« IndietroContinua »
The phrases 'on þa heahnysse,' 'mid ... styringum,''on stilnesse,' are of this kind—at once prepositional and inflectional. This indicates a transition-state of the language; a time in which the inflections are no longer what once they were, self-sufficient. Prepositions are brought to their aid, and very soon the whole weight of the function falls on the preposition. The inflection then lives on merely as an heirloom in the language, an ancient fashion, ornamental rather than necessary. At the first great shake which such a language gets, after it is well furnished with prepositions, there will most likely be a great shedding of inflections. And so it happened to our language after the shock of the Conquest, as will be told in its place.
This then is the chief grammatical feature of the Saxon speech, as seen from our present point of view, and as contrasted with the present habits of the English language. But it is not in the scheme of its grammar alone that human speech is subject to change. Each several part of which language is composed has its own liabilities. There is a constant movement in human language, though that movement is neither uniform in all languages, nor is it evenly distributed in its action within the limits of any one given language. It might almost be imagined as if there were a pivot somewhere in the motion, and as if the elemental parts were more or less moveable in proportion as they lay farther from, or nearer to that pole or pivot of revolution. Accordingly, we see words like man, word, thing, can, smith, heap, on, an, which seem like permanent fixtures through the ages, and at first sight we might think that they had suffered no change within the horizon of our observation. They are found in our oldest extant writings spelt just as we now spell them.
There are others, on the contrary, which have long been
obsolete and forgotten, for which new words have been long ago substituted.
Sometimes a whole series of substitutions successively superseding each other have occupied the place of an old Saxon word. The Saxon witodlice was in the middle ages represented by verily, and in modern times by certainly. The verb gehyrsumian passed away, and instead of it we find the expression to be buxom, and this yielded to the modern verb to obey. The Saxon lictun was the mediaeval litten, and the modern churchyard. In this class of instances the change is conspicuous, and requires little comment; but in the former set it might more easily escape observation.
Even there, however, alteration has taken place. Man spells in old Saxon as in modern English, but yet it has altered in grammatical habit, in application, and in convertible use. In grammatical habit it has altered; for in Saxon it had a genitive mannes, a dative men, an (archaic) accusative mannan, a plural men, a genitive plural manna, and a dative plural mannum. Of these it has lost the whole, except the formation of the simple plural. In application it has altered; for in Saxon times man was equally applicable to womankind as to mankind, whereas now it is limited to
In convertible use it has suffered greatly; for the Saxon speech enjoyed the possession of this word as a pronoun, just as the Germans do to this day. In German man sagt = man says, which we do not use, and is equivalent to our expression of they say or it is said. In German they distinguish between the substantive and the pronoun by giving the former a double n at the close, in addition to the distinction of the initial capital, which in German belongs to all substantives: thus, substantive Mann, pronoun man. In Saxon (towards the close of the period) the distinction of the n is sometimes seen, with a preference of the vowel
a for the substantive, and o for the pronoun. The following is from a brief summary of Christian duties, written probably in the second half of the eleventh century :
Ærest mon sceal God lufian ... First, we must love God ... we Ne sceal mon mann slean
must not slay man
. . but every ælene mann mon sceal á weorþian. man we must ever respect : and no and ne sceal nan mann don oðrum man should do to another that he þæt he nelle þæt him mon do.
would not to himself were done.
A few more examples of the use of this pronoun are added from the Gloucester Fragments of Swiðhun :
Hine man bær þa sona of þam He was borne then soon from the bedde to cyrcan binnan Wihtlande. bed to church in the Isle of Wight.
Swa þæt man eade ne mihte þæt So that one could not easily visit mynster gesecan.
the minster. þam adligan þuhte swilce man his It seemed to the sick man as if ænne sceo of þam fet atuge.
somebody were tugging one of his
shoes off the foot. Man sohte bone sceo.
They looked for the shoe.
