“Nommer par la mimologie, s’enrichir par la comparaison, les langues n’ont pas d’autre moyen: elles ne sortent pas de là.”—Nodier, p. 39.

From the general question as to the manner in which sounds acquired significance as words, we proceed to the longer and wider inquiry as to the causes which led to the choice of special sounds in special significations; or, in other words, we shall consider the origin of roots.[85]

When in the first chapter we proved that language was neither innate nor revealed, we proved implicitly that no words could be purely arbitrary.[86] The historic character of language,—the fact that in innumerable cases we can distinctly trace the laws which presided at the genesis of any particular word,—strongly confirms our à priori conclusion. The inference to be deduced from the labours of all the best philologists, is that of Ihre, “Non ut fungi nascuntur Vocabula.” We have no reason to believe that any elements of language were deduced from roots which of themselves had no significance; and the more rigorous and extensive the analysis to which even inflections are subjected, the more clear is the proof that they arise from the agglutination of separate and significant words. “We believe,” says one of the ablest of modern[87] inquirers, “that in language ex nihilo nihil fit; and we are at a loss to conceive how elements originally destitute of signification can determine the sense of anything with precision. To assume that they have no meaning, because we cannot always satisfactorily explain it, is only an argumentum ad ignorantiam.”

Nor must it be forgotten, that in endeavouring to prove that in language nothing is arbitrary, we are under a great disadvantage, because no existing language has come to us in its primitive form. Every language, even those which are most ancient, and have long since ceased to be spoken, bears in its records the traces of a more primitive condition. Words, of which the composition was originally clear, are worn and rubbed by the use of ages, like the pebbles which are fretted and rounded into shape and smoothness by the sea waves on a shingly beach; or to use the more appropriate image suggested by Goethe, their meaning is often worn away like the image and superscription of a coin. This process is so continuous, that it is quite hopeless to recover the original form of many words, or even to make a probable[88] guess at their origin.

Language always tends to become mechanical (i.e. unmeaning of itself) by corruption;[89] and to such an extent is this the case, that it is rather a matter of astonishment when, after the lapse of centuries, a word still retains the obvious traces of its original form. And yet in spite of this we can by induction discover from words themselves the main laws which influenced the formation of primitive speech.

The violent dislike which we instinctively feel to the use of a word entirely new to us, and of which we do not understand the source, is a matter of daily experience; and the tendency to give a meaning to adopted words by so changing them as to remove their seemingly arbitrary character has exercised a permanent and appreciable influence on every language. An instance or two will perhaps pave the way for a more ready acceptance of our subsequent remarks.

When we go into a ship or factory, and inquire the technical name of various parts of the machinery, we are either unable to use the names from not catching the pronunciation, or, in attempting to pronounce them we substitute for them other words of similar sound and more significance.

It often happens that gardeners become acquainted with new plants, or new species of old plants, that are brought to them under a foreign name; not understanding this name, they corrupt it into some word which sounds like it, and with which they are already familiar. To this source of corruption we owe such words as dandylion[90] (dent de lion), rosemary (ros marinus), gilly-flower (girofle), quarter sessions rose (des quatre saisons), Jerusalem artichoke (giresol) &c. For the same reason (the dislike of terms with which they are unacquainted) sailors corrupt Bellerophon into Billy Ruffian: and we have heard of a groom, who, having the charge of two horses called Othello and Desdemona, christened them respectively Old Fellow and Thursday Morning. Lamprocles, the name of a horse of Lord Eglintoun’s, was converted by the ring into “Lamb and Pickles.” The same principle may be seen at work among servants; we have heard a servant systematically use the word “cravat” for “carafe,” and astonish a gentleman by calmly asking him at luncheon, “If she should fill his cravat with water?”

The working of this tendency is all the more curious from the fact that very often the corrupted form of the word is wholly inappropriate, although significant. There is no doubt that, in most cases, we prefer a corruption, which is appropriate as well as significant, and we find instances[91] of this in such words as worm-wood (wermuth), cray-fish (écrévisse), lanthorn (laterna), belfry (beffroi), rakehell (racaille), beefeater (buffetier), verdigrease (verd de gris), sparrow-grass (asparagus), &c. Where, however, this is unattainable, we are well content with some significant corruption, for which we can invent or imagine a meaning even if we are unaware of the real explanation; as, for instance, in Charter House (Chartreuse), “to a cow’s thumb” = exactly (à la coutume), wiseacre (weissager), saltpetre (salpetra), &c. It is curious to find that in the desire to understand, at any rate in some degree, the words we use, the corrupted form often gives birth to a totally false explanation. Thus Dr. Latham mentions[92] that the corruption of Château Vert into Shotover has led to the legend that Little John shot over the hill of that name near Oxford. Similar instances are supplied by the legends of Veronica, and of St. Ursula with her eleven thousand virgins.

