English Historical Grammar
THE ancient notion of English grammar was one of certain categories of words, and certain rules for their proper use. This is still the idea implied in most of the dictionary definitions of the word. The Parts of Speech were one of the first things the student had to learn : nouns, pronouns, adjectives, etc. Then the Rules of Syntax, “ The subject of a finite verb is in the nominative case,” and the like, occupied his attention. The final chapter was on Prosody: “ A verse of one foot is called a monody,” “A verse of two feet is called a dipody,” etc. It is not difficult to trace the pedigree of this idea of grammar. The number of exceptions necessary to explain in the chapter on adjectives ; the great embarrassment in distinguishing between adverbs and prepositions (not fully removed, either, by pointing out the fact that in Homeric Greek prepositions were originally adverbs) ; the obvious difficulty to be met if one wanted to put an English subject in the accusative case; the apparent anomalies of Shakespeare’s monodies, dipodies, tripodies, and the rest, and the rather clumsy way English poets have always had in using feet, — these make it plain that this grammar is hard doctrine when applied to English, and must have had its origin under happier conditions in some other language; Latin, say. And so it is. The argument which used to be urged for the early and persistent study of Latin — namely, that it cleared up English grammar so — was not without its naive element of truth. It certainly did make clear this kind of grammar. It was like that timehonored advice to young physicians : “ If you don’t know the disease your patient is suffering from, give him one that you do know, and cure that.” Under such conditions, the study of grammar, like calling in a doctor, was serious business. You first learned what English grammar would have been, had English had the good fortune to be Latin ; and then you learned Latin grammar to explain it all. This system of teaching English grammar is by no means extinct. It still persists in the mind of many a schoolmaster, and keeps cropping up here and there in elementary textbooks. But we are getting past it ; if the subject is not yet taught in the light of modern knowledge, it is rather because teachers have not yet got the light they want than because they are wedded to the ancient system. The danger is now the one of accepting the fallacy “ English is a grammarless tongue,” and teaching no grammar at all.
But English is not a grammarless tongue ; on the contrary, the results of recent investigation point scholars to the conclusion that the process of disintegration so apparent in English is one of growth, and not one of decay, — a growth toward efficiency and perfection. Whether it be reasonable or not to expect English to become the language of the world, it is evident that all modern vernaculars are traveling in the same direction with English, and that our language is in many respects in the van of the race. Nor will the rational study of scientific grammar ever become useless as a means of culture. Experience has already demonstrated beyond all cavil the value of grammar as a means of training the mind, even when grammar is taught in unnatural and inadequate ways ; much greater will its value appear when it is properly understood and rationally taught.
Our trouble is that we do not yet understand what grammar is, but, foolishly clogging ourselves with Renaissance notions about it, we vainly expect it to furnish us with canonic authority to decide matters quite properly within the scope of our own judgment. We study it, therefore, not in the hope of understanding through its help the speech we all think with and cannot escape from, but in the hope of obtaining a standard of correctness in the use of language which may separate us from the vulgar who know not grammar. Such an ideal rests upon a false conception of the nature of language and upon ignorance of the history of English speech, as well as upon an inadequate and selfish ideal of culture.
