Language is like the minim immortal among the infusoria, which keeps splitting itself into halves.—Coleridge.

The most brilliant of modern philosophers, M. Victor Cousin, in endeavouring to refute the conclusion of Locke that all words draw their first origin from sensible ideas, adduces the pronoun “I” and the verb “to be” as words which are primitive, indecomposible, and irreducible in every language with which he is acquainted—as words which are pure signs, representing nothing whatever except the meaning conventionally attached to them, and having no connection with sensible ideas.

Whatever may become of M. Cousin’s general proposition, the instances which he has chosen to support it are very unfortunate, for it may be clearly proved that these words, abstract as they may appear, are yet derived from sensible images. An examination of them will therefore help us to gain a little insight into the origin of language, and perhaps strengthen our suspicion that even the most subjective words, which merely intimate intellectual relations, even the words which express the essential categories, may be ultimately proved to have a metaphorical and not a psychological origin. Such a conviction will by no means impair the dignity of language, or cast a slur on the majesty of thought; for if the entire lexicon of every language be capable of being reduced to a number of sensational roots, the no less important element of Grammar always remains as the indisputable result of the pure reason. And not only so, but even the possibility of accepting imitative roots as signs of the thing imitated, supposes (as M. Maine[128] de Biran acutely observes) the pre-existence of an activity superior to sensation, whereby the thinking being places himself outside the circle of impressions and images in order to signify and note them.

It might be supposed that the word by which a man characterises himself in relation to his own consciousness would be of a very mysterious and abstract character, because it must express the notion of individuality, which might be regarded as a very primary intuition. This, however, is far from being the case. Man regarded himself as an object before he learnt to regard himself as a subject, and hence “the objective cases of the personal as well as of the other pronouns are always older than the subjective,” and the Sanskrit mâm, ma (Greek με, Latin me) is earlier than aham (ἐγών, and ego). We might have conjectured this from the fact already noticed, that children learn to speak of themselves in the third person, i.e. regard themselves as objects long before they acquire the power of representing their material selves as the instrument of an abstract entity. A child[129] does not attain to the free use of the pronoun “I” until the acquisition of formal grammar outstrips the psychological growth. And the same takes place with other personal pronouns. Man’s primary consciousness of his own existence is nearly simultaneous with the belief that he is something separate from the not-me, the external world. But at first he would only regard this external world as an immense inseparable phenomenon, and it would be some time before he could “invest the[130] not-me with the powers of agency and will which we experience in ourselves.”

But whether the conception of individuality be regarded as coming early or late, so far is the pronoun “I” from involving any sublime intrinsic meaning, that it was originally a demonstrative monosyllable, indicative of a particular position. “In fact,” says Dr. Donaldson, “the primitive pronouns must have been very simple words, for the first and easiest articulations would naturally be adopted to express the primary intuition of space. These little vocables denote only the immediate relations of locality. It is reasonable to suppose that the primitive pronouns would be designations of here and there, of the subject and object as contrasted and opposed to one another. As soon as language becomes a medium of communication between two speaking persons, a threefold distinction at once arises between the here or subject, the there or object, and the person spoken to or considered as a subject in himself, though an object in regard to the speaker.” In other words, there are “three[131] primitive relations of position: here, near to here, and there, or juxtaposition, proximity, and distance. The three primitive articulations which are used (in Greek) to express these three relations of position, are the three primitive tenues, Π, Ϙ, Τ, pronounced pa, qua, ta, which we shall call the first, second, and third pronominal elements. The first pronominal element denoting juxtaposition, or here, is used to express (a) the first personal pronoun; (b) the first numeral; (c) the point of departure in motion. The second pronominal element denoting proximity, or near to the here, is used to express (a) the second personal pronoun; (b) the relative pronoun; (c) the reflexive pronoun. The third pronominal element, denoting distance, is used to express (a) the third personal pronoun; (b) negation; (c) separation.”[132] Thus, then, we find that even so metaphysical a conception as that of individuality is only expressed by an elementary word implying locality.