It may seem that we have, in the course of this chapter, made statements somewhat contradictory; viz., that it is the tendency of language to become mechanical (i.e., arbitrary and conventional) by corruption, and yet that there is an instinctive dislike to the use of new words which convey no intrinsic meaning to the mind of the speaker. If we argued from the instances adduced in the last pages, we might infer that language was originally arbitrary, and had been twisted into meaning by subsequent use. We must, however, draw attention to the fact that this latter phenomenon is only observable on the naturalisation of a word. A new word, however bright and perfect in itself, is like a strange coin upon which we look with suspicion, because we are unaccustomed to its appearance. But when a word is accepted and generally understood, when, in fact, it has become current, we are then indifferent to the amount of wear on the surface or even to the complete obliteration of its original significance; just in the same way as we do not trouble ourselves to observe a coin which is in common use, and pay no regard to the fact that its image is confused, and its superscription undecipherable. We might, for instance, find words which have passed through both processes. Let us suppose[93] that, in course of time, the word sherbet had become corrupted first into syrup, then into shrub; in this case we should have an exemplification of a word first appropriately corrupted into a familiar form in the course of naturalisation, and then re-corrupted into a purely mechanical[94] word, by the ordinary progress of language. We are therefore fairly entitled to infer from the dislike to the introduction of any sound as a word, when the sound is to the speaker an arbitrary one, that the same feeling must have operated at the dawning exercise of the faculty of speech; while from the indifference which we exhibit to the corruption of a word when it has once been currently received; we may give a reason for our inability to explain the origin of all primitive roots, even while we assume with confidence that every root was originally significative.

Language may be regarded as the union of words and grammar, of which words are analogous to matter, and grammar to form;[95] regarded in its form it was the expression of pure reason; in its matter it was only the reflex of sensuous life. The absence of any definite grammar constitutes an inorganic language like the Chinese. Those who have derived language exclusively from sensation are as much mistaken as those who have assigned to ideas a purely material origin. Sensation furnished the variable and accidental element, which might have been quite other than it is, (i.e., the words); but the grammar of a language, (the rational form, without which words could not have been a language), is its pure and transcendental element which gives to the result its truly human character. Words can no more form a language than sensations can produce a man. That which originates language, like that which originates thought, is the logical relation which the soul establishes between external things.

We may now state our belief that almost all primitive roots were obtained by Onomatopœia, i.e., by an imitation with the human voice of the sounds of inanimate nature. Onomatopœia sufficed to represent the vast majority of physical facts and external phenomena; and nearly all the words requisite for the expression of metaphysical and moral convictions were derived from these[96] onomatopœic roots by analogy and metaphor.

We have purposely modified our statement of these conclusions, because there is too great a tendency to general assertions, against which, as W. von Humboldt well remarked, science should be always on its guard. It is a saying of Schlegel’s, that, so great is the variety of procedure in different languages, that there is scarcely one language which might not be chosen to illustrate some particular hypothesis. For instance, the sole similarity between Chinese and Sanskrit rests in the fact that both aim at the same end, viz., the expression of thought. Thus onomatopœia is far from being found in all languages in the same degree, and it is much more observable in the Semitic than in the Indo-European family, in which, however ancient the word may be proved to be, it constantly bears witness to those poetic and philosophic instincts of our race which clearly prove that reason was not a slow and painful growth.

“Caprice has no influence in the formation of language.” Without believing in any universal, necessary, intrinsic connection between word and thing, we are forced to believe that there was, in every case, a subjective connection. The appropriateness of the word resided, not in the object named, for in this case there would have been a striking similarity in all the languages of the human race, but in the mind of the name-giver, who, of necessity, stamped the word with the impress of his own individuality. In direct proportion to the delicacy of his perceptions, was the fitness of the words he used; for those words expressed relations capable of being viewed in widely different aspects, so that the finer and more keen was the man’s power of perceiving analogies, the greater was his capacity for the expression of facts. The true formula is that “the connection between a word and its meaning is never necessary, and never arbitrary, but always results from a reasonable motive.”

But what the motives were, which in many cases led to the choice of particular sounds, it is beyond our power to conjecture or ascertain. The richness and delicacy of the appellative faculty in the savage and the infant must necessarily have existed in the primitive man, and, as it decayed with the decay of all necessity for its exercise, we are unable to point out, with any certainty, the tendencies by which it was actuated. There is no waste in the economy of nature; a faculty ceases when it is no longer required, just as the outer leaves which ensheathe the nascent germ wither and drop off when the germ has acquired sufficient vitality for its own preservation.

