Changes and specimens of the English language — страница 2

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w. 1 THE ORTHOGRAPHY OF ENGLISH 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,