תמונות בעמוד
PDF
ePub

Language is generally understood to receive its predominant tincture from the national character of the people who speak it. We must not, indeed, expect that it will carry an exact and full impression of their genius and manners; for, among all nations, the original stock of words which they received from their ancestors, remain as the foundation of their speech throughout many ages, while their manners undergo, perhaps, very great alterations.

National character will, however, always have some perceptible influence on the turn of language ; and the gaiety and vivacity of the French, and the gravity and thoughtfulness of the English, are sufficiently impressed on their respective tongues.

From the genius of our language, and the character of those who speak it, it may be expected to have strength and energy. It is indeed, naturally prolix ; owing to the great number of particles and auxiliary verbs which we are obliged constantly to employ; and this prolixity must in some degree, enfeeble it. We seldom can express so much by one word as was done by the verbs, and by the nouns, in the Greek and Roman languages. Our style is less compact; our conceptions being spread out among more words, and split, as it were, into more parts, make a fainter impression when we utter them. Notwithstanding this defect by our abounding in terms for expressing all the strong emotions of the mind, and by the liberty which we enjoy, in a greater degree than most nations, of compounding words, our language may be esteem. ed to possess considerable force of expression; comparatively at least, with the other modern tongues, though much below the ancient. The style of Milton alone, both in poetry and prose, is a sufficient proof, that the English tongue is far from being destitute of nerves and energy.

The flexibility of a language, or its power of accommodation to different styles and manners, so as to be either grave and strong, or easy and flowing, or tender and gentle, or pompous and magnificent, as occasions require, or as an author's genius prompts, is a quality of great importance in speaking and writing. It seems to depend upon three things; the copiousness of a language : the different arrangements of which its words are susceptible; and the variety and beauty of the sound of those words, so as to correspond to many different subjects. Never did any tongue possess this qnality so eminently as the Greek, which every writer of genius could so mould, as to make the style perfectly expressive of his own manner and peculiar turn. It had all the three requisites, which I have mentioned as necessary for this purpose. It joined to these the graceful variety of its different dialects ; and thereby readily assumed every sort of character which an author could wish, from the most simple and most familiar, up to the most majestic. The Latin, though a very beautiful language, is inferior, in this respect; to the Greek. It has more of a fixed character of stateliness and gravity. is always firm and masculine in the tenour of its sound ; and is supported by a certain senatorial dignity, of which it is difficult for a writer to divest: it wholly, on any occasion. Among the modern tongues, the Italian possesses a great deal more of this flexibility than the French. By its copiousness, its freedom of arrangement, and the great beauty and harmony of its sounds, it suits itself very happily to most subjects, either in prose or in poetry; is capable of the august and the strong, as well as the tender; and seems to be, on the whole, the most perfect of all the modern dialects which have arisen out of the ruins of the ancient. Our own language, though not equal to the Italian in flexibility, yet is not

1 4

destitute of a considerable degree of this quality. If any one will consider the diversity of style which appears in some of our classics, that great difference of manner, for instance, which is marked by the style of Lord Shaftesbury, and that of Dean Swift, he will see, in our tongue, such a circle of expression, such a power of accommodation to the different taste of writers, as redounds not a little to its honour.

What the English has been most taxed with, is its deficiency in harmony of sound. But though every native is apt to be partial to the sounds of his own language, and may, therefore, be suspected of not being a fair judge in this point; yet, I imagine, there are evident grounds on which it may be shewn, that this charge against our tongue has been carried too far. The melody of our versification, its power of support ing poetical numbers, without any assistance from rhyme, is alone a sufficient proof that our language is far from being uomusical. Our verse is, after the Italian, the most diversified and harmonious of any of the modern dialects; unquestionably far beyond the French verse, in variety, sweetness, and melody. Mr. Sheridan has shewn, in his lectures, that we abound more in vowel and dipthong sounds, than most languages; and these too, so divided into long and short, as to afford a proper diversity in the quantity of our syllables. Our consonants, he observes, which appears so crowded to the eye on paper, often form combinations, not disagreeable to the ear in pronouncing, and, in particular, the objection which has been made to the frequent recurrence of the hissing consopant s in our language, is unjust and ill-founded. For, it has not been attended to, that very commonly, and in the final syllables especially, this letter loses altogether the hissing sound, and is transformed into a z, which is one of the sounds on which the ear rests with pleasure; as in has, these, those, loves, hears, and innumerable more, where, though the Jetter s be retained in writing, it has really the power of %, not of the common 6.

