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This class of abbreviations had been but partially established in our own language, at the close of the fourteenth century, nor till two centuries afterwards. And this is one of the reasons why we so often find the writings of the authors of the olden time so intolerably tedious. It is not that we do not understand them; for, with the exception of a comparatively few obsolete words, the language is intelligible enough; but the modes of expression are too clumsy for the impatience of modern ears. After perusing the writings of Addison or Swift, the reader feels, when he opens the pages of Sir John Mandeville, as though he had exchanged the rail-road carriage of the present day for the broad-wheeled waggon of the last century. An irresistible drowsiness comes over him at the constant repetition of such phrases as ' and eke right so as he told me, right so I told him ;' with the prolific family of all be it,' and 'how be it ;' the 'for-as-muches,' and the 'in-as-muches;' the 'if thats,' the 'in thats,' and the 'for thats;' with the 'gouty joints,' and 'darning-work,' as Shaftesbury calls it, of whereat,' 'whereunto,' and 'whereinsoever;' and the perpetual drawl of those huge megatheria among particles, 'peradventure," notwithstanding,' and 'nevertheless.' Hume scolded Robertson for the old-fashioned word wherewith. 'I should as soon take back whereupon, whereunto, and wherewithal. I think the only tolerable decent gentleman of the family is wherein: and I should not choose to be
Saxons had an infinitive with a characteristic termination; also a gerundial form, or verbal noun, to which the preposition is affixed: infinitive lufian, to love; gerundial form, to lufigenne, also to love. Now when so many other terminations were dropped in the formation of English, those of both infinitive and gerund were dropped; the preposition to was however retained, and has since served as a sign of the infinitive form of the verb.
often seen in his company.' From the accumulation of such phraseology, the composition of our forefathers resembles the longwinded narrative of some rustic lout, who is an hour in doing something that might be done in ten minutes, and then two hours in telling you how he did it. Independently, indeed, of the defects of the language, prolixity itself is one of the deadly sins of our elder writers.*
This prolixity will always more or less characterise a rude and infant literature; but it was a fault of special magnitude in our own, rendered doubly glaring, however, by the awkwardness of the language. Let us take a single sentence of Sir John Mandeville. He designs to express the notion, not certainly very original, that wherever he had wandered, he had seen human beings essentially the same; none that had two heads on their shoulders or were altogether destitute of understandings and consciences. In short, he had just to say what Lady Mary Montague expresses in two lines. 'In all my travels,' says she, 'I have met with but two sorts of peoplemen and women.' Sir John addresses himself to the
* Perhaps, after all, it is in the epistolary compositions of the age, and the never-ending formulæ of salutation, that the drawl of our ancestors strikes us most forcibly, as most in contrast with the dispatch and conciseness of these penny-post' days. 'Right worshipful, and my reverend and most special lord, I recommend me unto your good grace in the most humble and lowly wise that I can or may, desiring to hear of your prosperity and welfare as to my most singular joy and special comfort;' such is the concise exordium of 'honest John Northwood,' in the Paston Letters, when about to narrate events of a nature which in our day would assuredly abridge ceremony. The general air of these very curious letters is equally deliberate. But we are not to forget that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the pen was a far more unwieldy instrument than the sword, and the art of writing, and still more of thinking, a most operose proceeding.
business on this wise, -'And yee shulle undirstonde, that of all theise contrees, and of all theise yles, and of all the dyverse folk, that I have spoken of before, and of dyverse laws and of dyverse beleeves that thei have, yit is there non of hem alle, but that thei have sum resoun within hem and understondinge, but gif it be the fewere.
The first English printer, the celebrated Caxton, died in 1491. Southey's friend, Burnet, in his 'Specimens of English Prose Writers' (which may be called almost their joint production), notices, as remarkable, what Caxton says of Trevisa's Translation. We should like to compare the Translation, as Caxton altered it on printing it, with the Cottonian or some other MS., so as to judge for ourselves by the difference between the two of the effect of the intermediate hundred years:-'I, William Caxton, a simple person, have endeavoured me to write first over all the said book of Polychronicon,—somewhat have changed the rude and olde English, that is to wit, certain words, which in these days be neither used ne understood.' And again:-'Some gentlemen blamed me, saying that in my translations, I have over curious terms, which could not be understand of common people, and desired me to use olde homely terms in my translations. As I fain would satisfy every man, so to do, I took an old book and read therein: but certainly the English was so rude and broad that I could not well understand it. Also the Lord Abbot of Westminster did show to me late certain evidences written in old English, for to reduce it into our English then used: but it was written in such wise, that it was more like to Dutch than English; so that I could not reduce, ne bring it to be understonden. And certainly, our language now used, varyeth far from that which was spoken when
I was born; for we Englishmen ben born under the domination of the moon, which is never stedfast, but ever wavering; waxing one season and waneth and decreaseth another season; and common English that is spoken in one shire, varyeth from another.' Of the magical power of the instrument, which had now come into Caxton's hands, there can, at all events, be no doubt. With it, he himself probably exercised a greater influence on the language than any other man between Chaucer and the Reformation; and the changes wrought in it by his wondrous art were almost immediately conspicuous.
Owing partly to the more general writing, and still more to the printing of the language, a sensible improvement took place between the age of Caxton and the death of Henry VIII. The compositions which remain to us progressively exhibit greater brevity of expression, as well as compactness of construction, and even some degree of occasional elegance. To give the language, however, that polish and refinement which it was destined ultimately to reach, another cause still more powerful was to come into operation contemporaneously with the above causes; we mean the revival of classical literature. The formation of taste was the certain, though gradual, result of contact with the graces of diction and style so prodigally displayed in the pages of the great writers of Greece and Rome. It would perhaps be too much to assert that the English language, supposing the progress of the nation to have continued steady in knowledge and civilisation, might not in time have attained a polish and elegance equal to what it now possesses, even though classical literature had not interposed its natural influence. But there can be little doubt that a much longer process would have been required. There can be as little doubt
that the actual process might have been still further abridged (and it would have been certainly safer), if, as classical literature became generally cultivated, our authors had contented themselves with insensibly imbibing the classical spirit, and not absurdly aspired to copy the classical forms; if they had endeavoured to transfer similar graces to the English, instead of vainly endeavouring to reproduce the same; if they had sought to refine and polish their native tongue, and to develope its resources in a manner which harmonised with its peculiar genius and analogies, instead of too deeply tincturing its diction (as they often did), and distorting its syntax (as they sometimes did), and even its metres, in compliment to those of Greece and Rome. The process by which the classics ultimately produced their appropriate and never-failing effect was necessarily a long one, and was characterised by certain fluctuations at different stages. The primary effects appear to have been simply advantageous. The classics were at first too little studied to produce pedantry-to cause extensive innovations in diction, or perverse transfers, of uncongenial idiom, or indeed any foolish attempt at wholesale, indiscriminate, or factitious imitation.* They simply and unconsciously led to an effort in those who were at all imbued with them to make the most of their native language such as it was,-to reduce its elements to greater uniformity,-to mould
* Many of the classical remains reappeared, it is true, not more strangely disguised by incongruous introduction of the ideas and language of modern romance and chivalry, than deformed by a diction rude and inelegant. Not a few versions or perversions of classic authors deserved, no doubt, the description which Gawain. Douglas gives of Caxton's romance founded on the Æneid. 'That it was no more like Virgil than the devil was like St. Austin.'