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This reflection on the words that end in ED, I have heard in conversation from one of the greatest geniuses this age has produced. I think we may add to the foregoing observation, the change which has happened in our language, by the abbreviation of several words that are terminated in
eth,' by substituting an s in the room of the last syllable, as in drowns, walks, arrives,' and innumerable other words, which in the pronunciation of our forefathers were drowneth, walketh, arriveth.' This has wonderfully multiplied a letter which was before too frequent in the English tongue, and added to that hissing in our language, which is taken so much notice of by foreigners; but at the same time humours our taciturnity, and eases us of many superfluous syllables.
I might here observe, that the same single letter on many occasions does the office of a whole word, and represents the his' and her' of our forefathers. There is no doubt but the ear of a foreigner, which is the best judge in this case, would very much disapprove of such innovations, which indeed we do ourselves in some measure, by retaining the old termination in writing, and in all the solemn offices of our religion.
As in the instances I have given we have epitomized many of our particular words to the detriment of our tongue, so on other occasions we have drawn two words into one, which has likewise
very much untuned our language, and clogged it with consonants, as mayn’t, can't, shan't won't, and the like, for "
may not, can not, shall not, will not,' &c.
* This was probably Dean Swist, who has made the same observation in his proposal for correcting, and improving, and ascertaining the English tongue, &c. Sec Swift's Works.
It is perhaps this humour of speaking no more than we needs must, which has so miserably curtailed some of our words, that in familiar writings and conversations they often lose all but their first syllables, as in mob. rep. pos. incog.' and the like; and as all ridiculous words make their first entry into a language by familiar phrases, I dare not answer for these, that they will not in time be looked upon as a part of our tongue. We see some of our poets have been so indiscreet as to imitate Hudibras's doggrel expressions in their serious compositions, by throwing out the signs of our substantives which are essential to the English language. Nay, this humour of shortening our language had once run so far, that some of our celebrated authors, among whom we may reckon Sir Roger L'Estrange in particular, began to prune their words of all superfluous letters, as they termed them, in order to adjust the spelling to the pronunciation; which would have confounded all our etymologies, and have quite destroyed our tongue.
We may here likewise observe that our proper names when familiarized in English, generally dwindle to monosyllables, whereas in other modern languages they receive a softer turn on this occasion, by the addition of a new syllable.Nick in Italian is Nicolini ; Jack in French Janot; and so of the rest.
There is another particular in our language which is a great instance of our frugality of words, and that is the suppressing of several particles which must be produced in other tongues to make a sentence intelligible. This often perplexes the best writers, when they find the relatives
whom, which, or they,' at their mercy, whether they may have admission or not; and will never
be decided until we have something like an academy, that by the best authorities and rules drawn from the analogy of languages shall settle all controversies between grammar and idiom.
I have only considered our language as it shews the genius and natural temper of the English, which is modest, thoughtful and sincere, and which, perhaps, may recommend the people, though it has spoiled the tongue. We might, perhaps, carry the same thought into other languages, and deduce a great part of what is peculiar to them from the genius of the people who speak them. It is certain, the light talkative humour of the French has not a little infected their tongue, which might be shewn by many instances; as the genius of the Italians, which is so much addicted to music and ceremony, has moulded all their words and phrases to those particular uses. The stateliness and gravity of the Spaniards shews itself to perfection in the solemnity of their language; and the blunt honest humour of the Germans sounds better in the roughness of the High-Dutch, than it would in a politer tongue.
No. 136. MONDAY, AUGUST 6, 1711.
Hor, 2 Ep. i. 112.
According to the request of this strange fellow, I shall print the following letter.
'I Shall without any manner of preface or apology acquaint you, that I am, and ever have been from my youth upward, one of the greatest liars this island has produced. I have read all the moralists upon the subject, but could never find any effect their discourses had upon me, but to add to my misfortune by new thoughts and ideas, and making me more ready in my language, and capable of sometimes mixing seeming truths with my improbabilities. With this strong passion towards falsehood in this kind, there does not live an honester man, or a sincerer friend; but my imagination runs away with me, and whatever is started, I have such a scene of adventures appears in an instant before me, that I cannot help uttering them, though to my immediate confusion, I cannot but know I am liable to be detected by the first man I meet.
Upon occasion of the mention of the battle of Pultowa,* I could not forbear giving an account of a kinsman of mine, a young merchant who was bred at Moscow, that had too much mettle to attend books of entries and accounts, when there was so active a scene in the country where he resided, and followed the Czar as a volunteer. This warm youth (born at the instant the thing was spoke of) was the man who unhorsed the Swedish general, he was the occasion that the Mascovites kept their fire in so soldier-like a manner, and brought up those troops which covered from the enemy at the beginning of the
* Fought July 8, 1709, between Charles XII. of Sweden and Peter 1. Emperor of Russia: wherein Charles was entirely defeated.
day; besides this, he had at last the good fortune to be the man who took Count Piper.* With all this fire I knew my cousin to be the civilest creature in the world. He never made any impertinent show of his valour, and then he had an excellent genius for the world in every other kind. I had letters from him (here I felt in my pockets) that exactly spoke the Czar's character, which I knew perfectly well; and I could not forbear concluding that I lay with his imperial majesty twice or thrice a week all the while he lodged at Deptford.t What is worse than all this, it is impossible to speak to me, but you give me some occasion of coming out with one lie or other, that has neither wit, humour, prospect of interest, or any other motive that I can think of in nature. The other day, when one was mending an eminent and learned divine, what occasion in the world had I to say, “Methinks he would look more venerable if he were not so fair a man?' I remember the company smiled. I have seen the gentleman since, and he is coalblack. I have intimations every day in my life that nobody believes me, yet I am never the better. I was saying something the other day to an old friend at Will's coffee-house, and he made me no manner of answer; but told me that an acquaintance of Tully the orator having two or three times together said to him, without receiving any answer, “ that upon his honour he was but that very month forty years of age,” Tully answered, “ Surely you think me the most incredulous man in the world, if I do not believe what you have told me every day these ten years.” The mischief of it is, I find myself wonderfully inclined to have been present
Prime Minister of Charles XII. † In the spring of the year 1698.