We see, therefore, that M. Cousin is mistaken in supposing that the pronouns at any rate were non-sensational in their origin, arising as they do from the very earliest and simplest of all sensations. And it is, perhaps, still more surprising to find that a similar origin can be traced even in the numerals, which involved the very triumph of abstraction; for, in using a numeral, “we strip things of all their sensible properties,[133] and consider them as merely relations of number, as members of a series, as perfectly general relations of place.” And yet abstract as they are, and, absolutely as we might suppose them to be removed from concrete objects of sense, it is a matter of certainty that their genesis can be traced. About the general result few philologists have any doubt, however much they may differ in their details. “I do[134] not think,” says M. Bopp, “that any language whatever has produced special original words for the particular designation of such compacted and peculiar ideas as three, four, five, &c.” Accordingly it has been proved that the three first numerals in Sanskrit and Greek are connected with the three personal pronouns, and originally implied here,[135] near to the here, and there; that the fourth [136] implies 1 + 3; that the fifth, as might have been expected, is connected with the same root as the word “hand;” that the tenth numeral means two hands, and so forth.

Still it might be supposed that the verb “to be,” predicating as it does the quality of existence, a conception so abstract that the profoundest metaphysicians and physiologists have been as yet wholly unable to find for it any tolerable definition, would resist all attempts at a reduction to any sensational root. If we are to look to a definition of “life” as being either undiscoverable, or else a discovery which can only be expected from the ultimate triumphs of science, surely we might suppose that here at least it is impossible to find a sensible idea as the root of the sublime verbs which are the means of representing life as an attribute. But we are all liable to the error of forming far too[137] high an estimate of the intrinsic vitality (the supposed occulta vis) of verbs in general. They contain no inherent powers which separate them from nouns, and their supposed distinctive character arises entirely out of their combination with a subject. The fancy (for instance) that “the root can ‘sing’ differs from can ‘song’ in the same degree that a magnetised steel bar differs from an ordinary one, or a charged Leyden jar from a discharged one,” is proved by minute analysis to be totally groundless. And the importance of the verb “to be” in particular has been greatly exaggerated, as though it were a necessary ingredient of every logical proposition. For in many languages the verb is wanting altogether, and its mere implication is quite sufficient for all logical purposes. “The verb-substantive,” observes Mr. Garnett (from whose most valuable Essay on the nature and analysis of the verb we have borrowed these suggestions), “if considered as necessary to vivify all connected speech and bind together the terms of every logical proposition, is much upon a footing with the phlogiston of the chemists of the last generation, regarded as a necessary pabulum of combustion—that is to say, Vox et præterea nihil.”

Whatever our à priori estimate of the power of the verb-substantive may be, its origin is traced by philology to very humble and material sources. The Hebrew verbs הָוָה (houa), or הָיָה (haia), may very probably be derived from an onomatopœia of respiration. The verb kama, which has the same sense, means primitively “to stand out,” and the verb koum,[138] to stand, passes into the sense of “being.” In Sanskrit, as-mi (from which all the verbs-substantive in the Indo-European languages are derived, as εἰμὶ, sum, am; Zend, ahmi; Lithuanic, esmi; Icelandic, em, &c.), is, properly speaking, no verbal root, but “a formation on the demonstrative pronoun sa, the idea meant to be conveyed being simply that of local presence.” And of the two other roots used for the same purpose, viz. bhu (φύω, fui, &c.), and sthâ (stare, &c.),[139] the first is probably an imitation of breathing, and the second notoriously a physical verb, meaning “to stand up.” May we not, then, ask with Bunsen, “What is ‘to be’ in all languages but the spiritualisation of walking or standing or eating?”

