Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Romance of the English Language by Logan P Smith 1921

The Romance of the English Language by Logan Pearsall Smith 1921

See also The Best Victorian Literature, Over 100 Books on DVDrom

For a list of all of my disks, with links click here

There are few of us so learned that we can afford to dispense with the aid given by the small volumes in the Home University Library in any subject, and Mr Pearsall Smith's philological book is one of the most informative and interesting of the series.

Here we learn of the tendency in English to put the accent on borrowed French words on the first syllable when we decide to pronounce them in our own way: later borrowings are accented according to what we imagine the native pronunciation to be: so we get gentle, dragon, gállant, baron, button and mutton of old time against the newer words genteel, dragoon, gallânt, buffoon, cartoon, balloon. In like manner words like message and cabbage show their antiquity when compared with massage, mirage and prestige. Police has kept its English accent only in Ireland and Scotland.

Mr Pearsall Smith, like Professor Wyld, has much to say against the pedants, and shows us how letters like the b in debt, the l in fault, the p in receipt, the d in advance and advantage, the c in scent and scissors have been inserted incorrectly by English scholars who ought to have known better.

In the course of an enthusiastic defence of a mixed language as against a pure national home-bred speech he makes the valuable point that we are richer than most nations in that we can express subtle shades of difference of meaning, of emotional significance between such pairs of words as paternal and fatherly, fortune and luck, celestial and heavenly, royal and kingly by reason of this intermixture of foreign elements.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is on "Makers of English Words," which gives us yet another avenue of approach to the study of the language.

Not only interesting, but surprising, are some of the results gleaned from this: that Sir Isaac Newton was the first to use centrifugal and centripetal; that Jeremy Bentham coined international; Huxley was responsible for Agnostic; cyclone was created in 1848 by a meteorologist, but anti-cyclone had to wait for Sir Francis Galton. Whewell invented scientist and Macaulay was responsible for constituency. Other words created in the nineteenth century are Eurasian, esogamy, folklore, hypnotism, telegraph, telephone, photograph and a host of other scientific terms. To go back to the classics: we owe the formation of many new words to Sir Thomas Browne, among them hallucination, insecurity, retrogression, precarious, antediluvian. Milton coined infinitude, liturgical, gloom, pandemonium, echoing, rumoured, moonstruck, Satanic. Shakespeare coined more than all the rest of the poets put together. To Coverdale and Tindale we owe a great number of new compounds, like loving-kindness, long-suffering, broken-hearted. It is delightful to think that we owe irascibility to Doctor Johnson, persiflage and etiquette to Lord Chesterfield, bored and blasé to Byron, colonial and diplomacy to Burke, and pessimism to Coleridge. After Keats (whose creations are miniature poems in themselves) there is a remarkable decline in word-creation.

Two valuable chapters are devoted to "Language and History," in which we find how far the evolution of our race and civilisation is embodied in our vocabulary—"A contradiction between history and language rarely or never occurs"—and a further chapter on "Language and Thought" is of extraordinary interest in showing us what words we must delete from our vocabulary if we wish to enter into the spirit and popular consciousness of the Middle Ages, that world of supernatural purposes and interventions. All sense of past and future would drop from us. Our thoughts would be absorbed entirely by immediate practical considerations. We should feel imprisoned, though we might feel more dignified. With the Renaissance we should expand enough to observe our fellows: a century later we should turn to the study of ourselves.

"The change of thought from one generation to another does not depend so much on new discoveries as on the gradual shifting, into the centre of vision, of ideas and feelings that had been but dimly realised before. And it is just this shifting—this change, so important and yet so elusive—which is marked and dated in the history of language."

There was once an American writer who said: "You commend or condemn yourself by your regular choice of words ... don't use such commonplace words as grab, bet, awful, says, worst, boss, monkeying, job, ain't, tackled, floored, bicker, rumpus, shindy, hunk, fellow, drub, henpecked, blubber, spout, pickings, croak, swipe, swap, handy, fluster, nasty, hankering, flabbergasted, highfalutin.... Are you familiar with such desirable words as lassitude, flamboyant, nascent, legendary, perennial, Nemesis, cryptic, brooding, imperturbable, disenchanted, belated, cleavage, august, clarity, demarcation, indigenous, cloistered, malevolent?"

Well, if you agree with him (and there are people who do) it's quite time you started to read some books on the English Language, and if you don't it means that you already understand the delights of philology and you will need no further encouragement to read the four books I have mentioned, if you have not already done so.

For a list of all of my disks, with links click here

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