Nonfiction > G. Gregory Smith, ed. > Elizabethan Critical Essays
G. Gregory Smith, ed.  Elizabethan Critical Essays.  1904.
Richard Carew (1555–1620)
The Excellency of the English Tongue
[The following text is taken from the MS. of Carew’s Epistle on the Excellency of the English Tongue, preserved in the British Museum (Cott. F. xi, f. 265). It was printed by Camden in the 1614 edition of his Remains, with the heading, ‘The Excellencie of the English tongue, by R. C. of Anthony Esquire to W. C.’]

The Excellency of the English Tongue. By R. C., Esq.

IT were most fittinge (in respect of discretion) that men should first waye matters with Iudgement, and then encline their affection where the greatest reason swayeth, but ordinarilye it falleth out to the conntrarie; for either by nature or by Custome wee first settle our affection, and then afterwards drawe in those arguments to approue it, which should haue foregone to perswade ourselfes. This preposterous course, seing antiquitye from our Elders and vniuersalitye of our neighbours doe entitle with a right, I hould my selfe the more freely warranted delirare, not only cum Vulgo but also cum Sapientibus, in seekinge out with what Commendacions I may attire our English Languadge, as Stephanus hath done for the French and diuers others for theirs.
  Locutio 1 is defined Animi sensus per vocem expressio. On which grounde I builde these Consequences, that the first and principall point sought in euery Languadge is that wee maye expresse the meaning of our mindes aptlye ech to other; next, that we may doe it readilye without great adoo; then fullye, so as others maye thoroughlie conceiue us; and, last of all, handsomely, that those to whome we speake maye take pleasure in hearing vs: soe as what soeuer tongue will gaine the race of perfection must runn on those fower wheeles, Significancye, Easynes, Copiousnes, & Sweetnes, of which the two foremost importe a necessitye, the two latter a delight. Nowe if I can proue that our English Langwadge for all or the most is macheable, if not preferable, before any other in vogue at this daye, I hope the assent of any impartiall reeder will passe on my side. And howe I endeuoure to performe the same this short laboure shall manyfest.  2
  To 2 beginn then with the significancye, it consisteth in the lettres, wordes, and phrases; and because the Greeke and Latyne haue euer borne awaye the prerogatiue from all other tongues, they shall serue as touchstones to make our tryall by.  3
  For 3 letters, wee haue Q. more then the Greekes; K. and Y. more then the Latynes; and W. more then them both, or the French and Italians; for those Commone to them and vs, wee haue the vse of the Greek [beta]. in our V: of our B. they haue none; soe haue wee of their [delta] and [theta] in our Th. which in That and Things expresseth both, but of our D. they haue none. Likewise there [gamma] wee turne to another vse in yeeld then they cann, and as for C. G. and I. neither Greekes nor Latynes cann make perfitt of them as wee doe in these wordes ech, edge, ioye. Trew it is that wee in pronouncing the Latyne vse them alsoe after this manner; but the same in regard of the auncient and right Romayne deliuerye altogether abusiuely, as maye appeare by Scaliger, Sir Tho. Smith, Lipsius, and others.  4
  Now 4 for significancye of wordes, as euery indiuiduum is but one, soe in our natiue Saxon language wee finde many of them suitablye expressed by woordes of one syllable; those consisting of more are borrowed from other nations; the examples are infinite, and therefore I will omitt them, as sufficiently notorious.  5
  Againe, 5 for expressing our passions, our interiections are very apt and forcible: as findeinge ourselues somewhat agreeued, wee cry Ah; yf more deeply, Oh; when we pittie, Alas; when wee bemone, Alacke; neither of them soe effeminate as the Italyane Deh or the French hélas. In detestation wee saye Phy, as if there withall wee should spitt; in attention, Haa; i[n] calling, whowp; in hallowinge, wahahowe: all which (in my eare) seeme to be deriued from the very natures of those seuerall affections.  6