Let us examine for a moment, very generally and briefly, the nature of language. Setting aside the question of its origin, and starting rather from the biological principle that the history of the individual repeats the history of the type, let us think of the development of any one of us in respect to his acquiring and using speech. The early period of this development knows not literature ; and there can be a considerable proficiency in the use of speech without a knowledge of literature. Nor, theoretically speaking, is there any point in the development of language where the knowledge of literature becomes indispensable to the existence of speech. Nor has the written language, at least in English, any existence apart and independent from the spoken language. The written word, then, is not an essential part of language, and for our present purpose we can leave it aside. Beginning with the spoken language as the essential language, let us think for a moment how it is acquired. Each normally constituted person who comes into life learns to think in terms of the words he hears from those about him, until the use of them becomes as much an unconscious habit with him as walking. The language which he learns in this way was learned in the same way by those he hears use it, who in turn learned it from others antecedent, and so on all the way back until the line passes into the prehistoric past. But the tradition thus carried on is continually conditioned by inherited predisposition and environment, which are always giving rise to minute variations from the type. These variations, however seemingly accidental and personal, are always making in a certain direction, and cause the development of language as a whole to follow definite laws which it can no more escape than matter can escape gravitation. These laws are not subject to sudden or violent change. They cannot be set aside or materially assisted by any sort of academic legislation or learned prescription. They are beyond the control of the individual as well. He may say how he will use language and explain his method to the people with whom he comes directly in contact, giving them the key to his idiom, but he cannot affect language itself. His idiom will die with him, in spite of all his effort. Universal teaching, too, of a particular idiom may fix it temporarily upon the language ; but unless it accord with some easy analogy which will naturally lead to its general use, the idiom will not remain, but will only form a temporary obstruction to the free development of language, like a snag sticking out into a stream. School-teachers may come and school-teachers may go, but they cannot “ correct ” “ bad ” English, if the “ correction ” is against the genius and spirit of English thought.
One of the richest contributions of modern scholarship is the knowledge that this development obeys natural laws of thought, and that, however inscrutable during a short period, it is perfectly clear and continuous over a long one. The next step will be to show that the reason for this lies in the nature of language ; that the uniformity of its development is but the expression of a deeper uniformity of thought itself through which the brain unconsciously selects certain associations to make habitual; that the words we say or write down are but a small part of the words we actually use in thinking, day in, day out, year after year, till the brain ceases to perform its function ; that language is thus part of a great act which began we know not when, and will end only when thought itself shall cease and silence reign again.
Our present starved conception of language is like that we used to have of biology, when we thought of animal life in the world as of a gigantic menagerie, designed by a demiurgic showman for our instruction and pleasure. We fail to recognize the real meaning of language because we do not think of it as a part of our life. We treat it as if it were yesterday’s creation, not the growth of centuries of experience. We still think of it as being made up of “ parts of speech ” to be used according to “ rules of syntax.”
It was this notion which formed the basis of the ancient method of studying grammar. Parts of speech were the necessary outcome of scholastic logic. For it the most important things were names and categories; and so nouns, “ the names of things,” made the first chapter of grammar; pronouns came in as the next; adjectives, as expressing attributes, next; and so on, a set of mechanically constructed categories of thinking, with appropriate definitions and fixed rules of coördination. The “ accidents ” of such parts of speech as were capable of “ accidence ” were then carefully labeled and pigeonholed for future reference or use. The making out of these tables presented a fine opportunity for formal logic, and the resulting paradigms made the real basis of this sort of study. These were learned as the patterns of thinking, and their perfection being possible only in a language like classic Latin, where a complicated system of Indo-Germanic inflection was artificially preserved, such a language became the type by which all others were measured. To form these parts of speech with their accidents into predications was the next step. There was the “ subject,” “ attribute,” “ predicate,” and " complement,” with their various “ concords: ” this made syntax. Again, these things were logically clear in Latin : so Latin syntax became the norm of English syntax. It was an easy matter to tack on Latin prosody, and the system was complete. What was good enough for Latin and Greek was surely good enough for English. This grammar was supplemented by an “ Etymology,” in which the “ etyma ” were the Latin and Greek words corresponding to the various English borrowings from these tongues. Others were practically ignored.
Such a grammar has for its basis inflection, and for its unit a part of speech. Hence we had — and still have to some extent — inflection playing the chief rôle in the grammar of a language whose tendency has been to shuffle off inflections as fast as possible. The practical aim of its system was to teach the student the “ concords ” as they would be if English were a highly inflected language. Its chief concern, therefore, was to get the right form of inflection for various syntactical usages ; just the point where the student, who had learned to use inflections when he was learning to talk, could not easily go astray. This sort of grammar considered the study of language as something quite apart from the use of language ; its end was perfect mechanical thinking by means of formulas, not perfect natural thinking based upon experience. Its standpoint was metaphysical, and was possible only for a dead language. A living speech like English develops ever at variance with such a priori reasoning, and the cleft has been long apparent.