Perhaps if we were to try to think of any positive word which it would be impossible to derive from a root imitative of sound, it would be the word silence. And yet we believe that the root of even this word is a simple onomatopœia, and that it is connected with the sibilants (hush! whish! &c.), by which we endeavour to call attention to the fact that we desire to listen intently. It may help us to accept this etymology if we observe that the colloquialism “to be mum” undoubtedly arises[140] from an imitation of the sound by which we express the closing of the lips.

If we fully allow that a considerable number of roots have (and must have) sprung from the instinctive principle which we have been endeavouring to illustrate, we have gone very far to show what was the origin of language. For the permutations and combinations of which a very few roots[141] are capable, and the rich variety of applications of which each separate root admits, are almost inconceivable to any who have not, by a study of the subject, rendered themselves familiar with the processes of the human mind. Indeed, a superfluity of roots argues a feebleness of conception, and a superabundant vocabulary is an impediment to thought. In the Society Isles they have one word for the tail of a dog, another for the tail of a bird, and a third for the tail of a sheep, and yet for “tail” itself,[142]—“tail” in the abstract, they have no word whatever. Again, the Mohicans have words for wood-cutting, cutting the head, the arm, &c., and yet no verb meaning simply to cut. But all the specific words are comparatively of very little use; in point of fact they are encumbrances, rather than treasures. It is the sign of an advancing language to modify or throw away these superfluities of special terms. Thus the number of roots decreases continually; in Sanskrit, there are[143] 2,000; in Gothic, not more than 600; while 250 are said to be sufficient to supply the modern German with its 80,000 words.

The processes by which this retrenchment is carried on are the derivation, and composition of necessary and existing uses to supersede the continual invention of new ones. The laws by which these processes are effected are for the most part regular and universal, and the discovery of them constitutes the great reward of modern philology. But as our present inquiries are only of the most general and preliminary nature, we must confine ourselves here to giving one or two short and comparatively easy specimens of what we may term the elasticity or diffusiveness of roots.

We have already alluded to the root “ach,” as having been in all probability an onomatopœian which gives rise to a large number of cognate words in the Indo-European languages. It is at any rate interesting to observe how this root, however originated, suffices to express alike material sharpness, bodily sensations, and mental emotions. M. Garnett[144] gives the following brief list of examples:—“Ἄκω, ἄκανθα, ἀχὶς, αἰχμὴ, acuo, acus, acies; Teutonic, ekke (edge), ackes (axe); Icelandic, eggia, to sharpen, to exhort, to egg on; German, ecke, a corner; Bavarian, igeln, prurire (German, jucken; Scotch, yeuk; English, itch)—acken (to ache), ἄχος (grief); Anglo-Saxon, ege, fear—egeslich, horrible; Icelandic, ecki, sorrow; German, ekel, disgust; with very many more. It is possible that Anglo-Saxon ege, an eye, may be of the same family. Compare the Latin phrase, acies oculorum.”

Or, again, let us take the Sanskrit root dhu, to move about, to agitate. A list of the derivatives from this root in various Indo-European languages would fill several pages, but we will only supply one or two. First, then, we get the verbs θύω and θύνω, to rush, or move violently, with their derivatives, as θύελλα, a storm; θύννος, a thunny-fish (from its rapid, darting motion); θύσανος, a waving, fluttering tassel; θυιὰς, a bacchanal; θύρσος, the shaken thyrsus, or ivy-wreathed wand, the symbol of Bacchic frenzy; θορεῖν, to leap; θοῦρος, impetuous; ἀθύρω, to play; and among many others, θυμὸς, the mind, from the same property which struck the poet, in saying—

How swift is the glance of the mind!

Compared with the speed of its flight

E’en the tempest itself lags behind,

And the swift-speeding arrows of light!

