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ON THE SELECT NATURE AND STRUCTURE

OF THE ENGLISH TONGUE.

By the late John Just, Esq.

(READ 7TH JANUARY, 1864.)

The common opinion respecting the English language and its numerous dialects is that they are originally and fundamentally Anglo-Saxon, with Norman French inserted into and intermingled with them. That this opinion is to a certain extent true no one acquainted with these two tongues will venture to deny. Yet there are many distinctions in the English tongue which can neither be accounted for by the uses and idioms of these two languages, nor be found among the modern terms and phraseology introduced into our speech by foreign intercourse, so widely extended by our almost universal commerce. We are apt to forget the frequent inroads, the numerous settlements and the entire subjugation of the Scandinavian hordes into, within and over this island, during the later periods of the Anglo-Saxon era of our history. That these hordes considerably modified the language of the country needs no other proof than that, as they more and more established themselves within the island, and gained more and more territories therein until they obtained universal sway, the pure literature of the golden age of King Alfred so declined that, at the Norman Conquest, England was nearly as unlettered as in the latter times of the Octarchy.

Had not history recorded that the Anglo-Saxons were part of the Teutonic branch of the Gothic race of mankind, their language, as left to us in the remains of their literature, would at once settle such a question. Compared with the Old High Dutch and Old Saxon, the Anglo-Saxon appears to be but a

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mere dialectic variation. And though, in a great number of its roots and terms, it does agree also with the Old Norse, still, in its total want of the definite form alike of nouns, substantives and adjectives, it could never be considered as having appertained to Scandinavian literature.

The English language, as at present spoken and written, is a selection of words, names and terms from

among

the tongues spoken by the numerous tribes and kindreds of people who have from time to time located themselves within the kingdom. Without any very great or absorbing preponderance of any particular tongue, save the Anglo-Saxon, the whole has amalgamated into one common speech which, for copiousness and freedom of expression, far surpasses aught to be found in any of its constituent parts, or to be met with in the learned languages of antiquity, or in any one of the modern speeches of civilized Europe. Yet, while all has so harmoniously blended, like the different races who constitute the entire population and use it as their common tongue, it is capable of a strict analysis, so that we can assign to each race its particular share in contributing to the select nature and structure of our modern English. The following exemplifications of this truth may serve to convince us of what we might otherwise conceive to be but a very bold and hazardous assertion.

Most of our English grammars tell us that nouns which denote no sex belong to the neuter gender. This is not true. Genders in all languages are known by the separate inflections of nouns, influencing chiefly the articles which precede the nouns, or changing their terminations. The English language has no inflection which influences either the preceding article or the termination of its nouns: such nouns therefore have no gender. The genders of English nouns are expressed by different words, and are limited alone to sexual distinctions among persons and animals. In thus having (unless by figures of speech) all its nouns, that are

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not names of living creatures, genderless, it differs from all ancient and modern tongues. This is not a defect, but an excellence. Inflections fetter languages, and bespeak a paucity of terms and expletives to express the ideas words are meant to communicate. Yet, if English nouns, unless in the cases specified, be thus genderless, we must not thence infer that the English language is totally devoid of inflection where gender constitutes the difference. The pronoun “he,”

she," "it," is an example of inflection, though wholly anomalous as we shall presently see; and the word "it" the only word truly neutral in our language.

In our notice of this neutral pronoun we will first observe that, though it is classed in most of our grammars among the personal pronouns, it is undoubtedly, as likewise the masculine and feminine forms “he” and “she," demonstrative.* The neuter pronoun "it" is derived from the Anglo-Saxon " hit,” usage having rejected the aspirate, except in provincialisms. According to Rusk's rule the pronoun "it" commutes with

“ the Latin pronoun "id" and, like this, means the object, subject or thing just mentioned, or going before, expressed in the noun for which it stands. This pronoun, therefore, refers to no person, and so cannot be a personal pronoun.