Now it would be unjust in us to charge our ancestors with the ignorance of the real nature of English grammar implied in this conception of the subject, and to find fault with them in their effort to build a didactic grammar upon distinctions found in Latin, and not upon the nature of English. But we can charge ourselves with folly in persisting to ignore the material that the last few decades have furnished for the scientific study of the subject, and in holding to their inadequate notion when a richer and better is within our reach.
The real nature of English grammar is not metaphysical, but historical. It is the scientific study of a living language in the light of its development. The history of the development may not form a part of the actual grammatical treatment, but it must underlie it. The grammar may be one of late New English, say, restricted to the consideration of only those phenomena which come under our immediate notice, and may have nothing to do with Middle English or Old English. But these phenomena are only scientifically intelligible in the light of their development, and must be studied from an historical basis. In this sense there is for English but one kind of grammar, and that is historical grammar. The terms and definitions of scholastic grammar have their place and use, and are in many cases necessary as being general to all thinking and to all language. The categories, too, are those of thought in general, and are therefore inevitable in describing and classifying the facts of language. But they are not grammar, and learning them is not studying grammar, any more than learning the divisions of the animal kingdom is studying biology. Grammar, to be properly studied, must be based on the nature of language itself, and on the history of its development.
This has been the belief of the best scholars for a number of years, and their study of the subject in this spirit has developed a new method. But it has for the most part remained the method of scholars, and of comparatively few scholars at that. The scientific treatment of the subject is traceable chiefly to Jacob Grimm, though we had beginnings of it in English scholarship as early as the days of Franciscus Junius and George Hickes. The Germans, who were the first to turn their attention to the matter, made the earliest advances in the field of English ; for a knowledge of English has long been recognized in Germany to be essential to the proper understanding of German. The method they have followed has been historical, empirical; and following it, the best scholars have succeeded in establishing the unity of our language and literature, and the continuity of their historical development. English and American scholarship has made use of their work, and has added substantial contributions to it, though often in a rather dull and imitative fashion and without a clear realization of the purpose of it all. But English and American schools and universities have been slow to see the value of this sort of scholarship, and what is more the pity, to see its practical relation to the every-day life and thought of English-speaking people. What is wanted now is a keener appreciation of the practical importance of this scientific grammar and its fitness to be used as a basis for English culture.
It is difficult to describe this new grammar without entering into somewhat tedious detail; but perhaps it will not be impossible, in a few words, to give a general idea of its scope and method. Its chief divisions are, Sounds, Inflections, Syntax, and Rhythm. Its ultimate unit is a single sound. A word cannot express thought unless its component sounds are accurately reproduced, and its sounds are subject to development. If I take the word bear and change it to beer, I have made in it but a small alteration, and one that is quite in accord with the history of English ; yet I have altered the word so that it no longer suggests the thought it suggested before the change was made, but something quite different. It is as much of a change as I should make in 120 by changing the 2 to a 9. So I might do with almost any other word, destroying it entirely by slightly altering in an arbitrary way one of the sounds which make it up. It is not words, then, but sounds that are the ultimate things in grammar. These sounds, moreover, have as it were a life of their own, which slowly changes their character with the progress of centuries. The changes are so gradual as to be imperceptible during a single generation, yet they affect all sounds where the same conditions are present, and affect them in the same way. To illustrate : the infinitive to make was represented by măcian in English of the ninth century, by măken in English of the twelfth century, by māken in English of the fourteenth century, by māk in English of the sixteenth century, mœk in English of the seventeenth, meēik in English of the nineteenth. Here the vowel a has been changing its character about once in two centuries. And so with all a’s under similar conditions. Consonants, too, as well as vowels, alter their nature in the development, but much more slowly. These alterations are gradual, so that the mind adapts itself to them without knowing it ; just as many people nowadays would take their oath that they pronounce the initial h in which as in whist, but all the while they are saying wich. To hear a word accurately requires a carefully trained ear, and a power, not easily acquired, of diverting one’s attention to the sounds of the word as acoustic phenomena. These changes are so general and so numerous as to affect the whole character of the language; so that English even of so recent a date as Shakespeare’s would sound to us almost like a foreign tongue did we hear it, and at many points would be quite unintelligible. Yet it is the same language, just as Alfred’s is, and with the key of a scientific knowledge of English will yield up its English thought to us with the very words it was written in.