“Tecum habita” was not the motto of the early inhabitants of the earth. They lived with the external world. The cataract “haunted them like a passion,” and they heard voices in the dawning of the sun and the murmur of the wind. The heavens declared the glory of God, and the firmament showed his handiwork; day unto day uttered speech, and night showed knowledge unto night. The soul of the first man, to use the beautiful expression of Leibnitz, was a concentric mirror of nature, in the midst of whose works he lived. Language was the echo of nature in his individual consciousness. The action of the mind produced language by a spontaneous repercussion of the perceptions received.[97] It is the mind which creates and forms; but this power of the mind is one reacting only upon impressions received from the world without. The imitative power of language consists in an artistic imitation, not of things, but of the rational impression which an object produces by its qualities.

The fact, therefore, that the imitation is artistic, and is influenced by subjective considerations, would prevent us from being surprised or disappointed, if we do not always see the working of this principle, in cases where we should have expected it. In such words as the Hebrew Khâtzatz (קָצַץ), and Schephifoun (שְׁפִיפוֹן) we seem to hear the shearing off of the cut material, and the lithe rustle of the horned snake through the withered leaves. But words so remarkably suggestive are comparatively rare, and in most cases the imitation is more concealed. Nothing, however, more powerfully proves the tendency of language, in this respect, than the fact that words of a harsh meaning usually assume a rough, harsh form, and words that imply something sweet and tender seem to breathe the sensation they describe. The German word (entsetzen) “terror,” means, etymologically, a mere “displacement,” yet who does not see that it has caught an instinctive echo from the thing which it describes, which, in no degree, depends on association;—that, independently of imagination it betrays something harsh by its mere form. That there is a consonance between external sounds and the processes of the mind, is decisively shown by the fact that whole languages have thus caught the impress of the associations by which they have been evolved. In the soft and vowelled undersong of modern Italian, who does not recognise the result of climate and natural character? The Doric seems to recall to us the sound of martial flutes, while the Hebrew, in its stern and solemn pomp, tells like one vast onomatopœia, of the mighty mission which it was destined to accomplish; every single word of it seems to shine with that mysterious light which lent strange lustre to the letters of it on the gems of the sacerdotal robe. “When,” says M. Vinet, “you hear the vast word haschâmaïm, which names the heavens, unfold itself like a vast pavilion, your intelligence—before knowing what the word signifies—expects something magnificent; no mean object could have been named thus; it is better than an onomatopœia, although it is not one.”[98]

The exuberance and uncontrolled variety which characterises the primitive languages is a proof of the extraordinarily developed resources of the power of interpretation, or the faculty of converting sounds into signs, so long as the exercise of that faculty continued to be necessary. The richest idioms are always the most spontaneous and unconscious. It is obviously impossible for us, with our intellectual refinements and blunted senses, to rediscover the ancient harmony which existed between thought and sensation, between nature and man. As we are no longer obliged to create language, we have entirely lost a crowd of processes which tended to its elaboration. But among the early races there was a delicate tact, enabling them to seize on those attributes which were capable of supplying them with appellatives, the exquisite subtlety of which we are unable any longer to conceive.[99] They saw a thousand things at once, and indeed their language-creating faculty mainly consisted in a power of seizing upon relations. Our very civilisation has robbed us of this happy and audacious power. Nature spoke more to them than to us, or rather they found in themselves a secret echo which answered to all external voices, and returned them in articulations—in words. Hence those swift interchanges of meaning which we, with our less flashing intelligence, are almost unable to follow.[100] ‘Who can seize again those fugitive impressions of the naïfs creators of language in words which have undergone so many changes, and which are so far from their original acceptation? Who can rediscover the capricious paths which the imagination followed, and the associations of ideas which guided it, in that spontaneous work, wherein sometimes man, sometimes nature, reunited the broken thread of analogies, and wove their reciprocal actions into an indissoluble unity?’

Wherever the faculty of creating appellations is still required, we still find a capacity for its exercise. For instance, it has been asserted that “the day after an army has encamped in an unknown country all the important or characteristic places have their names without any convention having intervened.” We find an analogous case in the fact that the French and English, by common consent, called the Turks Bono Johnny; the exact reasons for such a nomenclature would be perhaps difficult to determine, and who shall say who first used or invented the term? yet it became current in a day or two. It is equally difficult to trace the history and origin of various popular phrases which every now and then have a brief run in ordinary phraseology.

A still more remarkable exemplification that the faculty of the original name-giver is not wholly lost to mankind may be seen in the secret, subtle, almost imperceptible, and sometimes quite unconscious analogies which give currency to a common nickname. At schools I have often known boys whose sobriquet was a vocable, in itself apparently meaningless and incapable of any circumstantial explanation, which was yet universally adopted, and was adopted because it presented some unintelligible appropriateness.[101] A modern prince is called Plomb-plomb, and known quite commonly by that designation: yet there is no such word as Plomb-plomb in the French language, and the very origin of the term is unknown to the majority of the Prince’s contemporaries. We may be quite sure, however, that the name involves either a lively onomatopœia or a striking allusion.[102]

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