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ARTICLE II.-EARLY ENGLISH LITERATURE.
The Origin and History of the English Language, and of the
Early Literature it Embodies. By GEORGE P. Marsu. New York: Charles Scribner. 1862. 8vo. pp. xvi, 574.
It is with great pleasure that we receive any contribution to the study of the English language, and especially of it in its earlier periods. It is only lately that English scholars have left their devoted pursuit of the classics, and turned themselves to the investigation of the genius and resources of their own language. But little has been done for the elucidation of its history, compared to what has been accomplished for the French or German, and a thorough knowledge of our own tongue requires more toil and original study than is necessary in any other. A new worker has a field almost clear and can reap an abundant harvest.
While the German has in Grimm's Grammar a history almost complete of its whole development, and even the old Northern and Anglo-Saxon languages have been pretty thoroughly investigated, what have we to boast of in reference to English ? A few superficial treatises, such as Latham's “English Language,” marked more by a want of research and by mistaken views than by any positive quality, and a few others showing the general progress of English literature. There is, indeed, one excellent work, as far as it goes—the English Grammar of Fiedler—the first part of which was published in 1849, and the continuation by Sachs in 1861. This, however, has never been translated.
It is hardly from a lack of materials that more has not been done, for the libraries of England are full of early manuscripts, but in some measure because these materials are not available. This renders it especially difficult for students in this country to make much progress, at least in original investigation. We
are forced to rely entirely on the labor of others as our foundation, which often proves sandy. For there are few editions of old authors which are worthy of great confidence. Only three works have been edited with real care—Layamon, The Ormulum, and the Wycliffite versions of the Bible. In few others has the text been carefully settled by a comparison of all the different manuscripts. Of how great value would an edition of Chaucer be, which, while it followed the best text, shonld give a collation of every variant reading. Due credit, however, must be given to the English Book Clubs for their labor in this line. The Percy and Camden Societies, especially, have done much to further a knowledge of old English and to provide us with the means of prosecuting our studies. Started on the principle of mutual contribution, they have been faithful to their plan, and have printed many books which would probably otherwise have never been published.
Another difficulty with our scholars is their improper methods of study. The great tendency of everything in this country is to superficiality. This is as much the case in the study of language as in anything else. With a smattering of one or two modern languages, and a slight acquaintance with the classics, such persons feel able to undo all the knotty problems of philology, and they propose their theories with as much confidence as though they were based on the securest support. They content themselves with the study of grammars and dictionaries, instead of viewing language as it is worked out and developed in literature and speech. They study the form rather than the spirit. This is, in some respects, as true of English as American scholars. But Mr. Marsh expresses this so well, that we will borrow his words:
“The study of forms and of the primary or abstract meaning of words must go hand in hand with wide observation of those forms and of the plastic modification and development of the signification of words, as exemplified in the living movement of actual speech or literature, and no amount of grammatical and lexical knowledge is a substitute for the fruits of such observation. A scholar might know by rote every paradigm and every syntactical rule in the completest Greek gram. mars, every definition in the most voluminous Greek lexicons, and yet fairly be said to have no knowledge of the Greek language at all. In short, a student of Greek, possessed of these elements only, is just in the position of an arithmetical VOL. XXII.
pupil who has learned the forms, names, and abstract values of the Arabic nu als and the theory of the decimal notation; that is, he is barely prepared to begin the real study of his subject. Inherertly, his attainments are worth nothing, and it is only by practical familiarity with numerical combinations that they acquire real significance.
“Grammar has but a value, not a worth; it is a means, not an end; it teaches but half truths, and, except as an introduction to literature and that which literature embodies, it is a melancholy heap of leached ashes, marrowless bones, and empty oyster shells."
Mr. Marsh shows us by these Lectures that all American scholarship is not of the class just represented. They prove also how much can be made out of the materials which we have, and how much more can be done for the history of language by a diligent comparison and investigation of its literature, than by theories which go back to the origin of speech and put man in a state of nature,--speculations from which no practical result was ever obtained.
