Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 35. Old English Studies; Thomas Jefferson

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXV. Scholars

§ 35. Old English Studies; Thomas Jefferson

For the beginnings of Old English philology in America we must look once more to Thomas Jefferson. As has been noted, Jefferson favoured the study of the Germanic languages in general, and gave them a place in the proposed curriculum of William and Mary College and of the University of Virginia. Though he made no independent research into any of these languages, he had diligently studied and annotated several Anglo-Saxon grammars; he read Old English “with his feet on the fender”; and in the course of his works he expressed many ideas on English philology, some erroneous but all interesting. He favoured neologisms as a sign of a language’s vitality; he urged the systematic study of dialects because these often preserved racy and primitive forms which the literary language had lost; he felt that Anglo-Saxon was merely “old English”; he deprecated the treatment of Germanic grammar, old or new, as if it were Latin grammar; and he definitely recognized the connection of “the ancient languages and literature of the North … with our own language, laws, customs, and history.”