The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 32
I Derive the title which I have chosen from a casual expression used by one of the best writers on the origin and history of the English language—Mr. George P. Marsh, a learned American. What he means by a fossilised word is analogous to what geologists mean by a fossilised plant or animal. The word is no longer living in its original sense and shape, though it may still he found in some altered form, just as there are living types of extinct species. A germ of the old form may sometimes be found embedded, as it were, in a modem compound; in which we can still discover a trace (as chemists say) of the original word, and of the idea which it expresses. The parallel, like most figurative expressions, is not quite perfect throughout; but I think the reader will find, as we go on, that the analogy is quite close enough for the purpose contemplated.
That great master of French comedy, Molière, in one of the best and wittiest of his plays, the "Bourgeois gentilhomme," or citizen turned gentleman, makes his hero, alter taking lessons from a score of masters in various branches of supposed gentility, discover, to his great astonishment, that he has been speaking prose all his life without knowing it. As we proceed with the subject before us, some of my readers may perhaps be surprised to learn that they have been speaking German all their lives without knowing it. Of course I do not mean the language of Goethe or Schiller, of Schlegel or Lessing; but the common speech in which we address our children—the language in which we pray, quarrel, and make love—is still, to a great extent, a Low-German form of speech, founded on the common speech of England in the time of King Alfred.
The Anglo-Saxon language, as we now call it, though our ancestors themselves called it Englisce-spraec, which was used in England, and in a great part of Scotland, until the Norman Conquest introduced a new element, has been a dead language for about six centuries, and was a dying language for two centuries earlier. Its grammatical structure remains no longer in its full integrity, but a large proportion of its vocabulary still survives in our every-day speech. No Englishman of the present day can, without a previous course of study, understand the Saxon Chronicle, the Saxon Scriptures, or the writings of King page 6 Alfred. But the living language of King Alfred's time, though dead to us, can be acquired by an Englishman with as little difficulty as a modern Italian encounters in mastering the language of Cicero.
Although, as I have said, the Anglo-Saxon remains to this day the foundation of our language, English has become a very mixed or composite speech. There is scarcely a language, dead or living, which has not been drawn upon—I had almost said ransacked—to amplify and enrich our modern vocabulary. In its general characteristics, the English language is still mainly Teutonic—akin to the Low-German forms of speech, with an entensive Romance vocabulary derived from the Latin, chiefly, but not exclusively, through the French, with a very inconsiderable number of British words. A Dutch historian (Emanuel Von Meteren, quoted by Motley, Hist, of the Netherlands, Vol. I., p. 291, post 8vo. Ed.), who wrote about three centuries ago (1583), thus characterises the English of Queen Elizabeth's time: "The English language is broken Dutch, mixed with French and British terms, but with a lighter pronunciation. They do not speak from the chest like the Germans, but prattle only with the tongue."
In order partly to account for the mixed and composite nature of our tongue, it may be well to take a glance at the various peoples that have successively occupied the British Isles, and the different languages spoken by them at different periods, from the dawn of history.
The earliest known language spoken in Britain was the Celtic or Keltic, of which the Welsh is the surviving descendant in England, the Gaelic in Scotland, and the Erse in Ireland. Dialects of this family of languages were spoken over the whole of Britain until the complete establishment of the Roman power at the end of the first century. The Latin language then marched side by side with the British. The Roman language was the speech of the Court, the Camp, and afterwards of the Church. The British chiefs readily adopted the Roman civilisation, with its virtues and its vices, the Roman language, together with the Roman dress and manners. In the year 211, and possibly before, the Roman law was administered in the forum of York, in sentences which may still be heard in our courts of law, especially in those of Scotland. It was the policy of the Imperial Government to admit the Romanised British chiefs to a subordinate share in government under the Empire; and so widely had the Latin language spread in the course of four centuries, that a Celtic British writer in the sixth century calls Latin "our language" (nostra lingua), to distinguish it from the intruding Saxon speech; and the Saxon chronicle mentions boc leden (book speech), meaning page 7 thereby Latin, as one of the languages spoken in Britain. Latin, however, never supplanted the Celtic, though it may have modified it.
