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ART. VI.A Universal and Critical Dictionary of the English Language; to which are added Walker's Key to the Pronunciation of Classical and Scripture Proper Names, much enlarged and improved; and a Pronouncing Vocabulary of Modern Geographical Names. By JOSEPH E. WORCESTER. Boston: Wilkins, Carter, & Co. Imperial 8vo. pp. 955.
AT the beginning of the present century, a proposition for the publication of an American dictionary of the English language would have excited great amazement. The projecting of such a work, as a rival of the dictionaries of Johnson and Walker, would have caused great merriment among the scholars of England; and any expectation cherished among us of superseding these authorities by a standard American dictionary would have been ridiculed by them, as a puerile attempt to embalm the American language with all its provincial peculiarities. Something of distrust, too, would have prevailed among the best scholars of the United States, who regarded English classical works as a part of their inheritance, and as models of style. It was not to be feared, indeed, that the diversity between England and the United States, in regard either to the written or spoken language, would ever become so remarkable as that between Spain and Portugal. The advancement of learning among us was so considerable, that such an apprehension would have been unreasonable. But fears not altogether groundless were entertained, both by American and English scholars, lest by inattention, or indifference, or a false notion of independence, there should be such a departure in the United States from English usage, either by the creation of new words, or by the use of words in new senses, or by combinations of words in violation of established idiom, as to produce great inconvenience in the intercourse between the parent country and the young confederacy, and a prejudice against us injurious to the growth of our literary reputation.
So early as 1789, Dr. Franklin, in a letter addressed to Noah Webster, cited several unauthorized words and phrases which had crept into our written language and parliamentary speeches, and advised him, in his future works for the cultivation of the English language, to set a discountenancing mark
upon such of them as were not required by the peculiar circumstances of our political institutions and local customs. Among the words strangely perverted, not only from the etymological, but from the secondary or metaphoric, signification, he instanced the word improve, as a verb denoting use or occupancy, applied both to persons and things. This was an old perversion of the word in New England, in its application to persons. It was thus used in the colonial laws of New Haven, about the middle of the seventeenth century. It was ordered, that the magistrates or other suitable officers should see that parents and masters provided means for teaching their children and apprentices to read the Scriptures and other good and profitable printed books in the English tongue, by improving schoolmasters or other helps." Similar examples might be multiplied. At a later period, the word was applied to the use or occupancy of houses and lands. Such a use of the word was common at the beginning of the present century; but we do not remember to have seen or heard it in this sense for many years.
Mr. Webster, no doubt, received the caution of Dr. Franklin with respect; but he was ever apt to touch with a lenient hand the trespasses of his countrymen against the established usages of standard English writers. In his large dictionary, he gives, as the sixth and last meaning of the verb improve," to use, to occupy "; as in the example, "The house or farm is now improved by an industrious tenant." But in the peculiar New England use of the word, it mattered not whether the tenant were industrious or slothful, careful or wasteful. The word industrious, in the example, so qualifies the character of the tenant, as to countenance the legitimate meaning of the verb; namely, bettering the premises. We do not suppose that Mr. Webster aimed to procure favor for the word, in its perverted sense, by stealth; although, by his remark subjoined to the example, he does not set a discountenancing mark upon it. "This application," he says, “is perhaps peculiar to some parts of the United States. It, however, deviates little from that in some of the foregoing definitions."
Among the literary gentlemen of Boston and Cambridge there arose, near the beginning of the present century, a vigilance for the preservation of the English language in its purity, which deserves to be kept in remembrance, as a part
of the literary history of the country. Several of them united in forming an association for literary intercourse, and for conducting a periodical and miscellaneous journal, which they entitled The Monthly Anthology. Among the associates were John S. Gardiner, William Emerson, John T. Kirkland, William Tudor, Arthur M. Walter, Joseph S. Buckminster, Samuel C. Thacher, and others, some of whom still survive. All here named, except Dr. Gardiner, who was educated in England, and those not named, with two or three exceptions, received their discipline in English composition at Harvard College, under the rigid inspection of Dr. Pearson, an exact grammatical and logical critic. What they had well begun they pursued with ardor. Many of them were eminent scholars, and widely conversant with the Greek and Latin, as well as the English, classics. In their associated authority they visited with severe criticism contemporaneous publications of professional and literary men, not overlooking single occasional sermons, and orations delivered before large assemblies on national festive days, and before literary and charitable associations. In this way their critical commentaries reached a large portion of our educated men, who were thus put upon their guard with a degree of strictness corresponding to that exercised by the sentinels.
