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RISE AND PROGRESS OF LANGUAGE.
HAVING finished my observations on the pleasures of taste, which were meant to be introductory to the principal subject of these lectures, I now. begin to treat of language, which is the foundation of the whole power of eloquence. This will lead to a considerable discussion ; and there. are few, subjects belonging to polite literature, which mare merit such a discussion. I shall first give a history of the rise and progress of language in several particulars, from its early to its more advanced periods ; which shall be followed by a similar history of the rise and progress of writing. I shall next give some account of the construction of language, or the principles of universal grammar ; and shall, lastly, apply these obo servations more particularly to the English tongue.*
Language, in general, signifies the expression of our ideas by certain articulate sounds, which are used as the signs of those ideas. By articulate sounds, are meant those modulations of simple voice or of sound i emitted from the thorax, which are formed by means of the mouth, and its several organs, the teeth, the tongue, the lips, and the palate. How far there is any natural connexion between the ideas of the mind and the sounds emitted, will appear from what I am afterwards to offer. But as the natural connexion can, upon any system, affect only a small parts of the fabric of language ; the connexion between words and ideas may, in general, be considered as arbitrary and conventional, owing to the agreement of men among themselves; the clear proof of which is, that different nations have different languages, or a different set of articulate sounds, which they have chosen for communicating their ideas.
This artificial method of communicating thought, we now behold carried to the highest perfection. Language is become a vehicle by which the most delicate and refined emotions of one mind can be transmitted, or, if we may so speak, transfused into another. Not only are names give en to all objects around us, by which means an easy and speedy intercourse is carried on for providing the necessaries of life, but all the , relations and differences among these objects are minutely marked, the invisible sentiments of the mind are described, the inost abstract notions and conceptions are rendered intelligible ; and all the ideas which science can discover, or imagination create, are known by their proper names. Nay, language has been carried so far, as to be made an instrument of the.. most refined luxury. Not resting in mere perspicuity, we require orna
* See Dr. Adam Smith's Dissertation on the Formation of Languages.— Treatise on the Origin and Progress of Language, in 3 vols.--Harris's Hermes, or a Philosophical Inquiry concerning Language and Universal Grammar.---Essai sur l'Origine des Connoissances Humaines, par l'Abbe Condillac.--Principes de Grammaire, par Marsais. Gramınaire Generale et Raisonnée. –Traite de la Formation Mechanique des Langues, i per le Président de Brosses. Discours sur l'Inegalité parmi les Hommes, par Rosseau,
Grammaire Generale, par Beauzée.--Principes de la Traduction, par Batteux.-Warburton's Divine Megation of Moses, vol. iii. -Sanctii Minerva, cum notis Perizomi-- Les Vrais principes de la Langue Francoise, par l'Abbe Girard.
ment also; not satisfied with having the conceptions of others made known 10 us, we make a further demand, to have them so decked and adorned as to entertain our fancy; and this demand, it is found very possible to gratify. In this state, we now find language. In this state, it has been found among many nations for some thousand years. The object is become familiar; and, like the expanse of the firmament, and other great objects, which we are accustomed to behold, we behold it without wonder.
But carry your thoughts back to the first dawn of language among men. Reflect
upon the seeble beginnings from which it must have arisen, and upon
the many and great obstacles which it must have encountered in its progress; and you will find reason for the highest astonishment, on viewing the height which it has now attained. We admire several of the inventions of art; we plume ourselves on some discoveries which have been made in latter ages, serving to advance knowledge, and to render life comfortable; we speak of them as the boast of human reason. But certainly no invention is entitled to any such degree of admiration as that of language ; which too, must have been the product of the first and rudest ages, if indeed, it can be considered as a human invention at all.
Think of the circumstances of mankind when languages began to be formed. They were a wandering scattered race; no society among them except families; and the family society too very imperfect, as their method of living by hunting or pasturage must have separated them frequently from one another. In this situation, when so much divided, and their intercourse so rare, how could any one set of sounds, or words, be generally agreed on as the signs of their ideas? Supposing that a few, whom chance and necessity threw together agreed by some means upon certain signs, yet by what authority could these be propagated among other tribes or families, so as to spread and grow up into a language ? One would think, that in order to any language fixing and extending itself, men must, have been previously gathered together in considerable numbers ; society must have been already far advanced ; and yet, on the other hand, there seems to have been an absolute necessity for speech, previous to the formation of society. For, by what bond could any
multitude of men be kept together, or be made to join in the prosecution of any common interest, until once, by the intervention of speech, they could communicate their wants and intentions to each other ? So that, either how society could form itself, previously to language, or how words could rise into a language, previously to society formed, seem to be points attended with equal difficulty. And when we consider farther, that curious analogy which prevails in the construction of almost all languages, and that deep and subtle logic on which they are founded, difficulties increase so much upon us, on all hands, that there seems to be not small reason for referring the first origin of all language to divine teaching or inspiration.
