« PreviousContinue »
Language-Facts of the origin of particular and general names-Progres
sive tendency of language-Alphabet, writing, printing, &c.-Figurative and literal language.
In a former chapter it was remarked, that though the lower animals excite in one another a similarity of knowledge, by vocal signs or language, yet that this is more eminently a human characteristic. This machine, language, makes man a progressive being; without it, he would be as morally and intellectually stationary as other animals. Without the susceptibility to the peculiar modification of the intellectual and impulsive consciousness which guides and so strongly impels the communicating of knowledge by signs, each individuals' experience would die with him, and those who lived after him could not be benefited thereby; hence no increase of knowledge beyond that acquired by an individual could take place.
The mode in which language originates, is observable in children. Their first gabble and crying arise from their pleasurable or painful feelings. Their knowledge gains for itself expression thus; any sound associated by causation with any object, suggests the thought of that object, and the object suggests the thought of the sound: now children are susceptible to the excitement of a strong impulse to imitate; hence, when they see a sheep in the field, and hear it blate, they imitate the sound baa, and afterwards when that sound is uttered by any one to them, the thought of the animal that caused it, and of which it was the particular characteristic, is suggested. In the same way, when the sheep is seen, the sound is suggested, and the impulse to imitate excited, and the child calls baa: thus originates a name. In this way infant human beings are instigated by their nature to use the sounds produced by things, as signs significant of them; the cow is called boo, the dog bowwow, the hen chuck, the rook caw. In the same way, the noises produced by the winds and streams, and by the clouds, are adequate to the production of signs to signify themselves.
In addition to sounds, there are other signs which are constituted of bodily motions. When children see a man sawing wood, they imitate not only the sound of the saw, but also the motions of the man; and this sound and motion are adequate at any time to suggest the operation of sawing, and may be used as a sign to do so. Children frequently use signs of this sort, and men are obliged to do so occasionally; thus, if a man, unacquainted with English, goes into a carpenter's workshop with a piece of wood, wishing it to be sawed in a certain part and then planed, he explains his desire by the aid of signs, constituted of the motions and sounds significant of the operations he requires to be performed. When we forget the usual name or ordinary sign by which anything is known, and at the same time want to speak of it, if there be any peculiar sound or motion which we know to be characteristic of the thing, either or both are used immediately as significant of it.
The pleasing odours are snuffed up eagerly, and smells of an unpleasant nature impel us to attempt to blow the offensive atmosphere away from our nostrils, and keep ourselves as free as possible from it. snuffing sound and motion are thus characteristic of sweet odours, and the short continuous breathing out, of an offensive smell, and are used as signs to signify both the smells and the external producers of them.
The motions and sound which characterize the processes of eating and drinking, may be, and often are used as signs to represent those processes. The shivering occasioned by cold and the tremor it produces in the voice, are imitated, and become signs which express coldness. From this it appears that any motions or sounds that we produce, are used as signs for the operations they indicate, and also to signify the feeling or sensation which impels the operation, and also the external thing which excites this feeling. These phenomena are so intimately connected, that the great mass of people have no knowledge of their being distinct, and one word or sign is adequate to their expression. Thus the naming of some things naturally arises from the suggestions of causation.
When names have been produced, language has originated; and among the primitive human beings, however wild and inexperienced they may have been, its utility must soon have been appreciated, and all those objects not characterized by sounds and motions that may be imitated, being often thought of, would soon have names given to them. The various colours, shapes, and modes of time, together with other natural objects, would gradually acquire names, or in other words, become associated with particular sounds; and thus, as men progressed in experience, words would accumulate.