In this part of English historical grammar, it is the significance of the development of the sounds, and not that of their inconsequent representation, that is the first thing to be grasped. We can change the way of writing words a dozen times a century ; in fact, we might write them a dozen ways at once without affecting the sounds themselves. The spoken words are the real things, not the letters which signify them. This first chapter on sounds is therefore the most important of the whole subject; for without an exact knowledge of it grammar will appear capricious and meaningless. This field is left almost entirely to specialists, and their work in it is thought to be too trivial to interest the public. It is only within recent years that the fact of the development of English has been recognized at all; so a clear statement of it in English grammars has not been possible. But the practical importance of such knowledge as it now furnishes us is almost as great as our neglect of it has been. While the study of the whole subject will bring us into a perfect understanding of our literature and will break down our absurd notions of the nature of our language, a complete knowledge of this part of it is the most direct way of accomplishing these ends; for the period over which the development of English sounds extends is unusually long and unusually rich in evidence afforded by literature, and even an elementary knowledge of it is sufficient to make the development clear. Once this part of the subject is fully understood, the student will be in a fair way to understand the growth of literature. He will at least know enough not to be deceived, for instance, into supposing that he is reading Chaucer, when he thinks through his brain the New English words which correspond to Chaucer’s written forms, and fills up the gaps with guesses. Nor will he be misled by arbitrary forms of spelling. He will see distinctly that the letters do not represent the sounds they pretend to represent, but quite a different set. He will thus be prepared for a more intelligent study of his literature, and for a more vital and more powerful mastery of his language.
The division of scientific grammar next in order is that which treats of inflections, and deals with the changes of form which words undergo in being modified for different phases and relations of the general ideas which they express. This chapter was made the chief part of our earlier grammars of English, because inflection is the most significant characteristic of classic languages. But English, owing to conditions peculiar to it as a Germanic tongue, has made little use of endings, and has depended upon context and arrangement to make thought clear ; so that inflection plays a very minor part in its grammar. Latin and Greek retain a great many of the early conditions of inflection found in Indo-Germanic, where a stem representing a general idea was modified by some change, most commonly by a flexional syllable, to indicate the precise position, condition, or relation which the word assumes in the thought, — in terms of logic, its accidents. For some reason or other, Germanic peoples attached a peculiar significance to the stem, and, uttering it with greater force, neglected the inflectional syllable. This process, once begun, has gone on rapidly, until in modern English the old grammatical system is almost entirely broken up. The discovery that the accident of the word can be sufficiently denoted by its position in the thought, or by the accent it receives in utterance, or by the context, or, when necessary, by accurate and express definition in other words, is the steppingstone to using it as a particular itself. In English, therefore, we do not use a general term modified by an accident in order to make it a particular, but we think the particular outright. My typewriter, for instance, is as much a particular idea as my pen ; I do not think of the one as an instrument to write with by means of type any more than I think of the other as a feather adapted to purposes of writing. So also when my typewriter reproduces the thought for me on paper, I do not think of it as “ typewriter ” with a modification of the idea to indicate that it is the subject of the action ; and when I wish to think of myself using the typewriter, I do not modify the word for typewriter in a different way to show that in this latter instance the typewriter is the object of an action. Such a distinction is quite useless. I and my typewriter are two such different things, with such different attributes and functions, that there is no danger of any one confusing the two. In almost any possible thought where they are brought together, the mind itself, without any need of labels, will recognize their proper grammatical relation. And even if there was danger of confusion, the fact that in English thinking the subject comes first in the thought would be sufficient to distinguish it without any special mark. So with other types of inflection. It is absurd, then, to study English as a highly inflected language, — to make the student think of such things as “ O man ” as a vocative case, or “ to a man ” as a dative, or “ if I do ” as a subjunctive or conditional mood of the verb “ do.”
