Page images

universally produced, by the speculations of the learned and respectable General Vallancey, when he first åttempted to demonstrate a very striking analogy between the Celtic and certain oriental tongues, particularly between the Celtic and the language: spoken by the ancient. Phænicians. A specimen of that language has been preserved by Plautus in one of his plays, which contains some speeches of Hanno, a Carthaginian, in

the seducing theories of etymologists, I shall subjoin the sober opinion of a writer who, of all our contemporaries, was best entitled, from his own unparalleled acquisitions, to form a competent judgment on this subject ;—I'need scarcely say that I allude to Sir William Jones.

• Etymology has, no doubt, some use in historical researches; but it is a medium of proof so very fallacious, that, where it elucidates one fact, it obscures a thousand, and more frequently borders on the ridiculous, than leads to any solid conclusion ; it rarely carries with it any internal power of conviction from a resemblance of sounds or similarity of letters, yet, often where it is wholly unassisted by those advantages, it may be indisputably proved by extrinsic evidence. We know a posteriori that both fitz and hijo, by the nature of two several dialects, are derived from filius ; that uncle comes from avus, and stranger from extra ; that jour is deducible, through the Italian, from dies ; and rossignol from luscinia, or the singer in groves; that sciuro, écureuil and squirrel, ale compounded of two Greek words descriptive of the aniinal; which etymologies, though they could not have been demonstrated à priori, might serve to contirm, if any such confirmation were necessary, the proofs of a connexion between the members of one great empire; but when we derive our hanger or short pendant sword from the Persian, because ignorant travellers thus mis-spell the word khanjer, which, in truth, means a different weapon, or sandal wood from the Greek, because we suppose that sandals were sometimes made of it, we gain no ground in proving the affinity of nations, and only weaken arguments which might otherwise be firmly supported.” *

From this quotation it appears how very fallacious are those conclusions concerning the affinity of different languages which rest merely on a similarity, or even an identity of sounds, unsupported by any collateral considerations; and, on the other hand, with what confidence the pedigree of a word may sometimes be traced from a word in another language with which it does not contain one letter in common; due allowances being made for that systematical permutation of one letter for another which is often observable in cognate tongues. This study, therefore, to be successfully prosecuted, supposes a very critical knowledge of both the languages in question; an accomplishment which does not fall to the lot of many etymologists. One of them of some note, and certainly of considerable ingenuity, seems to have considered his deficiencies in this respect as favorable to his researches. “ In the few modern languages,” says Mr. Whiter, “ which I have endeavoured to speak, French, Italian, German, and Spanish, I have ever labored in vain to acquire fluency and facility; yet even this circumstance was favorable to my inquiries; I endeavoured to supply that deficiency by number, which existed in the perfection of each ; and when I had learnt all that I could acquire in one language, I proceeded to another. In advancing to this point I found some speed and promptitude ; and thus, by comparing many languages, I learnt the affinity of the whole.”(Introduction to Mr. Whiter's Etymologicon Magnum, or Universal Etymological Dictionary ; with Mustrations drawn from various Languages-English, Gothic, Saxon, German, Danish, &c. &c.--Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, Gaelic, Irish, Welsh, Bretagne, &c.—the Dialects of the Sclavonic; and the Eastern Languages, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Sanscrit, Gipsey, Coptic, &c. &c. Cambridge, 1800.) If other polyglots were equally candid, I have no doubt they would make a similar confession.

* Works of Sir William Jones, Vol. I. p. 20.

the language of his country: and, in the opinion of some who have devoted much time to the study of the Celtic tongues, he has succeeded in establishing the identity of this Phænician fragment with the Irish,—reasonable allowances being made for the change which the languages may be supposed to have undergone during the lapse of so many ages; and, also, for the corruptions which the Carthaginian speeches must have suffered from the mistakes of ignorant transcribers.

In confirmation of the conclusion to which Vallancey was led by the foregoing discovery, it was farther observed, that the number of Phænician letters introduced by Cadmus into Greece was (according to Tacitus and Pliny) sixteen ; the number of the Irish alphabet is seventeen. * It is remarkable, too, that in the Irish alphabet, the vowels are placed last, after all the consonants; and, in this, that it agrees with no other known alphabet but the Lybian and the Phænician.t

It has been objected to this, that if the Irish had received their letters from the Phænicians, they would, like the Phænicians, have written from right to left. But the objection is such as to appear, on examination, rather favorable to the hypothesis in question. There is no doubt that the Greeks received their letters from the Phænicians; and, therefore, we must suppose, that in the time of Cadmus they wrote from right to left, as the Phænicians did; yet, so early as in the time of Herodotus, we know that the Greeks wrote from left to right,ț for he, speaking of the Egyptians, mentions it as an extraordinary peculiarity, that they should write the contrary way.

The Irish also might anciently have written from right to left, and changed as the Greeks did. Some of the Irish inscriptions at New Grange ş are written from right to left, and left to right alternately, as are several old Irish manuscripts. This manner was called by the Greeks, boustrophedon, because it re

[ocr errors]

Grammar of the Irish Language by General Vallancey, 26, 16,
Vallaucey's Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis, Vol. II. p. 194.
Euterpe, XXXVI.

