Billeder på siden

have been in it, namely 'Gikup;' and accounts sent in similar to that which had for its inexplicable items


osafada,' 'agetinonimome!' — which, however suspiciously they may look like some South Sea or Malay combination of vocables, were really meant to signify no more than 'horse half a day,' and 'a getting on him home.' Combinations almost as uncouth as these often present themselves in the old romances. we find our most familiar words thus transformed,— 'carves' written 'keruys' and 'kerues;' 'blows,' 'blawus;' bowls,' 'bollus;' 'victualled,' ' vetaylet;' 'laws,' 'laes; ' and thousands more in similar masquerade, sometimes even the same word put through half a dozen disguises, it is not difficult for the eye to imagine that it is gazing on a foreign language; nor is it impossible that, if one of our ancestors of the thirteenth or fourteenth century were to rise from the dead, we should understand his spoken words better than his written speech: just as we catch by the ear the variations of our provincial dialects more rapidly than when we read them in a book.

So much for the revolution by which the modern English evolved itself from the Anglo-Saxon.

If William the Conqueror had designed the substitution of the Norman for the English throughout his new dominions (efforts which must have been necessarily ineffectual at the best), steps could hardly have been adopted more stringent than those actually resorted to. It is hard to suppose, however, that he cherished any design of the kind, for it is certain that he himself took some pains to acquire the AngloSaxon. The invidious preference given to the French, was no more than the natural consequence of its being the native tongue of himself and his nobles. But, be this as it may, it was the language of the palace, the nobility, and the courts of judicature; pleadings were

carried on in it, and fashion spoke it.* Hume, whose literary tastes and philosophical opinions led him to regard the French with extravagant admiration, attributes a far greater influence to these things than any modern student of our literary history will admit them to have possessed; and, what is worse, is pleased to represent that influence as highly beneficial. His words are, 'From this proceeded that mixture of French which is, at present, to be found in the English tongue, and which composes the greatest and best part of our language.' Most well-informed Englishmen are now-a-days prepared to deny both the fact and the inference, and to maintain on the contrary that the glory and strength of our language consist in the breadth and solidity of its Anglo-Saxon basis. But whatever the preferences which were given to the French after the Conquest,—and whether the result of necessity or design, they could never lead to the suppression or material degradation of the English. It was the language of the mass of the people; and as the and as the conquerors, after all, were but few in numbers, it was far more probable, as in other cases, that the conquerors should eventually adopt a modification of the language of the vanquished, than that the vanquished should adopt that of the victors.

The specimens which we possess of the earliest

*Notwithstanding the statements of Blackstone and many other writers, the proceedings of the Legislature and Acts of State remained a remarkable exception to this supremacy of provincial French over its humbled rival during the first two centuries after the Conquest. Palgrave has observed that English was used in their charters by the kings until the reign of Henry II., when Latin, which had been the invariable usage before Alfred, regained its ascendancy: while neither deed nor law in French has been discovered earlier than the reign of Henry III. The learning on this point will be found collected by Luders, in his Tract on the Use of the French Language in our ancient Laws and Acts of State

English, though scanty, are sufficient to show that the change in the language was nearly complete about the epoch fixed upon above, namely, 1260. Probably the first extant specimen of modern English, is a proclamation addressed to the people of Huntingdonshire by Henry III. in 1258.* A song of triumph (probably composed in London), on the victory of the confederate barons, in 1264, at Lewes, is somewhat less obsolete in its style; which is what one would expect. Robert of Gloucester (about 1300) made a metrical version of Geoffrey of Monmouth. By this time it appears a considerable number of French words had been received into the English language,—but still in no such quantity as to justify the representation of Dr. Johnson, who says rather vaguely, that the above writer seems to have used a kind of intermediate diction, neither Saxon nor English.'