The great inroad of the Saxons, Angles, and other Teutonic tribes, is commonly placed in the middle of the fifth century (449), but there is little doubt that people speaking various Germanic dialects had seated themselves in Britain long: before. During the third and fourth centuries the foreign legions quartered in Britain numbered many soldiers of German speech. Many of these had lands assigned to them, and "settled" as we should now say in the island, marrying British wives. We first hear of a people called Saxons as early as A.D. 141. Afterwards they made their appearance on the coasts of Gaul and Britain as sea-rovers. It is conjectured, with great probability, that many of these found peaceable homes in Britain, also marrying British wives. Nearly a century before the date fixed as the commencement of the Saxon invasion, namely in 369, the Romans, then in the height of their power, had an officer called the "Count of the Saxon Shore" (Comes Littoris Saxonici.) This Saxon shore extended from near Southampton Water to the Wash on the East Coast. There was a similar officer, and also a "Saxon shore," on the coast of Gaul. Was this officer so called because his jurisdiction was along a shore already peopled by Saxons, or merely because his duty was to protect that shore from Saxon marauders? I answer, both. The Saxon shore had certainly Teutonic inhabitants. The Romans called them all Saxons. That shore was, no doubt, open to the adventurers; but one of their objects was to settle, and settle they did. There the Comes was stationed, and his duty was also to prevent hostile intrusion. This has been the subject of much controversy, but there can be no doubt that people speaking various Low German dialects were living in Britain long before the supposed era of the Saxon Conquest, and it is reasonable to suppose that they facilitated that great conquest, just as the early Christianity of the British may have contributed to the success of St. Augustine's mission to the Kentish Saxons, and as the Norman favourites and priests of Edward the Confessor paved the way to the Norman Conquest. From about the year 500, the so-called Saxon language was spoken over a considerable portion of Britain. In the next century it spread rapidly and extensively, and it became the prevailing speech until about a generation after the Norman Conquest, or until A. D. 1100. Thus, for about GOO years it was the speech of the fairest portion of Britain; split up, no doubt into several dialects, but with one predominant book language, based on the West Saxon dialect, which was in its highest perfection in the time of King Alfred. Intruding upon this, how page 8 ever, and modifying it considerably, especially on the East Coast and north of the Humber, came the speech of the Northmen or Danes. This tongue was akin to the German, and readily amalgamated with it. Traces of it are to be found in the names of places and in the provincial speech north of Humber to this day.
Then came the Norman Conquest in 1066, which introduced a new element, and ultimately effected the greatest change which our language has undergone. The Normans were originally from the Scandinavian peninsula, speaking a language of which the Icelandic, the Danish, and the Swedish are the descendants. They conquered that part of Gaul now called Normandy, and being few as compared with the conquered people, they, like the Franks, soon adopted the Roman tongue and forgot their own. Their civilisation was most rapid. From a band of ferocious pirates, they became, in 150 years, the most polished people in Europe. Their speech gradually mingled with the Saxon, modifying it, but never usurping its place, until the mixed jargon—for it was at first no better—gradually shaped itself into the cultivated language of Shakespeare and of Milton.
In such changes as I have sketched, it is impossible to draw well-defined lines, as the boundaries of the several epochs. What so different as light and darkness, and yet who can say when day-light ends and darkness begins? And yet it is convenient to make some such attempt. French was the language of the Court and of the great Barons, but they would soon feel the necessity for some acquaintance with the native speech. Numbers of the conquered would also attempt the speech of their rulers. The Saxon tongue would remain pure for about a generation, and then the work of corruption would commence. The Saxon inflections or case endings of nouns began to drop off. Auxiliaries, that is, literally, helpers, were introduced to express the tenses of verbs. As the case endings fell away, a change in the order of words in a sentence became necessary, and this went on until we discern a language which begins to look very like our modern English. The old literature was lost, and the old language was no more, and as yet no new literature had grown up. I call this the period of transition, and it lasted about two centuries. There are a few poems of Edward the First's time, which we can read with very little difficulty, and indeed there is extant a proclamation of the 42nd Henry the Third (1259), which may fairly be classed as old English.
