Page images
PDF
EPUB

dividuals. It is also to the use of artificial signs, that we are indebted for all that part of our information which is not the immediate result of our own personal experience; and for that transmission of intellectual acquisitions from one race to another, which lays the foundation of the progressive improvement of the species.

In treating of Language, I shall begin with a few remarks on Natural Language, without which (as Dr. Reid has well observed) the formation of an artificial language would have been impossible. * The justness of this remark appears manifest from the following considerations : that the establishment of artificial signs must have been the effect of convention: and that, without signs of one kind or another to serve as a medium of communication, no convention could have taken place. It may be laid down, therefore, as a first principle, that the formation of an artificial language presupposes the use of natural signs. These consist in certain Expressions of the Countenance, certain Gestures of the Body, and certain Tones of the Voice. Each of these classes of natural signs well deserves a separate consideration but I must confine myself here to a few very general and miscellaneous hints.

• Inquiry into the Human Mind, Chap. iv. Sect. ii.

CHAPTER FIRST.

SECTION I.

Natural Language.

The language of the face consists in the play of the muscles of which it is composed, particularly of the muscles connected with the eyes and the mouth, and in the change of color arising from the motion of the blood. The expression of the countenance, therefore, depends partly on color, and partly on movement ;—of which two circumstances it may be remarked, by the way, that the

former is far less subject to the restraints of the will than the latter, a change of color often betraying an emotion when the features are perfectly quiescent.

It has been frequently observed by writers on Physiognomy, and also by those who have treated of the principles of painting, that every emotion, and every operation of the mind, has a corresponding expression of the countenance; and hence it is, that the passions which we habitually indulge, and also the intellectual pursuits which most frequently occupy our thoughts, by strengthening particular sets of muscles, leave traces of their workings behind them, which may be perceived by an attentive observer. Hence, too, it is, that a person's countenance becomes more expressive and characteristic as he advances in life ; and that the appearance of a young man or woman, though more beautiful, is not so interesting, nor, in general

, so good a subject for a painter, as that of a person whose character has been longer confirmed by habit.

This expression of the human countenance fixes our attention in most cases, and occupies our thoughts a great deal more than the mere material forms which it presents to our senses. I am inclined to think, that what we call family-likeness, consists rather in a similar

ity of expression than of features; and that it is owing to this circumstance, that a likeness sometimes strikes one person, which does not strike another. Nobody fancies a resemblance between two merely material objects which is not acknowledged by all the world ; but it is possible that, in consequence of different habits of observation, or of various other causes, a particular feature may be expressive to one man, which presents to the eye of another nothing but the material form. It is by copying expression, too, much more than by copying the forms of the different parts of a face, that mimics are able to recall to us so strong and lively an idea of the persons whose appearance they assume. The features of the original and of the copy will often be found very strongly contrasted, when the imitation is the most perfect, and the likeness the most striking imaginable. Indeed, it is upon this contrast that the ludicrous effect of mimicry in a great measure depends.

There seems to be in man a power of interpreting instinctively certain expressions of the countenance, certain gestures of the body, and certain tones of the voice. This has, indeed, been much disputed by Priestley and other writers, who have attempted to resolve the whole into experience and observation; but I think there is a variety of considerations which (under proper limitations) go far to justify the common opinion on the subject. It is sufficient for my present purpose to mention one or two of these. I shall have occasion to resume the same argument, at greater length, in treating of Imitation.

1. A child is able at a very early period to understand the meaning of smiles and frowns, of a soothing or threatening tone of voice ; long, at least, before it can be supposed capable of so much observation as to remark the connexion between a passion and its external effect.* If the interpretation of natural signs be the

* Hence the beauty of the word incipe in that exquisitely tender line of Virgil's Pollio, in which the Poet, addressing himself to the unborn child, calls on him to begin his intercourse with the world he was about to enter by learning to know his mother by her smile,

Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem.

result of experience, whence is it that children understand their meaning at a much earlier period than they do that of arbitrary signs? If it were merely the effect of observation, the fact would be reversed, inasmuch as it is obviously more easy to remember the sound of a word than the most simple modification of the human countenance. Nor is there any thing more wonderful in this instinctive interpretation of certain natural signs than in many other phenomena which infants exhibit; nor perhaps so wonderful as that instinctive terror with which nature has certainly endowed some of the brutes for the destined enemies of their respectives tribes. It deserves, too, to be remarked, with respect to the lower animals, that they, as well as man, express what passes in their minds by natural signs; and there is even some reason for apprehending, that some of them understand instinctively certain natural signs which we employ.

2. If natural signs be interpreted in consequence of experience only, why are we more affected by natural signs than by artificial ones? A peasant who has never heard but one language spoken, has as much reason to associate the word love or hatred with the sentiment it denotes, as to associate these passions with their natural expressions : And yet the effects of the two species of signs are widely different. For the farther confirmation or limitation of this conclusion, it would be worth while to institute some experiments expressly, if such a case as that recorded by Cheselden should again fall under the examination of an equally intelligent observer.

As ideas multiply, the imperfections of natural language are felt; and men find it necessary to invent artificial signs, of which the meaning is fixed by mutual agreement. In proportion as artificial language improves, the language of nature declines, insomuch that, in such a state of society as ours, it requires a great deal of reflection and study to recover the use of it. This study is, in a considerable degree, the foundation of the arts both of the actor and of the orator.

Among the ancients, the study of natural signs seems to have been cultivated with wonderful success. The pantomimes on the Roman stage carried the art to a

We are

perfection hardly credible : and about which, I must own, I should be disposed to be extremely sceptical, if I were to form a judgment from the best attempts of the same kind that I have happened to witness. told, that they performed long plays without any recitation, and yet conveyed to the spectators a distinct idea of the fable ; and here it deserves our notice, that although much study was necessary to acquire the art, or rather to recover the natural capacity, it required no study to understand the exhibition. It consisted of a natural language, equally intelligible to the knowing and the ignorant, to the refined and the barbarous. Lucian, in his treatise tregi Ogxńcems, mentions a king, whose dominions bordered on the Euxine Sea, who happening to be at Rome, in the reign of Nero, and having seen a pantomime perform, begged him of the Emperor as a present, in order that he might employ him as an interpreter among the nations in his neighbourhood, with whom he could have no intercourse on account of the diversity of language.*

Notwithstanding, however, the decline of natural language in consequence of the use of artificial signs, the acquaintance which we still have with the former (however imperfect) is of essential service in teaching children the meaning of the latter. This may be easily exemplified, by first reading over to a child one of the simplest of Æsop's Fables, without taking your eye from the book, or using any inflection of voice; and afterwards telling him the same story, with the commentary of your face, and gestures, and tones. This effect of natural expression, in adding to the significancy of conventional signs, (the effect of the vultus habitusque hominis) is remarked by Horace:

- Docte Cati, per amicitiam divosque rogatus,

Ducere me auditum, perges quocumque, memento.
Nam, quamvis referas memori mihi pectore cuncta,
Non tamen interpres tantumdem juveris. Adde
Vultum habitumque hominis."

* See Critical Reflections on Poetry and Painting by the Abbé du Bos; also Reid's Essays on the Intellectual Powers.

« PreviousContinue »