Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/April 1898/The Significance of Language

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NONE of the works on linguistics which come out one after another, whether for the use of students or of the general public, seem to me to offer exactly what they ought. To one who knows how to question it, language is full of lessons, because man has laid up in it for many centuries the acquisitions of his material and moral life. If only the changes of vowels and consonants are considered, the study is reduced to the proportions of a secondary branch of acoustics and physiology; if the study is directed to the counting of the losses suffered by the grammatical mechanism, it gives the illusion of a building falling to ruin; and if one confines himself to vague theories on the origin of language, he adds a chapter of not much value to the history of systems. It seems to me that there is something else to be done. The extraction from linguistics of what can be drawn from it as food for reflection and as a rule for our own language (since each of us is doing his part in the evolution of human speech) is the thing that should be made most prominent, and that I shall attempt.

My present effort is to study the mental causes which have influenced the transformations of languages. In order to give system to the investigation, I have arrayed the facts under a series of laws—to which term we must not attach an imperative significance, for none of these laws is without exceptions; and I take pains to define for each law the limits within which it is operative. I aim to show that the history of language, besides achieved changes, furnishes numerous cases of attempts that have been carried only part way.

To introduce the will as a factor in the history of language after so much pains have been taken within the past fifty years to exclude it, seems almost like heresy. But while it was proper to discard the puerilities of the science of the past, we have been content to take up with the opposite extreme of a too simple psychology. We shall have to shut our eyes to the evidence to fail to see that an obscure but persevering will presides over changes of language.

How shall this will be represented? I believe it should be represented under the form of thousands and millions and milliards of tentative essays, usually unsuccessful, but sometimes followed by a quarter or a half success, which, thus guided, corrected, and improved upon, at length take some precise direction. The object, in language, is to be understood. The child exercises itself for months in speaking the vowels and articulating the consonants; and how many failures does it make before it clearly pronounces a syllable! Grammatical innovations are of the same kind, with the difference that a whole people collaborates in them. How many awkward, incorrect, and obscure constructions, before finding the one which will be, not an adequate—for there is none such—but a passably sufficient expression of the thought! There is nothing in this long labor that is not of the will. In pursuing this study, we have no need to look for facts of a complicated nature. As in everything where the popular mind is in play, we find a surprising simplicity in the means, in striking contrast with the extent and importance of the effects. I have designedly taken my examples from the best known languages.

We give the name of repartition to the intentional process by which words that were synonymous take on different meanings, and can no longer be used for one another. Most linguists deny that there are repartitions, and, when confronted with examples, assert that they are made by scholars and are not popular. The public, however, are not of this opinion. They admit the existence of repartition, and do not believe that there are two absolutely identical terms. Now, since the public is the depository and the author of language, its verdict that there shall be no synonymy is effective to work the disappearance of any synonym in a short time. A class of distinctions between words is discredited by their having been made in the study by pretentious teachers of language who have not been called to the task. There are no real distinctions other than those which are made without premeditation, under the pressure of circumstances by sudden inspiration, under the impulse of a real need, by persons who are dealing with the things themselves, associating the words with them the moment they see them.

When two languages or two dialects exist together, a work of classification takes place, and synonymous words are given different ranks. Words rise and fall in dignity as an idiom is considered superior or inferior. Linguistics is here a social or a national affair. As M. J. Gillieron relates of the Lower Valais, where French has encroached upon the Swiss dialect, that the latter has been debased and become vulgar and trivial. Since the French word chambre has come in for the bedroom, the old word pailé has been applied only to the garret. In Brittany, according to the Abbé Rousselot, gardens were formerly called courtils, but now that the word jardin has been introduced, a kind of slight has been attached to the old rustic word. It makes no difference if both terms are of the same origin. The Savoyard calls his own parents père and mère, French, while the fathers and mothers of his cattle are his native pâré and mâré. What the people do by instinct, all constructive science, all deep analysis, all discussion that has an object, every reflective opinion that would define itself, does with, the same spontaneity. Two words, formerly synonymous, are differentiated by an immediate apperception. The history of language is a series of repartitions. The earliest stammering of a child is nothing else, for it is by repartition that he applies to distinct objects the sylables which he at first bestowed indifferently on everything he met.

When the popular mind has once determined a repartition of a certain order, it is naturally tempted to complete the series. There are languages in which the different acts of life are not designated in the same way when performed by a person of high dignity and by a common person. To express that a man eats, the Cambodians use the word si; in speaking of a chief, pisa; and of a bonze or king, soï. In speaking to an inferior, I is anh; to a superior, knhom; to a bonze, chhan. The followers of Zoroaster, who regard the world as divided between two opposing powers, have a double vocabulary, according as they speak of creatures of Ormuzd or of Ahriman,

Nothing, in fact, is more natural or more necessary than repartition; for our mind collects words from different ages and different mediums, and would be in absolute confusion if it did not give some kind of order to them. We all do what the dictionaries of synonyms do; when we examine the terms which usage distinguishes or subordinates, we find that etymology rarely gives a reason for the differences we assign to them. If we take, for example, the words genus and species, what reason is there for giving one a larger capacity than the other? There is nothing in the words division, brigade, regiment, and battalion to indicate the special and exact subordination of one to another that exists between them. Passing to moral ideas, we perceive no gradation imposed by etymology in the words esteem, respect, and veneration. It required precise and clear minds, a society well ordered and careful of its ranks, to establish some of these distinctions.