  Growe 6 from hence to the Compositione of wordes, and therein our Languadge hath a peculier grace, a like significancy, and more shorte then the Greekes; for example in Moldwarp wee expresse the nature of that beast; in handkercher the thing and his vse; in vpright, that vertue by a Metaphore; in Wisedome and Domsdaye, soe many sentences as wordes; and soe of the rest, for I geeue only a tast that may direct others to a fuller obseruation of what my soddaine memorye cannott represent vnto mee. It may passe allsoe the musters of this significancy that in a manner all the proper names of our people doe importe somewhat which, from a peculier note at first of some one of the Progenitors, in proces of tyme inuested it selfe [in] a possession of the posteritye, euen as wee see the like often befall to those whose fathers bare some vncouth Christian names. Yeat for the most parte wee avoyed the blemishe geuen by the Romanes in like cases, who distinguished the persones by the imperfections of their bodyes, from whence grew their Nasones, Labeones, Frontones, Dentones, and such like, how euer Macrobius coloreth the same. 7 Yea, soe significant are our wordes, that amongst them sundry single ones serue to expresse diuers thinges; as by Bill are ment a weapon, a scroll, and a birdes beake; by Graue, sober, a tombe, and to carue; and by light, marcke, match, file, sore, & praye, the semblable.  7
  Againe, some sentences in the same wordes carrye a diuers sence, as till, desert, grounde; some signifie one thing forward, and another backward, as Feeler I was no fo: of on saw I releef. Some signifie one self thinge forward and backward, as Ded deemed, I ioi, reuiuer, & this, eye did Madam erre. Some carry a conntrarye sence backwarde to that they did foreward, as I did leuell ere veu; veu ere leuell did I.  8
  Some deliuer a conntrarye sence by the diuers pointing, as the Epistle in Doctor Wilsons Rethorick, and many such like, which a curious head, leasure, & tyme might picke out.  9
  Neither 8 maye I omitt the significancy of our prouerbes, concise in wordes but plentifull in number, breiffly pointing at many great matters, and vnder the circuite of a few syllables prescribing soundry auayleable caueats.  10
  Lastly 9 our speech doth not consist only of wordes, but in a sorte euen of deedes, as when wee expresse a matter by Metaphors, wherin the English is very frutefull and forcible.  11
  And 10 soe much for the significancye of our Language in meaning; nowe for his easynes in learning. The same shooteth oute into towe braunches: the one of others learning our languadge, the second of our learning that of others. For the first the most parte of our wordes (as I haue touched) are Monasillables, and soe the fewer in tale, and the sooner reduced to memorye; neither are we loden with those declensions, flexions, and variations, which are incydent to many other tongues, but a few articles gouerne all our verbes and Nownes, and so wee neede a very shorte grammar.  12
  For 11 easye learning of other Languages by ours, lett these serue as prooffes; there are many Italyan wordes which the Frenchmen cannot pronounce, as accio, for which hee sayes ashio; many of the French which the Italian cann hardly come awaye withall, as bayller, chagrin, postillon; many in ours which neither of them cann vtter, as Hedge, Water. Soe that a straunger though neuer soe long conuersant amongest vs carryeth euermore a watch woorde vppon his tongue to descrye him by, but turne ann Inglishmann at any time of his age into what countrey soeuer, alloweing him dew respite, and you shall see him perfitt soe well that the Imitation of his vtteraunce will in nothing differ from the patterne of that natiue Languadge: the wante of which towardnes cost the Ephramites their skynnes. Neither doth this crosse my former assertione of others easye learninge our Language, for I meane of the sence & wordes & not touching the pronounciation.  13
  But 12 I must nowe enter into the lardge feild of our tongues copiousnes, and perhapps longe wander vp and downe without finding easye way off issew, and yeat leaue many partes thereof vnsuruayed.  14
