صور الصفحة
PDF
النشر الإلكتروني

fometimes diftracted in labyrinths, and diffipated by different intentions.

A large work is difficult becaufe it is large, even though all its parts might fingly be performed with facility; where there are many things to be done, each must be allowed its fhare of time and labour, in the proportion only which it bears to the whole; nor can it be expected, that the ftones which form the dome of a temple, thould be fquared and polifhed like the diamond of a ring.

Of the event of this work, for which, having laboured it with fo much application, I cannot but have fome degree of parental fondnefs, it is natural to form conjectures. Thofe who have been perfuaded to think well of my defign, will require that it fhould fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been fuffered to make in it without oppofition. With this confequence I will confefs that I flattered myfelf for a while; but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reafon nor experience can juftify. When we fee men grow old and die at a certain tine one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promifes to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal juftice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preferved their words and phrases from mutability, fhall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and fecure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change fublunary nature, and clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.

With this hope,, however, academies have been inftituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulfe intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain ; founds are too volatile and fubtile for legal reftraints; to enchain fyllables, and to lafh the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its defires by its ftrength. The French language has visibly changed under the infpection of the academy; the ftyle of Amelot's tranflation of father Paul is obferved by Le Courayer to be un peu paffé; and no Italian will maintain, that the diction of any modern writer is not perceptibly different from that of Boccace, Machiavel, or Caro.

Total and fudden transformations of a language feldom happen; conquefts and migrations are now very rare but there are other caufes of change, which, though flow in their operation, and invisible in their progrefs, are perhaps as much fuperior to human refiftance, as the revolutions of the fky, or intumefcence of the tide. Commerce, however neceffary, however lucrative, as it depraves the manners, corrupts the language; they that have frequent intercourfe with ftrangers, to whom they endeavour to accommodate themfelves, muft in time. learn a mingled dialect, like the jargon which ferves the traffickers on the Mediterranean and Indian coasts. This will not always be confined to the exchange, the warehouse, or the port, but will be communicated by degrees to other ranks of the people, and be at laft incorporated with the current speech.

There are likewife internal caufes equally forcible. The language moft likely to continue long without

alteration,

alteration, would be that of a nation raifed à little, and but a little, above barbarity, fecluded from ftrangers, and totally employed in procuring the conveniencies of life; either without books, or, like fome of the Mabemetan countries, with very few: men thus bufied and unlearned, having only fuch words as common ufe requires, would perhaps long continue to exprefs the fame notions by the fame figns. But no fuch conftancy can be expected in a people polished by arts, and claffed by fubordination, where one part of the community is fuftained and accommodated by the labour of the other. Thofe who have much leifure to think, will always be enlarging the ftock of ideas; and every increase of knowledge, whether real or fancied, will produce new words, or combinations of words. When the mind is unchained from neceffity, it will range after convenience; when it is left at large in the fields of fpeculation, it will fhift opinions; as any cuftom is difufed, the words that expreffed it muft perifh with it; as any opinion grows popular, it will innovate fpeech in the fame proportion as it alters practice.

As by the cultivation of various fciences, a language is amplified, it will be more furnished with words deflected from their original fenfe; the geometrician will talk of a courtier's zenith, or the eccentrick virtue of a wild hero, and the phyfician of fanguine expectations and phlegmatick delays. Copioufnefs of fpeech will give opportunities to capricious choice, by which fome words will be preferred, and others degraded; viciffitudes of fashion will enforce the ufe of new, or extend the fingnification of known terms. The tropes of poetry will

make

make hourly encroachments, and the metaphorical will become the current fenfe: pronunciation will be varied by levity or ignorance, and the pen must at length comply with the tongue; illiterate writers will, at one time or other, by publick infatuation, rife into renown, who, not knowing the original import of words, will ufe them with colloquial licentioufnefs, confound diftinction, and forget propriety. As politenefs increafes, fome expreffions will be confidered as too grofs and vulgar for the delicate, others as too formal and ceremonious for the gay and airy; new phrafes are therefore adopted, which muft, for the fame reafons, be in time difmiffed. Swift, in his petty treatife on the English language, allows that new words must fometimes be introduced, but propofes that none fhould be suffered to become obfolete. But what makes a word obfolete, more than general agreement to forbear it? and how fhall it be continued, when it conveys an offenfive idea, or recalled again into the mouths of mankind, when it has once become unfamiliar by difufe, and unpleafing by unfamiliarity?

There is another caufe of alteration more prevalent than any other, which yet in the prefent ftate of the world cannot be obviated. A mixture of two languages will produce a third diftinct from both, and they will always be mixed, where the chief parts of education, and the most conspicuous accomplishment, is skill in ancient or in foreign tongues. He that has long cultivated another language, will find its words and combinations crowd upon his memory; and haste and negligence, refineVOL. IX.

ment

ment and affectation, will obtrude borrowed terms and exotick expreffions.

The great peft of fpeech is frequency of tranflation. No book was ever turned from one language into another, without imparting fomething of its native idiom; this is the moft mifchievous and comprehenfive innovation; fingle words may enter by thousands, and the fabrick of the tongue continue the fame; but new phrafeology changes much at once; it alters not the fingle ftones of the building, but the order of the columns. If an academy fhould be eftablifhed for the cultivation of our ftyle, which I, who can never wish to fee dependence multiplied, hope the fpirit of English li berty will hinder or destroy, let them, instead of compiling grammars and dictionaries, endeavour, with all their influence, to ftop the licence of tranflators, whofe idlenefs and ignorance, if it be fuffered to proceed, will reduce us to babble a dialect of France.

If the changes that we fear be thus irrefiftible, what remains but to acquiefce with filence, as in the other infurmountable diftreffes of humanity? It remains that we retard what we cannot repel, that we palliate what we cannot cure. Life may be lengthened by care, though death cannot be ultimately defeated: tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration; we have long preferved our conftitution, let us make fome ftruggles for our language.

In hope of giving longevity to that which its own. nature forbids to be immortal, I have devoted this book, the labour of years, to the honour of my country,

6

[ocr errors]
« السابقةمتابعة »