From the same root we get θύω, to sacrifice, from the striking aspect of the rising and curling fumes, when the victim lay burning on the altar; θύμος, thyme, from the use made of that herb in fumigations; fumus, smoke; θυμέλη, the altar in the centre of the orchestra; and many more. Lastly, we may mention the curious word θοάζειν, which is used in the apparently contradictory senses of “to move hastily,” and “to sit.”[145]

The curious phenomenon presented by the latter word, of the same root serving for two directly opposite meanings, is one worthy of the greatest attention; and we believe that it has first been definitely noticed by modern philologists. “Contrast,” says Archdeacon Hare, “is a kind of relation;” and the suggestion of contrarieties may even be regarded as a primary law of the association of ideas. It is this principle which accounts for the apparently strange fact that opposite conditions are expressed by the same root slightly modified. Thus, to select some of the instances collected by Dr. Donaldson,[146] our own word “dear” has the two meanings of “prized,” because you have it, and “expensive,” because you want it; and “fast” has the opposite senses of “fixed” and “rapid.” Similarly, χρεία in Greek means both “use” and “need”; and λάω means both “to wish” and “to take;” while aio, αὐδάω, and καλέω, “I speak,” or “call,” are singularly like ἀΐω, audio, and κλύω, “I hear.”[147]

Another instance of the same peculiarity arises from the different objective or subjective relations which any phenomenon may present, some of which relations may be strongly contrasted; e.g., a “key” might derive its name either from opening or shutting. Thus, to adopt some of the cases mentioned by Mr. Garnett,[148] the numeral one gives rise to compounds of apparently opposite signification. From the Irish aon, “one,” we have aonach, “a waste,” and also “an assembly;” aontugadh, celibacy, and aontumadh, marriage. The Latin unicus implies singularity, but unitas implies association. “The concord of this discord is easily found, if we consider that the term one may either refer to one as an individual, or in the sense of an aggregate.” Similarly, it is not difficult to explain the apparent anomaly that σχόλη means both “school” and “leisure,” and that “lee” has very different acceptations in lee-side and lee-shore. Other examples might easily be found, all tending to prove that “as rays of light may be reflected and refracted in all possible ways from their primary direction, so the meaning of a word may be deflected from its original bearing in a variety of manners; and consequently we cannot well reach the primitive force of the term unless we know the precise gradations through which it has gone.”

It has been proved, then, in this chapter, that a few onomatopœic roots would give a sufficient basis on which to rear the largest superstructure of language, and we have shown how in some cases an imitative origin may be discovered even in words which might have been expected to defy analysis. Into the methods adopted in this rich variety of applications we must inquire more closely in the following chapter, but we must here remark that, as it was by the association of ideas that even the most heterogeneous and contrary relations were expressed by the same root, so the words themselves tend powerfully to establish new points of association, and to facilitate the astonishing rapidity of thought. By the aid of verbal signs we exercise an enormous power over all our faculties, for in repeating the sign we are enabled by the personal activity of our will to recall the image which it represents, and submit that image to our control.[149] Our sensations, transformed into thought, come and go at our bidding, and we extend and multiply them without limit.

Awake but one, and lo, what myriads rise!

By virtue of an active imagination the fathers of the human race produced the mighty heritage of speech, and made the utterance of their lips a means of recalling their sensations and expressing their thoughts; in consequence of the activity of the imagination, our words become the tyrants of our convictions, and our phrases “often repeated, ossify the very organs of intelligence.”

Hence the blood of nations has often ere now been shed from an inability to see the synthesis of various truths in some single threadbare shibboleth of party; and a mistaken theory embalmed in a[150] widely-received word has retarded for centuries the progress of knowledge. For, as Bacon wisely says, “Men believe that their reason is lord over their words, but it happens, too, that words exercise a reciprocal and reactionary power over the intellect,” and that “words, as a Tartar’s bow, do shoot back upon the understanding of the wisest, and mightily entangle and pervert the judgment.”

There is one moral application of the truths we have been considering, which we should do well not to omit; it is the far-reaching danger of idle[151] or careless words; it is the solemn admonition—

Guard well thy thoughts, for thoughts are heard in Heaven!

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