The burden of the work has thus been thrown upon syntax, — a syntax whose perfection has developed in such a way as to make all but the simplest inflection unnecessary ; and syntax, the third general division of grammar, thus becomes most important for English. But it is not the kind of syntax we know from Latin grammar. That, owing to the full inflectional system still preserved in Latin, was a system of concords and artificial agreements. Fixed syllables of inflection denoted certain accidents of a generic idea ; syllables of inflection belonging to the same or similar categories pointed out the various parts of a whole idea and their relations one to another, so that the parts could be separated from one another and scattered through the sentence to secure formal symmetry or pleasing cadence without confusion of the thought itself. The perception of the significance of this “ accidence ” and the arrangement of these collocations were the field of syntax. The Germanic languages, when they lost this full IndoGermanic system of inflection, lost also with it the corresponding system of syntax. What had been before an æsthetic end became now a practical one, and the position of the words in the thought denoted their relation to one another. The few inflections preserved were simplified and reduced to great general categories, such as number, objective and subjective case relation, distinction of sex, absolute or conditional action. Nor has this process of development ceased. It is quite possible that the categories will be still further reduced as time goes on. To study this development for English is the field of syntax, and its method is historical, since these arrangements are traditional, depending upon the habit of English thought. The subject has not yet received even in Germany the attention it deserves, because a scientific treatment of Lautund Formenlehre (the development of sounds and inflection) more than occupies the twosemester course of a German university. Then, too, German scholarship is often embarrassed by the lack of the perfect idiomatic familiarity with New English syntax (englische Sprachgefühl) necessary to understand the habit of English thought. A full and complete treatment of it will have to come from English scholars. Much has been done already in such books as Mätzner’s Englische Grammatik, which starts with New English and works back to Old English, and Koch’s Englische Grammatik, which follows a more scientific order, beginning with Old English and tracing the subject historically. The practical utility of such study lies in the fact that it gives us confidence in native English idioms, and prevents those foolish alterations which arise from an artificial notion of what English syntax is.
A fourth division of English grammar is that which deals with rhythm and the arrangement of words to make poetry. The name Prosody is usually given to it, because that is the title of the corresponding division of Latin grammar. It would take too long to show how this subject has been obscured by centuries of misunderstanding and obstinate persistence in teaching Latin prosody to explain English rhythm. It was obvious that Latin poetry had but two units, a short and a long syllable. As accent took the place of quantity when the system was transferred to English, there were two sorts of syllables recognized in English prosody : a syllable was either “tum” or it was “ ty.” We have just seen how the loss of Indo-Germanic inflections affected Germanic syntax. The cause of this loss, namely, the fixing of the accent to a particular syllable of the word in all its forms, broke down also the Indo-Germanic system of rhythm. It was no longer possible to write poetry according to the classic system, because the material for it no longer existed. Germanic rhythm, therefore, assumed an entirely new form, based upon the new use of accent, and not upon quantity, though it seems that in the earlier periods quantity was still an element in the verse. This system was used for Old English, which very early developed a rich poetic literature ; later on, another kind of accentual system, which had grown into wide use in mediæval Latin, took its place. But not immediately and violently ; for English poetry had independently been long working toward this more regular mediæval rhythm, and thus received the new system as a graft, and was not displaced and crowded out by it. At no time in its history, therefore, has English verse been written like classic poetry, for it has always been based upon accentual, and not upon quantitative differences. But our study of classic poetry has made us overlook the exquisite gradations of accent in English verse, and has scaled our poetry down to “ turn ” and “ ty.” The appreciation of more gradations than these has been considered to be the concern of elocution, not prosody, and poetry, made to delight the ear with delicate rhythm, becomes, when we study it, a wooden arrangement of “ shorts ” and “longs ” into “iambic acatalectic trimeters” and such things.
