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Dr. Noah Webster is one of the few men in the United States, who have made literature a profession; and in one department be has attained to distinguished eminence. His name is not to be mentioned but with respect; yet he has attempted innovations in the language, which the literary public have refused to sanction. In early life, he started with the idea of spelling the language as it is pronounced, and published an octavo volume, consisting of dissertations on the English language, which was written in this manner. That work is a literary curiosity. He who has fallen upon it for the first time, may have conjectured, for the moment, that it was Dutch, or some other foreign language ; but would hardly have thought that it was none other than his mother tongue. This experiment failed ; but the author of it was not discomfited. In subsequent publications he attempted minor alterations; and as a proof of the absurdity of the scheme, be sometimes spelled the same word differently in different parts of the same volume. These alterations were not adopted by the literary public. In the publication of his great dictionary, Dr. Webster has opened a powerful battery for the defence of his favorite scheme. This work, while it undoubtedly possesses great merit, and is probably the most learned etymological dictionary in the language, contains many innovations in orthography, and in some other respects, which it is believed will never be sanctioned by the great body of scholars in Great Britain or America; and if they are not expunged from the work by some friendly hand after his death, (for he would not probably suffer it to be done during his life,) they will prevent it from becoming an authoritative standard of the language.
On no subject is American scholarship more vulnerable by British critics, than in regard to purity and propriety of language, and on none have their animadversions been more unsparing. Even if they were actuated only by jealousy and rivalship, it would be wise to listen to their remarks. The maxim should be adopted,
'Fas est ab hoste doceri:'
but the language in which their criticism is expressed, as well as other circumstances, often forbids the idea that they are chiefly governed by such unworthy motives. The following extracts from some of their best reviews, may be considered as expressing the general sense of the literary public in Great Britain on this subject.
The British Critic for February, 1810, in a review of Bancrofi's Life of Washington, says: 'In the style we observe with regret, rather than 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 of that continent should not have an entirely separate language as well as government of their own. Instances occur in almost every page.' The same Review, in April, 1808, in its account of Marshall's Life of WashINGTON, says : * In the writings of the Americans, we have discovered 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 ; and in this case it is not to be expected that writers, however cautious, will maintain a strict purity. Mr. Marshall deviates occasionally, but not grossly.'
The Eclectic Review for August, 1813, in noticing the Sketches of Louisiana, by Major A. Stoddard, remarks : 'For an American, the composition is tolerable ; but the Major has a good share of those words and phrases which his literary countrymen must, however reluctantly, relinquish, before they will rank with good writers. The standard is fixed, unless it were possible to consign to oblivion the assemblage of those great authors on whose account the Americans themselves are to feel a complacency in their language to the latest ages.
The Edinburgh Review for October, 1804, has the following remarks : '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 loose the only badge that is still worn of our consanguinity. The same reviewers, in their remarks on Marshall's and Ramsay's Life of WASHINGTON, observe: “In these volumes we have found a great many words and phrases, which English criticism refuses to acknowledge. America has thrown off the yoke of the British nation, but she would do well for some time to take the laws of composition from the Addisons, the Swifts, and the Robertsons of her ancient sovereign. These remarks, however, are not dictated by any paltry feelings of jealousy or pride. We glory in the diffusion of our language over a new world, where we hope it is yet destined to collect new triumphs; and in the brilliant perspective of American greatness, we see only pleasing images of associated prosperity and glory of the land in which we live.'
The writer can hardly forbear to interrupt the course of these quotations, by contrasting the above generous professions with a contemptuous article in this same review, on American authors. The reviewer says: “They have had one Dwight, whose baptismal name was Timothy, who wrote a book of poems. A work on Theology, by this same Dwight, “whose baptismal name was Timothy,' has since been published, which has had a more extensive circulation, and been in higher estimation in their own island, than any work on a similar subject by a native author. Five sets of stereotype plates, in different parts of the kingdom, were at the same time throwing them off
, at a rapid rate, to meet the public demand. Nor,' says a critic of their own, 'is the reputation of the work likely to be ephemeral. It is evidently the production of one of the master-spirits of the christian church.'
But let us turn from these foreign critics, to an authority less liable to suspicion. I refer to Doctor Witherspoon, the learned President of Princeton college. He was a scholar and a writer of no mean rank, before he came to America; and was prepared, by his long residence in the United States, to make correct observations on this subject, and would be better qualified to detect departures from the English idiom in American writers and speakers than a native citizen.
Let it not be imagined that his remarks were the offspring of prejudice. A man who magnanimously breasted the storm of the revolution, and fearlessly set his name to the Declaration of Independence, is not to be suspected of being the foe of American literature. He says: 'I shall also admit, though with some hesitation, that gentlemen and scholars in Great Britain speak as much with the vulgar in common chit chat, as persons of the same class do in America ; but there is a remarkable difference in their public and solemn discourses. I have heard in this country, in the Senate, at the bar, and from the pulpit, and see daily in the dissertations from the press, errors in grammar, improprieties and vulgarisms, which hardly any persons of the same class in point of rank and literature would have fallen into in Great Britain." In connexion with this quotation, it ought, however, to be observed, that literature has made signal advances in the United States, since the time of Witherspoon.
