The Continuance of Every Language.

A pleasing obiter dictum from the melancholic and magisterial Samuel Johnson (via Laudator Temporis Acti):

Every man’s opinion, at least his desires, are a little influenced by his favourite studies. My zeal for languages may seem, perhaps, rather over-heated, even to those by whom I desire to be well esteemed. To those who have nothing in their thoughts but trade or policy, present power, or present money, I should not think it necessary to defend my opinions; but with men of letters I would not unwillingly compound, by wishing the continuance of every language, however narrow in its extent, or however incommodious for common purposes, till it is reposited in some version of a known book, that it may be always hereafter examined and compared with other languages, and then permitting its disuse. For this purpose, the translation of the Bible is most to be desired.

Needless to say, I disagree with the idea that once it is reposited a language can be disposed of, but still: a noble sentiment.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    SJ’s opinion is reasonable enough, with the minor caveat that he has somewhat underestimated the difficulty of fully documenting a language: a difficulty so grave, in fact, that it has never yet been overcome with any language whatsoever. Accordingly, we need to keep all the speakers around for the foreseeable future, if we wish (as he rightly implies) to avoid the irreparable loss of linguistic knowledge.

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    The google books n-gram viewer shows a pretty dramatic crash in the rate of usage of “reposited” between approx 1820 and 1920 … although the etymologically-related noun “repository” has by contrast increased in usage since 1920 while “reposited” flatlined at a low level.

  3. “… and then permitting its disuse.”


    I disagree with the idea that once it is reposited a language can be disposed of, but still: a noble sentiment.

    Permitting disuse is not the same as disposing of. Johnson’s attenuation of his wish for continuance scarcely diminishes its nobility – given the cultural and sociopolitical milieu in which it is expressed.

    “… with men of letters I would not unwillingly compound …”

    Interesting old use of the verb compound, as meaning “agree, arrange, make a compact, settle”. Compare Dickens in David Copperfield:

    The proposed tea-drinkings being quite impracticable, I compounded with Miss Lavinia for permission to visit every Saturday afternoon, without detriment to my privileged Sundays.

  4. “Given the cultural an sociopolitical…”,

    Or else people who have balls to think and say what they think just seldom become famous enough for you to read what they wrote:)

  5. But I only disagree with the idea that following your milieu hardly makes a sentiment less “noble”.

  6. Interesting old use of the verb compound

    Yes, I liked that as well.

  7. John Cowan says

    Not so old: it’s legalese. The OED, senses 7-9 and 11-15 (quotations omitted):

    7. Of the parties: To settle (a matter) by mutual concession; to compromise.

    a. To settle (a debt) by agreement for partial payment; to discharge (a recurring charge or subscription) by paying a lump sum.

    b. To settle (any matter) by a money payment, in lieu of other liability.

    9. Said of the creditor or claimant: To accept a composition for; to condone (a liability or offence) for money or the like; to settle privately with one.

    to compound a felony (or the like): to forbear prosecution for some consideration, which is an offence at law. […]


    11. To come to terms or settle a dispute, by compromise or mutual concession.

    12. To come to terms as to the amount of a payment; to make a pecuniary arrangement (with a person, for forgoing a claim, conferring a benefit, etc.).

    a. To come to terms and pay for an offence or injury; to substitute a money payment in lieu of any other liability or obligation; to pay.

    b. To discharge any liability or satisfy any claim by a compromise whereby something lighter or easier is substituted.

    c. To pay one sum as a final discharge for an annual or recurring charge or subscription.

    14. Of an insolvent debtor: To settle with creditors and pay a fixed proportion in discharge of their full claims.

    a. To accept a composition in lieu of one’s full claims, or of things relinquished.

    b. To accept terms of settlement in lieu of prosecution: hence the Committee for Compounding with Delinquents (i.e. Royalists) under the [English] Commonwealth.

  8. “composition” in definitions 9a and 15a is also legalese. I know it mainly from the Composition of Connacht, in which Gaelic landowners gave up their various corrodies, fees, cesses, tolls, tallage, cuttings, reliefs, resections, coyne, livery, kerntoe, coshery, cuddy, quelletteny, gyllycon, etc. in exchange for two simple English rents.

  9. “Kerntoe”? “Gyllycon”?
    I never thought taxes could be so adorable. I can’t find the words in any other context, alas.

  10. Gyllycon/Gillycon = giolla con “[tax to pay for] dog keeper, master of hounds”

    Kerntoe I guess is kearnety ceithearn tighe “[tax to pay for] household troop”

  11. Thanks! What about quelletteny?

  12. gyllycon

    i hear the cosplay is amazing.

