Sidor som bilder
PDF
ePub

The universal duty rests on us, and let us see what special obligations are due to our English speech. That speech runs the career of the race that uses it, and the speed and the spread of that career have, perhaps, had more help from the speech than philosophy has dreamed of. Little more than two hundred years ago, Lord Bacon, speaking of his Essays, said, “I do conceive that the Latin volumes of them, being in the universal language, may last as long as books last.” He seems to have had no such assurance for his insular English language. Somewhat later, it needed Milton's filial and loyal affection for his mother-tongue to give it a share with the Latin in his prose-writings.* A poet, a contem

*

* As recently as the middle of the last century, Hume expostulated with Gibbon on his use of the French instead of the Eng. lish language: “Why,” said he to him, "why do you compose in French, and carry fagots to the wood, as Horace says with regard to those Romans who wrote in Greek ? I grant that you have a like motive to those Romans, and adopt a language more generally diffused than your own native tongue; but have you not remarked the fate of those two ancient languages in following ages? The Latin, though then less celebrated and confined to more narrow limits, has, in some measure, outlived the Greek, and is now become generally understood by men of letters. Let the French, therefore, triumph in the present diffusion of their tongue. Our solid and increasing establishments in America, where we need less dread the inundation of barbarians, promise a superior stability and duration to the English language,”—Burton's Life of Hume, vol. ii. p. 411.

H, R. Yet Hume, in the second edition of his “History of the Stuarts," expunged the following passage. Speaking of America, he had said, “The seeds of many a noble state have been sown in climates kept desolate by the wild manners of its ancient inhabitants, and an asylum (is) secured in that solitary world for liberty and science, if ever the spreading of unlimited empire or the inroad of barbarous nations should again extinguish them in this turbulent and restless hemisphere."-Id. vol. ii. p. 74.

W. B. R. 8*

porary and friend of Shakspeare, feelingly lamented the limits of the English language:

“ Oh that the Ocean did not bound our style
Within these strict and narrow limits so,
But that the melody of our sweet islo
Might now be heard to Tiber, Arne, and Po,
That they may know how far Thames doth outgo

The music of declined Italy!"* Such was the lament of him, the purity and simplicity of whose style won for him the title of the " well-languaged Daniel.” In one mood, he speaks of England as

“ This little point, this scarce-discovered isle,
Thrust from the world, with whom our speech unknown

Made never traffic of our style.” Again, however, with truer and more hopeful vision, he exclaims,

“ Who knows whither we may vent
The treasure of our tongue? To what strange shores
This gain of our best glory will be sent
T'enrich unknowing nations with our stores ?
What worlds in the yet unformed occident

May come refined with th' accents that are ours ?” This was the poet's vision, larger than even the imaginative reason of the philosopher Bacon counted on. This was not three centuries ago, and now the Island-language girdles the earth. Soon after the poet's heart gave forth its hope, English words began to find a home in the West, close begirt, however, with the fierce discords of the Indian-tongues : for years and years their home was hemmed in within a narrow strip along the Atlantic, the English and the French languages having a divided sway, when the Bourbon was strong enough to hold the Canadas, and proud enough to adventure that magnificent scheme of colonial dominion which was to stretch from the St. Lawrence to the Ohio and the Mississippi, leaving the Briton his scant foothold between the mountains and the sea. The might of the race broke this circumscription; and, in our own day, we have seen this language of ours span the continent, and now it gives a greeting on the shores of the Pacific as well as of the Atlantic. An earnest English author does not fear to predict that the time will come when the language will occupy the far South on each side the Andes; Rio, and Valparaiso, holding rivalry in the purity of the English speech.* But, without venturing into the uncertainties of the future, see how our language has an abode, far and wide, in the islands of the earth, and how, in India, it has travelled northward till it has struck the ancient but abandoned path of another European language-one of the great languages of the world's history —the path of conquest along which Alexander carried Greek words into the regions of the Indus.

* Dedication of Cleopatra to the Countess of Pembroke.

* In Landor's Imaginary Conversations, written some twenty years ago, William Penn is made to say, “ Whenever I see a child before me in America, I fancy I see a fresh opening in the wilderness, and in the opening, a servant of God, appointed to comfort and guide me, ready to sit beside me when my eyes grow dim, and able to sustain me when my feet are weary. Look forward, and behold the children of that child. Few generations are requisite to throw upon their hinges the heavily-barred portals of the vast continent... Who knows but a century or two hence we may look down togethor on those who are journeying in this newly-traced road toward the cities and marts of California, and who are delayed upon it by meeting the Spaniards driven in troops from Mexico ?” H. R.

Our language at this day has a larger extent of influence than the Greek, the Latin, or the Arabic ever had, and its dominion is expanding.

When we contemplate the spread of the language, we may conceive the vast power which is coupled with it and we should remember that, commensurate with the power is the responsibility, the duty of cultivating and guarding it as a possession and inheritance, and a trust. Reflect, too, upon this, that along with national or individual degradation, there is sure to come corruption of the languagean accompaniment more than a mere consequence of that degradation. The language was vitiated—worse then than ever-when the court of Charles the Second scattered the poison of its licentionsness and ribaldry. The wicked and debased, who are banded together in the fellowship of crime, disown the common language of their fellow'men, and delight in a strange vocabulary of their own; for when they break bond with the moral elements that link them to society, they cast off the language as one of the links. Words which serve the wise and good become to the silly and the sensual a burden, because they are associated with wise and good uses, such as couple our English speech with so much good sense, lofty imaginings, deep philosophy, ministrant in the cause of freedom, of duty, and of truth. Hence it has been well said that “A man should love and venerate his native language as the first of his benefactors, as the awakener and stirrer of all his thoughts, the frame and mould and rule of his spiritual being; as the great bond and medium of intercourse with his fellows; as the mirror in which he sees his own nature, and without which he could not even commune with himself; as the image in which the wisdom

of God has chosen to reveal itself to him."* And it is a deep feeling of the perpetual power of the associations of our language, which prompts the poet's words

We must be free or die, who speak the tongue
That Shakspeare spake.

Now how is the language to be guarded and cultivated ? By the thoughtful and conscientious use of it by every one who speaks it. It is not by authors alone, but by each man and woman to whom it is the mother-tongue, that the language is to be preserved in its purity and power; by each one in his sphere and according to his opportunities. This is a duty, and the fulfilment of it is of deeper moment than many are aware of. It is not enough thought of, that “accuracy of style is near akin to veracity and truthful habits of mind," and to sincerity and earnestness of character.† “ Language,” observes a great master of it—" Language is part of man's character.” I You may, I believe, easily prove the truth of this by familiar observation, discovering the physiognomy that is in speech as well as in the face. You will find one man's words are earnest of sincerity, straightforwardness of character, fair dealing, genuine and deep feeling, true manliness, true womanliness, symbolized in the words. You will perceive in another man's speech signs of à confused habit of thought, of vagueness and indirectness of purpose. What before was a beautiful and transparent atmosphere, through which earthly objects

* Guesses at Truth, Part i. p. 296.
† Coleridge's Literary Remains, vol. i. p. 241.

Landor's Imaginary Conversations. First Series. Demosthenes and Eubulides, vol. i. p. 232.

« FöregåendeFortsätt »