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First Period of English History and Literature. Origin of the English Language.
ITERATURE is the recorded expression of knowledge and fancy. In its widest sense, it includes all the written thoughts of mankind; in its more restricted sense, it excludes all technical works and embraces only those departments of thought in which all mankind have a common interest. The study of literature, therefore, implies the study of the works of poets, dramatists, novelists, philosophers, theologians, historians, essayists, and critics.
A history of literature consists of a chronological, systematic review of the literary productions of a nation, with the causes which mould the thoughts, feelings, and expressions of each successive period of time.
The history of English literature begins in the seventh century after Christ. The history of the English language begins ages before the Christian era, when our ancestors tilled their lands and fed their flocks in the heart of Asia.
The English language, a branch of the Teutonic, is one of the numerous offsprings of the great Aryan family, whose descendants reach from India in the east to the remotest portions of Europe in the west.* India, Persia, and the borders of the Caspian and Aral Seas formed the original seat of the Aryan race, and from this oriental home the tidal wave of immigration began; but what were the countless causes to create out of the common parent language all the various tongues of the Aryan family, we must leave to the philologist, remembering that languages flourish or decay in proportion as they are well or carelessly used.
We can gain an idea of the verbal changes that centuries may produce, when we notice the changes in our own language. In the speech of the old-fashioned, we hear the faint echoes of a departing language. The possessive its was not in use until the latter part of the seventeenth century. It seldom occurs in the earliest editions of Shakespeare, not once in the Bible, translated in 1611, and is rarely used by Milton. He says: "His form had yet not lost
All her original brightness."
The pronunciation and signification of words likewise undergo changes. The word let, which now means permit, once signified hinder.
"I will let that hunting gift that I may."‡
I will hinder that hunting if that I may.
So, likewise, the word prevent has lost its original meaning of anticipate. We find:
"Mine eyes prevent the night watches, that I might meditate in thy word."? The regeneration of a language or its decay depends upon the influences brought to bear upon it. If the speech of the educated prevail, the language will grow in strength and symmetry. In no way is corruption or decay more hastened than by the dropping of consonant sounds in words. In the course of time the English language, if learned from the uneducated or careless, and by the ear alone, would contain such words as "chile," "mounh'n," "weel," instead of child, mountain, wheel.
The seven great branches of the Aryan family are: 1. The Indic, or the language of India (its most ancient form the San
* From the names of these two extremities the Aryan language is sometimes called Indo-European. It is also called Indo-Germanic, because the German or Teutonic element forms so large a portion of the family.
† Gif was the old form of if.
From the Ballad of Chevy Chase.
Psalm exix. 148.
scrit); 2. The Iranic, or language of Persia; 3. The Hellenic, or Greek; 4. Italic, or Latin; 5. Teutonic, or Germanic; 6. Celtic, or Irish, Welsh, and Scotch; 7. Sclavonic, or the language of Russia, Poland, etc.
We need go no farther back in time than the first century before Christ, to find our ancestors resting, in their journey westward, on the banks of the Black Sea,* occupying a district east of the river Don or Tanais, as it was then called. The great leader of these people was Odint or Woden. This home of Odin and his people, on the banks of the Tanais or Don, was called Asgard or Godheim, the home of the Gods or Aesir people. But Odin, it is said, dreamed that far to the west or north-west he should find a home for his people-a Manheim. So again this great "seething people" take up their westward or north-westward course, and reach the shores of the Baltic and North Seas. They passed through the low-lying country of Saxe-land, immediately north of the Elbe River, and made settlements, over which the sons of Odin ruled. Angle-land lay just north of Saxe-land, and here Odin established his son Baldur, "the beautiful." Others of the tribe passed on to Jute-land, immediately north of Angleland, and corresponding to the present Jutland, as Angle-land corresponds to Schleswig, and Saxe-land to Holstein. Odin himself crossed over to the land of the Teutons, and established there his capital, Odens-öe § (Odin's Isand), still the capital of
*It will give increased interest to the subject to follow with a geographical map the migratory footsteps of these early ancestors.
There was probably a historic Odin, as well as the mythological deity Odin, the latter corresponding to the Zeus, or Jupiter, of the Greeks and Romans. In all these accounts we have to sift history from mythology, but the student has probably discovered that one of the most important lessons in life is to learn to extract the true from the false, the wheat from the chaff.
In the first century B. C. they were disturbed by the encroachments of the then all-conquering Roman.
? From this abode Odin sent envoys across the sound into Gothland or Sweden, and on arriving they transformed some of the giants (jotuns, a name signifying rudeness) into reindeer, and with them ploughed off a piece of land nearest Odins-öe. As it floated off they called it Selund (Zealand). Odin soon passed over into Sweden, and fixed his abode and temples for sacrifice near the present capital, Stockholm. Upsala and other towns of Sweden are also said to have been established by this great leader.