The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 33
The Growth of Language
The Growth of Language.
Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen—
About a year ago, one of the organs of public opinion in this city took me severely to task, and threatened me with divers awful consequences, because I, then filling the position of professor in the University, could find it possible to spend a little of my leisure in helping with my poor judgment to select a crew to represent the University of Melbourne in friendly rivalry with her sister of Sydney, but had refused to lecture on Technology, because I was too busy. Of course I laid the rebuke to heart, conscious that in some mysterious way it was deserved; although in the first place I hadn't been asked to lecture on Technology, and in the next place, if I had been so desired, I should not have known how. But when my friend, our worthy chairman, who is heart and soul devoted to technology, and under whose guidance I trust to have my crass ignorance enlightened, and do my little possible on its behalf, asked me for a lecture in this course, I willingly consented, being assured by him that I might select any subject of general interest, and that my lecturing here to-night was quite compatible with very slender acquaintance with art pure, art manufactures, or technology.
I am a profound believer in the good old maxim, "ne sutor supra crepidam"—let the cobbler stick to his last; and, therefore, in place of getting up something I did not know, wherewith to trespass on your attention to-night, I have ventured to choose a subject with which I have been for years necessarily somewhat familiar, and to which, like many other common things around us, we are prone perhaps to pay page 132 but little heed—Language, that wondrous offspring and handmaid in one of human thought. "Omnia exeunt in mysterium, as some one says; or if he doesn't, he ought to have said it" (I quote from Charles Kingsley's philosophic artist); and of all the mysteries that lie around us from our cradle to our grave, always saving the mystery of life itself, I know none so passing wonderful as this mystery of language.
Whence came it? Whither tends it? Whence this strange vital tenacity of its own? Generations that use it flow and ebb like the tide, and are known no more; but language abides, worn it is true by their use, but as little destroyed thereby as the rocks that are fretted by the ever-recurring tide of ocean. It seems to each of us but a part of himself, something he can make or unmake. Can he? Which of us here present has given to our English speech one new word? which of us can take from our mother-tongue one single word, and bid it be no longer? If we made it, verily it is stronger than we.
And yet, in a sense, man did make language as much as he has made aught else that is his. Man can create nothing; he must have somewhat given him first to work upon, and all our technology, I take it, is but studying how best we may modify that somewhat given from elsewhere—be it language, where to entrusted, noble thoughts live for ever; or the marble of the sculptor, wherein form divine abides imperishable; or the pigments of the artist, whereby beauty of colour as well as grace of form gladdens our eyes; or the marvellous wealth of elementary substances that nature scatters around us in profusion, and the chemist's art teaches us to modify and recombine for the delectation and comfort of our material life.
Whence came language, in its very simplest type? Some hundred years ago, when the doctrine that man is the measure of all things was even more in vogue than it is now, one set of philosophers gravely propounded the doctrine that men met, and in solemn conclave assembled did then and there pass their act of parliament—for parliament you know means only speech (a meaning sometimes too significant)—and gave to each thing its appointed name, to every act its proper verb, to every quality its fitting adjective. A pretty fancy, in faith, but one which hardly commends itself to us! For how, ere this agreement of the people, did the individual paterfamilias signify his wants to his spouse, his orders to his children, if language was not ere this solemn act of uniformity? And, if we waive this difficulty, how did the delegates who formed page 133 language argue, discuss, divide, and determine, if language was not yet? No, we can as little believe that man existed without language, as we can that he ever existed without thought—"like the beasts that perish." But, though we reject this, the theory of Maupertuis and the Berlin Academy, we may as little give credence to the opposing view, that his Creator endowed man at the outset of his career upon the earth with a full and completely organized language; for such a theory, besides being opposed to all the history of linguistic development, so far as we have it in our possession, is à priori absurd. It supposes the mind of man stored with words, the symbols of notions, which as yet had been called forth by no experience. Rather should we believe that the words, as well as the thoughts, rested only potentially in the human mind, ready to be called into being so soon as needed; that He who gave to man the power of observing, of analysing his sensible impressions, of forming out of the multiplicity of individual objects around him general notions, and so classifying and reducing to order what must at first have seemed an infinite chaos, gave him also, therewith, the power of first attaching names to the individual objects, and then extending these to classes: the process of nomenclature corresponding precisely to, and synchronizing with, the progress of thought.