  My 13 first prooff of our plentye I borowe from the choice which is geuen vs by the vse of diuers languages. The grounde of our owne apperteyneth to the old Saxon, little differing from the present low Dutch, because they more then any of their neighbours haue hitherto preserued that speach from any greate forrayne mixture. Heer amongst, the Brittons haue left diuers of their wordes entersowed, as it weere therby making a continuall clayme to their Auncient possession. Wee maye also trace the footestepps of the Danish bytter (though not longe duringe) soueraignty in these partes: and the Romaine also imparted vnto vs of his Latyne riches with noe sparing hand. Our neighbours the French haue been likewise, contented wee should take vp by retayle aswell their tearmes and their fashions, or rather wee retaine yeat but some remnant of that which once heere bare all the swaye, and daylye renewe the store. Soe haue our Italyan trauilers brought vs acquainted with their sweet relished phrases which (soe their condicions crept not in withall) weere the better tollerable. Yea euen wee seeke to make our good of our late Spanish enymye, and feare as little the hurt of his tongue as the dinte of his sworde. Seeing then wee borowe (and that not shamfully) from the Dutch, the Breton, the Romaine, the Dane, the French, Italyan, & Spanyard, how cann our stocke bee other then exceeding plentifull? It may be obiected that such patching maketh Littletons hotchpot of our tongue, and in effect bringes the same rather to a Babellish confusione then any one entyre Language. 14 It may againe be aunswered that this thefte of woordes is not lesse warranted by the priuilidge of a prescription, auncient and Vniuersall, then was that of goodes amongst the Lacedemonians by an enacted lawe, for soe the Greekes robbed the Hebrues, the Latynes the Greekes (which filching Cicero with a large discourse in his booke de Oratore defendeth), and (in a manner) all other Christiane Nations the Latyne. 15 For Euidence hereof, many sentences may be produced consistinge of wordes that in their oryginall are Latyne, and yeat (saue some smale varyaunce in their termynacions) fall out all one with the French, Dutch, and English, as Ley Ceremonious persons, offer prelate preest, cleere Candels flame, in Temples Cloistre, in Cholerick Temperature, clisters purgation is pestilent, pulers preseruatiue, subtill factors, aduocates, Notaries, practize, Papers, libells, Registers, Regents, Maiesty in pallace hath triumphant Throne, Regiments, Scepter, Vassalls supplication, and such like. Then euen as the Italyane Potentates of those dayes make noe difference in their pedigrees and successions betwne the bed lawfull or vnlawfull, where either an vtter wante or a better deserte doth force or entice them thervnto, so maye the consenting practise of these nations passe for a Iust Legitimation of those bastard wordes which either necessitye or conueniencye hath induced them to adopt.  15
  For 16 our owne partes, we imploye the borrowed ware soe far to our aduantag that we raise a profitt of new woordes from the same stock, which yeat in their owne countrey are not merchantable; for example, wee deduce diuers wordes from the Latine which in the Latyne self cannot be yealded, as the verbes To Aire, beard, cross, flame, and their deriuations ayring, ayred, bearder, bearding, bearded, &c., as alsoe closer, closely, closnes, glosingely, hourely, maiesticall, maiestically. In like sort wee graffe vppon Frentch wordes those buddes to which that soyle affordeth noe growth, as cheiffly, faulty, slauish, precisenes. 17 Diuers wordes alsoe wee deriue out of the Latyne at second hand by the French and make good English, though both Latyne and French haue their handes closed in that behalfe, as verbes Praye, Pointe, Paze, Prest, Rent, &c., and alsoe in the aduerbs carpingly, currantly, actiuely, colourably, &c.  16
  Againe, 18 in other languages there fall out defectes while they want meanes to deliuer that which another tongue expresseth, as (by Ciceroes obseruation) you cannot interpret ineptus (vnapt, vnfitt, vntoward) in Greek, neither Porcus, Capo, Vervex, a barrow hogg, a Capon, a wether, as Cuiacius noteth ad Tit. de verb. signif.; noe more cann you to stand in French, to Tye in Cornish, nor Knaue in Latyne, for Nebulo is a cloudye fellow, or in Irishe; whereas you see our abillitye extendeth hereunto. Moreouer, the Copiousnes of our Languadge appeareth in the diuersitye of our dialectes, for wee haue court, and wee haue countrye Englishe, wee haue Northern and Southerne, grosse and ordinary, which differ ech from other, not only in the terminacions, but alsoe in many wordes, termes, and phrases, and expresse the same thinges in diuers sortes, yeat all right Englishe alike; neither cann any tongue (as I am perswaded) deliuer a matter with more varietye then ours, both plainely and by prouerbes and Metaphors; for example, when wee would be rid of one, wee vse to saye Bee going, trudge, pack, be faring, hence, awaye, shifte, and, by circumlocution, rather your roome then your companye, Letts see your backe, com againe when I bid you, when you are called, sent for, intreated, willed, desiered, inuited, spare vs your place, another in your steede, a shipp of salte for you, saue your credite, you are next the doore, the doore is open for you, theres noe bodye holdes you, no bodie teares your sleeue, &c. Likewise this worde fortis wee maye synnonomize after all these fashions, stoute, hardye, valiaunt, doughtye, Couragious, aduenturous, &c.  17