But supposing language to have a divine original, we cannot, however, suppose, that a perfect system of it was all at once given to man. It is much more natural to think that God taught our first parents only such language as suited their present occasions ; leaving them, as he did in other things, to enlarge and improve it as their future necessities should require. Consequently, those first rudiments of speech must have been poor and narrow; and we are at full liberty to inquire in what manner, and by what steps, language advanced to the state in which we now find it. The history which I am to give of this progress, will suggest several
things, both curious in themselves, and useful in our future disquisitions.
If we should suppose a period before any words were invented or known, it is clear, that men could have no other method of communicating to others what they felt, than by the cries of passion, accompanied with such motions and gestures as were farther expressive of passion. For these are the only signs which nature teaches all men, and which are understood by all. One who saw another going into soine place where he himself had been frightened, or exposed to danger, and who sought to warn his neighbour of the danger, could contrive no other way of doing so than by uttering those cries, and making those gestures, which are the signs of fear: just as two men, at this day, would endeavour to make themselves be understood by each other, who should be thrown together on a desolate island, ignorant of one another's language. Those exclamations, therefore, which by grammarians are called interjections, uttered in a strong and passionate manner, were beyond doubt, the first elements or beginnings of speech.
When more enlarged communication became necessary, and names began to be assigned to objects, in what manner can we suppose men to have proceeded in this assignation of names, or invention of words ! Undoubtedly, by imitating, as much as they could, the nature of the object which they named, by the sound of the name which they gave to it. As a painter who would represent grass, must employ green colour ; so in the beginnings of language, one giving a name to any thing harsh or boisterous, would of course employ a harsh or boisterous sound. He could not do otherwise, if he meant to excite in the hearer the idea of that thing which he sought to name. To suppose words invented, or names given to things, in a manner purely arbitrary, without any ground or reason, is to suppose an effect without a cause. There must have always been some motive which led to the assignation of one name rather than another; and we can conceive no motive which would more universally operate upon men in their first efforts towards language, than a desire to paint by speech, the objects which they named, in a manner more or less complete, according as the vocal organs had it in their power to affect this imitation.
Wherever objects were to be named, in which sound, noise, or motion were concerned, the imitation by words was abundantly obvious. Nothing was more natural, than to imitate, by the sound of the voice, the quality of the sound or noise which any external object made ; and to form its name accordingly. Thus, in all languages, we find a multitude of words that are evidently constructed upon this principle. A certain bird is termed the cuckoo, from the sound which it emits. When one sort of wind is said to whistle, and another to roar; when a serpent is said to hiss; a fly to buz, and falling timber to crash; when a stream is said to flow, and bail to rattle; the analogy between the word and the thing signified is plainly discernible.
In the names of objects which address the sight only, where neither noise nor motion are concerned, and still more in the terms appropriated lo moral ideas, this analogy appears to fail. Many learned men, however, have been of opinion, that though in such cases, it becomes more obscure, yet it is not altogether lost; but that throughout the radical words of all languages, there may be traced some degree of correspondence with the object signified. With regard to moral and intellectual ideas, they remark, that in every language, the terms significant of them, are derived from the names of sensible objects to which they are conceived
to be analogous, and with regard to sensible objects pertaining merely to sight, they remark, that their most distinguishing qualities have certain radical sounds appropriated to the expression of them, in a great variety of languages. Stability, for instance, fluidity, lollowness, smoothness, gentleness, violence, &c. they imagine to be painted by the sound of cer tain letters or syllables, which have some relation to those different states of visible objects, on account of an obscure resemblance which the organs of voice are capable to assuming to such external qualities. By this natural mechanism, they imagine all languages to have been at first constructed, and the roots of their capital words formed.*
As far as this system is founded in truth, language appears to be not altogether arbitrary in its origin. Among the ancient Stoic and Platonic philosophers; it was a question much agitated, “ Utrum nomina rerum sint natura, an impositione ? Quosi n deci;" by which they meant, whether words were merely conventional symbols; of the rise of which no account could be given, except the pleasure of the first inventors of language? or, whether there was some principle in nature that led to the assignation of particular names to particular objects ? and those of the Platonic school favoured the latter opinion.
