The Mystery of Words/Part 1/Chapter 5

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The Mystery of Words  (1924)  by Ralcy Husted Bell
Part I, Chapter V


Oral Words, etc.

Nothing is mysterious that is well known or unknown. Mystery is the protean spirit of twilight more nimble than the waves of the sea. Proceeding from clear vision to the point where vision ceases, an intermediate station may be found perhaps at which this spirit is most active. If, for illustration, a curve were drawn from the known to the unknown, from that which is clearly perceived to that which is just beyond range, at a point somewhere in the half-light the element of mystery would be deepest. This probably is true of words and the relations that involve them.

Few instruments of the mind are more continually used, and abused, than are our words. From babbling infancy to garrulous dotage, they are our most intimate companions, our most faithful servants. They play such a large part in the phenomena of our being that, paradoxically, we fail to regard them as the chief actor-element in our lives. They are too much of us to be dissociated from us. We accept them as a matter-of-course, just as we accept our bodily members. We pass through life’s little day oblivious of their deeper significations,—only mildly attracted by their mysteries.

Some of the characteristics of words have been noted, others have been suggested. We have seen that the simplest aspect of a word is complex, and that the word itself is widely related. The spoken word, for instance, is a sound entirely homogeneous produced by the organs of speech. The sound is made up of elements which flow together so harmoniously that where one sound ends and another begins is indeterminate. These parts blend and flux into an acoustic impulse which carries the image as a soul.

Reduced to its simplest analysis, the spoken word contains three elements: (a) its vocal sound; (6) its acoustic impulse; (c) its mental image. These three elements of an oral word determine the quality of its impression or registration, as well as the character of the process, and the spirit of its interpretation. The oral word therefore bears no more necessary relation to the phonetic organs than to the auditory; it is no more closely related to the physical than to the physiological process; and the image or the soul of a word is as indispensable, surely, to the psychic phenomenon as to any other link in the chain.

The spoken word has no more primary connection with the alphabet than with the ideograph. The alphabet relatively is a late invention of signs with which to suggest word-sounds in writing. The alphabet performs its function principally through the sight. The symbols are learned, and they are given their arbitrary phonetic associations and their acoustic equivalents which must be fixed in memory by repetition extended into habit. Some earlier alphabets were so admirably constructed that each graphic symbol stood for a single invariable sound. There were no letters representing double sounds, and none for sounds that vary according to the position of the letters. This was an ideal means of phonetic writing from which later methods generally have diverged.

Leaving out of this discussion the various alphabetic schemes to designate the concatenation of single and syllabic sounds which flux into an homogeneous word-sound, and making no attempt to add anything to the special work that has been ably done on the principles and elements of phonetics, yet it is evident that the characteristics and the relations of words are many and complex. The time-factor in the succession of sounds entering an oral word; the rhythmic impulse affecting sound-words separately, giving them a significant unity in combination; the relations between classes of words falling into an indefinite number of species; the relations between the phonetic apparatus and the sounds produced, etc., would require volumes of discourse in any worthy attempt to unravel the mysteries. Yet I dare say, in all the different factors that produce the sounds, and in all their differential elements, there are principles which, if recognized and studied, would greatly aid us in our efforts to understand the phenomena involved.

Many analyses have been made of English word-sounds by specialists in phonetics. Unfortunately these analyses have discovered far too few of the principles entering the syntheses which we call words. For after all, it is the synthesis that clears the understanding; and it is the analysis, too often, that clouds it. Thus far, no study of isolated sounds seems to promise an explanation of the sound-flux which, in passing through cerebral processes, enters the mind as a word. The important elements of a word are not more marked in its sound than in its quality of registration through the organs of hearing. The component sounds of a word therefore are valuable only when they have become synthetic by the blend of elements which, being internal to language, are closely interdependent. Just as the philologists have unbalanced their work with too much attention to the written forms of language, and too little to the spoken; just as the grammarians have over-emphasized the importance of the comparative method in their researches, so have the phonetic specialists, for the most part, shown too great a predilection for the study of isolated sounds by the analytic method, and too little regard for the synthetic effect of sounds that form words.

Take, for example, the utterance of an isolated sound which is to enter a word: the phonetic organs assume their necessary position with relation to each other in order to produce the sound required. In the uttering of this sound, a certain individual liberty may be taken at will. The ear alone determines the quality of the acoustic impulse. This is the simplest exposition; but when sounds are combined, the process becomes more complex; the personal liberty is restricted; at once it becomes necessary to forecast the effect sought and to take note of the effect produced. It is far from possible to pronounce always as one would. The physical ability of the organs of articulation must be equal to the group-requirements of the sound. In the words of de Saussure: La liberté de lier des espèces phonologiques est limitée par la possibilité de lier les movements articulatoires. Pour rendre comte de ce qui se passe dans les groupes, il y à établir une phonologie où ceux-ci seraient considérés comme des équations algébriques; un groupe binaire amplique un certain nombre d’éléments mécaniques et acoustiques qui se conditionnent réciproquement; quand l’un varie, cette variation a sur les autres une répercussion nécessatre qu’on pourra calculer.

