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PAST AND PRESENT.
ENGLISH A COMPOSITE LANGUAGE.
VERY slight acquaintance with the history
of our own language will teach us that the speech of Chaucer's age is not the speech of Skelton's, that there is a great difference between the language under Elizabeth and that under Charles the First, between that under Charles the First and Charles the Second, between that under Charles the Second and Queen Anne; that considerable changes had taken place between the beginning and the middle of the last century, and that Johnson and Fielding did not write altogether as we do now. For in the course of a nation's progress new ideas are evermore mounting above the horizon, while others are lost sight of and sink below it: others again change their form and aspect: others which seemed united, split into parts. And as it is with ideas, so it is with their symbols, words. New ones are perpetually
coined to meet the demand of an advanced understanding, of new feelings that have sprung out of the decay of old ones, of ideas that have shot forth from the summit of the tree of our knowledge; old words meanwhile fall into disuse and become obsolete; others have their meaning narrowed and defined; synonyms diverge from each other and their property is parted between them; nay, whole classes of words will now and then be thrown overboard, as new feelings or perceptions of analogy gain ground. A history of the language in which all these vicissitudes should be pointed out, in which the introduction of every new word should be noted, so far as it is possible--and much may be done in this way by laborious and diligent and judicious research-in which such words as have become obsolete should be followed down to their final extinction, in which all the most remarkable words should be traced through their successive phases of meaning, and in which moreover the causes and occasions of these changes should be explained, such a work would not only abound in entertainment, but would throw more light on the development of the human mind than all the brainspun systems of metaphysics that ever were written.'
These words are not my own, but the words of a greatly honoured friend and teacher, who, though we behold him now no more, still teaches, and will teach, by the wisdom of his writings, and the nobleness of his life. They are words of Arch
LOVE OF OUR OWN TONGUE.
deacon Hare. I have put them in the forefront of my lectures; anticipating as they do, in the way of masterly sketch, all or nearly all which I shall attempt to accomplish; and indeed drawing out the lines of a great deal more, to which I shall not venture so much as to put my hand. At the same time the subject is one which, even with my partial and imperfect handling, will, I trust, find an answer and an echo in the hearts of all whom I address; which every Englishman will feel of near concern and interest to himself. For, indeed, the love of our own language, what is it in fact, but the love of our country expressing itself in one particular direction ? If the noble acts of that nation to which we belong are precious to us, if we feel ourselves made greater by the greatness, summoned to a nobler life by the nobleness of Englishmen, who have already lived and died, and have bequeathed to us a name which must not by us be made less, what exploits of theirs can well be nobler, what can more clearly point out their native land and ours as having fulfilled a glorious past, as being destined for a glorious future, than that they should have acquired for themselves and for those who come after them a clear, a strong, an harmonious, a noble language? For all this bears witness to corresponding merits in those that speak it, to clearness of mental vision, to strength, to harmony, to nobleness in them who have gradually formed and shaped it to be the utterance of their inmost life and being
To know of this language, the stages which it has gone through, the sources from which its riches have been derived, the gains which it has made or is now making, the perils which are threatening it, the losses which it has sustained, the capacities which may be yet latent in it, waiting to be evoked, the points in which it transcends other tongues, the points in which it comes short of them, all this may well be the object of worthy ambition to every one of us. So may we hope to be ourselves guardians of its purity, and not corruptors of it; to introduce, it may be, others into an intelligent knowledge of that, with which we shall have ourselves niore than a merely superficial acquaintance; to bequeath it to those who come after us not worse than we received it ourselves.
Spartam nactus es; hanc exorna,'—this should be our motto in respect at once of our country, and of our country's tongue.
Nor is a study such as this alien or remote from the purposes which have brought us hither. It is true that within these walls we are mainly occupied in learning other tongues than our own. The time we bestow upon it is small as compared with that bestowed on those others. And yet one of our main objects in learning them is that we may better understand this.
Nor ought any other to dispute with it the first and foremost place in our reverence, our gratitude, and our love. It has been well and worthily said by an illustrious German scholar, “The care of the national language I consider as at all times a
sacred trust and a most important privilege of the higher orders of society. Every man of education should make it the object of his unceasing concern, to preserve his language pure and entire, to speak it, so far as is in his power, in all its beauty and perfection. ..... A nation whose language becomes rude and barbarous, must be on the brink of barbarism in regard to everything else. A nation which allows her language to go to ruin, is parting with the last half of her intellectual independence, and testifies her willingness to cease to exist.'*
But this knowledge, like all other knowledge which is worth attaining, is only to be attained at the price of labour and pains. The language which at this day we speak is the result of processes which have been going forward for hundreds and for thousands of years. Nay more,—it is not too much to affirm that processes modifying the English, which we now write and speak, have been at work from the first day that man, being gifted with discourse of reason, projected his thought from himself, and embodied and contemplated it in his word. Which things being so, if we would understand this language as it now is, we must know something of it as it has been ; we must be able to measure, however roughly, the forces which
* F. Schlegel, History of Literature, Lecture 10. Milton: Verba enim partim inscita et putida, partim mendosa et perperam prolata, quid si ignaros et oscitantes, et ad servile quidvis jam olim paratos incolarum animos haud levi indicio declarant ? I have elsewhere quoted this remarkable passage at full (Study of Words, 12th edit. p. 83).