Contemporaneously with the endeavours of the associated conductors of the Anthology, in the capital of New England, to preserve the purity of the English language, we were admonished, in a manner sometimes friendly and sometimes supercilious, of our degeneracy in the use of our mother tongue, by writers in the British journals. In whatever spirit the admonitions were administered, their operation was salutary in the end. If the authors of them were hypercritical, we had scholars who were competent to expose their exaggerations. If they drew general conclusions from few examples, we were able to show the fallacy of their inferences.
The Edinburgh Review, in the period of its youth (October, 1804), took notice of Marshall's and Ramsay's Lives of Washington. The reviewers said, "We have found a great many words and phrases which English criticism refuses to acknowledge." To show that they were not influenced by jealousy or pride, they added generous and enlarged wishes and anticipations in regard to the prosperity and glory of the United States, to the triumphs - No. 134.
therein of the English language, and to the alliance of interest and affection between the two countries. "But," they said, "if the men of birth and education in that other England, which they are building up in the west, will not diligently study the great authors who purified and fixed the language of our common forefathers, we must soon lose the only badge that is still worn of our consanguinity."
For several succeeding years, we continued to receive warning and advice from writers in various British periodical publications, in relation to the purity and integrity of our common language. The American works which gave occasion to their remarks were few in number. Marshall's, Ramsay's, and Bancroft's biographies of Washington, Pinckney's Travels through France, and Stoddard's Sketches of Louisiana, were among the prominent books that fell under their notice.
The British Critic (1808), in a review of Marshall, says,
"We have often discovered, in the writings of Americans, deviations from the purity of the English idiom, which we have been more disposed to censure than to wonder at. The common speech of the United States has departed very considerably from the standard adopted in England. Mr. Marshall deviates occasionally, but not grossly." In the same work, two years later, the reviewers of Bancroft's Life of Washington say, "We observe with regret rather than with astonishment the introduction of several new words, or old words in a new sense; a deviation from the rules of the English language, which, if it continues to be practised by good writers in America, will introduce confusion into the medium of intercourse, and render it a subject of regret that the people should not have an entirely separate language."
The Critical Review (1807), speaks more disparagingly of Marshall's style than does the British Critic, saying, that "it abounds with many of those idioms which prevail on the other side of the Atlantic."
The Annual Review (1808), after commenting upon the faults of Marshall, concludes with a harsh, indiscriminate censure of the American writers, spiced with a sly sarcasm for the benefit of the Yankee nation. "We have been more particular," say the reviewers, "in noticing the faults of Mr. Marshall's language, because we are not at all certain that the Americans do not consider them as beauties; and because
we wish, if possible, to stem that torrent of barbarous phraseology, with which the American writers threaten to destroy the purity of the English language."
All these things, and more like them, were written before the sarcastic question, "Who reads an American book?" was propounded. How far the critics were conscious of magnifying the danger which seemed to threaten the purity of the English language, as written and spoken in the United States, and whether they did not affect a good deal, in respect to the extent of the fears which they expressed lest its identity with genuine English should be lost or destroyed, we will not undertake to decide. Nor is it of any importance that we should. There is no reason to think that they combined for the purpose of exciting a causeless alarm. In regard to danger there was no question. It had already begun; and the true question was about the degree, and how it was to be arrested. It was a matter of mutual interest; and if some of us were too sensitive under rebuke, for the moment, we were wise enough afterwards to con it in private, and not subject ourselves to its repetition.
On the other hand, the English critics knew, that, while we were daily feasting on the classic productions of our fatherland, we were also advancing in literature, in the arts and sciences, and in a more critical study and careful use of the common language. After all, they must have been aware that occasional deviations from the English standard would entitled, if they were not wilful, to as much indulgence as was claimed by Beattie, Campbell, and Burke, for their national peculiarities in the use of words and phrases.
To show the true state of the case in regard to departure from English usage in the written and spoken language of our countrymen, that eminent scholar, the late John Pickering, after making the subject a diligent study among his other various avocations, communicated to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences the result of his investigations, which was inserted in its Memoirs in 1815. In the following year he published the communication in a separate volume, "with corrections and additions." The book is entitled, "A Vocabulary, or Collection of Words and Phrases, which have been supposed to be peculiar to the United States of America to which is prefixed an Essay on the Present State of the English Language in the United States."