It appears then that while there are many problems involving the spoken word, that which relates to its sound and flux can be understood only through a knowledge of the laws which produce the synthetic result of these sounds.

That is not all. There are many other subtleties and little-regarded relations of the spoken word. Professor de Saussure’s researches (better shown in his lectures than was possible in the already mentioned post-humous book) are the most comprehensive and exhaustive exposition of this subject thus far attempted with success. He shows, for instance, the differences which characterize the sounds of doubled consonants, as illustrated by the double p in appa,—the first p corresponding to a “fermeture,” the second to an “ouverture”; he follows the same principle with occlusives, applying it to the fricatives also, as in the double ƒ of aƒƒa; the same to the nasals, as in amma; to the liquids, as in alla; “et en général à tous les phonemes jusqu’ aux voyelles (aòóa, etc., sauf a).”

These differences of pronunciation Professor de Saussure discussed under the terms implosion and explosion: “implosion” covers the class falling under the closing, or fermeture, form of articulation; and “explosion” covers those that naturally come under the opposite form of articulation called the ouverture, or opening.

The merest passing reference to the complex characteristics of words and the principles which govern their relations, is sufficient indication of the mysteries involving all parts of speech. It is true that these mysteries are mainly attractive to specialists; and that a better understanding of them would be of doubtful utility in a popular sense; yet in following the subject, one gets into deep water—and out of it if he can. For one who persists, however, there are benefits to be obtained—even from the pursuit of abstractions.

Broadly, language represents the sum of impressions registered in the brain of mankind; these impressions are determined by accepted standards of meaning. There is an infinite number of subtle and complex factors intimately related, both internal and external, to language; and all are interdependent. Thus, in general, the traits of language distinguish it as a social convention—a collective institution—not subject to the will.

More specifically, oral speech has distinctive features of its own which make it more amenable to individual will. Within certain limits, the person speaking forms his own combinations; he colors his version with his own juices. He may offend against the impersonal principles of language whilst rendering picturesque and telling speech. That is the reason why language in its broad character has been likened to a symphony, while oral speech has been compared with the rendering of the composition. The composition may be perfect—its rendering very imperfect. One is impersonal, and the other extremely personal. All this makes it clear that language regarded as an organism, and speech as fluid expression, can not be studied from the same viewpoint, notwithstanding their obvious intimate relationships.

Again, language regarded as a system, so well shown by de Saussure, has two equally important elements—external and internal. The external elements of a tongue, naturally, are those which affect it from without; and the internal, are those which affect the system of language in any degree whatever. Just where the external series of phenomena ends and the internal series begins, is not essential to this discussion; but what has an important bearing, is the vital fact of a great multitude of linguistic phenomena connecting the simplest parts of speech with each other and with the complex whole. Some of these elements comprise the influences of ethnological groups including the reciprocal relations between the history of the group and the history of its tongue—the morals of the people reflected in their speech—and conversely, in large measure, that inscrutable soul of a language, which gives a marked element of individuality to a nation.

Furthermore, a tongue is influenced by local idioms, politics, conquest, colonization, commerce, and all the many reactions inevitably taking place between State and State. Words and idioms are exchanged. Imported exotic elements of speech rarely long retain their exact original meanings. Thus modifications occur slowly but irresistibly; new subtleties of meaning arise while the older disappear and are lost. Some States, such as Switzerland and parts of the British Empire, for practical political purposes admit several tongues; others, such as France, encourage a unity of language. As civilization advances, special departments of language are developed to facilitate the working of special institutions such as, for instance, the law, medicine, engineering, theology, art, and, in a word, science in its various fields, art in its many forms. All these evolve special nomenclatures to serve the particular needs of each; and elements of these nomenclatures gradually infect the popular tongue. At first the result is in the nature of an infection; but in the course of time the system linguistic rids itself of the poison, retaining only the healthful residue—reacts favorably, in other words.

Besides, language as an institution is influenced by other associated institutions: the school, the church, the Academy, the military, the court, the press, and by the literature of the people as it circulates in books or is conserved in libraries. In our own English tongue it is especially notable that the tendency of popular idiom, with all its faults, is to invade the literary or book-field. Indeed in all first-rate languages, there are reciprocal influences between literary expression and current speech.

As to oral and written speech, we have two systems of signs,—one represents the other. The oral tradition may be wholly independent of the written; and examples of this fact still extant are well known to scholars. The systems of written language need not detain us here, whether alphabetic or ideographic, for their phenomena virtually produce the same relational effects,—the same general harmonies pervade the whole social convention.