Oldalképek
PDF
ePub

his newly acquired dominions, which had a necessary tendency to produce the changes that afterwards took place in the language of his subjects.

It has been observed by all our historians, that the Saxons, though a brave and warlike people, had made little progress in the art of fortification, and that to this circumstance the. Danes were indebted for the almost constant success of their piratical incursions. The Normans, on the contrary, surpassed all the nations of Europe in this branch of tactics; and William, availing himself of this superiority, erected numerous citadels, which, being filled with Norman garrisons, secured and over-awed all the towns in the kingdom, and afforded him the means of assembling his army with safety and expedition.

It is evident that each of these garrisons bore a much higher proportion to the number of inhabitants in the neighbouring cities, at whose expense they were, from the first supported, than that of the whole body of Normans to the aggregate population of the kingdom. It was necessary, therefore, that some mercantile jargon should be adopted as a medium of communication between the foreigners and the natives; and although such a jargon, being only employed for occasional purposes by each, could not immediately displace and become a substitute for the established language of either: though the Normans were, during a very considerable length of time, completely separated from their English neighbours by the strongest opposition of passions and prejudices : though even their commercial intercourse was very limited : it may be doubted whether these circumstances had not the effect, of ultimately rendering more complete that alteration of language, which they certainly. contributed, in the first instance, to retard.

In fact, the most striking peculiarity in the establishment of our vulgar English is, that it appears to have very suddenly superseded the pure and legitimate Saxon, from which its elements were principally derived, instead of becoming its successor, as generally has been supposed, by a slow and imperceptible process. The Saxon, certainly, never ceased to be cultivated, during more than a century after the conquest, because the conclusion of the Saxon Chronicle, which relates the death of Stephell, cannot have been written before the following reign: and the translation of Wace, by Layamon, is not likely to have been composed much before the year 1180. From this period, I believe, the language began to decline, but it did not cease till much later; for we have a Saxon charter dated in the 43d year

of Henry III. that is to say, in 1258. It has been often printed, particularly by Lord Lyttelton and Dr. Henry, both of whom have thought it necessary to add an English translation. On the other hand, we possess some English specimens, which, in the opinion of all our antiquaries, cannot be referred to a later period than 1250: it follows therefore that, during several years after the establishment of our present mixed language. the Saxon continued to be the only form of speech known to a large portion of the inhabitants of this country.

Now, if we consider that the Saxon, however it might have degenerated from its former elegance, still retained the advantage of a regular and established grammar, while the construction of the Anglo-Norman, or English, was extremely fluctuating and barbarous; it will probably bé thought that the latter could only have acquired the superiority over its parent language by means of the predominant wealth and influence of that part of the community, by whom it was exclusively cultivated. This, I presume, may have been promoted by a succession of fortunate events.

The system devised by the Conqueror, for the purpose of protecting his army against the insurrection of the natives, gave a security to the citizens

1

against the fears of foreign invasion, or domestic oppression, which they had not hitherto enjoyed, and in which the villagers could not equally participate. The increased trade resulting from the foreign dominions of our sovereigns, and the wealth derived from that trade, was confined almost exclusively to the towns. Lastly, the successive immunities which they purchased from our sovereigns, or from their principal barons, and which led to the general establishment of free municipal governments, must have tended, in concurrence with the preceding causes, considerably to augment the proportion which the inhabitants of the cities had formerly borne to the rest of their countrymen, in point of numbers, wealth, and influence.

As the same happy improvement of their govertment was likely to obliterate the sources of national hatred between the Norman and English inhabitants; to create an union of interests; to promote the adoption of a common language; and to hasten the improvement of that language by furnishing new and frequent subjects for discussions, at once complicated and interesting; it seems natural that we should assign the complete formation of our present language to the commencement of the thirteenth century, and perhaps to the establishment of Magna Charta. Every inference, that can be

[ocr errors]

drawn from the inspection of such specimens of very early English as I have had an opportunity of examining, appears to point nearly to the same period.

From this time to the reign of Edward III. our infant langnage was enriched, or perhaps overloaded, by a constant accession of French words. This, indeed, might be expected. Wealth, when accompanied by freedom, generally gives birth to magnificence, but it does not of necessity and immediately become the parent of taste and invention. During the thirteenth and fourteenth cena turies, even our kings and nobles were in the habit of expending their whole stock of gaiety, as well as their treasure, on the four great festivals of the year; and the intervening times of leisure were employed in devising modes of amusement, and providing a disposition to be amused. But as the commercial part of the nation had something else to do, they seem to have contented themselves with copying, as nearly as they could, the pleasures of their superiors. Their festivities were conducted with the same minute attention to ceremo, nial, and diversified with the same or nearly similar sports and representations. Their tables exhibited the same specimens of complicated cookery. The recitation of tales of chivalry was necessary to the

« ElőzőTovább »