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Modern English

( Originally Published 1912 )

THE flooding of the English vocabulary with French words began, as we have seen, in the XIIIth Century, and reached very large proportions in the century that followed. At the same time Anglo-French, which had maintained itself for two hundred years or more as the language of the governing classes, gradually fell into disuse, and in 1362 English was adopted in the law courts, and at about the same time in the schools. And yet, properly speaking, there was before the latter part of the XIVth Century no English language, no standard form of speech, understood by all, and spoken everywhere by the educated classes. When such restraining and conservative influence as was exercised by the West-Saxon language of the court had been removed at the Conquest, the centrifugal forces, which are always present in language, and tend to split it up into varieties of speech, had begun to assert themselves; and the old dialects of England diverged, until the inhabitants of each part of the country could hardly understand each other. The dialects of this period can be roughly divided into three main divisions, which correspond to the divisions of speech in the pre-Conquest period, but are called by new names. n all the country south of the Thames, what is called the Southern dialect was spoken, and this was a descendant of the West-Saxon speech which, under Alfred the Great, had become the literary language of England. North of the Thames there were two main dialects : the Midland, corresponding to the Old Mercian; and the Northern, extending from the Humber to Aberdeen, and corresponding to the Old Northumbrian. In each of these districts authors, as far as they wrote in English at all, wrote in their own native dialect; and in the middle of the XIVth Century it must have seemed that the development of no common form of English speech was possible. But as at first the Northern, or Northumbrian, dialect had developed in the VIIIth Century into a literary language, and then had been replaced by the Southern or West-Saxon, so now the neglected speech of Mercia, the Midland, was destined to attain that supremacy which it has since never lost. The Southern dialect was very conservative of old forms and inflections; in the Northern, owing to the Danish settlements, changes had been rapidly going on, so that these two had become almost separate languages. The Midland, however, less progressive than the Northern, but more advanced than the Southern, stood between the two, and was more or less comprehensible to the speakers of each dialect. Moreover, the Midland, being the speech of London, naturally became familiar to men of business and of the educated classes, who frequented the capital; and it was the language of the two great universities as well. Philologists divide this Midland dialect into two sub-divisions: West Midland, which was more conservative and archaic in type and East Midland, which had been more affected by Danish influence, and was somewhat more progressive than the West. It was, then, this East Midland, spoken in England and in Oxford and Cambridge, which was adopted as our standard speech.

This result was no doubt greatly helped by the greatest man of literary genius in this period, the poet Chaucer. The part played by Ennius in the formation of classical Latin is well known; Dante did much to form modern Italian, the German language owes an immense debt to Luther; and in the same way Chaucer has been claimed as the "Father of the English language." This view has, indeed, been recently disputed, and it is now admitted that the Midland dialect would have become the standard speech, even if Chaucer had never written. At the same time, but for his influence, and the great popularity of his writings, this process would probably have been more hesitating and slow.

He found, indeed, an already cultivated language in the Midland dialect, but he wrote it with an ease, an elegance and regularity hitherto unknown; giving it the stamp of high literature, and making it the vehicle for his wide cultivation and his knowledge of the world. A. Londoner of the citizen class, a courtier as well, a traveller and diplomatist, he was admirably fitted to sum up and express in modern speech the knowledge and varied interests of his time; and when we add to this the splendid accident of genius, and the immense popularity of his poems, we see how great his influence must have been, although the exact character of that influence is not quite easy to define.

Probably in addition to the ease and polish he gave the language, Chaucer's greatest contribution was the large number of words he borrowed from French and naturalized in the language. It has, indeed, been said that there is no proof that any of the foreign words in his writings had not been used before; and this is, of course, strictly true, as it is impossible to prove a negative of this kind. But as the Oxford Dictionary shows, the number of these words not to be found in any previous writings now extant is really immense; to his translation of Boethius, to his work on Astrology, to his prose and poems, are traced a large number of our great and important words, besides many learned terms, attention, diffusion, fraction, duration, position, first found in Chaucer, and then not apparently used again till the XVIth Century. Al-most equally important in their influence on the language were the Wyclif translations of the Bible, made public at about the same time as Chaucer's poems. Wyclif, like Chaucer, wrote in the dialect of the East Midlands; like Chaucer he possessed a genius for language, and in number and importance his contributions to the English vocabulary seem (according to the results published in the Oxford Dictionary) to have almost, if not quite, equalled those of Chaucer. While Chaucer borrowed mainly from the French, Wyclif's new words are largely adaptations from the Latin of the Vulgate; and, as he finds it necessary to explain many of these words by notes, it is fairly certain that he himself regarded them as innovations. With the growing importance, then, of the East Midland dialect, and with the stamp set upon it by Chaucer and Wyclif, and the immense popularity of their writings, we witness at the end of the XIVth Century what we may consider to be the birth of the English language as we know it. Despised, ruined, and destroyed; for three centuries ousted from its pride of place by an alien tongue, and then almost swamped by the inrush of foreign words, yet, like the fabled bird of Arabia, it arose swiftly from its ashes, and spread its wings for new and hitherto unequalled flights. The English of Chaucer and Wyclif was now accepted as the standard language of the country, and all the other and rival dialects sank to the level of uneducated and local forms of speech, with the exception of one variety of the Northern or Northumbrian dialect, which was developed into the Scottish language, received a considerable amount of literary cultivation, and remained the standard speech of Scotland, until the union of the two countries at the death of Queen Elizabeth.

