Changes and specimens of the English language

This simplicity, so characteristic of our modern English, as well as of the Saxon tongue, its proper parent, is attended

Changes and specimens of the English language

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Министерство образования Республики Беларусь

Учреждение образования

"Гомельский государственный университет

им. Ф. Скорины"

Филологический факультет








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Студентка группы К-53 Козлова Т.Е.







Гомель 2006




1 The orthography of English















"Quot enim verba, et nonnunquam in deterius, hoc, quo vivimus, saeculo, partim aliqa, partim nulla necessitate cogente, mutata sunt?"--ROB. AINSWORTH: Lat. Dict., 4to; Praef., p. xi.

In the use of language, every one chooses his words from that common stock which he has learned, and applies them in practice according to his own habits and notions. If the style of different writers of the same age is various, much greater is the variety which appears in the productions of different ages. Hence the date of a book may often be very plausibly conjectured from the peculiarities of its style. As to what is best in itself, or best adapted to the subject in hand, every writer must endeavour to become his own judge. He who, in any sort of composition, would write with a master's hand, must first apply himself to books with a scholar's diligence. He must think it worth his while to inform himself, that he may be critical. Desiring to give the student all the advantage, entertainment, and satisfaction, that can be expected from a work of this kind, I shall subjoin a few brief specimens in illustration of what has been said in the foregoing chapter. The order of time will be followed inversely; and, as Saxon characters are not very easily obtained, or very apt to be read, the Roman letters will be employed for the few examples to which the others would be more appropriate. But there are some peculiarities of ancient usage in English, which, for the information of the young reader, it is proper in the first place to explain.

With respect to the letters, there are several changes to be mentioned. (1.) The pages of old books are often crowded with capitals: it was at one time the custom to distinguish all nouns, and frequently verbs, or any other important words, by heading them with a great letter. (2.) The letter Ess, of the lower case, had till lately two forms, the long and the short, as [tall-s] and s; the former very nearly resembling the small f, and the latter, its own capital. The short s was used at the end of words, and the long [tall-s], in other places; but the latter is now laid aside, in favour of the more distinctive form. (3.) The letters I and J were formerly considered as one and the same. Hence we find hallelujah for halleluiah, Iohn for John, iudgement for judgement, &c. And in many dictionaries, the words beginning with J are still mixed with those which begin with I. (4.) The letters U and V were mixed in like manner, and for the same reason; the latter being a consonant power given to the former, and at length distinguished from it by a different form. Or rather, the figure of the capital seems to have been at last appropriated to the one, and that of the small letter to the other. But in old books the forms of these two letters are continually confounded or transposed. Hence it is, that our Double-u is composed of two Vees; which, as we see in old books, were sometimes printed separately: as, VV, for W; or vv, for w.




The orthography of our language, rude and unsettled as it still is in many respects, was formerly much more variable and diverse. In books a hundred years old or more, we often find the most common words spelled variously by the same writer, and even upon the very same page. With respect to the forms of words, a few particulars may here be noticed: (1.) The article an, from which the n was dropped before words beginning with a consonant sound, is often found in old books where a would be more proper; as, an heart, an help, an hill, an one, an use. (2.) Till the seventeenth century, the possessive case was written without the apostrophe; being formed at different times, in es, is, ys, or s, like the plural; and apparently without rule or uniformity in respect to the doubling of the final consonant: as Goddes, Godes, Godis, Godys, or Gods, for God's; so mannes, mannis, mannys or mans, for man's. Dr. Ash, whose English Grammar was in some repute in the latter part of the eighteenth century, argued against the use of the apostrophe, alleging that it was seldom used to distinguish the possessive case till about the beginning of that century; and he then prophesied that the time would come, when correct writers would lay it aside again, as a strange corruption, an improper "departure from the original formation" of that case of English nouns. And, among the speculations of these latter days, I have somewhere seen an attempt to disparage this useful sign, and explode it, as an unsightly thing never well established. It does not indeed, like a syllabic sign, inform the ear or affect the sound; but still it is useful, because it distinguishes to the eye, not only the case, but the number, of the nouns thus marked. Pronouns, being different in their declension, do not need it, and should therefore always be written without it.

The common usage of those who have spoken English, has always inclined rather to brevity than to melody; contraction and elision of the ancient terminations of words, constitute no small part of the change which has taken place, or of the difference which perhaps always existed between the solemn and the familiar style. In respect to euphony, however, these terminations have certainly nothing to boast; nor does the earliest period of the language appear to be that in which they were the most generally used without contraction. That degree of smoothness of which the tongue was anciently susceptible, had certainly no alliance with these additional syllables. The long sonorous endings which constitute the declensions and conjugations of the most admired languages, and which seem to chime so well with the sublimity of the Greek, the majesty of the Latin, the sweetness of the Italian, the dignity of the Spanish, or the polish of the French, never had any place in English. The inflections given to our words never embraced any other vowel power than that of the short e or i; and even, this we are inclined to dispense with, whenever we can; so that most of our grammatical inflections are, to the ear, nothing but consonants blended with the final syllables of the words to which they are added. Ing for the first participle, er for the comparative degree, and est for the superlative, are indeed added as whole syllables; but the rest, as d or ed for preterits and perfect participles, s or es for the plural number of nouns, or for the third person singular of verbs, and st or est for the second person singular of verbs, nine times in ten, fall into the sound or syllable with which the primitive word terminates. English verbs, as they are now commonly used, run through their entire conjugation without acquiring a single syllable from inflection, except sometimes when the sound of d, s, or st cannot be added to them.

This simplicity, so characteristic of our modern English, as well as of the Saxon tongue, its proper parent, is attended with advantages that go far to compensate for all that is consequently lost in euphony, or in the liberty of transposition. Our formation of the moods and tenses, by means of a few separate auxiliaries, all monosyllabic, and mostly without inflection, is not only simple and easy, but beautiful, chaste, and strong. In my opinion, our grammarians have shown far more affection for the obsolete or obsolescent terminations en, eth, est, and edst, than they really deserve. Till the beginning of the sixteenth century, en was used to mark the plural number of verbs, as, they sayen for they say; after which, it appears to have been dropped. Before the beginning of the seventeenth century, s or es began to dispute with th or eth the right of forming the third person singular of verbs; and, as the Bible and other grave books used only the latter, a clear distinction obtained, between the solemn and the familiar style, which distinction is well known at this day. Thus we have, He runs, walks, rides, reaches, &c., for the one; and, He runneth, walketh, rideth, reacheth, &c., for the other. About the same time, or perhaps earlier, the use of the second person singular began to be avoided in polite conversation, by the substitution of the plural verb and pronoun; and, when used in poetry, it was often contracted, so as to prevent any syllabic increase. In old books, all verbs and participles that were intended to be contracted in pronunciation, were contracted also, in some way, by the writer: as, "call'd, carry'd, sacrific'd;" "fly'st, ascrib'st, cryd

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