But what determined the special sign, the peculiar sound, which should come into being when man came in contact with some individual thing, or generalized from it? Why, for instance, should the root sta- be indissolubly bound up in our own language, and the large family akin to it, with the thought stand, verb or noun, it matters not which? Why should the sound re be appropriated to smooth, swift motion, as in the Latin rivulet, or the simple English run? or why, again, should sed in Latin, sitz in German, sit in English, all denote the same posture, as when we might speak of a sedentary sitting in a sitz-bath, using words belonging to all of the three kindred tongues. I cannot answer the question, nor do I believe it ever will be answered. Perhaps, with regard to two of my instances, you may say that it seems to you that the sound of sta- suggests naturally the thought of fixity, of motion arrested, of unyielding resistance, even of solidity; and tell me, what is perfectly true, that you find them severally, in stable, in stay or stop, in stubborn, and in stuff, our old English word for what we now commonly call matter. And again, you might say as to the use of the radical re-, that the very roll or trill of the r which begins it suggests the idea of smooth, onward page 134 gliding. I cannot say it is not so, and your theory would come very close to the doctrine of phonetic types, first set forth in English in Max Müller's celebrated series of lectures on the "Science of Language," a view embodied in a passage which I shall venture to quote:—"The 400 or 500 roots which remain as the constituent elements in different families of language are not interjections, nor are they imitations. They are phonetic types, produced by a power inherent, in human nature. They exist, as Plato would say, by nature, though with Plato we should add, that when we say by nature, we mean by the hand of God. There is a law which runs through nearly the whole of nature that everything which is struck rings. Each substance has its peculiar ring. We can tell the more or less perfect structure of metals by their vibrations, by the answer which they give. Gold rings differently from tin, wood rings differently from stone, and different sounds are produced according to the nature of each percussion. It was the same with man, the most highly organized of nature's works. Man, in his primitive and perfect state, was not only endowed like the brute with the power of expressing his sensations by interjections and his perceptions by onomatoœia; he possessed, likewise, the faculty of giving more articulate expression to the natural conceptions of his mind. That faculty was not of his own making. It was an instinct of the mind as irresistible as any other instinct. So far as language is the production of that instinct, it belongs to the realm of nature. Man loses his instincts as he ceases to want them. His senses become fainter when, as in the case of scent, they become useless. Thus, the creative faculty which gave to each conception, as it thrilled for the first time through the brain, a phonetic expression, became extinct when its object was fulfilled. In the beginning the number of the phonetic types must have been almost infinite." In the case of certain sounds, as we have just observed, we may fancy that we, too, can recognize even now the original thrill of thought that caused the word to spring to life; but these are few and far between, and for the most part we can find no clue to the lost link of connection between thought and speech. Why, for instance, should mah in Sanscrit, mag in Latin, much in English, all denote great, or why should the sound found in our English mill be in every European language appropriated to the act of grinding? Yet, though the theory of phonetic-types shadowed forth in the passage I have quoted can be distinctly traced in but few instances, it seems infinitely preferable to its two page 135 rivals, to which, in the passage quoted, Professor Max Müller somewhat slightingly adverts, which he almost cruelly nick-named the pooh-pooh and the bow-wow theories, or, as their votaries more respectfully style them, the interjectional and onomatopoetic theories of language.
"The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky
And spangled heavens, a shining frame,
Their bright Original proclaim.
What though no real voice or sound
Amid their radiant orbs be found,
In reason's ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
For ever singing, as they shine,
'The hand that made us is divine.'"
