Imágenes de página
[ocr errors]

presently call your attention to the late introduction of this little word 'its' into the English language. It rests indeed altogether on a mistake and a forgetfulness of the true constructions of the language. It would be long to explain this at full: it has been explained well in Latham's English Grammar. I will endeavour very briefly to put the matter before you, and trace the steps by which this came to pass. Let me prepare the way by reminding you first that his does not exactly correspond to 'suus,' but to ejus' or 'illius,' being the genitive of he' (he's' = 'his'); and that 'it,' or 'hit' as it was long written (Sir Thomas More in general so writes it, but about his time 'hit' is going out) is the neuter of 'he,' the final 't being the sign of this neuter, just as illud' is the neuter of 'ille.' Now, by way of illustrating the matter in hand, let us suppose that those who spoke the Latin language had forgotten that the final 'd' in 'illud was the sign of the neuter; let us suppose further that illud? through some cause or other had still further lost in their eyes its connexion with ‘ille,' as 'hit' through becoming 'it has obscured its relation to 'he;' and that it had been dealt with by them quite as an independent word, upon which they proceeded to form a genitive of its own; 'illius' no longer seeming to them such genitive, and that they had proceeded to fashion an 'illudius ;' so doing they would have committed exactly the same error which we have committed in forming the word 'its,' and in dismissing his' from any longer serving as the neuter genitive no less than the masculine. I do not say that many conveniences have not attended the change: the desire to obtain these was doubtless the motive to the creation of this genitive; which still rested on a misapprehension, and however now. sanctioned by time and usage, can be considered as originally only a blunder.

Attention once called to the matter, one is surprised to discover of how late introduction the word 'its’ proves to be into the language. Through the whole of our authorized Version of the Bible. 'its' does not once occur; the work which it now performs being accomplished, as our rustics would now accomplish it, by 'his?* or 'her't applied as freely to inanimate things as to persons, or else by “thereof? or of it. Its' occurs, I believe, only three times in all Shakespeare, and I doubt whether Milton has once admitted it into Paradise Lost, although, when that was composed, others freely allowed it. How soon all this was forgotten we have striking evidence in the fact that Dryden, when in one of his fault-finding moods with the great men of the preceding generation he is taking Ben Jonson to task for general inaccuracy in his English diction, among other counts of his indictment, quotes this line from Catiline,

“Though heaven should speak with all his wrath at once," and proceeds, “heaven is ill syntax with his ;" while in

*Thus Exod. xxxvii. 17 :Of beaten work made he the candlestick ; his shaft and his branch, his bowls, his knops, and his flowers, were of the same;" cf. Mt. v. 15.

| Rev. xxii. 2: “The tree of life, which yielded her fruit every month."



fact-up to within forty or fifty years of the time when Dryden began to write, no other syntax was known. Curious also is it to note that in the long controversy, which followed on the publication by Chatterton of the poems which he ascribed to a monk Rowlie, living in the fifteenth century, no one appealed at the time to such lines as the following,

“Life, and all its goods I scorn,” ås at once decisive of the fact that the poems were not of the age which they pretended. Warton who rejected, although with a certain amount of hesitation, the poems, and gives reasons, and many of them good ones, for this rejection, yet takes no notice of this little word, which betrays the forgery at once; although there needed nothing more than to point to it, for the disposing of the whole question.*

* Lest this digression should grow to an immoderate length, I must append in a note another illustration of the matter in hand.

Instead of luncheon,' our country people in Hampshire, as in many other parts, always use the form nuncheon' or nuntion. I cannot doubt that either this was the original pronunciation, and our received one a modern corruption; or else, and this appears to me more probable, that we have made a confusion between two originally different words, from which they have kept clear. Thus in Howell's Vocabulary, 1659, and in Cotgrave's French and English Dictionary, both words occur:“nuncion or nuncheon, the afternoon's repast," and "lunchion, a big piece” i. e. of bread, for both give the old French 'caribot' as the equivalent of luncheon, which word has this meaning. It is clear that in this sense of lump or ' big piece Gay uses 'luncheon :?

6 When hungry thou stood'st staring like an oaf,

I sliced the luncheon from the barley loaf.”

What has been here said in respect of much of, our provincial English, namely that it is old English rather than bad English, may be affirmed, no doubt, with equal right in respect of many so called Americanisms. There are parts of America where 'het' is used or was used a few years since as the perfect of to heat;' 'holp' as the perfect of to help;' stricken' as the participle of 'to strike. Again, there are words which have become obsolete here during the last two hundred years, which have not become obsolete there, although many of them probably retain only a provincial life. The excellent word, .freshet,' for a river swollen by rain or other causes, and rushing with wider and more rapid current than usual to the sea, which would scarcely be found in English since. Milton employed it,* has never been out of use in America, having

and Miss Baker in her Northamptonshire Glossary explains lunch' as “a large lump of bread, or other edible; He helped himself to a good lunch of cake." We may note further that this ' nuntion' may possibly put us on the right track for arriving at the etymology of the word. Richardson has called attention to the fact that it is spelt“noon-shun” in Brown's Pastorals, which must at least suggest as possible and plausible that the 'nuntion? was originally applied to the labourer's slight meal, to which he withdrew for the shunning of the heat of the middle noon. It is at any rate certain that the dignity to which lunch' or 'luncheon' has now arrived, as when we read in the newspapers of a "magnificent luncheon," is altogether modern; the word kelonged a century ago to rustic life, and in literature had not travelled beyond the “hobnailed pastorals” which professed to describe that life.

' *"All fish from sea or shore, • Freshet or purling brook, of shell or fin :" Todd misunderstands the word, explaining it “a stream of fresh water.” Not so; but as the whole passage moves in antitheses, "sea or shore," " shell or fin," so“ freshet or purling brook.”



lately come back to us from thence. Other words again, which indeed have continued in currency on both sides of the Atlantic, have yet on our side receded from their original use, while they have not receded from it on the other. . ‘Plunder' is a word in point; so too when unleavened cakes are called sad cakes,” as in parts of America they are, it is evident that 'sad? is used in its original sense of unmoved, being but another spelling of 'set'—à sense which once the proper one of the word, has now left it with us.*

In the contemplation of facts like these it has been sometimes asked, whether a day will ever arrive when the language spoken on this side of the Atlantic and on the other, will divide into two languages, an old English and a new. We may confidently answer, No. Doubtless, if those who went out from us to people and subdue a new continent, had left our shores two or three centuries earlier than they did, when the language was very much farther removed from that ideal after which it was unconsciously striving, and in which, once reached, it in great measure acquiesced; if they had not carried with them to their distant homes their English Bible, and what else of worth had been already uttered in the English tongue; if, having once left us, the intercourse between Old and New England had been entirely broken off, or only rare and partial;

* Pickering's. Vocabulary of Words and Phrases, supposed to be peculiar to America, Boston, 1816. I would gladly in a future edition treat the matter of this paragraph with something more of the fulness which it deserves, if any transatlantic readers from the stores of their own experience would help me.

« AnteriorContinuar »