Anyhow, in this case the Briton's content with what he has got at home is well grounded. He certainly possesses a first-class language. As a curious example of the quaint use of it by a scholar and clever man in the middle of the seventeenth century, the following account of Sir Thomas Urquhart's book may be of some interest.
Sir Thomas is well known as the translator of Rabelais; and evidently something of the curious erudition, polyglotism, and quaintness of conceit of his author stuck to the translator. This book is the rarest of his tracts, all of which are uncommon, and has been hardly more than mentioned by name by the previous writers on the subject.
The title-page runs:
Printed and are to be sold by GILES CALVERT at the Black Spread-Eage at the West-end of Paul's, and by RICHARD TOMLINS at the Sun and Bible near Pye Corner. 1653.
The book opens with:
"My non-supponent Lord, and Soveraign Master of contradictions in adjected terms, that unto you I have presumed to tender the dedicacie of this introduction, will not seem strange to those, that know how your concurrence did further me to the accomplishment of that new Language, into the frontispiece whereof it is permitted."
After some preliminary remarks, he says:
"Now to the end the Reader may be more enamoured of the Language, wherein I am to publish a grammar and lexicon, I will here set down some few qualities and advantages peculiar to itself, and which no Language else (although all other concurred with it) is able to reach unto."
There follow sixty-six "qualities and advantages," which contain the only definite information about the language, for the promised grammar and lexicon never appeared. A few may be quoted as typical of the inducements held out to "pregnant and ingenious spirits," to the end they "may be more enamoured of the Language." The good Sir Thomas was plainly an optimist.
"...Sixthly, in the cases of all the declinable parts of speech, it surpasseth all other languages whatsoever: for whilst others have but five or six at most, it hath ten, besides the nominative.
"...Eighthly, every word capable of number is better provided therwith in this language, then [sic] by any other: for instead of two or three numbers which others have, this affordeth you four; to wit, the singular, dual, plural, and redual.
"...Tenthly, in this tongue there are eleven genders; wherein likewise it exceedth all other languages.
"...Eleventhly, Verbs, Mongrels, Participles, and Hybrids have all of them ten tenses, besides the present: which number no language else is able to attain to.
"...Thirteenthly, in lieu of six moods, which other languages have at most, this one enjoyeth seven in its conjugable words."
Sir Thomas evidently believed in giving his clients plenty for their money. He is lavish of "Verbs, Mongrels, Participles, and Hybrids," truly a tempting menagerie. He promises, however, a time-reduction on learning a quantity:
"...Seven and fiftiethly, the greatest wonder of all is that of all the languages in the world it is easiest to learn; a boy of ten years old being able to attain to the knowledge thereof in three months' space; because there are in it many facilitations for the memory, which no other language hath but itself."
Seventeenth-century boys of tender years must have had a good stomach for "Mongrels and Hybrids," and such-like dainties of the grammatical menu; but even if they could swallow a mongrel, it is hard to believe that they would not have strained at ten cases in three months. It might be called "casual labour," but it would certainly have been "three months' hard."
After these examples of grammatical generosity, it is not surprising to read:
"...Fifteenthly, in this language the Verbs and Participles have four voices, although it was never heard that ever any other language had above three."
Note that the former colleagues of the "Verbs and Participles," the "Mongrels and Hybrids," are here dropped out of the category. Perhaps it is as well, seeing the number of voices attributed to each. A four-voiced mongrel would have gone one better than the triple-headed hell-hound Cerberus, and created quite a special Hades of its own for schoolboys, to say nothing of light sleepers.
Under "five and twentiethly" we learn that "there is no Hexameter, Elegiack, Saphick, Asclepiad, Iambick, or any other kind of Latin or Greek verse, but I will afford you another in this language of the same sort"; which leads up to:
"...Six and twentiethly, as it trotteth easily with metrical feet, so at the end of the career of each line, hath it dexterity, after the manner of our English and other vernaculary tongues, to stop with the closure of a rhyme; in the framing whereof, the well-versed in that language shall have so little labour, that for every word therein he shall be able to furnish at least five hundred several monosyllables of the same termination with it."
A remarkable opportunity for every man to become his own poet!
"...Four and thirtiethly, in this language also words expressive of herbs represent unto us with what degree of cold, moisture, heat, or dryness they are qualified, together with some other property distinguishing them from other herbs."
In this crops out the idea that haunted the minds of medieval speculators on the subject: that language could play a more important part than it had hitherto done; that a word, while conveying an idea, could at the same time in some way describe or symbolize the attributes of the thing named. Imagine the charge of thought that could be rammped into a phrase in such a language. Imagine too, you who remember the cold shudder of your childhood when you heard the elders discussing a prospective dose -- intensified by all the horrors of imagination when the discussion was veiled in the "decent obscurity" of French -- imagine the grim realism of a language containing "words expressive of herbs," -- and expressive to that extent!
There seems, indeed, to have been something rather cold-blooded about this language:
"...Eight and thirtiethly, in the contexture of nouns, pronouns, and preposital articles united together, it administreth many wonderful varieties of Laconick expressions, as in the Grammar thereof shall more at large be made know unto you."
But, after all, it had a human side:
"...Three and fourtiethly, as its interjections are more numerous, so are they more emphatical in their respective expression of passions, than that part of speech is in any other language whatsoever.
"...Eight and fourtiethly, of all languages this is the most compendious in complement, and consequently fittest for Courtiers and Ladies."
Sir Thomas seems to have been a bit of a man of the world, too.
"...Fiftiethly, no language in matter of Prayer and Ejaculations to Almighty God is able, for conciseness of expression to compare with it; and therefore, of all other, the most fit for the use of Churchmen and spirits inclined to devotion."
This "therefore," with its direct deduction from "conciseness of expression," recalls the lady patroness who chose her incumbents for being fast over prayers. She said she could always pick out a parson who read service daily by his time for the Sunday service.
Sir Thomas is perhaps over-sanguine to a modern taste when he concludes:
"Besides the sixty and six advantages above all other languages, I might have couched thrice as many more of no less consideration than the aforesaid, but that these same will suffice to sharpen the longing of the generous Reader after the intrinsecal and most researched secrets of the new Grammar and Lexicon which I am to evulge."