George P. Marsh

Lecture VIII on the English Language


George P. Marsh
Lectures on the English Language
(London: John Murray, 1863) pp. 122-124.

Archaic diction.

§ 3. It has been observed in all literatures, that the poetry and the prose which take the strongest hold of the heart of a nation are usually somewhat archaic in diction; behind, rather than in advance of, the fashionable language of the time. The reason of this is that the great mass of every people is slow to adopt changes in its vocabulary. New words are introduced, and long exclusively employed in circles that are rather excrescences upon society than essential constituents of it, while old words cling to the tongue of the stable multitude, and are understood and felt by it long after they have ceased to be current and intelligible among the changeful coteries that assume to dictate the speech as well as the opinions and the manners of their generation. Deep in the recesses of our being, beneath even the reach of consciousness, or at least of objective self-inspection, there lies a certain sensibility to the organic laws of our mother-tongue, and to the primary significance of its vocabulary, which tells us when obsolete, unfamiliar words are fitly used, and the logical power of interpreting words by the context acts with the greatest swiftness and certainty, when it is brought to bear on the material of our native speech. The popular mind shrinks from new words, as from aliens not yet rightfully entitled to a place in our community, while antiquated and half-forgotten native vocables, like trusty friends returning after an absence so long that their features are but dimly remembered, are welcomed with double warmth, when once their history and their worth are brought back to our recollection. So tenaciously do ancient words and ancient forms adhere to the national mind, that persons of little culture, but good linguistic perceptions, will not unfrequently follow old English or Scottish authors with greater intelligence than grammarians trained to the exact study of written forms, and I have known self-educated women, who read Chaucer and Burns with a relish and an appreciation rare among persons schooled in classic lore.

Doubtless the too free use of archaisms is an abuse, but the errors which have been committed by modern writers in this way have generally been not so much in employing too large a proportion of older words, as in applying them to new objects, thoughts, and conditions.

The author of 'Nothing to Wear' would have committed a serious violation of the laws of propriety and good taste, if he had adopted the dialect of the sixteenth century in that fine satire, to which, what is currently called the local colour of the composition gives so much point. On the other hand, the judicious use of antiquated words and forms in the 'Castle of Indolence,' an imaginative conception altogether in harmony with the tone of an earlier age, has clothed that exquisite creation with a charm which renders if more attractive than almost any other poetical production of the last century.

The English author who has most affected archaism of phraseology in Spenser, but if he had confined himself to the use of roots and inflexions which ever were true English, instead of coining words and forms to suit his metre and his rhyme, he would have escaped something of the censure which his supposed too conservative love of the reverend and the old brought upon him, at the close of a period during which, more than ever after the time of Chaucer, the language had been in a state of metamorphosis and transition.

Ben Johnson sings:

         "Then it chimes,
         When the old words do strike on the new times,"
and he has happily conceived, and happily expressed in prose, the true rule for the selection of words in writings designed for permanence of duration and effect.

"We must not," says he, "be too frequent with the mint, every day coining, nor fetch words from the extreme and utmost ages. Words borrowed of antiquity do lend a kind of majesty to style, and are not without their delight sometimes. For they have the authority of years, and out of their intermission do win themselves a kind of grace-like newness. But the eldest of the present, and the newest of the past language is best."

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