The language of this period of transition is by some called semi-Saxon, but it is really much more English than Saxon. It was towards the end of the century under notice that race ceased to be continually arrayed against race, and to fuse into one people. Though French remained the Court language, those of page 9 Norman descent and those of Saxon descent began to use a common speech. It was also about that time, that the House of Commons acquired substantially its present constitution by the return of burgesses in 1264—5. Thus some writers (notably, Creasy and Macaulay) do not hesitate to fix upon the middle of the thirteenth century as the commencement alike of our language, our nationality, and our constitution. The Times newspaper must have had Simon de Montfords writs (December, 1264), summoning the burgesses, in view when it said, in 1864:—"The House of Commons is just 600 years old, and Palmerston has had one-twelfth of it to himself." So far as the language is concerned, I venture to characterise the two centuries from 1100 to 1300 as the period of transition. Then came the period of growth and development. In the following century a healthy literature grew up. In 1389, Wyclif and his companions translated the Scriptures. The author of Piers Plowman, Chaucer, and Gower, wrote about the same time. Their language is more Saxon in its structure than that of the present day: many inflections or case endings are preserved; the prosody is different; and although Spencer called Chaucer's language "the well of English undefiled," his works cannot be read with facility without some little previous study and the help of Glossaries. In the following century works in the vulgar tongue became numerous; but it was not until the reign of Elizabeth that the language became developed into nearly its present condition. The writings of Shakespeare are intelligible to all; those of Chaucer and Wyclif are so to those who have some knowledge of our old speech; and so large a proportion of our vocabulary is, as I have said, still Anglo-Saxon, that I doubt if our modern English can be nicely and critically appreciated without some insight into the old speech. To those who have the inclination and leisure to resort to the study, their labour will be repaid.
|The Celtic period, from unknown times to the complete establishment of the Roman power in||about 100|
|The Roman period, in which the Celtic and the Latin co-existed without fusing into each other||100 to 500||400|
|The Saxon period, from about half a century after the supposed era of the inroad of the Angles and Saxons, until about a generation after the Norman Conquest||500 to 1100||600|
|The period of transition, during which the Saxon and French were fusing into one common speech||1100 to 1300||200|
|The period of the growth and development, during which a new literature was growing up||1300 to 1600||300|
|Period of our present English, from Shakespeare's time to the present day||1600 to 1876||276|
The reader must take these lines as arbitrary and approximate only. Growth and development were not wanting in the transition period, nor is transition absent from what I call growth and development. Indeed, both are observable even at the present day.
The proportion of words of Saxon origin relatively to words from other sources employed by our best English writers, has been often investigated. Mr. Sharon Turner, the historian, in his History of England during the Anglo-Saxon period, was, I believe, the first to direct attention to the subject; and Mr. Marsh has followed it up upon a more extensive examination. I will give a portion of his list, and it will be seen that even those writers who most affect a Latin phraseology employ a very large proportion of Saxon words.
The authorised version of the Bible, out of every 100 words contains 97 words of Saxon origin, leaving only 3 per cent, derived from other sources. Piers Plowman's Vision has 88 percent.; Chaucer's Prologue, 88; New Testament (St. John), 96; Shakespeare's Henry IV., 91; Milton's Paradise Lost, 80; do, L'Allegro, 90; Pope's Essay on Man, 80; Addison, some Nos. of the Spectator, 82; Swift's John Bull, 85; Swift's Political Lying, 68; Johnson's preface to Dictionary, 72; Junius's Letters 12 and 23, 76; Hume's History, chap. 60, 73; Gibbon's Decline and Fall, chap. 7, 70; Webster, one of his speeches, 75; Irving's Stout Gentleman, 85; Macaulay's Lord Bacon, 75; Cobbett on Indian Corn, 80; Mrs. Browning's Cry of the Children, 92; Robert Browning, 84; Tennyson's Lotus Eaters, 87; Longfellow's Miles Standish, 87.