The work before us consists of Twelve Lectures, which were originally delivered before the Lowell Institute. In these Mr. Marsh, with the enthusiasm of a lover and the skill of a master of the subject, treats of the various topics embraced in the history of the language, down to the age of Elizabeth. At that time the language had reached its full development. Its general character has not since been changed, except indeed in matters of orthography and pronunciation, which are constantly varying. The author, comparing the growth of language to the physical growth of a man, speaks as follows:
“So in languages employed as the medium of varied literary effort, there is, as subjects of intellectual discourse, practical applications of scientific principle, and new conditions of social and material life multiply, an increasing pliancy and adaptability of speech, a constant appropriation and formation of new vocables, rejection of old and worn-out phrases, and revivification of asphyxiated words, a rhetorical, in short, not a grammatical change, which, to the superficial observer, may give to the language a new aspect, while it yet remains substantially the
“ The chief accessions to the English vocabulary since the time of Shakespeare, have been in the departments of industrial art and of mathematical, physcical, and linguistic science. They merely compose nomenclatures, as in the case of chemistry, whose new terminology—though it enables us to speak and write of things, the existence and properties of which analysis has but lately revealed to us— has not appreciably affected the structure of the English tongue or the laws of
its morement. In the dialect of imaginative composition, in all pure literature, in fact, our vocabulary remains in the main unchanged, except, indeed, as it has been enriched by the revival of expressive words or forms which had unfortuDately been suffered to become obsolete.” This book is a great improvement on Mr, Marsh's first vol
That was very discursive; and, though it contained the valuable results of much careful investigation and study, was yet marred by its want of arrangement and system. The present volume, being a treatment of a continuous subject, is more free from such faults.
Owing, probably, to the manner in which the book was composed, there are a few slight inaccuracies and oversights, one of which should, perhaps, be noticed. On page 39 a number of words are given as examples of words occurring in all the romance languages which cannot be traced to a classical Latin
The statement in the text, which can be supported by numerous examples, is hardly warranted by these, for all but one (bianco) not only can be, but by the best authorities are referred to a pure Latin original.*
It is a little singular that while Mr. Marsh speaks in such glowing terms of the advantageous effect which will be produced on our language by a study of the Anglo-Saxon writers, he himself should use such a uniformly Latin diction. Some pages show hardly a northern word, except of course the connectives. This is, in some degree, occasioned by the fact that the dialect of criticism and taste was mostly imported from the French: but we wish that Mr. Marsh could have given us a better specimen of a pure English style than is seen in the revivification or creation of a few words such as “comeling," which, though excellent itself, has a strange look among its Latin neighbors.
Mr. Marsh seems to think that words have no special signification, but merely contain a sort of general idea which varies with every application. He blames our dictionary and syno
• It. aceiajo is from Lat. acies; It. aguglia, either from Lat. acucula, for acicula, or from aculeus ; It, arrivare, M. Lat. adripare, from Lat. ad and ripa; It, bocca, from Lat. bucca; and It. cacciare, from M. Lat. captiare, Lat. capere.
nym makers for endeavoring to fix the precise value of any word. It is true, indeed, that the words of a sentence all have a mutual effect on each other, and that each in a differ
a ent position is like some precious stone, which, when seen in various lights, has a play of colors. But every word is a fact, and was intended to convey a certain meaning. What would become of precision and force of language if words were to have no exact signification? The use of language is to express our ideas, and if precision of speech is lost, confusion of thought follows. What force, then, is there in this criticism on lexicographers, who do not try to crystallize the language into any certain form, but only to hold up a mirror to it, and let us see what shapes it has assumed ?
But to return to the text of this essay. The first two lectures are introductory, and give a sketch of the composite character of the language, and of the various materials which were united to form it. An excellent sketch is given of the forms and the genius of the Anglo-Saxon language, but we must pass by this and hasten to what is more immediately and truly English.
It is an interesting branch of inquiry to ascertain in what way our language was formed by the union and gradual coalescence of the Anglo-Saxon and the Anglo-Norman tongues. As we find it now, it differs much from either : yet it would be at once recognized by its grammar as belonging to the same class as the Saxon, though its whole vocabulary were foreign. The Anglo-Saxon had been in some degree exposed to the influence of the Latin, by the clergy, but this influence was very slight, as the ministrations of the Saxon church and their religious discussions and writings were mostly in the native tongue. It had picked up a few words relating to religious rites, and had retained a few left in England by the Romans, but that was all. No influence had been exerted on the grammar of the language. The Norman, however, seriously affected its grammatical relations.
These changes took place in several ways. Inflections were dropped and altered; and there were modifications of the syntax, both by a change in the position of the words of the