These remarks, while they should stimulate American scholars to the diligent cultivation of the English language, and to the formation of a pure and elegant style, should by no means be suffered to produce despondency. After all reasonable abatements are made, it is still true that American literature, from the planting of the first foot on the rock of Plymouth to the present time, has never been contemptible, and has been regularly and gradually advancing in respectability. The first fathers of New-England were many of them from among the literati of the mother country; and in less than twenty years from the time that the first tree was felled, and the first log hut was erected in the wilderness, Cambridge College was founded. From the earliest times, America has had her Fellows of the Royal Society of London, an honor which has been bestowed on provincialists and foreigners with no unsparing hand.
The United States are beginning to pay the literary debt which they owe to the mother country, and may yet become a main pillar in the support of the English language. When the sun in the heavens is approaching to his setting to the inhabitants of Great Britain, he is shedding his meridian splendor on the western world. And perhaps when the sun of literature and science in England may be hastening to its going down, it may be shedding on the people of the United States the broad effulgence of its noon-tide glory. Such an event, , however, is neither to be desired, nor to be confidently expected. The greater probability is, that both nations, at a future period, will run an equal race of literary distinction.
A servile imitation of distinguished writers, who amidst great excellencies have prominent defects, is another source of danger to the purity and beauty of the English language. An eminent writer occasionally arises, whose majesty of thought and splendor of diction attract a general admiration, and whose distinguished excellencies throw a mantle over his minor defects. It requires great judgment and taste to separate the excellencies from the defects of such a writer; a judgment and taste which are not always possessed and exercised. Such writers are sure to have many imitators. Such an author, among others is, Chalmers. While the greatness of his thoughts and the splendor of his imagery attract universal admiration, he is far from
being a good model of style. Many a youthful theologian, after he has interlarded his discourse with the quaint peculiarities of this distinguished writer, fancies that he has put on the splendid robe of Chalmers, when in fact he has only stolen bis rags.
A rage for new works, and original authors, constitutes another danger lo which the English language is exposed. A love of novelty is, indeed, a characteristic of an ingenious people. All the Athenians, we are told in the volume of inspiration, spent their time in nothing else but to hear and to learn some new thing. No doubt authors may be expected from time to time to arise, who will be an ornament to English literature. But after all, it is undoubtedly true, that the most valuable literature and science in the English language is from half a century to a century and an balf old. This is the mine which must be explored and wrought by him who would bring forth the treasures, and display the riches, of the language.
A few remarks on the future prospects of the language, as to its extension and prevalence, will bring this paper to a close. The English language, it may be confidently asserted, embodies more valuable literature and science than any other that was ever written or spoken. This circumstance will be sure to attract to it the regard of the learned and enlightened of every country. The butterflies of fashion, that flutter around the courts of modern Europe, may prefer the French. Let it, if they please, have the honor of being the court language of Europe. But the learned in these countries will always set a higher value on the English. Nor will they be content to derive a knowledge of English authors merely from translations. The spirit of English literature would extensively evaporate in a translation.
The British empire, although it has its seat in a few small islands of the ocean,
has its colonies in the four quarters of the world. In Canada and the West Indies, in Western and Southern Africa, in Hindostan and New-Holland, the English language has a firm establishment, and every prospect of an extension. Among the millions of India, a broad field for its conquests, the English is perpetually trenching upon the languages of the natives. The United States, stretching through the breadth of a continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, which is yet to be spread over with a vast number of enlightened freemen, furnishes a distinguished theatre where the English language may extend its triumph, and rear up the monuments of its glory.
The English is the language of two of the most commercial nations on the globe ; and British and American commerce cannot fail to carry it, as on the wings of the wind, to the utmost ends of the earth. The two nations that speak this language are also, more extensively than all others, engaged in missionary operations, and appear to be destined to be the principal instruments in the diffusion of christianity to every nation of the world. Wherever missionary establishments are formed by these people, the English language is likely to be gradually introduced. No doubt missionaries will extensively learn the languages of those to whom they are sent; and translations of the Scriptures, and other valuable works, will be made into these lan
guages, especially for the use of the adult population. But much of missionary effort will be expended upon the young; and the children in schools will be likely to be taught the English language, that an access may be opened to them, without the labor of translations, to the great fountain of English literature and science.
Though the English can scarcely hope to become the universal language, no other language has an equal prospect of becoming nearly so. The author who can produce a work in this language, which is worthy to go down to posterity, knows not to what a vast congregation it may be his privilege ultimately to speak, and how many unborn millions it may be his high honor to entertain and to instruct.