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THE OLD ENGLISH PERIOD.
A. D. 1250—A, D. 1500.
FORMATION OF THE STRUCTURE OF THE ENGLISH TONGUE.
1. Principle of the Change-Inflections deserted-Substitutes to be found-The First
Step already exemplified.—2. Stages of the Re-Construction-Early English-Middle English. EARLY ENGLISH.—3. Character of the Early English-Specimens.-4. Extract from the Owl and the Nightingale.—5. Extract from the Legend of Thomas Becket. MIDDLE ENGLISH.-6. Character of the Middle English-the Main Features of the Modern Tongue established-Changes in Grammar-Changes in Vocabulary Specimens-Chaucer.—7. Extracts from Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.-8. Extracts from the Knight's Tale.-9. Specimen of Chaucer's Prose.-10. Language in the Early Part of the Fifteenth Century-Extract from Lydgate's Churl and Bird. 11. Language in the Latter Part of the Fifteenth Century-Its Character-The Structure of the English Tongue substantially Completed-Extract from The Paston Letters. THE LANGUAGE OF SCOTLAND.-12. A Gothic Dialect in North-Eastern Counties–An Anglo-Saxor. Dialect in Southern Counties--Changes as in England.–13. The Scottish Tongue in the Fourteenth Century-Extract from Barbour's Bruce.14. Great Changes in the Fifteenth Century-Extract from Dunbar's Thistle and Rose.
1. ESCAPING from the perplexities of the Semi-Saxon, we have reached an era in which the language may reasonably be called English. The principles in respect of which our modern speech deviates from its Germanic root, now begin to operate actively.
Some of the changes which have already been observed by us, suggest and illustrate these principles : others may seem to lead us away from them. The primary law is exemplified by very many of the words we have analyzed. It is this.
The Anglo-Saxon, like the Latin, though not to the same extent, was rich in inflections: a given idea being denoted by a given word, many of the modifications of that idea could be expressed by changes in the form of the word, without aid from any other words. In the course of the revolution, most of the inflections disappeared. Consequently, in expressing the modifications of an idea denoted by a given word, the new language has often. est to join with that word other words denoting relations.
Such a change occurs when the inflections of a Latin verb have their place supplied by auxiliary verbs, and those of the noun by prepositions. It is exemplified when the genitive“Romæ"
is translated into the French “De Rome,” and “Nos amavimus” into “ Nous avons aimé.”
The first step of it has been exemplified, again and again, in the Semi-Saxon passages which we have analyzed. If we were to try the experiment of blotting out, in our extracts, every word that has not had its inflection corrupted, we should find that very few words indeed were left. Sometimes a word has lost its inflected part, and, along with it, the idea expressed by the inflection. Many words which originally had diverse inflected terminations have all been made to end alike, the inflection thus coming to signify nothing. Perhaps, also, it may have occurred to some readers, that the verbs had suffered less alteration than the substantives and adjectives. If we have made this remark on the few words contained in our specimens, we had better not lose sight of it. It will immediately appear to be true universally.
2. We now enter on the period of Re-construction, which may be described as extending from the middle of the thirteenth century through the fourteenth and fifteenth. The language of those two hundred and fifty years may be called Old English. It first appears in a state so equivocal
, that we may be inclined to doubt whether it deserves to be called English at all. But when we leave it, at the close of this period, it has assumed a shape really different in no essential feature from the English of modern times. The critic to whom we owe our dissection of Layamon's Semi-Saxon has proposed, for the sake of convenience, to arrange this new development of the tongue in two successive stages. The first of these, reaching for a century from his approximate date of 1230, he calls Early English. He gives the name of Middle English to the speech of the period between 1330 and 1500.
It is not possible to fix on any point of time, at which the distinction between the two stages is clear on both sides. Nor, though we disregard dates, is the line between the two marked very deeply, at all its points, by internal characteristics.
Yet there are evident steps of progress, which may aptly be denoted by the use of the two descriptive terms.
3. As our usher into the region of the Early English, we may accept the fine poem of “The Owl and the Nightingale,” already described when we were introduced to the poetry of the Norman period. It occupies a doubtful position, both in the character of its language and in respect of its date, which perhaps should not
be carried forward so far as even the beginning of the fourteenth century.
