Page:Essays on the Chinese Language (1889).djvu/31

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17
Some Western Opinions.

Coming down to later years, when the study of language and lauguages began to be pursued in a thorough and critical manner, we have W. von Humboldt, as has been seen already, giving great praise to Chinese. Judging from the point of view of grammatical structure, one might, he says, at the first glance regard it as departing the most widely from the natural demand of speech, and as the most imperfect. On a more thorough examination, however, this view disappears, and, on the contrary, Chinese is found to possess a high degree of excellence, and to exercise on the mental faculties an influence which, if one-sided, is yet powerful.[1]

Steinthal, one of the latest and most philosophical students of language and languages, has a two-fold division into Formless and Form Languages. Lowest in the latter is Chinese, which has matter-elements, and nothing else. Form being indicated only by juxta-position. He speaks of Chinese, however, as being a language rich in terms for abstract ideas, and in vocabulary generally. It is also highly cultivated, and in the modern literature it shows delicacy, grace, spirit, wit, and humour. "The contrast between the means of the Chinese language and its productions is," Steinthal says, "a phenomenon quite unique in the history of language."[2] And Whitney warms into eloquence when he comes to treat of the history and character of Chinese. Having owned that "in certain respects of fundamental importance" the Chinese "is the most rudimentary and scanty of all known languages," he goes on: "The power which the human mind has over its instruments, and independent of their imperfections, is strikingly illustrated by the history of this form of speech, which has successfully answered all the purposes of a cultivated, reflecting, studious, and ingenious people, throughout a career of unequalled duration; which has been put to far higher and more varied uses than most of the multitude of highly organised dialects spoken among men—dialects rich in flexibility, adaptiveness and power of expan-

  1. "Ueber d. Verschiedenheit d. Men. Sprachbaues," B. II., S. 331 (Ed. A. F. Pott).
  2. "Charakteristik," &c., pp. 108, 137 et al.