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Aud never from this Isle retreat,
And never may thy rising light
ON THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE.
LANGUAGE may be defined--the mean of expressing our ideas by verbal signs, formed by various modulations of the voice, by the several organs of speech. “Language,” says Blair, “is become a vehicle by which the most delicate and refined emotions of one mind can be transmitted, or, if we may so speak, transfused into another. Not only are names given to all objects around us, by which means an easy and speedy intercourse is carried on for providing the necessaries of life; but all the relations and differences among these objects are minutely marked, the invisible sentiments of the mind are described,—the most abstract notions and conceptions are rendered intelligible,—and all the ideas which science can discover, or imagination create, are known by their proper names. Nay, language has been carried so far, as to be made an instrument of the most refined luxury. Not resting in mere perspicuity, we require ornament also: not satisfied with having the conceptions of others made known to us, we make a further demand, -to have them so decked and adorned as to entertain our fancy; and this demand it is found very possible to gratify. In this state we now find language. In this state it has been found among many nations for some thousand years. The object is become familiar; and, like the expanse of the firmament, and other great objects, which we are accustomed "to behold, we behold it without wonder,"--and, we may add, without the least curiosity concerning its nature, or gratitude to the Supreme Being for so glorious a gift; for it may, perhaps, be truly said, that the opinion that language is of human invention is less and less general.
Speech, the great engine of language, is, doubtless, the most ennobling of the corporeal powers of man.
Inferior animals have the senses even in greater perfection, and they
* In allusion to the Institution.
enjoy also considerable intellect. There is not a faculty of the soul denied to them. It is not enough to say that the highest order of brutes equals in mental capacity the lowest order of men. They seem only to want this extraordinary power to surpass us in many respects. It may be often said of them that they look unutterable things. Such considerations alone, if we were more consistent, might rouse to an examination of the subject; and might induce a laudable resolution, in every thoughtful mind, industriously to improve this distinguishing blessing, instead of using it as a trivial boon,-instead of using it because we cannot help it: or, overlooking this consideration, a noble emulation-a spirit of virtuous rivalry_might be expected to impel us to a skilful use of that of which we have such constant need, -of that which contributes so much to our improvement, happiness, and usefulness. Indeed, the study of language has the happiest effect on the mind itself; and of this, some have been so sensible, that it has been a question with them, whether the study of language, or of mathematics, has the more beneficial effect on the intellectual powers, and the greater influence on the character? The able writer, already quoted, has justly said, that,“ those who are learning to arrange their sentences with accuracy and order, are learning, at the same time, to think with accuracy and order:" the imagination becomes somewhat chastened, the judgment is employed and improved, and the memory exercised and strengthened; and, it is worthy of remark, that those who have not made language their early study, are those who most loudly complain, in mature years, of the want of memory. Moreover habits of intellectual labour are formed, and the mind thus better capacitated for the discovery, reception, and retention, of knowledge.
That language contributes, in a very great degree, to the pleasures and uses of life, no one who has the least taste for science or literature;- no one who has a soul capable of friendship, no one who has enjoyed the delights of conversation, no one who has been captivated by the charms of eloquence, can deny. It is to language we are indebted for the first rudiments of knowledge, as they sweetly distilled from a mother's lips. It is to the same medium we are indebted for the teacher's important lessons, as he introduced us to the pleasant ways and peaceful paths of wisdom. It is to this exquisite means we are indebted for the mutual manifestation of that rapturous feeling which prompted us to select the partners of our lot, and for many of the subsequent and indescribable pleasures of domestic life. It is by this happy.method the wants of the distressed are pleaded, and the rights of the injured maintained; the doubts of thé enquirer are solved; and the balm of consolation administered to the afflicted bosom. It is by this glorious means, enlightened and upright senators can expose the petty, dirty tyranny of despotic power, and defend the liberties of a people, Indeed, it is through this medium the Deity himself has deigned to make known as much of his will as it befits us to know; and by which his ministers console and instruct us in the way to that better world, where language, divested of all its imperfections, shall not a little contribute to the perfect, pure, and interminable happiness of the blissful inhabitants.
In Institutions of this nature, these advantages are known, appreciated, and exemplified ; and it is no trifling recommendation of them, that they afford so many opportunities of cultivating the native language. In the favoured hours of improving conversation, we are forcibly reminded of the prince of Roman orators, and fancy ourselves partakers of a portion of the feeling which inspired him when he said, “Nothing seems to me more truly excellent than to be able, by the powers of language, to engage the attention of public assemblies,—to captivate their minds,- to drive the passions where you will, and bring them back at pleasure. This art alone has ever flourished, and supremely triumphed, in all free states, especially in periods of peace and tranquillity. For what can so justly excite our admiration as that one man of a million should, either alone, or at least with but few others, be able to do that which nature seems to have put into the power of all men? What can afford such pleasure both to our ears and our understanding, as a graceful and elegant oration filled with sentiments of wisdom and expressions of dignity? What can present an instance of such real power and greatness as that popular commotions, the sacred opinion of judges, and the majesty of senates, should be swayed by the oratory of a single person?
