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The Living Language

THERE is no Living language in Europe which is older than five hundred years. If we hope for immortality, we must write in Latin; but then we shall find no readers.

Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate, and an infinite number of excellent writers, have fallen martyrs to their patriotism, by writing in their mother tongue. Spenser is not always intelligible without a glossary; and when Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece was republished, a few years after his death, his editor thought proper to explain certain expressions which had then become obsolete.

“The Living languages,” says Menage, “are more difficult to acquire than the Dead. It is now fifty years I have laboured on my own; and I must confess I am far from having attained perfection. To know and to write excellently our mother tongue, one must be acquainted with the ancient languages, even more than with the modern. The greater part of languages are closely connected by one chain. The Dissertation of Pere Besnier, a Jesuit, on this subject, is very curious. He formed a project for the re-union of languages, or the art of learning them all by a single one. This plan may be seen in a little book, printed at Liege, by Nicholas le Baragoin, 1674.

“He should have continued a project so pleasing and so useful. His abilities were adequate to the task; but, unfortunately, he had not the leisure to apply himself.”

If this plan is valuable, which it appears to be by the account of two critical French writers, who must be allowed to be able judges of this subject, let some student, who burns with the ambition of rendering an important service, not alone to his country, but to mankind, eternize his name, by devoting his life to an undertaking which will place his memory—

“Above all Roman, and all Grecian fame.”

Bayle has made some observations on the Living languages which merit our attention. He blames that false delicacy which every day is impoverishing the language, by discarding words, which otherwise are excellent, merely because they are old. This inconstancy of the Living languages introduces such numerous affectations and puerilities in style. Those words which are continually banished, are frequently convenient, and serve to vary our expressions. He says, that it is generally two kinds of authors who countenance this (what I think may be called) persecution of words: these are young authors, and those who compose a little pamphlet every four or five years. A young author, who only reads the new productions, conceives that the expressions and the words he gathers from them can alone form a fine style. And he who composes half a page per diem, has not the opportunity to know the want of a number of expressions, which a more assiduous writer is continually feeling. Both these kinds of writers form their judgement of composition by the novelties of their times; and pride themselves on the delicacy of their taste, when they censure any expression which was thought good not many years back. Had they to compose (observes our experienced writer) a work of length, and that too not slowly, they would not affect to dislike expressions, which, though old, might be very good. The difficulties of the work, the embarrassment of repetitions, the danger of rhiming in prose, unless one is careful; all these, with many other reasons, might convince them of the evil they do to authors, by impoverishing the language they employ.