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Of national use.
ANOTHER qualification of the term use, which deserves our attention, is, that it must be national. This I consider in a two-fold view, as it stands opposed both to provincial-and to foreign.
In every province there are peculiarities of dialect, which affect not only the pronunciation and the accent, but even the inflection and the combination of words, whereby their idiom is distinguished both from that of the nation, and from that of every other province. The narrowness of the circle to which the currency of the words and phrases of such dialects is confined, sufficiently discriminates them from that which is properly styled the language, and which commands a circulation incomparably wider. This is one reason, I imagine, why the term use, on this subject, is commonly accompanied with the epithet general. In the use of provincial idioms, there is, it must be acknowledged, a pretty considerable concurrence both of the middle and of the lower ranks. But still this use is bounded by the province, county, or district, which gives name to the dialect, and beyond which its peculiarities are sometimes unintelligible, and often ridiculous. But the language, properly so called, is found current, especially in the upper and the middle ranks, over the whole British empire. Thus, though in every province, they frequently ridicule the idioms of every other province, they all vail to the English idiom, and scruple not to acknowledge its superiority over their own.
What has now been said of provincial dialects, may, with very little variation, be applied to professional dialects, or the cant which is sometimes observed to prevail among those of the same profession or way of life. The currency of the latter cannot be so exactly circumscribed as that of the former, whose distinction is purely local; but their use is not on that account either more extensive or more reputable.
It was remarked, that national might also be opposed to foreign. I imagine it is too evident to need illustration, that the introduction of extraneous words and idioms, from other languages and foreign nations, cannot be a smaller transgression against the established custom of the English tongue, than the introduction of words and idioms peculiar to some precincts of England, or at least somewhere current within the
British pale. The only material difference between them is, that the one is more commonly the error of the learned, the other of the vulgar. But if, in this view, the former is entitled to greater indulgence, from the respect paid to learning; in another view, it is entitled to less, as it is much more commonly the result of affectation.—Thus two essential qualities of usage, in regard to language, have been settled, that it be both reputable and national.
Of present use.
But there will naturally arise here another question; " Is not use, even good and national use, in the same country, different in different periods ? and if so, to the usage of what period shall we attach ourselves, as the proper rule? If you say, the present, as it may reasonably be expected that you will, the difficulty is not entirely removed. In what extent of signification must we understand the word present? How far may we safely range in quest of authorities? or, at what distance backwards from this moment are authors still to be accounted as possessing a legislative voice in language ? To this, I own, it is difficult to give an answer with all the precision that might be desired. Yet it is certain, that when we are in search of precedents for any word or idiom, there are certain mounds which we cannot overleap with safety. For instance, the authority of Hooper or Raleigh, however great their merit and their fame be, will not be admitted in support of a term or expression, not to be found in any good writer of a later date.
In truth, the boundary must not be fixed at the same distance, in every subject. Poetry has ever been allowed a wider range than prose; and it is but just that, by an indulgence of this kind, some compensation should be made for the peculiar restraints she is laid under by the measure. Nor is this only a matter of convenience to the poet, it is also a source of gratification to the reader. Diversity in the style relieves the ear, and prevents its being tired with the too frequent recurrence of the rhymes, or sameness of the metre. But still there are limits to this diversity. The authority of Milton and of Waller, on this article, remains as yet unquestioned. I should not think it prudent often to introduce words or phrases, of which no example could be produced since the days of Spencer.
And even in prose, the bounds are not the same for every kind of composition. In matters of science, for instance, whose terms, from the nature of the thing, are not capable of such a currency as those which belong to ordinary subjects, and are within the reach of ordinary readers, there is no necessity of confining an author within a very narrow circle. But in composing pieces which come under this last denomination, as history, biography, travels, moral essays, familiar letters, and the like, it is safest for an author to consider those words and idioms as obsolete, which have been disused by all good authors, for a longer period than the age of man extends to. It is not by ancient, but by present use, that our style must be regulated. And that use can never be denominated present, which has been laid aside time immemorial, or, which amounts to the same thing, falls not within the knowledge or remembrance of any now living.
This remark not only affects terms and phrases, but also the declension, combination, and construction of words. Is it not then surprising to find, that one of Dr. Lowth's penetration, should think a single person entitled to revive a form of inflection in a particular word, which had been rejected by all good writers of every denomination, for more than a hundred
а and fifty years ?* But if present use is to be renounced for ancient, it will be necessary to determine at what precise pe
iod antiquity is to be regarded as a rule. One inclines to remove the standard to the distance of a century and a half; another may, with as good reason, fix it three centuries backwards, and another six. And if the language of any of these periods is to be judged by the use of any other, it will be found, no doubt, entirely barbarous. To me it is so evident, either that the present use must be the standard of the present language, or that the language admits no standard whatever, that I cannot conceive a clearer and more indisputable principle, from which to bring an argument to support it.