A child having seen a sheep, heard it blate, and imitated the sound; when other sheep are seen, they being known to be similar, suggest the sound, and the child calls baa: this is the origin of a general name, and thus it is that similar things have one, common name appro priated to them; the word horse does to signify any horse, and the word man any man. The name that is associated with one particular thing, is at the same time associated with all things resembling it; and at any time when the knowledge of any of these things is excited, it immediately suggests the name. Signs which originally signified a particular thing, thus become common, and to distinguish individual things, and clearly particularize them from one another, fresh names are required. These are generally suggested by the peculiar characteristics of the thing; English farmers speak of the speckled calf, the brinded cow, the black horse, the grey horse, the long meadow, the old oak, &c. North American Indian has his Yellow River, Red River, Great Falls, &c. Their nations sometimes are called from their moral analogies, as for instance the Snakes, sometimes from other characteristics, as the Blackfeet, Whitefeet, &c. The individuals among the Indians are generally particularized by some name arising from moral analogies; thus a cunning man is called the fox, a fierce man the wolf, a man of towering spirit the eagle, &c.
The names of families in England seem often to have originated from the calling of the individuals; in most
country villages we seldom hear the real names of persons, one being known by the name of Smith, another of Butcher, another of Baker, another is called Gardener, &c. Such names becoming significant of individuals in the present day, to the exclusion of their hereditary names, we may conclude that in former ages whole families became distinguished from their tribe or clan, in this way. In modern times we find family names which evidently originated in this way, plentiful. We find Smiths, Carpenters, Bouchers, Millers, Gardeners, Ostlers, Butlers, &c., in abundance. The name of the locality of birth or residence is often used; thus Fleming, English, Ireland, Darby, Lancaster, &c., are often family names. Such names as Johnson, Thompson, Davidson, &c.. form another class.
In course of time, after a succession of numerous generations, and commingling of peoples using different languages, the original derivation and meaning of names become lost, and thus in most old languages the origin of the peculiar signs cannot be traced. We easily discover how such names as I have enumerated, together with such as Northumberland, Sussex, or south Saxony, Essex, or east-Saxony, Queen's County, Philipstown, King's County, &c. have originated; but the dérivation of old words, such as table, chair, and many of the old names of localities, are lost in the wreck of former languages. The original meaning of things, places, and people, in Ireland and Scotland, are palpable to those acquainted with the Irish language, but of course are not so to persons not possessed of that knowledge, yet still many of the names are retained as significant sounds standing for the places, persons, and things. The English language is made up of Greek, Latin, Irish, Saxon, Danish, and Norman words, and hence the difficulty of tracing the derivation of many of our ordinary signs.
It is natural to man to modulate his voice to express his meaning and feelings: this fact is the basis of the art of elocution. In his periods of anger the harsher sounds are naturally suggested for use, and in his milder
moods, when his impulses are of a more tender character, his words are less sibilant or guttural and become more vocalized. He also naturally prefers that which is most pleasing to him, and consequently when his consciousness is refined in its habits, the harsher sounds of words fall into disuse. The London working people have often been criticised by provincial visitors, for leaving out the harsher sounds from their words; instead of giving the full sound to the r in such words as lord, like the Irish and Scotch, they generally pronounce it lud. William is pronounced, by them, Villiam; and woman vooman. Their sounds are always less harsh than those used by other inhabitants of the British isles, however much the progress of the vocalization of their words may be opposed to the arbitrary, and I may say unphilosophic rules, of grammarians and lexicographers, who seem to pique themselves on the conservation of guttural, sibilant, and aspirate sounds, as well as the multiplication of gratuitous dogmas.
When man first imitates the sound of a saw, he gives utterance to the mere sibilant s; but, to make a word, the vocal sound aw is added; the next step in improvement is to throw the emphasis on the vocal sound, and the last would be to leave out the hiss altogether; but this is forbidden by the conservators of barbarous sounds.
By the mixing of peoples, using different languages, much of the original harshness is done away with, for this reason, that harsh sounds are more difficult to be uttered, and also are so strikingly discordant to a stranger that he naturally is compelled to decline their adoption. A stranger to English pronounces the th as d; one to Irish changes the guttural in lough, or loch, and calls it luff, or lock, or lake; the Welch and German languages are full of discordant sounds, which are so savage and difficult of articulation as to prevent persons unhabituated by education and early prejudice in their favour from using them. If the nature of the progress of language were properly understood, instead of foreigners and children being ridiculed for their non