It will be observed from the above list, which is arranged in the order of time, that modern writers use a larger proportion of Saxon words than the best writers of the last century were wont to do. Johnson, Junius, Hume, and Gibbon used from 70 to 76 per cent, of Saxon words. Macaulay, Washington Irving, Robert Browning, Tennyson, and Longfellow use from 75 to 87 per cent., and Mrs. Browning rises to 92. The mean proportion is 84 to 73 in favour of the modern writers. This is the more remarkable when we consider that our stock of words has greatly increased within the last century, and the increase consists almost entirely of words of science derived from the Latin or Greek.
The colloquial language, which we use in our families and at our firesides, is essentially Saxon in its vocabulary. It is only when we take up the pen that we resort to words of Latin origin. This is especially the case with the lowland Scotch. It is a great mistake to suppose that the language of the lowlands of Scotland is a corruption of English. It is as distinct and independent a dialect as that of the South of England. It has grown up from page 11 the Saxon, just as English has so grown up. It has no doubt been subjected to other influences, which have made it differ from the language of the South; and it has not been cultivated into a literary language; but it has quite as high a claim to independence. The writers of Scotland, however, do not write in the language in which they speak. The instant they take up the pen, they make use of the book-language of the South; and, what is more, they write it with great force and purity. Who can read the writings of Robertson and Hume without being charmed with the crystal clearness of their expressions and the choice adaptation of their language to their thoughts? and yet, as compared with the language in which they habitually addressed their wives and their children, the book-language was to them almost a foreign tongue. There is reason to believe that the pronunciation of English in the reigns of the Tudors and Stuarts approached much more nearly to that of the Scotch than it now does. It was what we should call broader. Crown was undoubted "croon," for Shakespeare makes it rhyme with loon; and cow was "coo." We still retain this pronunciation in the proper name Cowper (though it is dying out). The poet makes his own name rhyme with words in "oo." Lord Cowper is still called Cooper, and one family of the name has changed the spelling to Cou, to preserve the sound. In England, too, although our book-language and our speech-language are more alike than those of Scotland, we do unconsciously use two languages. Macaulay gives an amusing instance of this in his review of Boswell's Life of Johnson—with samples of the two languages which Johnson employed—the one in speaking, the other in writing; and I cannot resist the temptation of citing the whole passage:—"Johnson's conversation," Macaulay says, "appears to have been quite equal to his writings in matter, and far superior to them in manner. When he talked, he clothed his wit and his sense in forcible and natural expressions. As soon as he took his pen in his hand to write for the public, his style became systematically vicious. All his books are written in a learned language; in a language which nobody hears from his mother or his nurse; in a language in which nobody ever quarrels, or drives a bargain, or makes love; in a language in which nobody ever thinks. It is clear that Johnson himself did not think in the language in which he wrote. The expressions which came first to his tongue were simple, energetic, and picturesque. When he wrote for publication he did his sentences out of English into Johnsonese. His letters from the Hebrides to Mrs. Thrale are the original of that work of which the 'Journey to the Hebrides' is the translation, and it is amusing to compare the two versions. 'When we were taken up-stairs,' says he, in one of his letters, 'a dirty fellow bounced out of the bed in which page 12 one of us was to lie.' This incident is recorded in the Journey as follows :—'Out of one of the beds in which we were to repose, started up at our entrance a man, black as a Cyclops from a forge.' Sometimes Johnson translated aloud. 'The Rehearsal,' he said, very unjustly, 'has not wit enough to keep it sweet;' then, after a pause, 'it has not vitality enough to preserve it from putrefaction.'"
What Macaulay calls Johnson's natural language is, for the most part, Saxon in its vocabulary. What he calls Johnsonese is not only composed of more words of Latin origin, but is quite unidiomatic in its inverted structure.
Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed.
His hand shall be against every man, and every man's hand shall be against him.
I have been young and now am old, yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.
Cast thy bread upon the waters, for thou shalt find it after many days.
For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.
And they shall beat their swords into plough-shares, and their spears into pruning-hooks.