I have thus endeavoured briefly to put before you the competing theories of the origin of language, and have indicated that which to my mind most commends itself, though I am bound to admit that, like its rivals, it is not able to give in all points a satisfactory account of itself. Thus much seems clear, that the very earliest development of vocables or phonetic types, if we take Max Müller's word, was spontaneous, and not a deliberate, considered manufacture. So little able are we, "the heirs of all the ages, and the long results of time," to carry ourselves back in imagination to the state of mind of our earliest ancestors when brought face to face with the world around them, that we find a grave controversy among philosophers as to the import of these primeval words. Quoth one authority, "It is perfectly clear that the earliest word must have been the noun, the name of this or that thing." Quoth another, "Nay, I claim higher antiquity for the verb, the name of action, for things are distinguished from one another only by motion or change. Were the universe at rest no one part could be recognised as diverse from another." Who shall decide when doctors disagree? Let us be content simply to say we can as little imagine language, as a means of communication of thought, existing with nouns alone, as we can, on the other hand, think of it as made up entirely of verbs; and page 137 directly it arose from the merely conversational into the narrative stage we can sec that it must have attained to the distinction of pronouns, me, thee, him, or that, denoting severally the speaker, the person addressed, and the subject of the talk. And besides these three classes of words or parts of speech, a fourth must very soon have taken its origin in the simpler adjectives, expressing the obvious, plain distinctions between objects otherwise similar, such as large and small, many and few, bright and dark, strong and weak. And to these must early have been added the simpler prepositions, indicating the common relations of place and time, such as in, of, at, by, the simpler prepositions I say, for many of the so-called prepositions are fragmentary relics of fuller words. Such, then, may have been what Plato would have called the language in its scantiest, most rudimentary, most absolutely necessary stage.
Next followed, in the languages akin to our own, the inflectional stage, a stage in which all the powers of man's intellect must have been given to perfecting, as a means of communication, that language whose origin had hitherto been spontaneous; to the devising of all manner of terminations and modifications of original words, to express the manifold relations of things and actions to one another; the stage in which were developed all the full systems of verb conjugation, and of noun declension, as we find them in Latin, or richer yet in Greek, more perfect still in Sanscrit; the stage wherein single words are made to convey as full a meaning as possible, commonly known as the Synthetic, or putting together, type of language.
After this followed a reaction, which has left the languages of modern Europe what the bulk of them now are, comparatively bare and destitute of inflections, expressing by separate words as far as possible all those manifold varieties of meaning which changes on single words previously conveyed, a stage whose utter contrast to the foregoing one single example will show as clearly as a hundred. Where a Roman said but one word, amaverimus, we must, to express his meaning, use four, and say we shall have loved, employing one word we for the name of the agent, shall to indicate futurity, have for the perfect tense, and loved to name the action performed. We are not, as you will doubtless observe, perfectly analytic, or picking to pieces in our mode of speech, for we still retain the inflectional ed, which, appended at the page 138 end of the verb love, gives us what we all know as the passive participle.
And corresponding to this loss of inflections, but in time preceding it, is the loss of power of calling forth new words for the expression of new thoughts. The cause of this loss is, I suppose, embodied in the old adage, "familiarity breeds con-tempt;" and the strong feeling which at first coined words in rapid profusion from the mint of thought soon grew cold and in appreciative, and language passed as regards its names into the stage in which we now find it, which we might call the manufacturing stage, when for a new object no new name is found, distinct from and unlike the old one, but some modification or combination of the existing word-wealth of the language is formed to meet the exigencies of the case. A couple of instances will show you what I mean. Time was a little before the Christian era, when the cherry was a new tree at Rome, brought from the East. But the Romans did not give to this unknown object a name also hitherto unknown. They asked, "Whence comes it?" And being told from Cerasūs, a town on the Black Sea, they straightway gave it that name, changing only the declension of the word for distinction sake, and so the old name henceforth did double duty for place and fruit. That was a modification; now for an example of a combination. A hundred years, or even less, ago it was a new thing for men to see lines of squared wooden rails laid along a roadway to lessen the friction of the waggon-wheels. What shall this new thing be called 1 It is a way, a road, no doubt of that; let it keep its name, but with a difference—and what difference? Just as, in the case of the cherry-tree, the Romans might have asked, not "Whence came it?" but, "Who brought it?" and their question answered, have bidden it be known henceforth by the name of its acclimatizer; so in this case English people asked, "Whose idea is this?" And finding that the invention was due to Mr. Outram, owner of an extensive colliery, straightway did they diffentiate road or way by the prefix of his name, and the new thing took the name of Outram-way, or Outram-road, which ungrateful posterity, forgetful of its benefactor, and mindful only of its own convenience, has clipt to our modern tramway or tramroad.
