Page images
PDF
EPUB

The Greeks are even said to have invented a method of expressing, by the number and arrangement of torches, every letter of the alphabet, so that a guard on one eminence could converse with another at a distance, by spelling his words. A full and curious description of this method may be found in Polybius.

Another instance of a visible language occurs in that system of signals, which is said to have been introduced into the British navy by James II. ; and in the still more recent invention of the Telegraph,—a contrivance which has been found to admit of a far more extensive and important application than could have been anticipated a priori ; and which is probably still susceptible of farther improvements, tending to enlarge and accelerate the mutual intercourse of mankind.

If men had been destitute of the organs of speech, or of the sense of hearing, there can be no doubt that they might have contrived by means of an alphabet of visible signs, to express all their ideas and feelings ; as we see done by school-boys, who, for their amusement, denote the different letters by certain conformations and movements of the fingers. Such a language, however, is attended with great inconveniences. It is useless in the dark, or when the person we are conversing with is removed to a considerable distance: Nor does it enable us to call his attention, if his eye should happen to be otherwise engaged. To this may be added, that it is not susceptible of that rapidity which is necessary for the purposes of life. In all these respects, audible signs possess important advantages, more particularly in the last, in consequence of the wonderful adaptation of our powers of articulation to the perceptive powers of the human ear,—an organ, we may remark in passing, which is always open to the reception of sound. It has been found that two thousand letters, when combined into words, may be pronounced in a minute of time, so that the sound of each letter may be distinctly heard.* The infinite variety of modifications, of which the voice is capable, enable us to add, in some measure,

[ocr errors]

* Dr. Gregory's Conspectus Medicinæ Theoreticæ. VOL. III.

3

or

the expressiveness of natural signs to the conventional meaning of arbitrary words; while its musical modulations render language a vehicle of pleasure as well as information.

Among all nations, accordingly, audible signs form the established medium of intellectual communication, and the materials (as indeed the etymology of the words denotes) of what is commonly called LANGUAGE SPEECH :—a wonderful art, infinitely diversified in the principles on which it has proceeded in different instances, and admitting of all possible degrees of perfection, from the uncouth jargon of a savage tribe, to the graces of which the most cultivated languages are susceptible, in the hands of the orator or the poet.

To this subject the attention of speculative men, both ancient and inodern, has been directed in a singular degree, and many ingenious conclusions have been the result of their labors. The subject is indeed of vast extent, and with peculiar propriety may be said, in the words of Mr. Burke, “ to branch out to infinity." To attempt to enumerate the various aspects under which it has been viewed by different authors, would be tedious and useless; but a few of them seem necessarily to fall under our plan, on account of their close connexion with the Philosophy of the Human Mind. Among these the first place seems due to the inquiry concerning the Origin and History of Language.

OF THE ORIGIN AND HISTORY OF LANGUAGE.

PART I.

As the acquisition of language, in the case of every individual, commences long before that period to which memory extends, it comes to be not only combined, but almost identified with all our intellectual operations; and, on a superficial view of the subject, appears inseparable from the principles of our constitution. Hence it happens, that when we first begin to philosophize on it, and to consider what a vast and complicated fabric

language is, it is difficult for us to persuade ourselves, that the unassisted faculties of the human mind were equal to the invention. It is justly remarked by Dr. Ferguson, that when language has attained to that perfection at which it arrives in the progress of society, “ the speculative mind, in comparing the first and last steps of the progress, feels the same sort of amazement with a traveller, who, after rising insensibly on the slope of a hill, comes to look from a precipice of an almost unfathomable depth, to the summit of which he scarcely believes himself to have ascended without supernatural aid.” It is interesting, therefore, to transport ourselves in imagination to the early periods of society, and to consider by what steps our rude forefathers must have proceeded in their attempts towards the formation of a language, and how the different parts of speech gradually arose. Upon this problem, accordingly, some of the most eminent of our modern philosophers have employed their ingenuity, and have suggested a variety of important observations.

A few slight and unconnected reflections are all that I can propose to offer here.