Still, repartition has its limits. First, as it does not create, but attaches itself to what is to be distinguished, terms to be differentiated must exist in the language. We might cite instances of confusion from which, for the lack of a word, the most perfect idioms have never succeeded in freeing themselves. On the other hand, the mind may not always be able to fructify all the riches the language offers it. Grammatical mechanism, by combining existing elements, could produce such a quantity of forms that the mind would be embarrassed with them. George Curtius calculated that the number of personal forms in the Greek verb rose to 268, but this is much inferior to the 861 forms of Sanskrit. Another limit is imposed. Certain shades of meaning are possible only among cultivated peoples. In synonymy we can discern what objects the thought of a nation is occupied with. Distinctions are made first by the finer minds; then they become common to all. Intelligence consists largely in perceiving the difference between similar things. It is imparted, in a certain degree, by language, for, in order to recognize differences which the best endowed were at first the only ones to feel, the view of each one becomes keener.

From what has gone before, we draw the conclusion that language designates things incompletely and inexactly. Substantives are labels attached to things, and include just that part of the truth which a name can contain. The names most adequate to their objects in our languages are abstract nouns, because they represent a simple operation of the mind. When I pronounce the word compressibility or immortality, all that is in the idea is contained in the word; but if I take a real being, an object existing in Nature, it will be impossible for language to put into the word all the notions which that being or that object awakens in the mind. Language is forced to select. Among all the notions it chooses one, and thus creates a name which at once becomes a sign.

There is no reason to fear that the importance of language in education will ever be depreciated. We can trust that to the mothers. Their first impulse is to speak to the child, their highest joy to hear it speak. Then come masters of all degrees and sorts, each of whose art supposes language. In every country, ancient and modern, language has supplied the instrument and the prime material of instruction. This universal agreement is natural. We shall have no difficulty in understanding the nature of the action of language on the mind if we reflect that we do not, any of us, receive it in block all at once, but are each obliged to reconstitute it anew. An apprenticeship takes place which, although it escapes notice and is not recognized even by the one who passes through it, is nevertheless a sort of training school of mankind. Since the best teachers are those who give us the most to do ourselves, what more profitable study can we conceive for the child? What attention is required simply to distinguish the word! We have to disengage it from what precedes and from what follows it; to discriminate between the permanent and the variable elements, and to understand that the permanent element is committed to us to handle in our turn and subject to the same variations. The simplest phrase is an invitation to decompose the thought and see what each word contributes to it. The adjective and the verb are the first abstractions comprehended by the child. Imagine the effort which the ancient languages required even to speak them passably! There was a whole chapter of inner life in it which began again in each person. The people carried within themselves an unwritten grammar, which indeed slipped into errors and faults, but which nevertheless had a degree of fixedness, for these languages were transmitted from generation to generation for ages. "When we consider how much trouble it takes now to learn these languages, we are surprised. But we must recollect that education in the maternal language has the advantage that it is going on all the time and everywhere, that it is stimulated by necessity, that it addresses itself to fresh minds, and that it offers the unique characteristic of associating words with things, and not the words of one language with those of another. The same conditions are in play in all mother tongues, and in all the child's mind achieves a triumph. Our modern languages, while less encumbered with formal apparatus, are still not far from it; and the complication bears upon another point, consisting in the use of words of slight meaning, and so abstract and servile that we never think of them, while we always put them in their proper places. In this we observe intelligence passing to a condition of instinct. This is not through any kind of a notion of the value of the word, but by virtue of a certain number of locutions which memory retains, and which serve as models. Our intelligence derives the same services in daily operations from language that we derive from calculations. In consequence of the infirmity of our understanding, it is easier for us to deal with the signs of ideas than with the ideas themselves. Before the invention of writing, men counted with pebbles. Doubtless this idea must come first; but it is vacillating, fugitive, hard to transmit. Once incorporated into a sign, we are sure we have it, and can direct it at will and communicate it to others. This is the service performed by language; it renders thought objective.

If I had to say in what the superiority of the Indo-European languages consists, I should not seek for it in the grammatical mechanism, or in the compounds, or in the syntax; but in the facility with which those languages, from the most ancient times of which we know, have created abstract nouns. If we observe the suffixes which serve this purpose, we shall be surprised at their number and variety. It is the presence of these nouns in large number, as well as the possibility of making others after the same type, that adapts the Indo-European languages so well to the expression of all the operations of thought.

Accustomed as we are to language, we do not easily conceive of the accumulation of mental labor which it represents; but, to satisfy ourselves concerning it, we have only to take up some book and eliminate all the words which, not corresponding to any objective reality, summarize a mental operation. Hardly anything would be left of the page thus pruned. The peasant who talks of time and seasons, the tradesman who expatiates on his stock of goods, and the child who brings his certificate of conduct or advancement, move in a world of abstractions. The words number, form, distance, situation, are so many mental concepts. Language is a translation of reality, a transposition in which objects figure already generalized and classified by the labor of thought.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue des Deux Mondes.