The Mystery of Words/Part 1/Chapter 7

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


Orderly Relationships

It is difficult to realize what a network of laws enmesh our poor little vocabularies; nor can we easier perceive from what mysterious source these laws have come. Have they no intelligent purpose? Are all these series of flexible yet constant relations the result of “blind forces” working to some purpose by fate or to no purpose by chance; and have they no destiny which, seeing the way, guides them through more than multitudinous wildernesses? Is intelligence the offspring of order, or is order the symbol of intelligence? We do not know; but we can not help suspecting that, somehow, intelligence and order are interdependent. And seeing order everywhere within range, we must believe that it extends beyond; and that where one is, there the other must be, also.

As soon as we see order in relationships, and when we perceive that the order is constant, we call this phenomenal spirit a law. Then we lean back in our chairs, content with our knowledge and not always unmindful of our wisdom. This frowzy lack of humor, so often seen in smug professorial dignity, blights many a promising career.

Linguistics is an incomplete crystallization of the phenomena of language; but the crystallization is sufficient to show the great number of complexities that condition words and their relations. What are these laws, and how are they revealed? The study of grammar, so well begun by the Greeks and so successfully pursued by the French, has yielded its well-known rules. The rules are narrow, logical, and theoretically, strong. They enable us to distinguish between correct forms and those that are not. Practically, these rules have become so honeycombed with exceptions that they are weak.

Philology already was taught at the school of Alexandria, but not until the latter part of the 18th century was it brought under the methods of study known as modern-scientific.

The method of comparative grammar was introduced early in the 19th century. Tongues were compared with each other; they were grouped under family names; and their relationships were investigated with more or less success. Later, in close succession, came the etymologists who contributed less than was expected of them, but who did discover bonds of union between comparative mythology and linguistics, between comparative grammar and classic philology. Then these bonds or laws were codified; and they have been commented on without end.

Since the middle of the 19th century perhaps, the most progress has been made in the discovery of laws which condition language as a whole—which connect its parts—and which relate its factors with their combined functions. A study of these laws has shown somewhat the real nature of language; even better, it has swept away numberless errors; and it has opened up rich fields for linguistic research.

As the study of linguistics conformed more and more to the methods of science—that is to say, as it became broader and more rational discoveries were multiplied and their meaning grew clearer. Linguistics now has taken its place among the other sciences; its objects are more definite than formerly; its definitions are less murky and phantastic; its phenomena are not so elusive and shadowy as once they were. Not only are corollary subjects forced to yield important illuminations, but subjects which at first glance seem foreign to linguistics, also bring forth light.

Physiology, physics, psychology, history, ethics, anthropology, phonetics, politics, war, geography, archeology, ethnology, etc., are called on, each in turn, to contribute some useful information bearing on linguistics. Studies are going forward in audition, phonation, and in the formation of acoustic, muscular, and conceptual images. Even the human anatomy is playing its rôle. Semiology, if not yet brought up to the full requirements of science, nevertheless has offered useful suggestion, and already it is the groundwork of reasonable, therefore promising conjecture. In a word, linguistics is receiving careful attention in its various aspects, or from different points-of-view. Language, tongue, graphic and oral speech, with their subdivisions and relations, are regarded with some consideration for perspective.

The elements of language are sought both internally and externally to its organic structure; and progress has been made in the appreciating of their reciprocal relations or interdependent laws. The phenomena of written and phonetic language are compared and weighed; their systems have been analysed and deductions have been made from the analyses. At last the conflict between pronunciation and spelling seems not quite hopeless, since the transmutations wrought by many factors, including that of time, have been noted with some exactitude.

The problems of phonology have been valiantly attacked, and not a few of them reduced to an understandable solution. Hidden elements have been brought to view; obscure links in the chain have been made clear; the vocal organs have been studied to the effect that now they yield not only sounds but some philosophy as well; their functions have been explained; the laws connecting these organs with the speech-centers of the brain have been identified and followed intelligently. Clinical experience has furnished much information about words and the principles which relate them to language. Vocal sounds have been arranged in classes, and their relations have been scrutinized. As the special traits of word-sounds have become clearer, the broad study of speech has been facilitated. The chain of sounds entering the synthetic flux of a word has been analysed, link by link, and it has been subjected to research covering implosive and explosive phenomena. The laws of simple vocal sounds have revealed new aspects of the phenomenon of syllabation, and further examination of these laws has modified very materially some of the older theories. Thus we have learned how to avoid vicious circles in our reasoning whilst trying to form a conception of these phenomena. In all this, the time-function has not been ignored; and the result, happy in the recent past, augurs well for the near future.

A study of the general principles of language has brought out the nature of the linguistic sign-system, together with its many significant bearings on the parts of speech. The arbitrary and static elements of language, although closely related to the fluid elements of current idiomatic speech, have revealed new aspects when examined from different points-of-view. The confusion, for instance, resulting from the double aspect of mutability on the one side and rigidity on the other, virtually has cleared away. The conventional nature—the collectivity—of language has been contrasted with those of its elements which permit individual freedom of choice in the use of a tongue; and for that reason, the relations between language and the masses using it are better understood to-day than they were formerly.

