Page images
PDF
EPUB

of my own motion ; but for some of them my readers are indebted to the suggestions of others.

To the strictures of my censors I have not replied, either in general or in detail, preferring to regard them rather as instructors than even as enemies by whom fas est doceri. As to whether my book has any value, let time determine. If what I have written cannot bear criticism, it is worthless and ought to die. It will soon disappear into the limbo of things forgotten; and the less that is said about it the better. Any disparagement of the “scholarship” of the book gives me little concern. It is altogether from the purpose.

Whatever value I hoped these desultory studies would have, depends in the least that is possible upon the learning, real or supposed, of the author. If I have any reputation of that sort, it is not of my seeking. Nor do I claim the consideration due to a philologist. For a real philologist is a man who, horsed upon Grimm's law, chases the evasive syllable over umlauts and ablauts into the faintly echoing recesses of the Himalayas ; and I confess that I am no such linguistic Nimrod. I have joined a little in that hunt; but like the Frenchman who, after one day of “le sportupon the soil of perfide Albion, being summoned next morning for another run, cried “Vot, do they make him two times ?” and turned his aching bones to rest, I soon retired, and left the field to bolder spirits and harder riders. This is said now because, having been said before, I have been judged as if I had made the pretensions which were then and which are now again disclaimed. I therefore repeat from the preface of the previous edition that “the po'nts from which I have regarded words are in general rather those of taste and reason than of history; and my

discussions are philological only as all study of words must be

a

a

philological. The few suggestions which I have made in etymology I put forth with no affectation of timidity, but with little concern as to their fate.” It is upon this ground, humbler or higher, that in good faith I take my stand, and it is only this that I profess to be able to maintain.

Besides the topics of taste and reason in the use of language, there are two to which I have ventured direct attention. Upon one of these my position (as to which I have no vague notion, but a settled conviction) is that in the development of language, and in particular of the English language, reason always wins against formal grammar or illogical usage, and that the "authority" of eminent writers, conforming to, or forming, the usage of their day, while it does absolve from the charge of solecism those who follow such example, does not completely justify or establish a use of words inconsistent with reason, or out of the direction of the normal growth of language. In other words, I believe, assert, and endeavor to maintain that in language, as in morals, there is a higher law than mere usage, which, in morals as in language, makes that acceptable, tolerable, and even proper in one age, which becomes intolerable and improper in -another ; that this law is the law of reason, toward a conformity to which usage itself is always strug. gling, and, although constantly hindered and often diverted, winning its way, little by little, not reaching, yet ever nearing an ever-receding goal. To assault any position of mine, which is not itself taken upon the ground of usage, by bringing up the “authority," that is the mere example, of eminent writers, is at once to beg the question at issue. I:

nay be said, and is said, that in language usage is both ir fact and of right the final law and the ground of law. But with any one who takes that for granted I cannot argue. Wo do not approach each other near enough for collision. We are as widely separated as two theological disputants would be, one of whom was a Protestant, and the other a Papist who set up as an axiom the divine establishment and perpetual infallibility of the Romish Church. He assumes and starts from the very point that I dispute.

That language has in all respects a normal growth, and that passing deviations from that normality are not to be defended and accepted without question on the ground that. mere eminent usage justifies such irregularities, I do verily believe. And upon this point of so-called irregularity, it seems to me that the remarks made by Helfenstein in the introduction to his examination of the anomalous verbs, are of even wider application :

“ Under this head we range all those verbs which in their inflexional forms show certain peculiarities so as to require separate treatment as a class of their own. We avoid the term irregular, for it is high time that this designation, which cannot but convey erroneous notions, should disappear from the terminology of grammarians. There is nothing irregular in these verbs, and nothing irregular in language generally. Every phenomenon is founded upon a law; it is not the product of haphazard or of an arbitrary will. Where the law has not yet been discovered, it remains the noblest task of linguists to strive after its discovery and elucidation. What as yet evades explanation may be left standing over as a fact which is sure to find some day sufficient illustration from other corollary facts grouped around. But we must do away once and for all with all notions of irregularity, and therefore drop the term which keeps such notions alive.”—Comparative Grammar of the Teutonic Lan guages, p. 499.

I cannot believe that the arbitrary and capricious usage of a clique or a mere generation of writers is such a “phe nomenon" as Helfenstein regards as “founded upon a law, when he declares that there is nothing irregular in language generally

And as to the weight of authority which is claimed for eminent writers, I cannot see why the endowment of creative genius should, or that it does, insure to its possessor a greater certainty of correctness in the use of language than may go with the possession of inferior powers. To admit that would oblige us to accept Chaucer as a higher authority than Gower, Spenser as higher than Sidney, Lyly than Ascham, Shakespeare than Jonson, Pope than Addi. son, Scott than Hallam, Byron than Southey, Carlyle than Landor or Macaulay, Dickens than Helps.

Upon the second of the topics to which I have referred, that English is to all intents and purposes a grammarless tongue, and therefore has a superiority over all others, I shall let what I have said stand without further argument, only calling to my support this passage from Sidney's “ Apologie for Poetrie,” which when I wrote before I had utterly forgotten. Speaking of English, he says:

“I know some will say it is a mingled language. And why not so much the better, taking the best of both the other? Another will say that it wanteth Grammer. Nay truly it hath that praise that it wanteth not [i. e., does not need] Grammer: for Grammer it might have, but it needes it not ; being so easie of it selfe, and so voyd of those cumbersome differences of Cases, Genders, Moodes, and Tenses, which I think was a peece of the Tower of Babilon's curse, that a man should be put to schoole to learne his mother tongue. But for the uttering sweetly and properly the con

ceits of the minde, which is the end of speech, that hath it equally with any other tongue in the world : and is particulerly happy in compositions of two or three words together neere the Greeke, far beyond the Latine : which is one of the greatest beauties can be in a language."

What Sidney saw, and thus with sweet dogmatism set forth, I have but endeavored to illustrate and to establish.

Why I have been called upon to write this book is still not easy for me to understand. For it is the result of questions submitted to me from correspondents in all parts of the country upon the subject of which it treats, although I can hardly pretend to have made a special study of language-nc other, in fact, than was part and parcel of studies in English literature generally, and particularly that of the Elizabethan period. But as these questions were speered at me, I thought it would be pleasant and profitable to answer them in the articles which have been gathered into this volume. Let me say to my correspondents and readers that if any of them hope to acquire a good style, or to "learn to write," by reading such books as this, or even by the study of grammar and rhetoric, as I have reason to fear that some of them do, they will be grievously disappointed. That acquisition comes only through native ability and general culture. No man ever learned to win the ear of the public by studies of this nature. Those who write what is read with pleasure and profit, do not get their power or learn their craft from dictionaries, grammars, or books on rhetoric. The study of language must be pursued for its own sake. It has only a place, although a high one, in that general culture which gives mental discipline and makes the accomplished man. He who cannot write with clearness and force without troubling his soul about pronouns and

« PreviousContinue »