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THE VOCABULARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE.
The advocates of the theory which regards language as wholly arbitrary, artificial and conventional, as a thing of human invention, not of divine origin or of spontaneous growth, may find in its mutability a specious, though by no means a conclusive, argument in support of that doctrine. For things organic, products of the laws of nature, tend altogether to the repetition of their typical forms. If changed at all in sensible characteristics, the process of their transformation is extremely slow, and they exhibit a perpetual inclipation to revert to the primitive type, as often as the disturbing or modifying influences are withdrawn, or even weakened in their action. Human contrivances, institutions, systems, on the contrary, are subject to incessant change, nor have they any inherent tendency to return to the original form, but as they recede from the starting point, they continually diverge more and more widely from the initial direction. The physical characteristics of animal races, and of the spontaneous vegetable products of the soil, are constant, so long as they remain unmixed in descent, and subject to the same climatic and nutritive influences, but in the progress of centuries, man's laws, his institutions and modes of life, all, in short, that is essentially of his invention or voluntary adoption, and especially his language, undergo such radical revolutions, that little apparently remains to attest his relationship to his remote progenitors.
But the law of adherence and return to original type, if not confined to lower organisms, is greatly restricted in its application to more elevated races and forms. Man himself, the most exalted of earthly existences, seems almost wholly exempt from its operation, and the varieties of his external structure, once established, perpetuate themselves with little discoverable inclination to revert to any known common and primitive model of the species. Man's language is higher than himself, more spiritual, more ethereal, and still less subject than he to the jurisdiction of the laws of material nature. We have therefore no right to expect to find speech returning to primeval unity, until the realization of those dreams which predict the complete subjugation of material nature, the consequent equalization, or at least compensation, of her gifts to different portions of the earth's surface, the perfectibility of man, and his union in one great universal commonwealth. There are, however, well-ascertained facts, which seem to show that words, with all their mutability, are still subject to a law of reversion like other products of material life, and if the distinction which many grammarians make between technically modern and ancient languages is well founded, and the common tendencies ascribed to the former are inherent, and not accidental, we must refer them to the operation of a principle as general and as imperative as that by which the double-flowers of our gardens are brought back to their
original simplicity of structure, by neglect and self propaga. tion.* But it is as yet too early to pronounce upor the ultimate form of language, and we are hardly better able to foresee what centuries may bring forth in the character of speech, than to prophesy what configuration of surface and, what forms of animal life will mark our earth in future geological periods. Modes of verbal modification, mutations of form, indeed, we can readily trace back so far as written memorials exist, and the course of change is sometimes so constant for a certain period, that we can predict, with some confidence, what phase a given living language will next present. These observations however respect more particularly the syntax, the inflections, the proportions of native and foreign roots, and other general characteristics of speech. Special changes of vocabulary can frequently be explained after they have once happened, but very seldom foretold, and words sometimes disappear altogether and are lost forever, or, like some stars, suddenly rise again to view, and resume their old place in both literature and the colloquial dialect, without any discoverable cause for either their occultation or their emergence. The only portion of the English vocabulary that can be said to be altogether stable consists of those Saxon words which describe the arts and modes of life common to all ages and countries, the specific names of natural products whose character is unchanging, and of their parts and members, and those also of the natural wants and universal passions of man. The nomenclature of the more refined arts and professions, and in general, the alien words which have entered into the language of literature and polished society, are, on the other hand, subject, not indeed like
See Lecture XVII.
native words, to a law of development and growth, but to perpetual change, frequent rise and decay.
I alluded on a former occasion to the conservative influence of our great writers, and especially of the standard translation of the Bible. The dialect of that translation belongs to an earlier phase of the language, and it far more resembles the English of the century preceding than of its own contemporary literature. Nevertheless, of the somewhat fewer than six thousand words it contains, scarcely two hundred are now in any sense obsolete, or substantially altered in meaning, whereas most of the new or unfamiliar words which it sanctioned have fairly established •themselves in our general vocabulary, in spite of the attacks which have been so often made and repeated against them. It would, however, not be fair to compare the language of the English Bible with the dialect of the present day by the individual words alone. The real difference is not wholly in single words, not even in the meaning of them separately considered, but also in combinations of words, phraseological expressions, idioms, or rather idiotisms. The translators of 1611 borrowed many of these from older versions, whose dialect was going out of use, and they now constitute the portion of the authorized Bible, which must be regarded as obsolescent. Take, for instance, the expression “much people.” This was once grammatically correct, for the following reasons: People and folk, (as well as the Saxon equivalent of the latter, folc,) in the singular form, usually meant, in Old-English, a political state, or an ethnologically related body of men, considered as a unit, in short a nation, and both people and folk took the plural form when used in a plural sense, just as nation now does. Nation is indeed found in the Wycliffite versions, but it rarely occurs, and puple or folk in the singular, puplis
and folkis in the plural, are generally used where we now employ nations. In Tyndale's time, nation had come into more general use, while people was losing its older signification, and was seldom employed in a plural sense, still more rarely in a plural form. In the translation of 1611, I believe the plural is found but twice, both instances of its occurrence being in the Revelation. Many is essentially plural, and there is a syntactical solecism in applying it to a noun, which itself does not admit of a plural. While therefore the word was hovering between the sense of nation, which may be multiplied, and that of an aggregation of persons, which may be divided, it was natural, and at the same time syntactically right, to say much, rather than many, people. King James's translators, in this, as in many other points, employed the language of the preceding century, not of their own, for in the secular literature of their time people had settled down into its present signification, and conformed to modern grammatical usage.
An examination of the vocabulary of Shakspeare will show that out of the fifteen thousand words which compose it, not more than about five or six hundred have gone out of currency, or changed their meaning, and of these, some, no doubt, are misprints, some, borrowed from obscure provincial dialects, and some, words for which there is no other authority, and which probably never were recognized as English.
In the poetical works of Milton, who employs about eight thousand words, there are not more than one hundred which are not as familiar at this day, as in that of the poet himself. In fact, scarcely any thing of Milton's poetic diction has become obsolete, except some un-English words and phrases of his own coinage, and which failed to gain admittance at all. On the other hand, the less celebrated authors of the same