To these four divisions, Sounds, Inflections, Syntax, and Rhythm, should logically be added a fifth, namely, the Development of Word-Meanings. But the historical dictionaries of English are assuming this for their special field, and rightly, too ; so that there is no need for any but the most general treatment of the subject in English historical grammar. The work in this field is most conveniently accessible when arranged in the form of a dictionary. How important such material is for the study of English literature is shown by the great number of hitherto misunderstood passages in Shakespeare which the Oxford Dictionary clears up.
We have thus traversed the field of English historical grammar, and have incidentally called attention to the method it pursues. Prosecuted in such a way, the subject is as scientific as any of the sciences now studied in the universities, and certainly deserves as conspicuous a place as any in university curricula. For Americans it is practically a fresh field to work in ; and when the American genius for discerning essentials from accidents overcomes American tendencies to dilettanteism, we shall no doubt have a rich harvest of scientific truth.
Hitherto the subject has labored under some fundamental misconceptions as to its scope and province, — misconceptions that are for the most part popular, but yet not without their effect upon university teaching. The chief of these is the one that English historical grammar is the same thing as the history of the English language. This mistaken assumption underlies most of the attempts to teach the subject that have yet been made. It is an easy mistake to make, for the only difference between a complete history of the English language and a perfect English historical grammar would be one of arrangement of material and the point of view from which it was considered. The one would be a chronological account of the development of language from the standpoint of modern English, considering modern English as the apex of the development; the other would be a scientific treatment of the phenomena themselves, considering the present state of the language as an incidental stage of the development. The two are by no means the same. In the point of view there lies a fundamental distinction, and one that is frequently overlooked. There is a still greater distinction between the two when one comes to study this history and this grammar. To memorize a correct account of the history of the English language is not by any means the same thing as to study English historical grammar. In the latter work we deal with the phenomena themselves, not with a general statement of their relation. This distinction is now quite clear for biological science. The study of biology is not that of the history of the development of physical life, though a complete history of biological phenomena might well be one of the ends of biological science. Supposing the links were all clear, a mere account of the development of the primordial cell through the various stages of its life up to man would not be biology, though an intelligent appreciation of the phenomena does depend upon a perception of their historical significance, so to speak. And it is precisely so with English historical grammar. The scientific study of the subject means far more than a description of the sequence of its phenomena. It means the discovery of their relation ; their classification according to real and essential differences, not accidental ones ; the causes that have produced them, as far as it is possible to ascertain their causes ; the laws which govern their development; their relation to the forms of English thinking ; their relation to similar phenomena of other languages. Their nature, their causes, their tendencies, all these enter into a scientific conception of the province of historical grammar. The field the subject thus presents to the student is in its way as wide as that presented by biology, and if intelligently worked would yield as rich a fruitage as the study of biology has. In one sense the history of the English language is but the introductory chapter to all this. To substitute the one for the other is like offering a superficial “ Fourteen Weeks in Philosophy ” for an adequate course in elementary physics. Such a substitute may possibly be better than nothing, but it is very little better, and it stands in the way of the student ever getting anything like a firm grasp of the matter.
Another misconception of the nature and province of historical grammar is due to the fact that any thorough study of spoken English is confused in the popular mind with the study of phonetics. Students are taught in elementary schools that certain letters have certain sounds, and they are then taught to reproduce these sounds, when acted upon by the stimulus of certain diacritical marks : “ pronounce long ā as in māke,” “ pronounce short ă as in făt.” Phonetics thus gets to be a matter of pronouncing written forms of expression ; so that the student always tries to pronounce all the letters of all the syllables, and we get such monstrosities in English as “ pensills,” “prack-tick-kal,” “in-dif-fi-rence.” These spelling - book pronunciations of written forms are not English words at all, though many good people think they are the best English, and painfully make their children pronounce the letters, in the fear that they may fall into the habit of speaking English in a vulgar fashion if they do not take pains. In this sense the phonetics of English is an absurdity. It considers the written language as the norm, and seeks to explain the spoken form as a capricious deviation from the written type. The truth is the converse of this. A has not the sound of a in father, and of a in late, and of a in bat, etc., but the a in father, and the a in late, and the a in bat, and the others are entirely different and distinct sounds, which happen, all of them, to be represented by the same sign, namely a. The abnormality is in the writing: the study of these abnormalities ought properly to be called “ graphics,” not “ phonetics.” Of course, in its scientific aspect, according to which phonetics is the study of the physiological formation of the sounds used in language, the subject is part of a thorough study of historical grammar, but only a minor part.