I desire to dwell a little on each of the four states of language to which I have thus briefly called your attention, and to bring under your notice some illustrations of each. These I shall endeavour mainly to draw from English and page 139 from Latin, with which we are most of us familiar; but, as I cannot altogether confine myself to them, and must occasionally go further afield to languages more or less akin, let me just remind you of the great and completely accomplished feat of the modern science of comparative philology, the establishment of the unity of the Indo-European, Indo-Germanic, or, as they are now more commonly styled, the Aryan languages. Stated as briefly as possible, this means that the Sanscrit, the ancient language of India; the Zend, that of Persia; Greek and Latin; the Slavonian of Russia and Eastern Europe; the High German of Central Europe; the Low-German spoken along the southern shores of the Baltic, in Holland and in England; the Scandinavian of Denmark and Norway, and Sweden and Iceland; and, finally, the Gaelic of Ireland and Scotland with the Welsh of Brittany and Wales, are all but varieties of one tongue originally the same, varying from one another by certain fixed laws, but possessing in common a large stock of phonetic types, or primitive words, and a grammar in all its essential points identical. You will observe that I have omitted from my list such languages as French, Spanish, and Italian, not because they do not belong to the same family, but because they are all a step further removed. All the languages first enumerated, might be styled daughters of one common parent, the Aryan spoken probably about 3000 years before Christ; while the French, and the other so-called Romance languages, are daughters of one of these—the Latin. Of course, the farther back we can go in the history of those languages which I have classified together as Aryan, the more shall we rid ourselves of those changes which time, and the likes or dislikes for particular sounds on the part of the nations using them, have wrought, and we shall see more plainly the simpler laws of divergence from the original type—laws the origin of which is lost in mystery, but the operation of which must have as effectually divided the different Aryan tribes from one another, as the confusion of tongues divided the Babel builders on the plains of Shinar.
I shall take for illustration in its bearing on the original roots of the Aryan languages one of the best known of these laws, one of the widest application, and trace it through a few examples. It is called Grimm's law, after the great German philologist, who died only a few years ago, who was the first to enounce and establish it.
Your ear will tell you at once that pa, ba, fa, that ta, da, tha, are similarly related, and that ka, ga, cha, are also kindred page 140 in the same fashion. The hard aspirate cha (though it is still common in German and in Scotch) we have lost in English, and substitute for it usually the simple aspirate h. You will also easily understand why the sounds of pa, ba, fa, should be called labials, because pronounced entirely by the lips—in Latin labiœ; ta, da, tha, dentals, because their sounds are formed by more or less complete contact of the tongue and teeth; and ka, ga, cha, gutturals, because they are sounded by the compression of the throat, which in Latin bears the name of guttur. And you will, on examining the nature of the sounds, easily comprehend why pa, ta, ka (the first of the series in each case) should be called tenues, or thin letters; first, because for sounding them the passage of the breath must be for the briefest possible portion of time wholly arrested, and secondly, because their sound is short and sharp. You may repeat it, you cannot dwell upon it as you can upon other consonant sounds, for instance, the three in each series fa, tha, cha—the so-called aspirates, or breathed letters, because in uttering them the emission of the breath is continuous, and the sound, therefore, capable of indefinite prolongation. Intermediate between the two—not so hard as the tenues, not soft and flowing like the aspirates—come the sounds of ba, da, ga, called, therefore, medials, as possessing no special peculiarity of utterance, but lying between the two extremes of tenues and spirants.
