George P. Marsh
Lectures on the English Language
(London: John Murray, 1863) pp. 180-1.

George P. Marsh

Lecture XII on the English Language

William Shakespeare Influence

Permanence of words: conservative influence of the authorized version of the Bible, of Shakespeare, and Milton.

§ 2. I alluded on a former occasion to the conservative influence of our great writers, and especially of the standard translation of the Bible. The dialect of that translation belongs to an earlier phase of the language, and it far more resembles the English of the century preceding than of its own contemporary literature. Nevertheless, of the somewhat fewer than six thousand words it contains, scarcely two hundred are now in any sense obsolete, or substantially altered in meaning, whereas most of the new or unfamiliar words which it sanctioned have fairly established themselves in our general vocabulary, in spite of the attacks which have been so often made and repeated against them. It would, however, not be fair to compare the language of the English Bible with the dialect of the present day by the individual words alone. The real difference is not wholly in single words, not even in the meaning of them separately considered, but also in combinations of words, phraseological, idioms, or rather idiotisms. The translators of 1611 borrowed many of these from older versions, whose dialect was going out of use, and they now constitute the portion of the authorized Bible which must be regarded as obsolescent. Take, for instance, the expression, "much people." This was once grammatically correct, for the following reasons: People and folk (as well as the Saxon equivalent of the latter, folc), in the singular form, usually meant, in Old English, a political state, or an ethnologically related body of men, considered as a unit, in short a nation, and both people and folk took the plural form when used in a plural sense, just as nation now does. Nation is indeed found in the Wycliffite versions, but it rarely occurs, and Puple or folk in the singular, puplis and folkis in the plural, are generally used where we now employ nations. In Tyndale's time, nation had come into more general use, while people was losing its older signification, and was seldom employed in a plural sense, still more rarely in a plural form. In the translation of 1611, I believe the plural is found but twice. Many is essentially plural, and there is a syntactical solecism in applying it to a noun which itself does not admit of a plural. While therefore the word was hovering between the sense of nation, which may be multiplied, and that of an aggregation of persons, which may be divided, it was natural, and at the same time syntactically right, to say much, rather than many, people. King James's translators, in this, as in many other points, employed the language of the preceding century, not of their own, for in the secular literature of their time people had settled down into its present signification, and conformed to modern grammatical usage.

An examination of the vocabulary of Shakespeare will show that out of the fifteen thousand words which compose it, not more than about five or six hundred have gone out of currency, or changed their meaning; and of these, some, no doubt, are misprints; some, borrowed from obscure provincial dialects; and some, words for which there is no other authority, and which probably never were recognized as English.

In the poetical works of Milton, who employs about eight thousand words, there are not more than one hundred which are not as familiar at this day as in that of the poet himself. In fact, scarcely any thing of Milton's poetic diction has become obsolete, except some un-English words and phrases of his own coinage, and which failed to gain admittance at all. On the other hand, the less celebrated authors of the same period, including Milton himself as a prose writer, employ, not hundreds, but thousands of words, utterly unknown to all save the few who occupy themselves with the study of the earlier literature of England. One might almost say that the little volume of Bacon's Essays alone contains as large a number of words and phrases no longer employed in our language, as the whole of Milton's poetical works.

English, composed as it is of inharmonious and jarring elements, is, more than any other important tongue, exposed to perpetual change from the fermentation of its yet unassimilated ingredients, and it therefore has always needed, and still needs, more powerful securities and bulwarks against incessant revolution than other languages of less heterogeneous composition. The three great literary monuments, the English Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton, fixed the syntax of the sacred and the secular dialects in the forms which they had already taken, and perpetuated so much of the vocabulary as entered into their composition. It is true there are Continental authors of the seventeenth century, Pascal for instance, whose style and diction are as far from being antiquated as those of the English classics I have mentioned. Doubtless the great literary merits of Pascal, and the profound interest of the subjects he discusses, did much to give fixedness and stability to the dialect which serves as the vehicle of his keen satire and powerful reasoning, but we cannot ascribe to him so great a conservative influence as to the masterpieces of English literature, because, though French shares in the general causes of linguistic change which are common to all Christendom, it has not the same special tendencies to fluctuation as our more composite speech. Such, in fact, was the unstable character of English during the century which preceded Shakespeare, that, but for the influence of the Reformation and of the three great lodestars we have been considering, it would probably have become, before our time, rather Romance than Gothic in its vocabulary, as well as much less Saxon in its syntax.

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