  And 19 in a worde, to close vp these prooffes of our copiousnes, looke into our Imitacione of all sortes of verses affoorded by any other Language, and you shall finde that Sr. Phillip Sidney, Mr. Stanihurst, and diuers moe, haue made vse how farre wee are within compasse of a fore imagined impossibility in that behalff.  18
  I com 20 nowe to the last and sweetest point of the sweetnes of our tongue, which shall appeare the more plainelye yf, like towe Turkeyes, or the London Drapers, wee match it with our neighboures. 21 The Italyan is pleasante but without synewes, as to stillye fleeting water; the French delicate but ouer nice, as a woman scarce daring to open her lipps for feare of marring her countenaunce; the Spanishe maiesticall, but fullsome, running to much on the O, and terrible like the deuill in a playe; the Dutch manlike, but withall very harshe, as one ready at euery worde to picke a quarrell. Now wee in borrowing from them geue the strength of Consonantes to the Italyan, the full sounde of wordes to the French, the varietye of termi[na]cions to the Spanish, and the mollifieinge of more vowells to the Dutch; and soe (like bees) gather the honye of their good properties and leaue the dreggs to themselfes. And thus, when substantiallnes combyneth with delightfullnes, fullnes with fynes, seemelynes with portlynes, and courrantnes with staydnes, howe canne the languadge which consisteth of all these sounde other then most full of sweetnes? 22 Againe, the longe wordes that wee borrowe, being intermingled with the shorte of our owne store, make vp a perfitt harmonye, by culling from out which mixture (with Iudgment) yow maye frame your speech according to the matter you must worke on, maiesticall, pleasaunte, delicate, or manly, more or lesse, in what sorte you please. 23 Adde hereunto, that what soeuer grace any other Languadge carryeth, in Verse or Prose, in Tropes or Metaphors, in Ecchoes or Agnominations, they maye all be liuely and exactly represented in ours. Will you haue Platos vayne? reede Sir Thomas Smith: The Ionick? Sir Tho. Moor: Ciceros? Aschame: Varro? Chaucer: Demosthenes? Sir Iohn Cheeke (who in his treatise to the Rebells hath comprised all the figures of Rhetorick). Will yow reade Virgill? take the Earll of Surrey: Catullus? Shakespheare, and Marlowes fragment: Ouid? Daniell: Lucane? Spencer: Martiall? Sir John Dauis and others. Will yow haue all in all for prose and verse? take the miracle of our age Sir Philip Sydney.  19
  And thus, if myne owne Eyes be not blinded by affection, I haue made yours to see that the most renowned of other nations haue laied vp, as in Treasure, and entrusted the Diuisos orbe Britannos with the rarest Iewelles of their lipps perfections, whether yow respect the vnderstanding for significancye, or the memorye for Easynes, or the conceipt for plentifullnes, or the Eare for pleasauntnes: wherin if inough be diliuered, to add more then Inough weare superfluous; if to little, I leaue it to bee supplied by better stored capacityes; if ought amisse, I submitte the same to the disciplyne of euery able and Impartiall censurer.  20
Note 1. Four pointes requisite in a Languadge. [back]
Note 2. Significancye. [back]
Note 3. Letters. [back]
Note 4. Woords. [back]
Note 5. Interiections. [back]
Note 6. Compositione of Wordes. [back]
Note 7. Equiuoca. [back]
Note 8. Prouerbes. [back]
Note 9. Metaphors. [back]
Note 10. Easynes to be learned. [back]
Note 11. To learne others. [back]
Note 12. Copiousnes. [back]
Note 13. Borrowing of others. [back]
Note 14. Answere. [back]
Note 15. Words one in diuers Languages. [back]
Note 16. Encrease in borrowinge. [back]
Note 17. Of Latyne in the French. [back]
Note 18. Defects of other tongues. [back]
Note 19. All sortes of Verses. [back]
Note 20. Sweetnes. [back]
Note 21. Compared with others. [back]
Note 22. Mixture. [back]
Note 23. Verse and Prose. [back]

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