Page images


Towards Facilitating Instruction

in the



Modern Dialects of the English Language

For the Use of the University of Virginia.



INTRODUCTORY NOTE.-Jefferson's "Essay on Anglo-Saxon" is reproduced here for the first time since it was originally printed in 1851 by order of the Board of Trustees of the University of Virginia— twenty-five years after his death. Copies of this pamphlet are very rare, and the publication of the "Essay" in this volume is due to the courtesy of Dr. Charles W. Kent, who placed the copy belonging to the University of Virginia at the disposal of the editors of the present Edition of Jefferson's Writings. Jefferson sent his "Essay" to Herbert Croft, an eminent Englishman who was preparing an etymological dictionary, and the letter to him which precedes the “Essay" was no doubt intended to take the place of the customary preface. It may be of interest to note that Jefferson was one of the first, if the pioneer, in this country to advocate the study of Anglo-Saxon and incorporate it in the college curriculum.




MONTICELLO, October 30th, 1798.

SIR,-The copy of your printed letter on the English and German languages, which you have been so kind as to send me, has come to hand; and

pray you to accept of my thanks for this mark of your attention. I have perused it with singular pleasure, and, having long been sensible of the importance of a knowledge of the Northern languages to the understanding of English, I see it, in this letter, proved and specifically exemplified by your collations of the English and German. I shall look with impatience for the publication of your "English and German Dictionary." Johnson, besides the want of precision in his definitions, and of accurate distinction in passing from one shade of meaning to another of the same word, is most objectionable in his derivations. From a probably of intimacy with our own language while in the Anglo-Saxon form and type, and of its kindred languages of the North, he has a constant leaning towards Greek and Latin for English etymon. Even

Skinner has a little of this, who, when he has given the true Northern parentage of a word, often tells you from what Greek and Latin source it might be derived by those who have that kind of partiality. He is, however, on the whole, our best etymologist, unless we ascend a step higher to the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary; and he has set the good example of collating the English word with its kindred word in the several Northern dialects, which often assist in ascertaining its true meaning. Your idea is an excellent one, in producing authorities for the meaning of words, "to select the prominent passages in our best writers, to make your dictionary a general index to English literature, and thus intersperse with verdure and flowers the barren deserts of Philology." And I believe with you that "wisdom, morality, religion, thus thrown down, as if without intention, before the reader, in quotations, may often produce more effect than the very passages in the books themselves."—" that the cowardly suicide, in search of a strong word for his dying letter, might light on a passage which would excite him to blush at his want of fortitude, and to forego his purpose;"-" and that a dictionary with examples at the words may, in regard to every branch of knowledge, produce more real effect than the whole collection of books which it quotes.' I have sometimes myself used Johnson as a Repertory, to find favorite passages which I wished to recollect, but too rarely with success.

« PreviousContinue »