The same holds true of the Latin pronouns “is," "ea," " id,” and “ille,"

” “ “illa," "illud ;" of the Greek ávros, kurā, ávrò, and ékēLVOS,

αυτοςαυτώ, αυτό, ÉKELVW, ÉKELVO- all are real demonstratives. In the Scandinavian tongues this demonstrative wants the neuter form. The Keltic retains it, as in the Welsh "eo," "hi," "e," he, she, it; though strange to say, and stranger still to account for, the Gælic and Erse are referred to the same stock as the Welsh, and yet recognise no neuter gender at all, either in noun or pronoun.

We have stated that we retain the neuter pronoun "it," in our tongue, as having been handed down to us by our AngloSaxon fore-elders. We do the same with respect to "he" and “she," yet we have herein not followed the Anglo-Saxon rules.

* Vide Latham's English Language, chap. vi, p. 225.

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The Anglo-Saxon demonstrative stands thus, "he" masculine, as we use the word at present, heo ” feminine, and "hit" neuter, as already mentioned. From this “heo ” feminine, our pronoun “she” can never have descended. In the AngloSaxon is another demonstrative pronoun,"pot," neuter, from which we have derived our demonstrative "that," though we have despoiled it of its gender, and “seo" feminine. Except in some of our dialects, we have altogether discarded the regular feminine “heo,” and selected for it, "seo,” now our feminine pronoun

"she;" having, contrary to our treatment of the Anglo-Saxon "hit,” aspirated the word according to the caprice of custom-the jus et norma loquendi.

The total want of the neuter gender in the English nouns seems to have arisen from the influence of the Norman-French in modifying the structure of our tongue. Still our genderless nouns must be referred to by pronouns, as well as those nouns which have their genders marked out by sexual distinctions. And as the Norman-French has no neuter nouns, and consequently no neuter pronoun to represent them, the modelers of our present tongue were of necessity compelled to retain the Anglo-Saxon pronouns neuter to remedy this deficiency.

If there has been a seeming capriciousness in the foundation of our demonstrative pronouns with generic distinctions, there has been no less such a one in their declensions. Unless we admit the genitive form of our nouns to be a case, not only are most of our nouns-substantive genderless, but caseless likewise. This has by no means been the fact with pronouns. As for example, the pronoun “she," while it retains the same number of cases as the other pronouns, presents us with an anomaly in them. Our grammurs presume to decline this pronoun thus : Nominative “she,” genitive “hers," objective “ her.”

“ Hers” and “her can have no connection with "she.” “Her" is the Anglo-Saxon dative case of the demonstrative “heo,” and “hers” is a double case, being the

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genitive form of that original dative. This genitive form in s" is almost the only remnant of the Anglo-Saxon declensions which as a general form we have retained in modern English, being derived from the complex declension of that tongue.

So far our pronouns, strangely selected as they may appear to be, have been selected from the Anglo-Saxon tongue. Yet the Anglo-Saxon pronouns themselves are not all pure. There seems to be a selection in them. We will exemplify this point or position. Our grammars-copies of preceding

— grammars—chiefly in the classical tongues, decline the pronoun of the first person thus : Nominative “I,” possessive "mine," objective“ me.” “I,” in Anglo-Saxon "ia," in Old Norse, “ic” and “ck," commutes with the Greek “ {y," and the Latin "ego,” according to rule. “I” is indeclinable, having no oblique case. “ Me," which we make accusative or objective, is the Anglo-Saxon dative "me." The old genitive or possessive “mine” is the regular Anglo-Saxon genitive “min." But not satisfied with this genuine form we have substituted, unless in answer to interrogatives, the possessive adjective pronoun "my" for it. We have thus a nominative undeclined of Gothic descent, with a genitive and objective form borrowed from some other quarter. From no other can we have borrowed the oblique cases of the first personal pronoun than from the Keltic stock, the first case nominative therein being in Welsh "mi,” in Erse "ma,” in Gælic "mi.” And not only have we and the whole kindred families of Goths been indebted thus for the oblique cases first named to Kelts, but also the Greeks, Romans and most, if not all, the civilized nations of Europe. A question this for philology to account for.

We have not, however, limited ourselves to such selections as the above from among the Anglo-Saxon pronouns, but we have taken similar liberties with the Scandinavian tongues. This may be instanced in the class of pronouns in our word

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