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Northern Tongues

Portrait of Thomas Percy

Thomas Percy, after the portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Thomas Percy (1729-1811), an English antiquarian, writer and churchman, became Bishop of Dromore in Ulster in 1782. His literary fame is largely based on his edition of Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), a collection of English and Scottish ballads which encouraged popular interest in earlier literary forms.

In 1770 Percy published an English translation of Introduction a l'Histoire de Dannemarc by the French scholar Mallet, under the title Northern Antiquities: or, A Description of the Manners, Customs, Religion and Laws of the Ancient Danes, And other Northern Nations; Including those of our own Saxon Ancestors.

Percy, who undertook translations in languages as diverse as Chinese and Icelandic, showed his linguistic interests in the notes he added to Northern Antiquities. His lengthy Preface offered 'Proofs that the Teutonic and Celtic Nations were ab origine two distinct People', a point of disagreement with Mallet.

To demonstrate his case he laid out tables of the Gothic and Celtic families of languages, adding comparative versions of The Lord's Prayer in twenty-five different tongues. Of Gothic origin, for instance, was Icelandic itself and Broad Scotch; Ancient Irish and Welsh, by comparison, were Celtic.

The use of The Lord's Prayer as a model text for language comparison had a long history, and Percy drew on the research of earlier scholars for his data, notably the 1715 publication of J Chamberlayn's Oratio dominica in diversas omnium fere gentium linguas versa.

 

Specimens of the Gothic Languages, with text in Anglo-Saxon and Old Icelandic

Anglo-Saxon and Old Icelandic from Northern Antiquities

Specimens of the Celtic Languages, with text in Ancient British and Ancient Irish

Ancient Irish from Northern Antiquities

 

 

 

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