Domestic Encyclopædia (1802)/Language

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LANGUAGE, signifies the expression of our ideas, and their different relations, by means of articulate sounds.

The acquisition of languages is an object of great importance. Without entering into a discussion concerning their origin, we shall briefly observe, that the power of speech is not naturally acquired; because, when considering its mechanism, certain positions and motions of the organs of the mouth, such as the tongue, the teeth, lips, and palate, &c. are necessary for uttering sounds, which cannot be imitated by persons living in a state of Nature, and must, tberefore, be the effect of art. Hence civil society alone could produce a language; and, as the former is not from Nature, or coeval with the animal, it follows that both must have had a beginning.

The same cause that first produced ideas, and made men rational creatures, also rendered them social or political, and in process of time produced all the arts of life: this cause, in the opinion of the late Lord Monboddo, is no other than the necessities of human life. These are either the want of subsistence, or of defence against superior force and violence; so that, without the operation of one or other of these causes, there never would have been society, language, or arts, among men.

The most easy and correct method of acquiring languages, is, however, of greater consequence than the history of their origin. Singular as this assertion may appear to many of our readers, it is nevertheless true, that a just model, or plan of teaching, so useful an art as that of speech, to children or adults, has long been, and still remains, a great desideratum. And though we are not in possession of a perfect system of grammar, yet many excellent treatises have been written on that subjeft by ingenious men, who have, ivdividually, contributed to render the art of speaking and writing more familiar to persons of ordinary conception. Unfortunately, however, less attention has, in general, been paid to the acquisition of modern languages, than to those of the ancients. Hence we may confidently recommend the method pursued by Dr. Egan of Greenwich, on whom the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, &c. in 1787, conferred a gold medal, for teaching youth to write and speak Latin in common conversation, both fluently and correcty. His plan is, to divest instruction of that harshness, which intimidates juvenile minds, and retards their progress in learning. And he has succeeded in rendering the hours of amusement subservient to the promotion of the classical part of education, by inducing his pupils to speak Latin with equal ease and precision. To effect this purpose, he prohibits boys of a certain standing, from practising any language except the Latin or French; and a mark is circulated, for the prevention of solecisms and barbarous expressions. If a pupil, who has this mark, hear another speak ungrammatically, it is passed to the latter, and he who receives such mark most frequently in the course of the day, incurs a small fine. To avoid this penalty, Dr. E.'s scholars pay the strictest attention to the choice and arrangement of their words, the construction of their sentences, as well as the style, purity, and harmony of their diction.

Thus a considerable portion of time and expence is saved, independently of the numerous other beneficial consequences that result from this plan, as it may be easily applied to the different living languages. Hence it well deserves to be more generally known, and adopted in those schools where years are wasted by the old method, which is comparatvely absurd.

The English language undoubtedly possesses a superior degree of excellence, blended with a greater number of defects, than that of every other nation in Europe. Bold and energetic, it is admirably calculated alike for history and the drama: at the same time, from its smoothness and copiousness, it is peculiarly adapted for the dilferent branches of poetry. But, with all these advantages, it labours under an infinity of monosyllables, which will ever prevent it from attaining that swelling fulness of sound, which so essentially contributes to produce both harmonious dignity and graceful cadences in literary composition. To this imperfection must be added the letter s, which, by its very frequent and inevitable recurrence, communicates to the whole such a general hiss, as cannot fail to be unpleasant to every impartial person, who has the least conception of musical harmony. We have neither room, nor an opportunity of pointing out a remedy for this harshness; yet, if the syllable en, which was formerly appended to the plural number, were restored to its ancient place, we presume that many of the difficulties would be removed; and that, trifling as this alteration may appear, the language would thus be greatly improved.