

“ The idiom of nomads,” as Grimm says, “ contains an abundant wealth of manifold expressions for sword and weapons, and for the different stages in the life of

1 Marsh, Lectures, pp. 133, 368.

2 " There are fewer local peculiarities of form and articulation in our vast extent of territory (U. S.), than on the comparatively narrow soil of Great Britain." - Marsh, p. 667.

their cattle. In a more highly cultivated language these expressions become burthensome and superfluous. But, in a peasant's mouth, the bearing, calving, falling, and killing of almost every animal has its own peculiar term, as the sportsman delights in calling the gait and members of game by different names.

The eye of these shepherds, who live in the free air, sees further, their ear hears more sharply, - why should their speech not have gained that living truth and variety ?”

Thus Juliana Berners, lady prioress of the nunnery of Sopwell in the fifteenth century, the reputed author of the book of St. Albans, informs us that we must not use names of multitudes promiscuously, but we are to say, “a congregacyon of people, a hoost of men, a felyshyppynge of yomen, and a bevy of ladies ; we must speak of a herde of dere, swannys, cranys, or wrenys, a sege of herons or bytourys, a muster of pecockes, a watche of nyghtyngales, a flyghte of doves, a claterynge of choughes, a pryde of lyons, a slewthe of beeres, a gagle of geys, a skulke of foxes, a sculle of frerys, a pontificality of prestys, a bomynable syght of monkes, and a superfluyte of nonnes,” and so of other human and brute assemblages. In like manner, in dividing game for the table, the animals were not carved, but “a dere was broken, a gose reryd, chekyn frusshed, a cony unlaced, a crane dysplayed, a curlewe unioynted, a quayle wynggyd, a swanne lyfte, a lambe sholdered, a heron dysmembryd, a pecocke dysfygured, a samon chynyd, a hadoke sydyd, a sole loynyd, and a breme splayed.” 1

What, however, I wanted particularly to point out in this lecture is this, that neither of the causes which

1 Marsh, Lectures, pp. 181, 590.


produce the growth, or, according to others, constitute the history of language, is under the control of man. The phonetic decay of language is not the result of mere accident; it is governed by definite laws, as we shall see when we come to consider the principles of comparative grammar. But these laws were not made by man ; on the contrary, man had to obey them without knowing of their existence.

In the growth of the modern Romance languages out of Latin, we can perceive not only a general tendency to simplification, not only a natural disposition to avoid the exertion which the pronunciation of certain consonants, and still more, of groups of consonants, entails on the speaker: but we can see distinct laws for each of the Romance dialects, which enable us to say, that in French the Latin patrem would naturally grow into the modern père. The final m is always dropped in the Romance dialects, and it was dropped even in Latin. Thus we get patre instead of patrem. Now, a Latin t between two vowels in such words as pater is invariably suppressed in French. This is a law, and by means of it we can discover at once that catena must become chaine ; fata, a later feminine representation of the old neuter fatum, fée; pratum a meadow, pré. From pratum we derive prataria, which in French becomes prairie; from fatum, fataria, the English fairy. Thus every Latin participle in atus, like amatus, loved, must end in French in é. The same law then changed patre (pronounced patere) into paere, or père; it changed matrem into mère, fratrem into frère. These changes take place gradually but irresistibly, and, what is most important, they are completely beyond the reach or control of the free will of man.

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »