The Sources of Standard English/Preface

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This book does not pretend to be a history of the English tongue; I attempt nothing more than to trace the way in which one special dialect took the lead in our island; I also try to point out the earliest instances of corruptions in our speech. Hence atten­tion must be given to the North rather than to the South; we must think more of the first appearance of the New in the Northumbrian Versions of the Bible, than of the last traces of the Old in the Ayen­bite of Inwyt and works still more modern. We must look to York rather than to Canterbury. I may mention that, until I began to study English with thoroughness, I had no idea how much of our Standard speech is due to Northern shires; how much influence the Norsemen have had in our land;[1] how many of our idioms, seemingly modern, date from long before the Norman Conquest; and how many hundreds of our Romance words were used so far back as the Thirteenth Century.

With the help of our old writers, I mark the ad­vance of our tongue; much as the changes in English Architecture for four hundred and fifty years may be traced by the man who visits in succession the Cathe­drals of Durham, Lincoln, Exeter, and Winchester; or as the improvements in the English Constitution may be traced, from the woods of Germany to the Convention Parliament in 1689, by the documents printed in the small work of Professor Stubbs.

It is always well to begin from the beginning; I have therefore started from a point, that would have astonished the most keen-sighted of philologers. seventy years ago. Mighty indeed were the results wrought by the great discovery as to the true use of Sanscrit.[2] Of these results the best idea may be formed by any one who compares the writings of Garnett with those of Horne Tooke. The two men were for many years contemporary; yet, thanks to the great discovery, the philological knowledge of Garnett is as far above that of Horne Tooke as Ste­phenson's engine outstrips Pharaoh's chariot. It is a loss to mankind that Garnett has left so little behind him. He seems to have been the nearest approach England ever made to bringing forth a Mezzofanti, and he combined in himself qualities not often found in the same man. When his toilsome industry is amassing facts, he plods like a German; when his playful wit is unmasking quackery, he flashes like a Frenchman. He it was who first called attention to the varying dialects of England and who first en­deavoured to classify them. This work has since his death been most ably achieved by Dr. Morris.

To this gentleman I am under the greatest obliga­tions, since he has looked over my proof-sheets as far as page 240; and many a correction do I owe to him. I have sometimes dared to differ from him, not with­out fear and trembling. As to what he has done for English Philology, I may perhaps be looked upon as a prejudiced witness; I therefore prefer to quote from Mr. Murray's ‘Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland,’ p. 40, published in 1873 (Transactions of the Philological Society): ‘Very recent is our knowledge of any facts connected with the distribu­tion and distinguishing characteristics of the dialects of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries — a region of research which was all but a terra incognita when taken up by Mr. Richard Morris. His classification of the Early English dialects into Southern, Midland, and Northern, with the careful discrimination of their grammatical forms, has introduced order and precision into the study.’

It is not too much to say that the man who shall henceforth undertake any work upon the English tongue, without having always before him the gram­matical works of Dr. Morris and Dr. March, must be the greatest of fools. I have followed Dr. March in my first Chapter, and have also consulted Bopp, Guest, Bosworth, Wedgwood, Marsh, Latham, Earle, and Max Müller. Thanks to the labours of the Early English Text Society, a writer of 1873 has great advantages over a writer of 1863. The English Homilies of the Twelfth Century, edited by Dr. Morris, are in themselves a mine of wealth to the Philologer. One of my best aids has been Dr. Strat­mann's Dictionary of the Old English Language. This includes all words used between 1120 and 1440; the last Volume of the work did not reach me until April, 1873. Many new words and idioms in Orrmin, Layamon, and the Ancren Riwle were overlooked by me when I first went over those books, until after­wards the Dictionary forced the words upon my notice. Without its help I could not have drawn up the lists of the new terms that cropped up between 1300 and 1500.[3]

I must apologize to those of my readers, who are unlearned, for the Latin in my text; the truth is, that there are so many shades of meaning in our words, that I cannot thoroughly explain myself with­out falling back upon the foreign tongue. When specifying English words, I have almost wholly con­fined myself to terms in use in 1873; of these, about fifteen hundred, I think, occur in my pages. In a work like this, ranging over the monuments of twelve hundred years, mistakes will be made; I have no doubt that I have sometimes assigned to a new word a date later than its real first appearance in England.

It is but fair to warn those who love to call a spade ‘an horticultural implement,’ that they will not relish my Sixth Chapter.[4]

The printers have been good enough to let me write rime in the English, and not in the Greek, way. But I may mention that they have in general struck out z in favour of s; thus they have printed civilise instead of the civilize I wrote. Had they made alterations in a Teutonic word, I should at once have sprung to the rescue. I give this as an instance of the shifting that may be remarked in the history of the English tongue: some change or other is always at work. Caxton and his sons have ruled our spelling for the last four hundred years; in the instance referred to above, they may justify their alteration by Wickliffe's verb evangelise.

I rejoice to see that England is waking up at last to the importance of studying her own tongue in all its stages; and I hope that this small book, my first attempt in Philology, may help forward the good cause.

Charlton House, Wimbledon:
October 14, 1873.

  1. When weighing the corruptions of the Old English, we shall find that two-thirds of these are due to the shires held by the Norsemen; the remaining one-third is due to the Lower Severn and to the shires lying south of the Thames.
  2. We have lately naturalized the German word umlaut, thus marking the nation - which has most claim on Philologers. A less peaceful age than our own naturalized plunder, which came from the same land.
  3. One of the charms of Philology is, that new facts bearing upon it are always forthcoming, if a man will but keep his eyes and ears open. I for one have picked up much from gamekeepers and sextons in many a shire. In the Orton-Tichborne trial (the one for perjury), a Hamp­shire witness called the stump of a tree ‘the more.’ This word may be seen in the Dorsetshire poem of 1240, which is quoted in my work. The more occurs in the trial as reported by the Daily Papers of Sep­tember 4, 1873.
  4. Like a trusty sentinel, I sound an alarm against the enemy's approach down to the very last moment. September, 1873, has been remarkable for the opening of the new Town Hall at Bradford, for the English Pilgrimage to St. Marie Alacoque, and for the abandon­ment of France by the Germans. Our penny-a-liners called the Town Hall a grandiose building; asked what was the rationale of pilgrimages; and described the men of freed Verdun as ingurgitat­ing spirituous stimulus. What will a penny paper of 1973 be like?