Now, Grimm's law stated concisely is this :—Where you find a tenuis, pa, ta, ka, in Sanscrit, Greek, and Latin, you shall find in German a medial, ba, da, ga, and in Gothic, the oldest known type of English, and in English generally, an aspirate, fa, tha, cha; and similarly, by what a mathematician would call substitution, if the first group give you a medial, German shall give you an aspirate. English a tenuis; and if the first group give you an aspirate, German shall present a tenuis, English a medial. It would be impossible for me to enter fully into the exemplification and establishment of this law, but I may venture as briefly as possible to put before you some of the commoner familiar words, in which we find its operation beyond a doubt.
Begin with some simple indispensable words—say the definite article or demonstrative the in English, with its derivatives, this and that, then and there. What answer to these in German and in Latin? In German a host of words commencing with d—to the, the feminine die; to then, dann; to this, dies; to that, das. Notice this last form particularly. Our English page 141 sound of th-, which according to the law should in German replace an English t, is to a German's organs of speech nearly unpronounceable, I presume because unpleasant; and s or z or even tz does duty for it. This you may have observed when in the earlier part of my remarks I quoted the English sit, the Latin sedes, and the German sitz as identical words. And what do you find in Latin for our English th- demonstratives? Just what the law bids us expect—a series of words beginning with t—tot, tam, tum, talis, and the like.
Take another word, the second singular pronoun so nearly obsolete in our daily speech, thou. Everybody knows its corresponding forms—the German du, the Latin tu. And so again, the English three recurs in German as drei, in Latin as tri, familiar to us as a prefix in such words as triple—the exact equivalent in meaning and in letters of our English threefold; for Latin p should by analogy be English f. And what cognate forms do you find for our numeral two, where the w, though not now sounded, must once have been pronounced as it still is in twilight—the light between day and night? In German, for the initial tenuis t, the law bids us look for the aspirate, th; in Latin for the medial d; and what do we find? In German, zwei—z replacing the impracticable th; in Latin, duo, well known to us all in dual, duel, or duet; and in the verb, doubt, which we have borrowed from Latin. For what means doubting, dubitating, to which corresponds in meaning and in etymology the German zweifeln? Merely this, not to know which of two ways to take—or, as we say in humble phrase, to be in two minds.
Before quitting these exemplifications of the law from dental letters, there is one root or type to which I should like for a moment to call your attention, which in Latin appears as ter, signifying to rub or to wear, the participle of which has become an English word, as when we speak of a trite saying, meaning one well worn and familiar—rubbed, as coin is in its passage from hand to hand. This root is interesting to us, as showing how gradually the meanings of words change. What is the effect of rubbing, if continued? why, a hole! And hence this root has taken in Greek almost universally the sense of piercing instead of that of rubbing, whence we have the name of the boring-worm, so destructive to wooden piles in Australian seas—the teredo or the piercer. Nor is this unknown in Latin, for there we find the word ter-ebrum, a gimlet, a boring instrument. Similarly the root claims acquaintance with us in German, as the prepo- page 142 sition durch, own cousin and representative of our English through,; or again as the German dorn, the English thorn—the piercer. Nor have we yet ended with it among our homely words; from it come directly the verb to thrust, found in its true sense in the New Testament words, "shall be stoned or thrust through with a dart;" and the noun, a "thrill"—a sudden feeling—piercing as it were through the heart. Indeed, as Archbishop Trench pointed out long ago in his admirable Study of Words, this very word occurs daily to us in its original signification of a hole. For what is nostril in olden English? Why, nose thrill—the passage pierced in the nose, where, by virtue of another phonetic law, which we shall presently recognize, the aspirate sound of th- has been changed to t by the contact of the sharp s.
