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LECTURES

ON

THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE.

LECTURE I.

INTRODUCTORY.

The severe Roman bestowed upon the language of his country the appellation of patrius sermo, the paternal or national speech; but we, deriving from the domesticity of Saxon life a truer and tenderer appreciation of the best and purest source of linguistic instruction, more happily name our home-born English the mother-tongue. The tones of the native language are the medium through which the affections and the intellect are first addressed, and they are to the heart and the head of infancy what the nutriment drawn from the maternal breast is to the physical frame. “Speech,” in the words of Heyse, " is the earliest organic act of free self-consciousness, and the sense of our personality is first developed in the exercise of the faculty of speech.” Without entering upon the speculations of the Nominalists and the Realists, we must admit that, in the process of ratiocination, properly called thought, the mind. acts only by words. “Cogito, ergo sum, I think, there

fore I am,” said Descartes. Whether this is a logical conclusion or not, we habitually, if not necessarily, connect words, thought, and self-recognizing existence, as conditions each of both the others, and hence it is that we have little or no recollection of that portion of our life which preceded our acquaintance with language. Indeed, so necessary are words to thought, to reflection, to the memory of former states of self-conscious being, that though the intelligence of persons born without the sense of hearing sometimes receives, through the medium of manual signs, and without instruction in words, a very considerable degree of apparent culture, yet, when deaf-mutes are educated and taught the use of verbal language, they are generally almost wholly unable to recall their mental status at earlier periods; and, so far as we are able to judge, they appear to have been previously devoid of those conceptions which we acquire, or at least retain and express, by means of general terms. So, our recollection of moments of intense pain or pleasure, moral or physical, is dim and undefined. Grief too big for words, joy which finds no articulate voice for utterance, sensations too acute for description, when once their cause is removed, or when time has abated their keenness, leave traces deep indeed in tone, but too shadowy in outline to be capable of distinct reproduction ; for that alone which is precisely formulated can be clearly remembered.

Nature has made speech the condition and vehicle of social intercourse, and consequently it is essentially so elementary a discipline, that a thorough knowledge of the mother-tongue seems to be presupposed as the basis of all education, and especially as an indispensable preparation for the reception of academic instruction. It is, doubtless, for

this reason, that, in cur American system of education, the study of the English language has usually been almost wholly excluded from the collegial curriculum, and recently, indeed, from humbler seminaries, and, therefore, so great a novelty as its abrupt transfer from the nursery to the auditorium of a post-graduate course, may seem to demand both explanation and apology.

It is a trite remark, that the national history and the national language begin to be studied only in their decay, and scholars have sometimes shown an almost superstitious reluctance to approach either, lest they should contribute to the aggravation of a symptom, whose manifestation might tend to hasten the catastrophe of which it is the forerunner. Indeed, if we listen to some of the voices around us, we are in danger of being persuaded that the decline of our own tongue has not only commenced, but has already advanced too far to be averted or even arrested. If it is true, as is intimated by the author of our most widely circulated dictionaryma dictionary which itself does not explain the vocabulary of Paradise Lost—that it is a violation of the present standard of good taste to employ old English words not used by Dryden, Pope, Gray, Goldsmith, and Cowper; if words which enter into the phraseology of Spenser, and Shakespeare, and Milton, though important “ to the antiquary, are useless to the great mass of readers ; ” and, above all, if the dialect of the authoritative standard of the Christian faith, in the purest, simplest, and most beautiful form in which it has been presented to modern intelligence, is obsolete, unintelligible, forgotten, then, indeed, the English language is decayed, extinct, fossilized, and, like other organic relics of the past, a fit sub. ject for curious antiquarian research and philosophic investigation, but no longer a theme of living, breathing interest.

In reasoning from the past to the present, we are apt to forget that Protestant Christianity and the invention of printing have entirely changed the outward conditions of at least Gothic, not to say civilized, humanity, and so distin guished this new phase of Indo-European life from that old world which lies behind us, that, though all which was true of individual man, in the days of Plato, and of Seneca, and of Abelard, is true now, yet most which was conceived to be true of man as a created and dependent, or as a social being, is at this day recognized as either false or abnormal. The reciprocal relations between the means and the ends of human life are reversed, and the conscious, deliberate aims and voluntary processes and instrumentalities of intellectual action are completely revolutionized. Hence, we are constantly in danger of error, when, in the economy of social man, we apply ancient theories to modern facts, and deduce present effects or predict future consequences from causes which, in remote ages, have produced results analogous to recent or expected phenomena. This is especially true with reference to those studies and those pursuits which are less immediately connected with the fleeting interests of the hour. We are, accordingly, not warranted in concluding that, because the creative spirits of ancient and flourishing Hellenic literature did not concern themselves with grammatical subtleties, but left the syntactical and orthoepical theories of the Greek language to be developed in late and degenerate Alexandria, therefore the study of native philology in commercial London and industrial Manchester proves the decadence of the heroic speech, which in former centuries embodied the epic and dramatic glories of English genius.

The impulse to the study of English, and especially of ite

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