Our language is at present singularly embarrassed for want of this most useful pronoun. At one time we have to put a we, at another time a you, at another time a they, at other times one or somebody ; and it often happens that none of these three will serve, and we must have recourse to the passive verb. There are probably few English speakers or writers who have not felt the awkwardness resulting from our loss of this most regrettable old pronoun. There is not one of the great languages which labours under a like inability. So far about the word man, which is an example of the slowest-moving of words, which has not altered in its spelling, and which is yet seen to have undergone alterations of another kind. The other instances shall be more lightly touched on.
Word, has altered grammatically; for in Saxon it stood unvaried in the plural (WORD), but it has now been long
assimilated to other nouns, and forms its plural by the addition of an s (WORDS).
Thing. This word had much the same vague and abstract use in Saxon as it has now. On mang pisum þingum ': among these things. 'Ic seah sellic þing singan on recede’: I saw a strange thing singing on the hall. But in Saxon it covered a greater variety of ground than it does now. Me wearð Grendles þing undyrne cuð’: the matter of Grendel was made known to me. "Beadohilde ne wæs hyre brodra dead on sefan swa sâr, swa hyre sylfre þing:' her brothers' death was not so sore on Beadohild's heart, as were her own concerns. For his þingum': on his account.
Smith. This word is now applied only to handicraftsmen in metals. But in early literature it had its metaphorical applications. Not only do we read of the armourer by the name of wepna smit, the weapon-smith; but we have the promoter of laughter called 'hleahtor-smið,' laughter-smith; we have the teacher called “ lâr-smið, lore-smith; we have the warrior called war-smith, 'wig-smi.'
Heap is now only applied to inert matter, but in Saxon to a crowd of men: as, þegna heap,' an assembly of thanes; * Hengestes heap,' Hengest's troop. (Beowulf, 1091.)
In these words thing, smith, and heap, it is therefore seen how that words which in their visible form have remained unchanged, may yet have become greatly changed in regard to their place and office in the language.
Can. We find this verb used in Saxon in a manner very like its present employment. But when we examine into it, we find the sense attached to it was not as now, that of possibility, but of knowledge and skill. When a boy in his French Exercises comes to the sentence. Can you swim?' he is directed to render it into French by "Savez vous nager?' that is, ‘Know you to swim ?' The very same idea
is (philologically) at the bottom of 'Can you swim?' for in Saxon CUNNAN is to know : 'Ic can,' I know; “þu canst,' thou knowest, &c., &c. And it had a use in Saxon which it has now lost, but which it has retained in German, where kennen, to know, is the proper word for speaking of acquaintance with persons. So in Saxon: Canst þu pone preost be is gehaten Eadsige?' Knowest thou the priest that is called Eadsige?
On, the preposition, exists in Saxon, but its area of incidence has shifted. We often find that an Anglo-Saxon ON cannot be rendered by the same preposition in modern English, e.g. bone be he geseah on þære cyrcan,' whom he saw in the church; ‘Landferð se ofersæwisca hit gesette on Leden,' Landferth from over the sea put it into Latin ; ‘Swa swa we on bocum reda,' as we read in books; 'Sum manu on Winceastre,' a man at Winchester. So strange to our modern notions is the position in which we sometimes find on, that editors have hardly been able to admit its existence, and have wished to read it as ou, that is, ov or of. A strong instance of this occurs in the Proclamation of A.D. 1258, which will be given below. There are, however, instances in which this preposition needs not to be otherwise rendered in modern English, e.g. 'Eode him þa ham hal on his fotum, se be ær was geboren on bære to cyrcan:' he went off then home whole on his feet, he who before was borne on bier to church.
One of the least changed is the preposition to. This will mostly stand in an English translation out of Saxon : ‘And se halga him cwap to, ponne þu cymst to Winceastre,' &c.; and the saint said to him, when thou comest to Winchester, &c.; “Se mann wearð þa gebroht to his bedde,' the man was then brought to his bed.
It is on these little oft-recurring words that the frame of