Therefore, whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
These sentences contain 158 words, all of which are Saxon, except the word pruning, which is doubtful, and except, of course, the proper name Jerusalem. Our nursery tales, our proverbs, and our ballad poetry are almost entirely Saxon. Little Jack Horner praises himself in excellent Saxon, and Little Bo-peep is consoled for her loss in the same mother tongue.
There is one peculiarity in the Saxon language, which distinguishes it from its modern descendant, but which it shares in common with the German and other Teutonic tongues. Its compound words, like Greek compounds, are constructed from roots and particles to be found in the language itself, and they are therefore understood by the unlearned and by children as soon as they are uttered; whereas, in our mixed language, the root is often lost by the adoption of the Latin equivalent in the compound, which has consequently to be separately learned. I will page 13 first give an example from the modern German, as compared with the English.
I do not know whether they have any corn-cutters, and if they have, I am not aware of the name by which that artist is called. Probably they do not dignify him into an arzt.
The restoration of other roots would furnish numerous compounds similarly constructed, and if the reader will take the trouble of page 14 turning to any good English dictionary (Latham's, for instance), and look over the numerous compounds of head, foot, eye, ear, &c., he will at once perceive how easy a very extensive restoration would be.
Again, we have the Saxon word to write, but when we come to compounds we banish the Saxon root, and make use of its Latin equivalent, scribe (from scribo); for example, inscribe, prescribe, describe. Such compounds as day-light, death-bed, (which, by the way, is Saxon letter for letter), play-house, pocket-book, poor-house, thorough-fare, follow the genius of the Saxon language, and are intelligible to all; but what Englishman, ignorant of Greek, could guess even, at first sight, the meaning of such words as philanthropist, misanthropist, and anthropophagi. The German eqivalents are menschen freund, man's friend; menschen hasser, man-hater; and menschen fresser, man-eater. The German words are understood as soon as uttered, whereas the English words require to be explained and separately learned.
The German purists have carried their love of native compounds, perhaps, a little too far. There is some convenience in constructing words of technical science from Greek or Latin roots. We cannot understand such words without understanding the things which they name; thus, as we learn the thing expressed, we cannot avoid learning the name at the same time. Hydrogen, for example, is from two Greek words, signifying water and to produce or generate. It stands for the name of that inflammable gas of which water is in part composed. If we desire to understand the properties of the thing, the technical meaning of the name comes to us by the same effort. The German purists call it wasser-stoff water-stuff or the matter of water; but although wasser and stoff are intelligible to every German, that affords but little help to the perfect understanding of hydrogen. Again, the word fossil comes from a Latin word which means to dig—fodere, which in the past participle is fossus. The Germans call a fossil aufgegraben, which means nearly the same thing; but still the nature of fossils has to be specially learned, and then, but not till then, the meaning of the word becomes clear. Whether we speak of hydrogen or water-stuff, of oxygen or sour-stuff, they are equally unintelligible until we have acquired a knowledge of the properties of the things named; and when we have accomplished that, the scientific name becomes as significant to our minds as the homely name. Water-stuff and sour-stuff, in fact, mislead by their very homeliness.
With common language, however, intended to be addressed to the unlearned, the case is otherwise. Native compounds have a great advantage over their foreign equivalents. The Saxon version of the New Testament, accordingly, makes use of Saxon com page 15 pounds where our modern version has words from the Latin and Greek, and in some cases from the Hebrew. In its general phraseology, as I have already remarked, our version is essentially Saxon. I will give a few examples of the names to which I allude. For centurion (Latin, centurio, an officer commanding 100 men), the Saxon version has hundredes man, and in some places hundredes ealdor; a disciple is leorning-cniht, learning youth; the Sabbath is reste-daeg, day of rest; a scribe is boc-ere, or boc-wer, book man; and in some places, writer a, writer; parable is big-spell (in modern German, bei-spiel, example), literally near-word; resurrection is aerisi, rising up; synagogue is gesammung, a collection or gathering together, or, as we say, a congregation. The application of the word to the building is secondary, just as church (old English, chirche), kirk, have similar double meanings. Pharisees are called sunder-hálgena, separate saints or worshippers.
* May be, however, from keiro to clip.