Still it shows so near an approach to intelligible English, that our specimen may be risked without a full translation.
4. It will, perhaps be obvious, when the extract has been read, that there is now a distinct change in order as well as in structure. There are not a few remnants of inflection, with many symptoms of its retirement, and of the accompanying abbreviations. The passage shows clearly one of the features usually insisted on as characteristic of the earliest stage of the new tongue; namely, that the Anglo-Saxon vowels -a, -e, -u, in final syllables, are all of them represented by e. The final -n of the infinitive verb is beginning to disappear; and the infinitive and the noun, thus ceasing to be distinguishable by form, alike dropped also, in no long time, the final vowel. It should be observed, however, that here, when the final -e represents any vowel of the older language, it ought to make a syllable, and be reckoned in the accentual scanning of the line.*
· Owl ; Anglo-Saxon, úle. 2 Vulgar English.
14 Wottest thou? knowest thou ? 16 To-what ; than, a form of the dative of the article; used also in Anglo-Saxon as relative and demonstrative.
10 Born; Anglo-Saxon, geboren, from beran.
* Here, and in subsequent extracts, the vowel, both final and in the middle of words, is marked (), when the syllable in which it occurs should be taken account of in the prosody, and is likely to be overlooked. The text of the extract is chiefly from Wright's edition, (Percy Society,)
5. The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, which in our literary review was referred to the close of the thirteenth century, has commonly been received, and very frequently quoted, as an indisputable specimen of Early English, and perhaps the oldest that can be assigned to a fixed date.
Instead of quoting from it, we will take our specimen from one of the pieces contained in a collection of Monkish Legends, which have plausibly been attributed to the same author, and are at all events very like his Chronicle in style. The story mixes up devotion, history, and romance, in a manner which seems to us very odd, but is quite common in our old literature.
A young London citizen, going on pilgrimage to the Holy
17 The; Anglo-Saxon, thære. See Alfred, Note 15.
18 The dative termination here written, but not sounded; compare Note 7.
28 Therefore. 24 The termination -th in the plurals of pres. indic. is Anglo-Saxon.
26 To work. 27 Anglo-Saxon for one ; French, on. 28 Think; subjunctive. 29 Whither; Anglo-Saxon, hwider.
30 There may-ốe ; béon, Anglo-Saxon; plural of subjunctive for singular. 81 Forget ; subjunctive. 32 Seek: Anglo-Saxon, begitan.
See Alfred, Note 11. 35 Priests ; Anglo-Saxon, preost. Upon.
87 Land. 38 When ; Anglo-Saxon, hweenne. 39 Anglo-Saxon, heom ; see Alfred, Note 11. 40 What; Anglo-Saxon hwæt. 41 See Alfred, Note 43.
Land, was taken prisoner by the Saracens. The daughter of his master fell in love with him ; and when he had made his escape, eloped to follow him. With no syllable of European speech but the one word “ London,” she found her way from Jerusalem into England, and was found by her lover, searching for him through the street in which he lived. She was, of course, christened and married to him; and their son was the celebrated Thomas à Becket.
The following are a few of the opening lines in the Legend which celebrates the ambitious saint and martyr. The measure is the common metre of the psalms, the four lines being here written in two, and the break indicated, as before, by a colon. It will not escape notice that we now begin to encounter French words, almost always expressing ideas which had become familiar to the people through their Norman masters. *
Gilbert was Thomas fader name: that truë was and god,
Since. French, instead of the Anglo-Saxon, ród, rood.
The Anglo-Saxon termination - hed gives our -hood.
? See Alfred, Note 94 ; the u for y occurs in Layamon, and is said to belong to a western dialect.
• Their ; see Alfred, Note 11. 9 Pilgrimage ; French, 10 Places.
11 Taken; see Note 4. 12 French ; found in Layamon, second text.
13 Done, put. 14 Misease ; perhaps French.
Other-half-year; i. e. a year and a half; good modern German. A parallel Teutonism is the Scottish half-nine o'clock, for half-past eight. French; in Layamon, second text.
17 French. 18 Bands.
iġ See Alfred, Note 55. 20 Dexterous, handy.
* Black's “Life and Martyrdom of Thomas Beket;" (Percy Society ;) 1845.