It appears, moreover, that the values of words have both static and evolutionary elements. Sign-posts have been erected at the cross-roads leading from different directions to linguistic interpretation. Dual principles, external and internal to language, have been discovered at work in its evolution. Either phase of this phenomenon gives its own values—that is to say, equivalents found in two different orders. Indeed, language is regarded by some careful students as a system of pure values, complex in nature and most rigorously organized—a system which, considered as a scheme of synchronic solidarity of parts, promises perhaps the best results.

From opposing elements order has been drawn; from seemingly conflicting methods, harmony has been deduced. An examination of the synchronic and diachronic elements of language (elements of a state of language and of a phase of its evolution, respectively—de Saussure) has shown an unmistakable unity of linguistic laws regardless of the bifurcations through which they have been approached. Everywhere appear the fundamental laws which bristle with integral characteristics of opposing axes.

Scientific methods applied to linguistic research have separated the abstract entities from the concrete: the soul of a word no longer is confused with its form in sound or with its graphic sign; the spirit of a tongue is not confounded with its sustentacular principles. Many difficulties have been cleared away, which formerly obscured the unities of the concrete and the abstract phenomena of linguistics. Modern methods have enabled some of the more intelligent of our specialists to discuss, with a semblance of reason, such things as values, realities, entities, and identities. Thought, material, sound, form, substance, spirit, as used in dissertations on this subject, have lost much of their former ambiguity; and they now are aiding us in the perception of laws at work, as well as in the process of forming a conception of some of the effects of these laws.

The values of signs in both systems of oral and written speech, have been placed in classes; and one class has been dissociated from another for the practical purpose of clearer exposition; and, again, they have been considered together in their reciprocal relations for the purpose of gaining a perspective of the mass-phenomena.

It has been demonstrated that language is conditioned by laws; and the operations of many of these laws in their different spheres have been visualized. Their interdependence is admitted. The value of one series of relationships is modified or even determined by the value of the other to which it is correlated through correspondence or by opposition. For some are the laws of association, others of suggestion by contraries, antipathies, etc. Through all runs the general principle of coordination terminating in psychic syntheses of conceptual imagery.

A study of the physics of language, its mechanism, its functions, its groups and orders, has thrown much light on fields hitherto dark; it has broadened the scope of relativity, and it has discovered many factors heretofore unknown. The grammatical laws have been segregated as a whole and subdivided into classes. Morphology, with its diverse categories of words and syntactic relations, have been correlated and explained together with the grammatical abstractions; that is to say, with those grammatical elements which are of a conceptual nature and which emerge from the concrete elements of structure, etc.

Phonetic changes, their conditions, and the methods by which they are studied, have been brought within reach of anyone who has time and industry to give to the study. The causes of phonetic changes, with their limitless possibilities, now may be known to the student who is not afraid of work.

The laws of analogy, it is true, have given no end of trouble; but even these have been clarified; their changing phenomena have been followed successfully; their reactions have been noted; and their psychologic nature has been established. In addition, the reason why certain words in all languages are virile, while other words are sterile and feeble, is known. The relations between the evolutionary laws and certain results of the laws of analogy have been determined; and it has been shown that they involve some of the broader questions of interpretation.

The virtual pathology of popular etymology has been contrasted with the healthier growths of linguistic science. The principles of agglutination have been compared with those of analogy for purposes of differentiation; and all these phenomena have been analysed, in a sense, both subjectively and objectively.

Furthermore, the geographical distribution of tongues, and the laws which permit one to flourish beside the other, or to amalgamate with another; the principles governing the language of literature and those which condition the local current idioms; the laws of dialect; the soul of slang; the strong laws making for precision, and those that are weaker tending toward looseness and inaccuracy; the various lines of energy hitched to the chariot of spiritual unity—of linguistic harmony—dragging the car to its destiny, have all been discussed within reasonable limits; and they have been explained at reasonable length; so that the differentiation of tongues and the bonds uniting all may, at least, be partly comprehended.

Finally, the consideration of all these laws, and many others, has directed research back to the era of primitive speech. Ethnological questions have been answered in part by race, tongue, and epoch. Social laws and their effects on language have been traced far back by linguistic palæntology to social and other types. At last all this is confronted by a wall behind which no man has seen.

Consciousness and order and the faculty of speech! these are the abiding mysteries. They thrill our words with something akin to life. A creative will dwells in the faculty of speech; words issue from its inscrutable power. Intelligence is one phase of consciousness, order is another. Personality is incidental. Law undulates through consciousness and order as waves travel through the ether. Waves beat upon the mind—the reaction we call intelligence. One series of waves we term light, another we call law—mere figure of speech. Through light the mind perceives orderly relationship in three-dimensional space and in many dimensional tone and color. Through law the mind perceives orderly relationship in multi-dimensional if not infinite domains: one of these we call linguistics.