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The English Language

I HAVE extracted from two Authors of a distant interval of time—since one is honest Peter Heylin, who wrote in the days of our first Charles; and the other, Mr. Sheridan, whose Lectures are well known—the present article concerning that language, which it becomes us not so much to enlarge as to preserve.

Peter Heylin thus observes in his Cosmography—“The English language is a decompound of Dutch, French, and Latin, which I conceive rather to add to its perfection, than to detract any thing from the worth thereof, since out of every language we have culled the most significant words, and equally participate in that which is excellent in them: their imperfections being rejected; for it is neither so boisterous as the Dutch, nor so effeminate as the French, yet as significant as the Latin; and, in the happy conjunction of two words into one, little inferior to the Greek.”

Mr. Sheridan thus ingeniously has written on the same topic—“Upon a fair comparison, it will appear that the French have emasculated their tongue, by rejecting such numbers of their consonants; and made it resemble one of their painted Courtezans, adorned with fripperies and fallals. That the German, by abounding too much in harsh Consonants and Gutturals, has great size and strength, like the statue of Hercules Farnese, but no grace. That the Roman, like the bust of Antinous, is beautiful indeed but not manly. That the Italian has beauty, grace, and symmetry, like the Venus of Medicis, but is feminine; and that the English alone resembles the ancient Greek, in uniting the three powers, of strength, beauty, and grace, like the Apollo of Belvedere.”

I contemplate with great pleasure the classical statue which is here offered to the imagination. When I recollect the sweetness of Addison, the strength of Johnson, and the grace of Melmoth, I rise into enthusiasm, and exult in the conviction that the English is the most perfect of the European languages. The embarrassed periods of Hooker, Raleigh, and Clarendon, will no more languish on the ear. We have polished the solid marble of our ancestors. With strength, to which we have no pretensions, they have extracted it from the quarry; but we are the artificers who, with the dexterous use of the file, can smooth their asperities, can arrange into elegance, and can heighten into lustre. No more shall some future Waller sing, that he who employs the English language, writes his verses on sand; and, that, to endure to posterity, he must carve in the marble of Latin and Greek.

The Golden Age of the English language, however, seems approaching to its first state. Nothing contributes so much to corrupt its purity as an inundation of French translations, rather than translations from the French. The avarice of some, and the hunger of others, are continually pouring on us whole volumes, disfigured with Gallicisms; and, not infrequently, whole sentences in French are awkwardly introduced as improvements, doubtless, to supply the deficiencies of English language, or rather those of the translator.

Yet, it must be confessed, there are some few French words which, with great felicity, express a sense of which we have no exact or parallel expressions. We may, indeed, make use of phrases which may serve tolerably well to explain our meaning; but the delicacy of expression seems to be lost.

The ingenious Vigneul Marville has ventured to censure our language. Perhaps, he was no competent judge of its demerits; at least, his criticism is too often more sprightly than sound. But we must confess, that it is now a century since he flourished; and, if we reflect on the state of our language in his day, it will not be found totally unjust.

“The style of the English writers is long and embarrassed, very difficult to translate into Latin, into French, or into Italian. We must recollect this when we read the works of the English Authors in their own language with an intention to translate them. Perhaps, the English would bear better to be translated into Spanish than into French, as the French is more happily rendered into Greek than into Latin. The Italian will find no language which, without injuring its delicacies and its diminutives, can afford a version. The German language is well enough adapted to the Latin.”

The reader may be pleased, probably, to hear an ingenious Frenchman writing on our language, thus express himself—

“He who loves the sciences, should not neglect the English language. If he would become acquainted with those excellent productions which breathe the warmest spirit of liberty, let him give his studies to this language. Sir Richard Steele, so celebrated for his other compositions, has given us a good Grammar, accompanied with excellent Notes. The Grammar of Dr. Wallis is only proper for those who are conversant with the Latin.”

Perhaps, the above-mentioned Grammar is quite forgotten. I have in my possession “A Grammar of the English Tongue, with Notes, giving the Grounds and Reason of Grammar in general, printed for John Brightland. 1711.” To which is prefixed, “The Approbation of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq;” who, I suppose, is Sir Richard Steele, dressed out in masquerade. He says, “that this Grammar of the English Tongue has done that justice to our language which, till now, it never obtained. The Text will improve the most ignorant, and the Notes employ the most learned. I therefore enjoin all my female correspondents to buy, read, and study, this Grammar, that their letters may be something less enigmatic, &c.” It is dedicated to Queen Anne. The Notes are copious, and by no means trifling; they are not unworthy of accompanying Lowth’s Grammar.