Yet it is certain, that even some of our best critics and marians, talk occasionally, as if they had a notion of some other standard, though they never give us a single hint to direct us where to search for it. Dr. Johnson, for example, in the preface to his very valuable Dictionary, acknowledges properly the absolute dominion of custom over language; and yet, in the explanation of particular words, expresses himself sometimes, in a manner that is inconsistent with this doctrine; “This word,” says he in one place, “though common, and used by the best writers, is perhaps barbarous.” I entirely agree with Dr. Priestley, that it will never be the arbitrary
* In a note on the irregular verb sit, he says, “ Dr. Middleton hath, with great propriely, restored the true participle sitten."
rules of any man, or body of men whatever, that will ascer. tain the language, there being no other dictator here than use.
It is indeed easier to discover the aim of our critics, in their observations on this subject, than the meaning of the terms which they employ; these are often used without precision; their aim, however, is generally good. It is, as much as possible, to give a check to innovation. But the means wbich they use for this purpose, bave sometimes even a contrary tendency. If you will replace what has been long since expunged from the language, and extirpate what is firmly rooted, undoubtedly you yourself become an innovator. If you desert the present use, and by your example, at least, establish it as a maxim, that every critic may revive at pleasure, oldfashioned terms, inflections, and combinations, and make such alterations on words as will bring them nearer to what he supposes to be the etymon, there can be nothing fixed or stable on the subject. Possibly you prefer the usage that prevailed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth; another may, with as good reason, have a partiality for that which subsisted in the days of Chaucer. And with regard to etymology, about which
. grammarians make so much useless bustle ; if every one has a privilege of altering words, according to his own opinion of their origin, the opinions of the learned being on this subject so various, nothing but a general chaos can ensue.
On the other hand, it may be said, " Are we to catch at every new-fashioned term and phrase, which whim or affectation may invent, and folly circulate? Can this ever tend to give either dignity to our style, or permanency to our language ?"_It cannot surely.
If we recur to the standard already assigned, namely, the writings of a plurality of celebrated authors, there will be no scope for the comprehension of words and idioms, which can be denominated novel and upstart. It must be owned, that we often meet with such terms and phrases, in newspapers, periodical pieces, and political pamphlets. The writers to the times, rarely fail to have their performances studded with a competent number of these fantastic ornaments. A popular orator in the House of Commons, has a sort of patent from the public, during the continuance of his popularity, for coining as many as he pleases. And they are no sooner issued, than they obtrude themselves upon us from every quarter, in all the daily papers, letters, essays, addresses, &c. But this is of no significancy. Such words and phrases are but the insects of a season, at the most. The people, always fickle, are just as prompt to drop them, as they were to take them up;
and not one of a hundred survives the particular occasion or party-struggle which gave it birth. We may justly apply to them, what Johnson says of a great number of the terms of the laborious and mercantile part of the people ; "This fugitive cant cannot be regarded as any part of the durable materials of a language ; and therefore must be suffered to perish, with other things unworthy of preservation.”
As use, therefore, implies duration, and as even a few years are not sufficient for ascertaining the characters of authors, I have, for the most part, in the following sheets, taken my prose examples, neither from living authors, nor from those who wrote before the Revolution; not from the first, because an author's fame is not so firmly established in his lifetime; nor from the last, that there may be no suspicion that the style is superannuated. The present translation of the Bible, I must indeed except from this restriction. The continuance and universality of its use, throughout the British dominions, afford an obvious reason for the exception.*
Thus I have attempted to explain, what that use is, which is the sole mistress of language : and to ascertain the precise import and extent of these her essential attributes, reputable, national, and present; and to give the directions proper to be observed in searching for the laws of this empress. In truth, grammar and criticism are but her ministers; and though, like other ministers, they would sometimes impose the dictates of their own humour upon the people, as the commands of their sovereign, they are not so often successful in such attempts, as to encourage the frequent repetition of them.
The nature and use of verbal Criticism, with ils principal
It may be alleged by some persons, that " if custom, which is so capricious and unaccountable, is every thing in language, of what significance is either the grammarian or the critic ?! -Of considerable significance notwithstanding ; and of most then when they confine themselves to their legal departments, and do not usurp an authority that does not belong to them. The man who, in a country like ours, should compile a succinct, perspicuous, and faithful digest of the laws, though no
* The vulgar translation of the Bible (says Dr. Lowth) is the best standard of our language.