  13. What about quelletteny?

    I wondered about this too. Considering that cuddy is apparently cuid oidhche ‘food and lodging for the night’ (literally, ‘a night’s portion’), I wondered if quelletenny was something like cual teineadh ‘sufficient brushwood for a fire’ (literally, ‘a fire’s bundle’; cual, ‘bundle (as of sticks), pile’). But this is just rank speculation on my part.

  14. mollymolly, thank you, the list is beautiful.

  15. the cosplay

    I thought about it too. And now thinking about sil[ly]con… (In Russian kremnij “silicon” < kremen’ “flint”, silikon “silicone”)

  16. quelletteny must be Gilletinny “another kind of imposition, the sense of which I am ignorant of, unless it means a tax for finding fewel for the lord’s house. Gilla signifying a servant, and Teine fire” — Ware’s Antiquities

    resections should read refections, OCR error

  17. John Cowan says

    Even the purely English landlord-perks are pretty cool: “sake and soke, toll and team, infangthief and outfangthief, etc.” See the merchet page for many more.

  18. PlasticPaddy says

    @molly, Xerib
    Cá bhfuil giolla teine Fhinn
    Ceann Carrach bhíodh ag créim na gcnámh?
    nó Fachtna fíochmhar na gcluas ngéar,
    do chluinfeadh an féar glas ag fás?
    SEALG MHÓR LIOSS BRANDÓIGE, Na Caisidigh agus a gCuid Filíochta (1773)

    Do-rinneadh giolla teine de Airnealach agus do bhíodh ag baint bhrosnaidhe agus ag briseadh giúise chun teine do dheunamh do ‘n rígh agus d’á theaghlach agus ní gheibheadh an bheirt chlainne ríogh sin de bhiadh na de dhigh acht síol eornan agus uisge.
    An Chreach do ghabh Cathmann insa Mhumhain,
    Scéalta, Gaeilge i mBéarla Chill Dara (1914)

    There was a feudal role (seneschal?) with this nominal duty.

  19. John Cowan says

    GT turns “EACHTRA THAIDHG MHIC CÉIN.” into “THE ADVENTURE OF SON’S RESEARCH.” Decapitalizing it gives us “The adventure of a distant son.” These would be the adventures of Machine Translation in the land of Meaningful Proper Names.

  20. Thanks for those citations, PlasticPaddy!


    This looks like Irish cáin ‘law, regulation, rule; dues, tribute; fine, penalty’ (see also kane and kane foul in the DSL).

  21. PlasticPaddy says

    No worries. I get a thrill from these Gaelic laments 😊. Coyne is usually explained as ex coinmheadh “Billeting, quartering”; I suppose this was a term from Brehon law, but maybe the practice was either started with or became more frequent and onerous after the arrival of the Normans.
    Here is a link to the Middle Irish in eDIL:

  22. Excellent!

    The DSL has some choice citations for conveth where it occurs beside cain and sornyng.

    (Edit—for LH readers who are curious, there is a Wikipedia entry for Coign and livery.)

  23. PlasticPaddy says

    From Do saire cille delga inso,
    The Irish Charters in the Book of Kells, section 4

    Conid i cinaid in tsháraigthe sein do rat conchobor ua maelsechlaind cill delga co na crích & co na ferund do dia & do colum cille co brath cen cis cen chobach cen fecht cen luaged cen choinnim ríg na toisig fuirri mar […] ba raeimi, ar ni laimed taisech a tadall etir céin ro bai i crich.

    cis = rent
    cobach = tribute
    fecht = customary free entertainment
    luaged = “right of way/free movement”?
    coinnim = coinmheadh “billeting, quartering”

  24. coyne, coyny, coign is from coinmheadh billeting, quartering.

    cáin I think was anglicised cane, caan in those days

  25. Richard Thomas says

    “Compound” in the Johnsonian and OED senses is still alive and well in the UK statute book. The two principal Acts which govern the administration of taxes and duties, the Taxes Management Act 1970 and the Customs and Excise Act 1979 both feature it:

    s 102 TMA 1970: The Board may in their discretion mitigate any penalty, or stay or compound any proceedings for a penalty, and may also, after judgment, further mitigate or entirely remit the penalty.

    s 152(a) CEMA 1979: The Commissioners may, as they see fit—

    (a) compound an offence (whether or not proceedings have been instituted in respect of it) and compound proceedings ] or for the condemnation of any thing as being forfeited under the customs and excise Acts;

    but paragraph (a) above shall not apply to proceedings on indictment in Scotland.

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