After all, however, it must be admitted, that smoothness, or beauty of sound, is not one of the distinguishing properties of the English tongue. Though not incapable of being formed into melodious arrangements, yet strength and expressiveness, more than grace, form its character. We incline, in general, to a short pronunciation of our words, and have shortened the quantity of most of those, which we borrow from the Latin, as orator, spectacle, theatre, liberty, and such like. Agreeable to this, is a remarkable peculiarity of English pronunciation, the throwing the accent farther back, that is, nearer the beginning of the word than is done by any other nation. In Greek and Latin, no word is accented farther back than the third syllable from the end, or what is called the antepenult. But, in English, we have many words accented on the fourth, some on the fifth syllable from the end, as mémorable, convéniency, ámbulatory, próftableness. The geneçal effect of this practice of hastening the accent, or placing it so near the beginning of a word, is to give a brisk and a spirited, but at the same time, a rapid and hurried, and not a very musical, tone to the whole pronunciation of a people.

The English tongue possesses, undoubtedly, this property, that it is the most simple in its form and construction, of all the European dialects. It is free from all intricacy of cases, declension, moods and tenses. Its Words are subject to fewer variations from their original form than those of any other language. Its substantives, have no distinction of gender, except what nature has made, and but one variation in case.

Its adjeç. M м

tives admit of no change at all, except what expresses the degree of comparison Its verbs instead of running through all the varieties of ancient conjugation, suffer no more than four or five changes in termination. By the help of a few prepositions and auxiliary verbs, all the purposes of significancy in meaning are accomplished; while the words for the most part, preserve their form unchanged. The disadvantages in point of elegance, brevity and force, which follow from this structure of our language, I have before pointed out. But, at the same time, it must be admitted, that such a structure contributes to facility. It renders the acquisition of our language less laborious, the arrangement of our words more plain and obvious, the rules of our syntax fewer and more simple.

I agree, indeed, with Dr. Lowth, (Preface to his Grammar) in thinking that this very simplicity and facility of cur language proves a cause of its being frequently written and spoken with less accuracy. It was necessary to study languages which were of a more complex and artificial form, with greater care. The marks of gender and case, the varieties of conjugation and declension, the multiplied rules of syntax, were all to be attended to in speech. Hence language became more an object of art. It was reduced into form; a standard was established; and any departures from the standard became conspicuous. Wbereas, among us, language is hardly considered as an object of grammatical rule. We take it for granted, that a competent skill in it may be acquired without any stuş dy; and that in a syntax so narrow and confined as ours, there is nothing which demands attention. Hence arises the habit of writing in a loose and inaccurate manner.

I admit that no grammatical rules have sufficient authority to controul the firm and established usage of language. Established custom in speak. ing and writing, is the standard to which we must at last resort for determining every controverted point in language and style. But it will not follow from this, that grammatical rules are superseded as useless. lạ every language, which has been in any degree cultivated, there prevails a certain structure and analogy of parts, which is understood to give foundation to the most reputable usage of speech; and which, in all cases, when usage is loose or dubious, possesses considerable authority. In every language, there are rules of syntax which must be inviolably observed by all who wonld either write or speak with any propriety. For syntax is no other than that arrangement of words, in a sentence, which renders the meaning of each word and the relation of all the words to one another, most clear and intelligible.

All the rules of Latin syntax, it is true, cannot be applied to our language. Many of these rules arose from the particular form of their language, which occasioned verbs or prepositions to govern, some the genitive, some the dative, some the accusative or ablative case. But abstracting from these peculiarities, it is to be always remembered, that the chief and fundamental rules of syntax are common to the English as well as the Latin tongue; and indeed, belong equally to all languages. For, in all languages, the parts which compose speech are essentially the same ; substantives, adjectives, verbs, and connecting particles : and wherever these parts of speech are found, there are certaiu necessary relations among them which regulate their syntax, or the place which they ought to possess in a sentence. Thus, in English, just as much as in Latin, the adjective must, by position, be made to agree with its substantive, and the verb must agree with its nominative in person and number; because, from the nature of things, a word, which expresses either a quality or

an action, must correspond as closely as possible with the name of that thing whose quality, or whose action it expresses. Two or more sub: stantives, joined by a copulative, must always require the verbs or pronouns, to which they refer, to be placed in the plural number; otherwise, their common relation to these verbs or pronouns is not pointed out. An active verb must, in every language, govern the accusative; that is, clearly point out some substantive noun,' as the object to which its action is directed. A relative pronoun must, in every form of speech, agree with its antecedent in gender, number and person ; and conjunctions, or connecting particles, ought always to couple like cases and moods; that is, ought to join together words which are of the same form and state with each other. I mention these, as a few exemplifications of that fundamental regard to syntax, which, even in such a language as ours, is absolutely requisite for writing or speaking with any propriety.