Before proceeding farther, it is necessary to remark, that the object of the problem now mentioned, is not to ascertain a 'historical fact, but to trace the natural procedure of the mind, in the use of artificial signs. In this speculation, therefore, it is not to be understood that we mean to prejudge the question, whether language be, or be not, the result of immediate revelation; but only to trace the steps which men, left entirely to themselves, would be likely to follow, in their first attempts to communicate their ideas to each other: For that the human faculties are competent to the formation of a language I hold to be certain ; and, indeed, one great use of this very speculation is to explain in what manner this might have been accomplished, and by what easy transitions the various parts of speech might have arisen successively out of each other.

One of the most philosophical attempts yet made to delineate this progress is to be found in a dissertation of Mr. Smith's, published at the end of his “ Theory of Moral Sentiments." When I say philosophical, I would

be understood to speak of its general scope and design, for in its details it is certainly liable to some obvious and formidable objections. This dissertation does not seem ever to have attracted much of the public notice; though it was written by the author in early life, and was one of his favorite performances. It contains, unquestionably, several most important and luminous observations; and appears to me, on the whole, amply to deserve the partiality with which Mr. Smith always regarded it.* It was first published, I have been told, in some London collection of fugitive pieces by different authors, and if it had never appeared elsewhere, it would long ago have sunk into oblivion. It was with a view of procuring for it a more general circulation that it was appended to the Theory of Moral Sentiments. From the unpretending simplicity with which it is written, it is so little calculated to draw the attention of common readers, that I recollect few instances of its being quoted by later writers; but it has had a visible effect on the speculations of many of them, particularly of those foreigners who have treated of the origin of the Romanic tongues spoken in modern Europe. Some, indeed, of the remarks contained in it, which, as far as I know, were Mr. Smith's original property, are now become so common, that I have heard them criticised as not altogether worthy, from their triteness, of the author of the Wealth of Nations. Referring to Mr. Smith's Discourse for the particulars of his theory, I shall avail myself of this opportunity of offering a few slight criticisms on one or two passages, which seem to me less satisfactory than the rest of it.

In order to make the first of these criticisms intelligible, it is necessary to premise, that, according to Mr.' Smith, the first step that men would take towards the formation of a language, would be the assignation of particular names to denote particular objects-or, in other words, the institution of nouns substantive; which

The strongest proof of this partiality is, that it was republished by Mr. Smith a little before his death, at the end of a corrected and enlarged edition of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, without the alteration, as far as I have observed, of a single word from the first impression.

nouns, it is plain, (according to this theory,) would be all proper names. Afterwards, as the experience of men enlarged, these names would be gradually applied to other objects resembling the first; in the same manner as we sometimes call a great general a Cæsar, or a great philosopher a Newton; and thus, those words which were originally proper names, would gradually and insensibly become appellatives. It is by a slow process of this kind, (as Mr. Smith remarks,) and not by any deliberate or scientific exertion of abstraction, that objects come at last to be classified and referred to their proper genera and species.*

“When the greater part of objects,” says Mr. Smith, “ had thus been arranged under their proper classes and assortments, distinguished by such general names, it was impossible that the greater part of that almost infinite number of individuals, comprehended under each particular assortment or species, could have any peculiar or proper names of their own, distinct from the general name of the species.” 6 When there was occasion, therefore, to mention any particular object, it often became necessary to distinguish it from other objects comprehended under the same general name; either, first, by its peculiar qualities; or, secondly, by the peculiar relation it stood in to some other things. Hence the necessary origin of two other sorts of words, of which the one should express quality, and the other relation.”—“In other words, hence the origin of adjectives and prepositions. The green tree might distinguish one tree from another that had been blasted. The green tree of the meadow distinguishes the tree, not only by its quality, but by the relation it bears to another object.”

So far Mr. Smith's doctrine appears to be equally simple, ingenious, and just. His account, in particular, of the gradual and insensible transformation of proper

This theory of Mr. Smith, as well as some of my own observations on the same subject, have been animadverted on with much acuteness by Dr. Magee, now Archbishop of Dublin. In a note at the end of the second volume of this work, I have attempted to reply to the objections of the learned and right reverend author. See note (K,) where the reader will also find Dr. Magee's strictures quoted in his own words.

« PreviousContinue »