But although Chaucer's English is substantially the language that we speak, and there are whole pages of Chaucer that a person of ordinary education can read with little difficulty, such a reader will perceive at once great differences between the English of the XIVth Century and that of our own day; and should he not read, but have read to him, Chaucer's poems, with their correct and contemporary pronunciation, the difference would seem still more startling. For no language, of course, ever remains unchanged, but undergoes a perpetual process of transformation; the sounds of many vowels and consonants are slowly shifted; the old words become outworn or change their meaning, and new terms are needed to replace them; and with the passing of time, fresh experiences are acquired, and new ways of thought and feeling become popular, and these also demand and find their appropriate terminology. Grammar also becomes more simple, but on the whole the change of English since Chaucer's time has been a change in vocabulary; and to this we shall return in a later chapter. There are, however, certain changes of a formal character which should be mentioned before we approach the history of the language in its connection with the history of culture.

By the end of the XIVth Century, as we have seen, the Midland dialect was established as standard English; the introduction of the printing press in the XVth Century, and especially the works printed and published by Caxton, made its supremacy undisputed, and practically fixed its form for the future. Caxton's English is, as we might expect, more modern than that of Chaucer; the spelling, although to our eyes old fashioned, is more definite and settled, and any one of us can read Caxton's English with very little difficulty.

Two influences of the XVIth Century had a marked effect on the English language, one European and the other national. The revival of learning, the renewed study of classical Latin, the growth of the cosmopolitan Republic of learned humanists who drove out the old Low Latin of the Middle Ages and devoted themselves to the cultivation of an elegant and Ciceronian prose, made at first the enthusiasts of the new learning somewhat disdainful of their mother tongues. They saw how rapidly these native languages were changing, and naturally believed that to write in the vernacular was to write in a local and perishing speech-awkward, moreover, and barbarous, and unfitted to embody high thoughts and scholarly distinctions. While, therefore, these scholars somewhat neglected their native tongues, or wrote in them with apologies and condescension, their study, nevertheless, of classical models, their care for the art of speech, their love of apt and beautiful words and rhythms and phrases, did much to mould the literary languages of modern Europe, and added to them many graces of style, expression, and music. Towards the middle of the XVIth Century another and opposing influence began to make itself felt. With the Reformation, and the growth of national feeling under Henry VIII and his Tudor successors, English scholars began to value more highly the institutions and the language of their own country.

The Church services were now in English; English translations of the Bible were printed, and the beauty of these services and translations opened men's eyes to the value and expressiveness of their native tongue. English became what it had never been before the object of serious study; and the native element, which had tended to be overshadowed by the Latinity of the Humanists, was now more valued under the Teutonic influence of the Reformation. There were now patriots who started the ideal of a pure language, freed as much as possible from foreign elements; while others attempted, often too successfully, as we have seen, to remodel words of foreign derivation. We now reach, in fact, the stage of a self-conscious language, no longer allowed to develop at its own free will, unbound by rules or study, but affected, both for good and evil, by the theories and ideals of writers and learned men. In the Elizabethan period, however, when the influences of the classical revival and of the growth of national pride in England and things English both reached their highest mark, and were mingled together by the exuberant vitality and creative force of the time, the new ideal of "correctness" could as yet make but little headway against the opposing forces of innovation and experiment. The language was still in a plastic and unformed state; writers and speakers with a whole world of new thoughts to express, reached out eagerly and uncritically to every source from which they could derive means of expression-"ink-horn" terms, strange coinages, pedantic borrowings, fashions and affectations, were mingled with archaisms and sham antiques; while the needs of popular preaching and discussion brought into common and even literary use many colloquialisms and homely old Saxon words,

The result was a language of unsurpassed richness and beauty, which, however, defies all rules. To the Elizabethans it seemed as if almost any word could be used in any grammatical relation-adverbs for verbs, for nouns or adjectives, nouns and adjectives for verbs and adverbs. Thus, as Dr. Abbot points out in his Shakespearian Grammar, "You can happy your friend, malice or foot your enemy, or fall an axe on his neck." A he is used for a man, a she for a woman, and every variety of what is now considered bad grammar—plural nominatives with singular verbs, double negatives, double comparatives (more better, etc.), are commonly employed.

The end of this period of Tudor English and the beginning of modern English coincides with the appearance of a Revised Version of the English Bible, published in 1611. In the earlier part of the XVIIth Century the borrowing of learned words, especially from the Latin, though now also to a certain extent direct from the Greek, went on. apace. Indeed, by now the English had adopted far more new material than it could assimilate; and at the Restoration, when a new ideal of language prevailed, and speech tended more towards the easy elegance of a cultivated man of fashion, the vocabulary was sifted, and many of these cumbrous and tremendous terms of XVIth and XVIIth Century thought and theology fell into disuse.