At the risk of boring you with this root ter, I must ask you to follow its development one step further. Set to work to rub, and see what form of motion your hand will almost certainly assume—a rotary one, and hence it is that in Greek and in Latin the root finds another expansion into or torqueo, to turn or twist. From the former of this we have the well-known word tropics—the places where the sun seems to pause and turn back in his gradual daily northing or southing, as the case may be. From the latter we have the Latin torqueo; the Irish torque, the twisted collar of gold; and the torch—the twisted rope which, smeared with pitch, served to light in olden days; the retort, whether it be the argument which, flung at you, you twist back against your antagonist, or the twisted, bent alembic that the chemist uses; and finally the tortuous course of a river like our Yarra.
Leaving the dentals, let us look for an example or two of our canon among the simple roots involving labials. First meets us the English off, the German ab, what should be its Greek or Latin analogue? Ap—but ap it is not in Greek or Latin, for here we come across a law of euphony common to the two tongues. No word in either language terminates in p. Therefore, in Greek, the objectionable final sound is disguised by the addition of a light vowel, and the word becomes , familiar to us in apostrophe, apology, and many another adopted alien; while in Latin, the p is softened down to the gentler b, and the result is ab, well known to us in abuse, abhor, and numerous other borrowings from the tongue of ancient Rome. Or again, pro is our English fore, primus almost exactly our former; pleo is the Latin for I fill—give but the English of the word, and you see the law fulfilled at once; and as page 143 secondary forms of this root, with the notion of number or multitude, we have the Latin plebs (the common people), the German volk, and our own folk, in which the l, though unpronounced, bears silent witness to the origin and meaning of the word. Another wide-spread root is pa, meaning in Greek and Latin to feed, and familiar to us in its derivatives pastor and pasture, the feeder and the feeding-ground. Does no more familiar word, however, arise at once to our thoughts as connected therewith? Surely yes, the Latin pater, our English father; no other etymology can be assigned to either—the father is the feeder, he who is bound to give food to those who owe their being to him. Another derivative from it in Latin is pecus, cattle, literally the feeding or grazing thing, whereto corresponds letter for letter the old English word feoh, cattle, now obsolete and surviving only in the name of the fee paid to the barrister; strange testimony to that older state of society, when payments were made, not in money, but kind.
Before leaving this great law of letter change, I may, per-haps, without wishing to multiply instances, merely indicate one or two more examples of its operation. The English verb to bear, corresponds in meaning and root to the Latin fero, seen in our prefer, confer, or infer; our heart corresponds to the cor, which we know in cordial, the synonym of hearty; kin to the Latin genus, in which we usually soften the initial letter, genus, and whence we derive general and generic, of or belonging to a class or kind; and, finally, our thunder exactly reproduces the German donner, and the Latin tonitru.
I will ask you now to consider a few roots or phonetic types in which the letters are such as not to be subject to the law of change above quoted and exemplified, or in which some cross law has prevented its operating.
To begin with, suppose I ask you why a shoe was called a shoe?—something to do with the foot, I imagine, would be your not unnatural reply. And I fancy you will smile when I aver to you that the word is of the same etymology and all but identical in meaning with the name of the heaven that bends above us—the sky. And yet a little consideration may make this plain. First, a shoe does not necessarily mean aught connected with the foot, for in German handschuh is to this day, a glove; a hand what? hand-covering, one would naturally reply. Now according to a universal law of word evolution in modern English, shoe represents an old form scô. Turn up your so-called Anglo-Saxon dictionary, the dictionary that gives you the English that Alfred spoke and wrote, and page 144 there you will find the form I have just given you, scô. Now you see both form of word and supposed meaning are tending to reconcile our seeming widely-parted shoe and sky. But you shall have a little more evidence. The root sku must have meant originally to cover or to hide; for take its obvious derivatives and examine them. is the Greek for skin (you see there can be no letter change of the k by reason of the sharp preceding s), and what is that but our body covering? is your English shade, or older scadu, and what is that but a screen from the blazing rays or a covert from the sun? Scild is the primitive of your modern shield, and what is that but a protection from the sword or the arrow? And what, finally, is the sky but the great covering spread over His earth by the Almighty, who covereth Himself with light as with a garment, who stretcheth out the heavens like a curtain? May I claim to have proved my case, and shown how the imagination of man, seeing likenesses in things apparently dissimilar, has given names of like import to the poor buskin that we trample under foot, and to the blue dome of air that arches inimitably over-head?