New Grange near Drogheda, county of Meath, where the most ancient inscriptions in Ireland are to be found.- Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis, Vol. II. p. 210.

sembled the course of the plough; and we are told by General Vallancey, that it is called by the Irish, the path of the reapers.*

One other circumstance (according to these theorists) is worthy of attention; that the Irish, like the Egyptians, had a sacred character, as well as the popular or profane. The sacred character is called ogham, and it is said to resemble much the characters at Persepolis.t From a correspondence which took place between General Vallancey and Sir William Jones, it appears that this word ogham, or agam, denotes mysterious knowledge, in the Sanscrit language;£ and, with respect to the word Sanscrit itself, it has been confidently stated, on the authority of Celtic scholars, that it denotes ancient writing in the Gaelic tongue.

The magnificent bequest of the late Mr. Henry Flood (the celebrated orator in the Irish Parliament) to Trinity College, Dublin, was intended more particularly to promote the elucidation of these problematical and interesting facts.|| Sir Laurence Parsons mentions it as a circumstance which he had often heard Mr. Flood notice with regret, that, while in the East, ingenious men

* Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis, Vol. II. p. 326.

| Les caractères Irlandois appellés ogham ont beaucoup de rapport avec ceux de Persépolis.- Bailly, Lettres sur l'Atlantide, p. 458.

† With all due deference to so illustrious a name, I must be permitted here to observe,

that the countenance given by Sir William Jones to the speculations of General Vallancey, together with the endless Memoirs on the Sacred Isles of the West, by his ingenious friend the credulous and indefatigable Major Wilford, contributed much to procure to the dreams of the learned Irishman, the very general attention which they once drew in this island.

The following extracts from Sir William Jones's Discourses to the Society at Calcutta will explain and justify the above remark:

“ It has been observed, that the writing at Persepolis bears a strong resemblance to that which the Irish call ogham; the word agam in Sanscrit means mysterious knowledge ; but I dare not affirm that the two words had a common origin, and only mean to suggest, that, if the characters in question be really alphabetical, they were probably secret and sacerdotal, or a mere cipher, perhaps, of which the priests only had the key."Works of Sir William Jones, Vol. I. p. 86.

“ Colonel Vallancey, whose learned inquiries into the ancient literature of Ireland are highly interesting, assures me that Crishna in Irish means the sun ; and we find Apollo and Sol considered by the Roman poets as the same deity. I am inclined, indeed, to believe, that not only Crishna and Vishnu, but even Brahma and Siva, when united, and expressed by the mystical word o’m, were designed by the first idolaters to represent the solar fire,” &c. &c. &c.-Ibid, p. 268. " This mystical word,” we are told in another part of the same discourse, “never escapes the lips of a pious Hindu, who meditates on it in silence.”

Ancient Metaphysics, Vol. IV. p. 348.

The estate which Mr. Flood bequeathed for this purpose is worth £5000 a year. -Sir Laurence Parsons's Observations on the Bequest of Mr. Flood, p. 70.

were collecting and translating with such laudable industry, the ancient writings of the inhabitants of the region between Indus and the Ganges, no attempt was made to connect their researches with those of our Celtic antiquaries. He thought that many of the truths of ancient history were to be found at these two extremities of the world; that they would reflect light and knowledge upon each other, and lead to a more certain acquaintance with the early history of man.” *

Nearly twenty years have elapsed since this publication of Sir Laurence Parsons, during which time I do not hear that any progress has been made in those inquiries which the bequest of Mr. Flood was intended to encourage. From this, it seems reasonable to conclude, that the discoveries which he so sanguinely anticipated have not answered his expectations; or, rather, that the facts which he assumed as his data, have not been verified by a more accurate scrutiny. That such a scrutiny has taken place can scarcely be doubted, when it is considered how many Celtic scholars (both Irish and Scotch) have visited India in the course of this interval.

After the issue of this very promising enterprise, it is not surprising, that the scepticism of many should be rather increased than diminished, concerning the

speculations of our present race of Polyglots.

In consequence of the profound silence which has been so long maintained on this subject, the noise which it once made would probably, in the course of a few years more, have sunk into total oblivion, had not the patriotic bequest of Mr. Flood perpetuated the memory of General Vallancey's writings. To the rising generation, it may not be altogether useless to have alluded here to the history of this philological misadventure.

* Sir Laurence Parsons's Observations on the Bequest of Mr. Flood, pp. 55,66.

[blocks in formation]


Miscellaneous Observations on Language, continued.

Among the other speculations which have found favor with our modern philologers, I must not omit to mention an opinion, which appears, from a dialogue of Plato, to. have been also maintained in some of the philosophical schools of ancient Greece. According to this theory, we are taught, that, as nothing exists without a cause, or, as Leibnitz expresses it, without a sufficient reason, we must conclude, that the savages who first imposed names on surrounding objects, were decided in their choice of the various sounds which they employed for this purpose, by some fancied resemblance or analogy between the sound, and the thing which it was to denote. In the case of sonorous objects this is easily conceivable ; and, in point of fact, many examples of it may be produced from all languages. · Thus, in our own, a serpent is said to hiss; a fly to buzz; a lion to roar; an ass to bray; a cock to crow. In these, and other cases of the same kind, the theory in question may be safely admitted.

In the case, however, of objects perceived by the eye alone, and, still more, of things intellectual and moral, the application of the theory becomes much more difficult. But, even in such instances, it has been imagined, that some analogy, however obscure and distant, has been fancied between the thing and its original name. In proof of this, a pretty long list has been produced of articulate sounds which have the same signification in a great variety of languages, although the things which these sounds denote seem to have no relation to any object of hearing. The mechanism of the organs by which these names are pronounced, is supposed to have some analogy to the qualities by which the objects they denote are more peculiarly distinguished; and this trifling circumstance has been presumed sufficient to de

« PreviousContinue »