Immagini della pagina
PDF
ePub
[ocr errors]

would make us, even did we know nothing of the actual facts, suspect that the chieftain of this ruling race came in not upon a new title, not as overthrowing a former dynasty, but claiming to be in the rightful line of its succession ; that the true continuity of the nation had not, in fact any more than in word, been entirely broken, but survived, in due time to assert itself anew.

* And yet, while the statelier superstructure of the language, almost all articles of luxury, all having to do with the chase, with chivalry, with personal adornment, is Norman throughout; with the broad basis of the language, and therefore of the life, it is otherwise. The great features of nature, sun, moon, and stars, earth, water, and fire, all the prime social relations, father, mother, husband, wife, son, daughter,

these are Saxon. Palace and castle may have reached us from the Norman, but to the Saxon we owe far dearer names, the house, the roof, the home, the hearth. His “board” too, and often probably it was no more, has a more hospitable sound than the “ table” of his lord. His sturdy arms turn the soil; he is the boor, the hind, the churl; or if his Norman master has a name for him, it is one which on his lips becomes more and more a title of opprobrium and con

empt, the "villain.” The instruments used in cultivating the earth, the flail, the plough, the sickle, the spade, are expressed in his language; so too the main products of the earth, as wheat, rye, oats, bere ; and no less the names of domestic animals. Concerning these last it is curious to observe (and it may be remembered that Wamba, the Saxon jester in Ivanhoe, plays the philologer here) that the names of almost all animals, so long as they are alive, are thus Saxon, but when dressed and prepared for food become Norman-a fact indeed which we might

1.Wallis, in his Grammar, p. 20, had done so before.'

[ocr errors]

have expected beforehand; for the Saxon hind had the charge and labour of tending and feeding them, but only that they might appear on the table of his Norman lord. Thus ox, steer, cow, are Saxon, but beef Norman; calf is Saxon, but veal Norman; sheep is Saxon, but mutton Norman; so it is severally with swine and pork; deer and venison ; fowl and pullet. Bacon, the only flesh which perhaps ever came within his reach, is the single exception.

Putting all this together, with much more of the same kind, which has only been indicated here, we should certainly gather, that while there are manifest tokens preserved in our language of the Saxon having been for a season an inferior and even an oppressed race, the stable elements of AngloSaxon life, however overlaid for a while, had still made good their claim to be the solid groundwork of the after nation as of the after language, and to the justice of this conclusion all other historic records, and the present social condition of England, consent in bearing witness.'-Study of Words, 12th edit., 1867, pp. 98-100.

This duplicate system of words in English is the result of a long period during which the country was in a bilingual condition. The language of the consumer was one, and that of the producer another. In the very market at length, the seller and the buyer must have spoken different languages. But before it came to this, both languages must have been familiar to either party. Just as on the frontier of the English and Welsh now, there is a large number of people who have a practical acquaintance with both languages, while they can talk in one only. This it is which has brought down upon the Welsh the unjust imputation of saying Dim Saesoneg out of churlishness. They may understand the enquiry, and yet they may not possess English enough to make an answer with. A similar frontier between English

x

and French must have existed in the Norman period in every town and almost in every village of England. This lasted down to the middle of the fourteenth century, when the new mixed language broke forth and took the lead. During three centuries, the native language was cast into the shade by the foreign speech of the conquerors. All that time French was getting more and more widely known and spoken; and it never covered so wide an area in this island as it did at the moment when the native speech upreared her head again to assert a permanent supremacy. As the waters of a river are often shallowest there where they cover the widest area, so the French language had then the feeblest hold in this country, when it was most widely cultivated and most generally affected.

The Saxon had never ceased to be the speech of the body of the people. The Conquest could not alter this fact. What the Conquest did was to destroy the cultivated Englisc, which depended for its propagation upon literature and literary men. This once extinct, there was no central or standard language. The French language in some respects supplied the place of a standard language, as the medium of intercourse between persons in the best ranks of society. The native speech, bereft of its central standard, fell abroad again. It fell back into that divided condition, in which each speaker and each writer is guided by the dialect of his own locality, undisciplined by any central standard of propriety. Our language became dialectic. And hence it comes to pass that of the authors whose books are preserved from the year A.D. 1100 to 1350, no two of them are uniform in dialect; each speaks a tongue of its own. It must be understood here, and wherever figures are given to distinguish periods in the history of language, that it is intended for the convenience of writer and reader, for distinctness of

arrangement and as an aid to the memory, rather than as a rigid limit. For in such things the two bordering forms so shade off and blend into one another, that they are not to be rigidly outlined any more than the primary colours in the rainbow.

For convenience sake, we may divide the 'transition' into two parts, and add a third era for the infancy of the national language :

TRANSITION. Broken Saxon (Latin documentary period) from rico to 1215 Early English (the French documentary period) 1215 to 1350 First national English

1350 to 1550 Of the first division of this period, the grand landmarks are the two poems of Layamon's Brut, and the Ormulum ; the Brut representing the dialect of the Upper Severn; and the Ormulum having been written (we will say by way of a definition) somewhere between London and Peterborough.

The Brut of Layamon, a work which embodies in a poetic form the legends of British history, and which exceeds 30,000 lines, has been splendidly edited, with an English translation, by Sir Frederic Madden, 1847. One of the great excellences of this edition is the helpful nature of the Preface. Besides the necessary discussions on the language and the date, the leading passages for beauty or importance are indicated in an easy way, which gives the reader an immediate command of the contents of this voluminous work. There is no direct intimation of the date at which it was written, but the editor has fixed on 1205, for reasons which appear conclusive. But we have only to look at such a poem as this to perceive at once that it was not the work of any one year or even of a few years. It must be regarded as the literary hobby of the whole life of Layamon the priest, who lived at

Areley Kings, on the west bank of the Severn, opposite Stourport, and who there served the church, being the chaplain and inmate of the good knight' of the parish. And hence it is that the language runs back and claims a near relationship to that of the close of the latest Saxon Chronicle: nearer than we might have expected from the space which separates them in geography. But we must · remember that we know nothing of Layamon's birthplace and the scene of his education. We are only informed as to the scene of his life-long service. And though his diction bears marks of the western dialect, yet this cannot be affirmed exclusively. It would be tolerably safe to say that he wrote in Southern English, inclining to the western dialect. In other words, Layamon represents the old dialect of Wessex in the twelfth century. But it is easier to describe Layamon by his literary than by his local affinities. He is the last writer who retains an echo of the literary Englisc. Though he wrote for popular use, yet the scholar is apparent, and he had conned the old native literature enough to give a tinge to his diction, and to preserve a little of the ancient grammar. Among the more observable features of his language are the following :-Infinitives in i, ie, or y; the use of v for f; the use of u for i or y in such words as dude (did), hudde (hid), hulle (hill), putte (pit), &c. What adds greatly to the philological interest of the Brut is this, that a later text is extant, a text which was plainly written in Northumbria, and which bears some distinct features of Northern English. This second text has been printed by Sir F. Madden parallel with the elder text of A.D. 1205.

One of the most salient characters of the northern dialect was its avoidance of the old sc initial, which developed into the modern sh. The northern dialect in such cases wrote simply s. The northern form for shall

« IndietroContinua »