I must content myself with shortly noticing two common roots in which the letters not coming under Grimm's law remain alike in all the Aryan languages. The first shall be the pronoun me. This one word, identical in all, and of such a kind that we cannot imagine its being borrowed from one section by another, would, if it stood alone, go far to prove the original unity of the Aryan family. And the second shall be the root man, to think, found in Greek in usually signifying might, for thought is might. In Latin, mens, mentis, whence our adjective mental; in memini, I have called to mind, whence our reminiscence; next in our substantive mind; and last, not least, in the title we give to ourselves, "man" the thinker. A noble name is this, to which all the Germanic peoples have cloven as the appellation of their race, a name that bids us look up to Him who gave us thought and being—far nobler than the Latin homo, which, if the usually accepted derivation be correct, bids us look down to the humus, the dust of the earth out of which we were made, but to which we shall not wholly return.
And now for a brief glance upon the synthetic stage of language in which, out of type forms, modified words took their rise, in which inflections and all we commonly call the accidence of language began. Think what an enormous step was taken when first it entered into the mind of man to page 145 express plurality, more-than-one-ness, by some termination to be appended to all substantives alike, in place of prefixing some vague numeral like many. It does not matter if the termination so appended was originally a fragment of an independent word; the great stride was in reducing it to a symbol. Or, again, consider how all the precision of thought was assisted by the terminations of cases such as we find them in Latin, Greek, or Sanscrit. Try and imagine a state of language in which such a combination of words as man house is might have left you doubtful whether the meaning was, the house is belonging to the man, the house is for the man, the man's house exists, the man is in the house. All these varieties, save the third, we now distinguish by prepositions, our substitute for cases; but Greek could effect them all by the use of its cases. Again, reflect what a device for conciseness was that which all the older Aryan languages present to us, the appending of pronouns in the nominative cases at the end of the verb. Think what a relief it would be to me, or any other person addressing an audience, if, instead of the capital I, which it has been so often necessary for me to employ, my personality could have disguised itself under a harmless long ō at the end of all my verbs, as in Latin and in Greek.
But the inventive faculty of man seems to me even more strongly evidenced in derivation, than in inflection. For you can dispense with inflections, or at all events we have dispensed with most that have been current, have tried them and found them unnecessary; or, more correctly, have found that some not too awkward periphrases might replace them. There is no doubt that our language has thus lost both in gravity and in terseness. You cannot adequately render a good piece of Greek or of Latin, without employing more words than you find in the original; and in spite of the abundance of our monosyllabic words, I doubt if you could do it in as few words, or as few letters. But the fact remains, we can do and are doing without many inflections once current; we have dispensed with scarce any modes of derivation; on the contrary, in addition to our own native forms, we have borrowed many from Latin and from Greek.