“Besides, what so noble--so generous-so kingly, as to relieve the suppliant, to raise the afflicted, to be the dispenser of safety, the deliverer from danger, and the means of preserving its members to a community? What so necessary as to be always prepared with arms by which you may
yourself, set your enemies at defiance, or take vengeance when provoked? But farther,—that we may not confine this point to the forum, the bench, the rostrum, or the senate-house, what in the retirenients of private life can give more delight, or more properly belong to civilized humanity, than the pleasant and polished discourse, free from all marks of rusticity ? For in this alone consists our chief pre-eminence over brute beasts-that we can converse together, and, by speech, express the sentiments of our minds ?
" Who, then, shall not think this an object worthy his admiration, and deserving his severest labours, to be able, by that very means in which men excel other animals, to excel all other men ?”
On the other hand, it does not seem unfair to give importance to our subject, by a glance at some of the disadvantages under which the neglecter of language cannot fail to labour. He is debarred that powerful means of advancement in life which the skilful use of language so readily and constantly affords. Or, if respectable in his circumstances, character, and talents, as far as wealth, virtue, or nature, can make them s0,-yet is he occasionallyand proportionably the subject of embarrassment and pain,—of exposure, ridicule, and disgrace,—from his inability to express his sentiments with clearness, correctness, and perspicuity, or from bis misapplication and misunderstanding of terms, of which it would not be difficult to give many ludicrous instances which predicament, if the individual be possessed of any natural acuteness of feeling, must induce him to neglect the society of the elegant and accomplished, or to sit in silence when accidentally thrown in their company. This subject will appear more serious, if we reflect that misunderstandings have often arisen, offences have been frequently given, and the worst of passions excited, encouraged, and exemplified, from the ignorant application, not merely of phrases, but words.
From the preceding remarks, it appears that the study of the national language cannot be unimportant to any individual; it may, therefore, be worth while to inquire what may have caused the neglect of attention to the English language, which so lately generally prevailed, and even now considerably exists ?
When this is the case with any language, a variety of causes must be concerned in the effect.
In this instance, they may be considered few; nor shall we attempt more than a consideration of the most powerful of them; namely, the notion that the study of the learned languages supersedes the necessity of a distinct attention to our own.
It is true that the knowledge of the Greek and Latin must give a correct idea of the etymology of words derived from those languages-of which we have many, and also greatly assist in understanding the nature of derivation in general,-must afford luminous views of the acceptation of those words, which, in passing to us, have not lost their original meaning, but these, perhaps, will be found somewhat fewer than we have been accustomed to consider. Doubtless, the Latin and Greek syntax will thoroughly teach the nature of concord and government; but an exclusive attention to these is likely, as it has often done, to divert the mind from the real genius and striking simplicity of our language; and to induce the desire and habit of burdening and distiguring it with all the formg and technicalities of a classical syntax. Similar remarks will, in some degree, apply to our prosody.
It is granted, the plan is venerable from its antiquity, and important from its patronage and support. It, nevertheless, occasions an irreparable loss of time. Human life is proverbially short; the stores of knowledge already boundless ; and the discoveries of science unceasing: and yet, almost a third part of the threescore-years-and-ten is devoted to these languages; for it is not enough that the student should acquire an ability in translating, he must read the round of authors, whatever be his ability, taste, or destiny; and the only use it is often to him, is to translate a learned note or illustration, should he have had sufficient industry to preserve his acquaintance with the renowned authors, or to bedeck his own speech or composition with a few learned scraps, rather to display his. education than illustrate his subject.
It is, moreover, injurious to the English language. First impressions are confessedly the strongest. Not only is the student first familiar with the structure of those languages, but taught to admire all that is Greek and Roman. These languages are perpetually extolled, and often compared with the supposed poverty of his own; and thus an early and often invincible prejudice is formed against it. Instead of a fair and impartial comparison of their respective merits, our language is tried at a Grecian or Roman tribunal, and pronounced defective; as if those tongues, rich and polished, harmonious and elegant, as they are, were the standards of what language should invariably be,-as if they, above all others, had proceeded from above, by some mighty inspiration, or had been sent directly from heaven by some angelic teacher. As well might we, on a sudden, disown that language possesses characteristics of the people who speak it: as well may we be insulted by the opinion, that the British character is in no respect equal to that of the Greeks and Romans.
“ The practice of excluding from our grammar-schools,” says the great Mr. Locke, “ the study of the English language, is one of the most absurd that could be adhered to. That boys who are daily to use the English language should be able to write better Latin than English, requires no reasoning among the unprejudiced to expose it; and, to adhere to a system because it is an old one, is weak.” 6 The true way,
says Sheridan, when treating of this subject, “ of imitating the wisdom of our forefathers, is not to tread exactly in their steps, and to do the same things in the same manner, but to act in such a way as we might