Whatever the advantages or defecis of the English language be, as it is our own language, it deserves a high degree of our study and attention, both with regard to the choice of words which we employ, and with regard to the syntax, or the arrangement of these words in a sentence. We know how much the Greeks and Romans, in their most polished and flourishing times, cultivated their own tongues. We know how much study both the French, and the Italians, have bestowed upon theirs. Whatever knowledge may be acquired by the study of other languages, it can never be communicated with advantage, unless by such as can write and speak their own language well. Let the matter of an author be ever so good and useful, his compositions will always suffer in the public esteem, if his expression be deficient in purity and propriety. At the same time the attainment of a correct and elegant style, is an object which demands application and labour. If any imagine they can catch it merely by the ear, or acquire it by a slight perusal of some of our good authors, they will find themselves much disappointed. The many errors, even in point of grammar, the many offences against purity of language, which are committed by writers who are far from being contemptible, demonstrate, that a careful study of the language is previously requisite, in all who aim at writing it properly.*

LECTURE X.

of

STYLE-PERSPICUITY AND PRECISION. HAVING finished the subject of language, I now enter on the consideration of style, and the rules that relate to it.

It is not easy to give a precise idea of what is meant by style. The best definition i can give of it, is, the peculiar manner in which a man ex

On this subject the reader ought to peruse Dr. Lowth's Short Introduction to Eng. lish Grammar, with Critical notes; which is the grannuatical performance of highest authority that has appeared in our time, and in which he will see, what I have said, concerning the inaccuracies in language of some of our best writers, fully verified In Dr. Campbell's Philosophy of Rhetoric, he will likewise find many acute and ingen ious observations, both on the English language, and on style in general. And Dr. Priestley's Rudiments of English Grammar wil also be useful, by pointing out several of the errors into which writers arc apt to fall.

tives admit of no change at all, except what expresses the degree of comparison Its verbs instead of running through all the varieties of ancient conjugation, suffer no more than four or five changes in termination. By the help of a few prepositions and auxiliary verbs, all the purposes of significancy in meaning are accomplished; while the words for the most part, preserve their form unchanged. The disadvantages in point of elegance, brevity and force, which follow from this structure of our language, I have before pointed out. But, at the same time, it must be admitted, that such a structure contributes to facility. It renders the acquisition of our language less laborious, the arrangement of our words more plain and obvious, the rules of our syntax fewer and more simple.

I agree, indeed, with Dr. Lowth, (Preface to his Grammar) in thinking that this very simplicity and facility of our language proves a cause of its being frequently written and spoken with less accuracy. It was neces. sary to study languages which were of a more complex and artificial form, with greater care. The marks of gender and case, the varieties of conjugation and declension, the multiplied rules of syntax, were all to be at. tended to in speech. Hence language became more an object of art. It was reduced into form; a standard was established; and any departures from the standard became conspicuous. Whereas, among us, language is hardly considered as an object of grammatical rule. We take it for granted, that a competent skill in it may be acquired without any stu: dy; and that in a syntax so narrow and confined as ours, there is nothing which demands attention. Hence arises the habit of writing in a loose and inaccurate manner.

I admit that no grammatical rules have sufficient authority to controul the firm and established usage of language. Established custom in speak. ing and writing, is the standard to which we must at last resort for determining every controverted point in language and style. But it will not follow from this, that grammatical rules are superseded as useless. lọ every language, which has been in any degree cultivated, there prevails a certain structure and analogy of parts, which is understood to give foundation to the most reputable usage of speech; and which, in all cases, when usage is loose or dubious, possesses considerable authority. In every language, there are rules of syntax which must be inviolably observed by all who wonld either write or speak with any propriety. For syntax is no other than that arrangement of words, in a sentence, which renders the meaning of each word and the relation of all the words to one another, most clear and intelligible.

All the rules of Latin syntax, it is true, cannot be applied to our language. Many of these rules arose from the particular form of their language, which occasioned verbs or prepositions to govern, some the genitive, some the dative, some the accusative or ablative case. But abstracting from these peculiarities, it is to be always remembered, that the chief and fundamental rules of syntax are common to the English as well as the Latin tongue; and indeed, belong equally to all languages. For, in all languages, the parts which compose speech are essentially the same; substantives, adjectives, verbs, and connecting particles : and wherever these parts of speech are found, there are certain necessary relations among them which regulate their syntax, or the place which ihey ought to possess in a sentence. Thus, in English, just as much as in Latin, the adjective must, by position, be made to agree with its substantive; and the verb must agree with its nominative in person and number; because, from the nature of thịngs, a word, which expresses either a quality or

« הקודםהמשך »