This principle, however, of a natural relation between words and ob
* The author who has carried his speculations on this subject the farthest, is the President Des Brosses, in his " Traite de la Formation Mechanique des Langues.” Some of the radical letters or syllables which le supposes to carry this expressive power in most known languages are, St, to signify stability or rest; Fl, to denote Auency; CI, a gentle descent : R; what relates to rapid motion; C, to cavity or hollowness, &c. A century before his time, Dr. Wallis, in his grammar of the English language, bad taken notice of these significant roots, and represented it as a peculiar excellency of our tongue, that beyond all others, it expressed the nature of the objects which it naméd, hy employing sounds sharper, softer, weaker, stronger, more obscure, or more stridulous, according as the idea which is to be suggested requires. He gives various examples. Thus, words, formed upon St, always denote firmness and strength, anal. ogous, to the Latin sto; as stand, stay, staff, stop, stout, steady, stake, stamp, stallion, stately, &c. Words beginning with Str, intimate violence, force and energy, analogous to the Greek fogorvules; as, strive, strengih, strike, stripe, stress, struggle, stride, stretch, strip, &c. Thr, implies forcible motion : as throw, throb, thrast, through threaten, thraldom. Wr, obloquy or distortion ; as, wrý, wrest, wreath, wrestle, wriøg, wrong, wrangle, wrath, wrack, &c. Sw, silent, agitation, or lateral motion ; as, sway, swing, swerve, sweep, swim. Si, a gentle fall or less observable motion; as, slide, slip, sly, slit, slow, slack, sling: Sp, dissipation or expansion; as spread sprout, sprinkle, split, spill, spring Terminations in ash, indicate something acting nimbly and sharply; as, crash gash, rash, flash, lasli, siash. Terminations in ush, something acting more obtusely and dully ; as, crush, brush, hush, gush, blush. The learned author produces a great many more examples of the same kind, which seem thaliane on selbordet that the same cante, in anu spelarations of mis kind, there is so much room for faney to operate, that they ought to be adopted with much caution in forming any general theory.
+ Vid. Plat. in Cratylo. “ Nomina verbaque von posita sortuito, sed quadam vi et " rationc naturæ facta esse, P. Nigidius in Grammaticis Commentariis dacet ; rem sane * in philosophiæ dissertationibus celebrem. In eam rem multa argumenta dicit, cur c videri possint, verbä esse naturalia, magis quam arbitraria. Vos, iniquit, cum dici"mus, motu quodam oris conveniente, cum ipsius verbi demonstratione utimur, et labi " as sensim primores émovemus, ac spiritum atque animam porro versum, et ad eos " quibus consermo cinamur intendimus , At contra cum dicimus Nos, neque profuso
intentoque flatu vocis, neque projectis labiis pronunciamus; sed et 'spiritum et labi. * as quasi intra nosmet ipsos coercemus: Hot sit idem' et 'in' eo quod dicimus, tu; " et ego, et mihi et liði. Nam siculi cuin adnuimus et abnuinas, motus quodam illo vel "capitis, vel ocutorem, a natura rei quam significat, non abhorret, ita in his vocibus " quasi gestus quidam oris et spiritus naturalis est Eadem ratio est in Græcis quoque "* vocibus quam esse in nostris animadvertimus." A. GELLIES, Nori. Atticæ, lib.x. cap. 4.
jects, can only be applied to language in its most simple and primitive state. Though in every tongue, some remains of it, as I have shewn above, can be traced, it were utterly in vain to search for it throughout the whole construction of any modern language. As the multitude of terms increase in every nation, and the immense field of language is filled up, words, by a thousand fanciful and irregular methods of derivation and composition, come to deviate widely from the primitive character of their roots, and to lose all analogy or resemblance in sound to the things signified. In this state we now find language. Words, as we now employ them, taken in the general, may be considered as symbols, not as imitations; as arbitrary, or instituted, not natural signs of ideas. But there can be no doubt, I think, that language, the nearer we remount to its rise among men, will be found to partake more of a natural expression. As it could be originally formed on nothing but imitation, it would, in its primitive state, be more picturesque; much more barren indeed, and narrow in the circle of its terms, than now; but as far as it went, more expressive by sound of the thing signified. This, then, may be assumed as one character of the first state, or beginnings of language, among every savage tribe.
A second character of language, in its early state, is drawn from the manner in which words were at first pronounced, or uttered, by men. Interjections, I shewed, or passionate exclamations, were the first elements of speech. Men laboured to communicate their feelings to one another, by those expressive cries and gestures which nature taught them. After words, or names of objects, began to be invented, this mode of speaking, by natural signs, could not be all at once disused. For language, in its infancy, must have been extremely barren; and there certainly was a period among all rude nations, when conversation vas carried on by very few words, intermixed with many exclamations and earnest gestures. The small stock of words which men as yet pose sessed, rendered these helps absolutely necessary for explaining their conceptions; and rude, uncultivated men, not having always at hand even the few words, which they knew, would naturally labour to make themselves understood, by varying their tones of voice, and accompanying their tones with the most significant gesticulations they could make. At this day, when persons attempt to speak in any language which they possess imperfectly, they have recourse to all these supplemental methods, in order to render themselves more intelligible. The plan, too, according to which I have shewn, that language was originally constructed, upon resemblance or analogy, as far as was possible, to the thing sig, nified, would naturally lead men to utter their words with more emphasis and force, as long as language was a sort of painting by means of sound. For all those reasons this may be assumed as a principle, that the pronunciation of the earliest languages was accompanied with more gesticulations, and with more and greater inflections of voice, than what ve now use; there was more action in it; and it was more upon a cryo ing or singing tone.
To this manner of speaking, necessity first gave rise. But we must observe, that after this necessity had, in a great measure ceased, by language becoming, in process of time, more extensive and copious, the ancient manner of speech still subsisted among many nations ; and what had arisen from necessity, continued to be used for ornament. Wherever there was much fire and viyacity in the genius of nations, they were nat