Similarly, etymology plays a great part in the notion many people have of the scientific study of English. English is thought to be a conglomerate of various other languages, made up of words derived from Latin, or Greek, or French, or German. To be aware of the meaning these words had in the original speech from which they were derived was a euphuistic accomplishment that gave much pleasure a few generations ago, and the display of such knowledge is still thought to be one of the ornaments of writing. The etymology which had for its concern the elucidation of these words was not historical, but merely devoted itself to the discovery of easily recognizable foreign elements, to unfold or derive which furnished the same sort of pleasure as that obtained from puzzlesolving. To reduce the words capable of such reduction to assumed ultimate roots had the appearance of scientific analysis, and easily passed for scientific study. But it is only loan-words which are capable of such reduction. Though they occupy a large space in dictionaries of English, such words do not play an important part in its history. A student might know perfectly the “ etyma ” of all of them, and yet be quite ignorant of English itself. They are for the most part mere additions to the vocabulary of English. It is a general principle of English grammar that borrowed words, from the time they are taken into the language, are treated as if they were English, obeying the same laws of development as the native words. A separate treatment in grammar is not necessary for them. To consider the separate study of such words as an integral part of English grammar is to follow the mediæval method of the study of Latin.
Nor is English historical grammar what is popularly known as English philology. This word “ philology ” has been given such a variety of meanings, ranging all the way from the encyclopædic German notion of the study of everything remotely or directly concerned with language and literature, to the popular English and American one of the dilettante study of words, that it has become well-nigh useless for scientific purposes. In the popular sense, however, it has little to do with historical grammar, — not much more than etymology has. It bears much the same relation to it that collecting butterflies bears to entomology, or collecting fossils to geology. Yet the “study of words,” generally from Archbishop Trench’s book bearing that title, has long been one of the most common substitutes for English historical grammar in our schools and universities. It can be made comparatively interesting, because it calls attention to peculiar developments of word-meanings and unexpected associations of ideas. But it has little educational value. It only develops a petty attention to details without knowledge of their significance, and produces in the student the idea that he has exhausted the subject.
Rid of these misconceptions, we have in English historical grammar a subject that is scientific, practical, and of great educational value, and, moreover, a subject which can be taught in an elementary way to young students, and can at the same time furnish a field for original scientific work in university teaching. Why should it not be easily possible to put it in the place that dogmatic grammar used to occupy ? Why is it necessary to wait until a student is nearly through with a university course to give him a scientific knowledge of the machinery he thinks with ? It would not be difficult to teach any boy to read Old English at the time when he begins to read Latin, to continue the work by teaching him to read Middle English, and then to put upon this elementary work, which need only be such as will give him the power roughly to read his own language in any period of its history, a more or less thorough training in English historical grammar. It is not necessary to make him speak Old English or Middle English, or even to seek native idioms in his own use of language. But surely a student with an accurate and correct knowledge of what his language is will be able to use it with more ease and power than one without such knowledge.
We need not expect this sort of training to make us think more clearly and write better than our clearest thinkers and best writers do now ; but we can expect it to give this power to more men and women than possess it now; we can expect to get from English historical grammar the basis for a sane and practical didactic grammar which will represent to the student the real nature of his language, and will enable him to see more clearly what “ good ” English is and teach him how to use it; we can expect it to illuminate and quicken into a newer life for us the best of our English literature.
Mark H. Liddell.