English as an old (ancient) language

Edward Gibbon with three volumes of his great history
A portrait by George Romney (1781)
(Trustees of British Museum)

I’ve mentioned having a copy of Edward Gibbon’s historical masterpiece “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” The copy that I have is not a copy at all, but an eight book set. I’m only into volume number two; his research seems thorough, but there are definite challenges to reading it and understanding it.

Edward Gibbon lived from 1757 to 1794 and so even the language used is already over two hundred years old. Its like looking at an episode of M*A*S*H. The comedy was set during the Korean War in the fifties, but the show was a 1970’s production.

For me, its history looking at history.

Gibbon’s writing style is far more formal than today, there is no “economy of words” to it. In fact, the work shows how English as evolved as a language; several years ago I happen to come across the writings of Julian of Norwich, a nun who lived four hundred years earlier, from 1342-1416. Her writings amply demonstrate how English has changed, significantly, over the centuries.

Of course, neither of these writers obviously had word processors or typewriters(for the youth out there, use your search engine to look up “typewriters”)

Gibbon, and Julian of Norwich, had nothing more than quill pen, and ink well, and parchment paper, so I can only guess that from his first words to the final edition, Gibbon must have gone through a thousand quill pens, a gallon of ink, and thousands of sheets of parchment paper.

An example of Gibbons 17th century style comes from the opening of Chapter 13: “As the reign of Diocletian was more illustrious than that of any of his predecessors, so was his birth more abject and obscure.”

I won’t even attempt Julian of Norwich, because her medieval style must be seen to be appreciated.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire must have been a true labour of love. It took him twelve years to write it and some of his own sources, such as Homer, writer of his own iconic Illiad and Odyssey, are of course much more ancient.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a great example of a history lesson in so many ways.

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