Evolutions in languages can give a false sense of differentness in writers of previous ages

September 8, 2021 • 2 min

From Life and Writings of Sir Thomas More, page n21

One singular result is inevitable from this method of presenting my materials.

More wrote both in Latin and in English. The English in the early part of the sixteenth century has become antiquated, and thus presents a great contrast with the translations from Latin into modern English.

More will, therefore, be found speaking, as it were, two languages, or two very different dialects of the same language—that of the first years of the sixteenth century, and that of the last years of the nineteenth.

If this is anomalous, it may serve to bring home to us an important fact. What we call the quaint words and turns of old English make us regard the writers or speakers of that language as themselves quaint, strange, uncouth, rude, simple, or in some way unlike men and women of the same class of society, the same talents and education at the present day.

But if they wrote in Latin, the delusion—for such it is—is dissipated.

Latin is to us what it was to them. It has not become antiquated or changed its form. We find that they wrote just as we should write, if we were as well versed in the language as they were.

They thought just as we think. We turn their words into our modern English, and all quaintness has disappeared. There is nothing odd or unusual in their way of reasoning or in their modes of feeling.

As soon as they speak our own language in our own form or dialect, we judge of them for good or evil as we judge of our contemporaries; and we cease to patronise them, as if they were only clever boys or promising savages.

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