With the Restoration also came a new wave of French influence. Charles II and his Court had lived long in France; French fashions were supreme at the English Court, polite speech and literature was once more fitted with French expressions; and it became now, as we have seen, the custom not to naturalize these borrowed words, but to preserve as much as possible their native pronunciation. The structure of the English sentence, moreover, was modified owing to French influence; and the stately and splendid old English prose, with its rolling sentences and involved clauses of dogmatic assertion or inspired metaphor, gave place to a more and more concise, easy, and limpid statement, without the eagle-high flights of the old English, but also without its cumbersomeness, awkwardness, and obscurity. With the learned Latin words that were now discarded, many old English terms fell into dis-use, and the English language in the XVIIIth Century suffered something of the same "purification" or impoverishment which in the XVIIth Century reduced the literary vocabulary of French by an enormous number of native words.

With the Romantic Movement, however, at the end of the XVIIIth and the beginning of the XIXth Century, and with also the increased historical sense and interest in the past, many of these old words were revived; and we are probably now much nearer to Chaucer, not only in our understanding of his age, but also in our comprehension of his language, than our ancestors were at the time when Dryden and his contemporaries found it almost incomprehensible without special study. Indeed, the fifty years between the death of Shakespeare and the Restoration created a much wider gulf between the courtiers of Charles II and those of Elizabeth than the three hundred years which divide us from that period, and Shakespeare and Spenser are much more easily comprehended by us than by the men of letters who were born not many years after the death of these great poets.

Besides the shifting of the English vocabulary and the extinction of superfluous words, another and more subtle process has been steadily going on, and has done much to enrich our language. Owing to its varied sources our language was, as we have seen, provided with a great number of synonyms-words of different form, but expressing the same meaning. But this superfluity of terms was soon turned to a good use by the ever vigilant Genius of the Language; little by little slightly different meanings began to attach themselves to these different words; each gradually asserted for itself its separate sphere of expression, from which the others were excluded; until often two words which could originally be used indifferently have come to have quite separate and distinct meanings. This differentiation, or,- as it is called, "desynonymization," of words is most plainly seen where two words, one from a Saxon and one from a Latin or Greek source, have begun with identical meanings, but have gradually diverged, as pastor and shepherd, foresight and providence, boyish and puerile, homicide and murder. Often, however, the two words are derived from the same language, as ingenuous and ingenious, invent and discover, astrology and astronomy, and many others. Or one word with two different spellings, both of which were used indifferently, has become two distinct words, each of which appropriates a part of the original meaning. Thus our word human was generally spelt humane till the beginning of the XVIIIth Century, though human occasionally appeared. Then, however, the distinction between what men are, and what they ought to be, arose, and human was adopted for the first, and the old spelling humane for the other idea. So divers and diverse were originally the same word, and not distinguished in spelling till the XVIIth Century; and the distinctions between corps and corpse, cloths and clothes, flour and flower were not established before quite modern times.

These are obvious distinctions, which we can all understand at once, although the exact process which produces them remains, like so much in language, somewhat mysterious and unknown. But, as we have seen in the development of grammatical distinctions, the Genius of the Language is often extremely subtle and delicate in its analysis, so subtle that although we feel instinctively the discriminations that it makes, we cannot, without some effort, understand the distinctions of thought on which they are based. Often, indeed, our usage will be right when the reason we give for it is entirely mistaken. The human mind, half-consciously aware of infinite shades of thought and feeling which it wishes to express, chooses with admirable discrimination, though by no deliberate act, among the materials provided for it by historical causes or mere accidents of spelling, differing forms to express its inner meaning; stamps them with the peculiar shade it wishes to express, and uses them for its delicate purposes; and thus with admirable but unforeseen design, finds a beautiful and appropriate and subtle clothing for its thought. To take a simple instance of these distinctions in the use of words, we would all speak of riding in an omnibus, a tramcar, or a farmer's cart, in which we were given a lift on the road, but of driving in a cab or carriage which we own or hire; many of us would not, however, be aware that the distinction we make between the two words is really due to the sense that in the case of the omnibus or farmer's cart the vehicle is not under our own control, while the cab or carriage is. So also in modern standard English (though not in the English of the United States) a distinction which we feel, but many of us could not define, is made between forward and forwards; forwards being used in definite contrast to any other direction, as "if you move at all, you can only move forwards," while forward is used where no such contrast is implied, as in the common phrase "to bring a matter forward."

Distinctions and nice discriminations of this kind are continually arising and attempting to establish themselves in the language, and we can all witness now the struggle going on to define the usages of the three adjectives Scots, Scottish, and Scotch. Another distinction now tending to establish itself is between the terminations of agent-nouns in er and or. We speak of sailor, but of a boat being a good sailer; of a respecter of persons, but an inspector of nuisances; or a projector, and the rejecter who opposes him. Here, again, the distinction is a somewhat subtle one, the agent-noun in or implying a trade or profession or habitual function, while that in er has no such special meaning. It is in instances of this kind, in the variations of our own speech, and that of others, that the study of words enables us to observe in little the processes and somewhat mysterious workings of those forces to which are due the perpetual change and development of national ways and usages and institutions.



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