Vaguely, we say, for the passage might sug

* Since this document is highly curious, and usually cited as the first authentic specimen of modern English, it may be as well to state that it may be consulted in Henry's History of Great Britain, vol. viii. Appendix No. 4., or in Latham, pp. 77, 78. For a catalogue of specimens of early English, see Latham, p. 78. It is singular that the reign of Henry III. should thus present us, within less than ten years of each other, with both the first extant Act of State in modern English (1258, as in the text), and also with the first Statute (1266, de Scaccario) in French. And it is not less difficult to account for the first statutory appearance of the French language at that time, than for its having continued to be the ordinary language of the Statutes until 1 Richard III., 1483: especially after its abolition from pleadings, 36 Edward III., on the popular reasons set forth in the preamble: 'Reasonably the said laws and customs the rather shall be perceived and known and better understood in the Tongue used in the said Realm, and by so much every man may the better govern himself without offending the Law, and better defend his Heritage: and in divers countries where the King and Nobles have been, good governance and just right is done to every person, because that the Laws and Customs are used in the Tongue of the country.'


gest the notion that, being neither Saxon nor English, the diction was something different from either alone or both combined; in fact, that French was to be found in a large proportion: this, however, he can hardly mean; for, while he uses the word 'diction,' previous remarks show that he must be referring principally to the change in the grammatical character of the language. Warton, speaking of the same author, calls him 'full of Saxonisms.' Hallam 'On comparing him with Layamon, a native of the same county, and a writer on the same subject, it will appear that a great quantity of French had flowed into the language since the loss of Normandy.' The historian must be supposed to be speaking relatively to the French previously existing. The style of Robert of Gloucester may be easily estimated by any one curious enough to look into the accessible and copious extracts in Warton and Ellis; it will at once be seen that, compared with the Saxon, the French is still a very subordinate element.

It was not till the middle and towards the close of the fourteenth century, that English became, to any considerable extent, the language of literature. The first prose work was Sir John Mandeville's travels, which appeared in 1356. Wickliffe's translation of the Bible-alas! still existing only in manuscriptis referred to 1383*: Trevisa's translation of Hygden's

* Many proposals have from time to time been made for publishing this highly curious work. Surely, if too hazardous for private enterprise, it might be easily undertaken by the Camden Society, or some kindred fraternity. Their subscribers would, we apprehend, willingly accept it by instalments. Independently of the high philological interest of the work, and the light it would probably throw on the history of our language, it has peculiar value to every religious mind as the first translation of the entire Scriptures. Wickliffe's version of the New Testament has been thrice printed, and stimulates curiosity to see that of the

Polychronicon to 1385: and Chaucer's immortal works were all produced in the latter half of the same century. The statute of 1362, which decreed that the pleadings in courts of justice should be conducted in English, in consequence of the general ignorance of French, had been just preceded (1354) by an order that no ecclesiastical preferment should be given in England to any person not conversant with the English language, and resident there, cardinals alone excepted.* Shortly after it appears to have become the common language of the court and nobility, as well as of the people.

We are not to suppose for a moment that the changes in the language were exactly simultaneous, and proceeded pari passu through every part of the kingdom. We might be sure, if we reasoned only d priori, that they would not,—and we know from historic evidence that they did not. The more remote parts of the island,- those which were least likely to be influenced by the court,-long retained, and retain even to this day, a larger portion of Anglo-Saxon words; as well as some of those idioms and grammatical forms which did not permanently adhere to the national speech. Trevisa, observing on the great diversity to be found among Englishmen in the sound and speaking of their own language, as a great wonder,' says that it 'is departed in three:' and 'the men of Mercii that ben of middle England, as it were partners with the ends, understanden better the side languages, northern and southern, than northern and southern understandeth either other.'

[ocr errors]

Old. Trevisa also is mentioned by Caxton, as having translated both the Old and New Testament at the instance of Lord Berkeley; but no copy of his translation is now known to remain. [In the year this article was written (1850), the desideratum here pointed out was supplied.]

* Southey's Common Place Book, third series, 391.

« ForrigeFortsæt »