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PRIMER

OF

PHILOLOGY.

CHAPTER I.

THE CONSTANT CHANGE IN LANGUAGE.

1. What is Philology ?

It is the science which teaches us what language is. The philologist deals with the words which make up a language, not merely to learn their meaning, but to find out their history. He pulls them to pieces, just as a botanist dissects Powers, in order that he may discover the parts of which each word is composed and the relation of those parts to each other : then he takes another and yet another language and deals with each in the same way : then by comparing the results he ascertains what is common to these different languages and what is peculiar to one or more : lastly, he tries to find out what the causes are which operate on all these languages, in order that he may understand that unceasing change and development which we may call, figuratively, the life of language.

2. But you will say perhaps, 'What is the good of all this? When I learn a language, I learn it in order to speak it or to read it; I don't want to know how the words are made up, I only want to know what they mean.' It is quite true that you need not learn anything more. For example, if you are learning French, you must learn that mais means 'but;' it is not necessary for you to know that mais is only a shorter form of the Latin magis ; you have simply to remember that it is now a conjunction. But it may interest you to know that it was once a comparative adjective, and meant 'more;' and that some people, when they wished to say 'don't be in a hurry, but listen,' struck out the idea of expressing the second clause by saying more listen,' that is, listen rather than not.' But has quite a different history; it meant be out,' that is, 'except;' so the English and the French got to the same meaning by very different roads. Now, as I have said; it is nowise necessary for you to know things like these : you can say what you have to say and understand what you hear quite well without this knowledge. But words are things after all, as well as being the names of things; and they often are very powerful things too, as we may see by and by. And, if you are one of those who like to know why things are what they are, you will be glad to find out that words are not merely so much breath which is spent in setting out our meaning to each other and has no further permanence ; that, on the contrary, they are abiding things, the history of whose origin, growth, decay, and vanishing, is much more interesting than many a novel ; which even in many a curious way throws light on some dark processes of the human mind.

3. But, you will ask, Can words be subject to this incessant change?' Substantives, for example, are the names of things actually existing, or of qualities of those things. When I say an oak, I mean an oak and not a beech ; goodness is not badness; and if these things don't change, how can the names which express them change without causing utter confusion ? Perhaps variations so violent as these are not very common, and yet both these changes have occurred in language. The very same word which to the Greeks meant an oak, to the Romans meant a beech, though an oak never yet changed into a beech. Schlecht in German first of all meant 'straight.' Now the straightness' of a visible object, such as a line, is the most obvious metaphor by which to express the moral idea of 'straightforwardness' and simplicity of heart and purpose, just as our common word right means originally that which is straight, the Latin rectus. But then simpleness may shade into the folly of the simpleton; and lastly the fool in worldly wisdom may give his name to the fool of whom Solomon spoke; and by some such process as this schlecht in modern German means 'bad' only. After seeing this change of nouns, can we wonder that verbs can vary their meaning by imperceptible degrees so much that the first sense would be altogether unrecognisable unless we had the history of the word recorded by its use in successive writers ?

4. Great changes of language are sometimes due to great convulsions in history; as when the Roman civilisation was destroyed by nations comparatively uncivilised and the language of the Romans remained modified in different ways in the countries of which they were the lords no longer. Such great changes do not often take place; yet just as surely, though more slowly, a gradual change goes on in the most peaceful times, of which you cannot have a better example than in your own English. Well, you say, 'surely English has not changed much in the last three hundred years. We can read Shakespeare without any difficulty.' That is saying a little too much ; we are so familiar with the best parts of Shakespeare that perhaps we are hardly conscious of the difference; the words have a well-known sound, and if we are not students of language we may not examine them very carefully. But open your Shakespeare almost at random and

you

will soon find out, if you really consider, how much is now obsolete, how many words have passed out of use or are used in a different sense. I have opened on Macbeth, Act i. Sc. 7, and there I find in Lady Macbeth's speech :

“ His two chamberlains
Will I with wine and wassail so convince
That memory, the warder of the brain,
Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason

A limbec only." The general sense is very plain, but then the general sense can often be picked up out of the context without our seeing the exact meaning of each word.

5. Now look at a few of the words here. (1) Chamberlain,' as we know, is etymologically a man of the chamber; it comes from camera, a chamber, originally a vault; the root of this is cam = to be bent or crooked, which is supposed to be the origin of the name of our most crooked river. The old sense of chamberlain' has not quite died out of our recollection ; yet when we speak of the Lord Chamberlain—the only person to whom the title is now applied—we don't think of a man whose business it is to guard his king's sleep when on a journey, or, generally, of a bedroom attendant, but of one whose best known duty is the censorship of plays. (2) · Wassail' is a word which we should expect to find in a historical novel, but not to hear in every-day talk. We feel pretty sure that it has something to do with good cheer, but we may not know that it was originally a drinking of health ; that was was the imperative of the verb was, “to be,' which we have turned into an auxiliary verb to mark past time ; and the last syllable is our word hale = healthy, which we have pretty well restricted to the description of an

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