We saw earlier that, in all probability, verbs, nouns, and adjectives were alike portions of the most primeval speech. By the process of derivation, I mean the systematic formation of one or other of these classes from any one before existing. The Latin facio, factor; the English do, doer, will at once page 146 make this plain. Here the starting-point is a verb, and a symbol is invented, which may be put on to any verb whatever, and shall make out of it a name for the man who does the action which that verb names. Or, again, consider verus, Veritas; true, truth. Here you have another symbol, which marks not merely an advance in expression, but a vast onward step in thought. For the adjective was but the name of an object; here you have a name of something you cannot see at all, but which you have in your thought created, and imagined as existing in the object to which you heretofore applied the adjective. We shall not, therefore, be surprised to discover, what the history of language and its formation teaches us, that few, if any, of abstract names of qualities are original roots, or phonetic types, to revert to Professor Müller's word. They are constantly based upon either nouns or adjectives, or even upon verbs, by the addition of some termination which usually is a modification of the third personal pronoun, the demonstrative t in Latin, th in English, giving that-ness or outward existence to this, our mind's creation. But you must not imagine that derivation is confined to the addition of one such termination to a primitive root; the superposition of such terminations may go on as long as the mind finds it not inconvenient to think up to the complex notion so formed. Let us take a sample or two at random. Our English truthfulness. Well, here we start with an adjective true, meaning literally hard or firm, cognate with the Latin durus, hard, the Greek and the English tree. Append to this th, and you have the name of a quality, truth. Compound the adjective full, and you revert to a name applicable to a person filled with the quality truth. Now add the symbol ness, and you construct again an abstract noun, signifying, originally, the outward semblance, but it may be also the very inward state or quality of the truthful man. Or take a Latin example—impecuniosus, our English impecunious. Here we start with our old friend; pecus, cattle; thence we advance to pecunia, the state of possessing cattle, or, briefly, wealth; then onward to pecuniosus, full of the state of cattle owning, or wealthy; and, finally, we negative this, namely, prefixing im, the symbol of negation, and make our name into not-wealthy or poor. I must have one Greek example for you, for the sake of the singular change the word has undergone. You all know what an alms is; possibly you do not know the history of the word. To commence, there is a Greek word, meaning pity. Thence was formed a verb, I pity; thence page 147 an adjective, pitiful; and thence, finally, pitifulness. But, forasmuch as pitifulness is not pitifulness unless manifested in act, this word easily passed into the signification of money given for the poor; and in this sense was adopted by the early Christian Church. Thus become the name of a duty, it spread with the spread of Christianity, and was carried with it far and wide. In point of fact it exists in our English of to-day, with a Latin termination tacked on to it, in the hideous word eleemosynary, which we do occasionally see. However, as each nation adopted it, they knocked the cumbrous word into shape to their own liking; the German made it almosen, the Frenchman aumone, softening out both l and s, and our English forefathers abbreviated it to œlmesse, which Scotland has yet further cut down to an awmous, England to alms.
Modern English, in this matter of forming new words by derivation, is very potent. We have not only retained most of our own formative terminations, but we have drawn largely on Latin, two have been just used, ive and ation; and even upon Greek, as when the other day, with true recklessness about hybridism or the mixing of words and forms coming from different languages, we, desiring a new name for a new act, took the quasi-Greek word climate, stuck in front of it the Latin ad, and at the end of it the Greek and developed the verb acclimatize. Not a bad or a useless word, for see how very complex an idea it conveys. How shall we phrase it? To adapt to a given climate natural productions which were not previously found in it. Will that do? Nearly, I think, but, considering the length of this, we ought to be much obliged to the man who invented one word to express it all. But not content with his good work we must append, further, the pure English er, in the place of the legitimate Greek ist, to denote the doer; and then, by way of variety, select the Latin termination ation, for the name of the deed when done.
It remains that I should say a few words on the wear to which words are subjected in their passage down the stream of time, such as may have been observed in our puny alms, small relic of the rolling Greek . Changes in the form of words are usually traceable to one or other of three causes :—1. The inability of some people to utter a particular sound. 2. Their dislike to some particular collocation of sounds, or generally a love for euphony. 3. A desire for contraction, or, what is much the same, more rapid enunciation. Perhaps all the three might be reduced to one—laziness; for as page 148 to the first cause, it is certain that there are very few sounds in any language which you could not teach every child to pronounce; as to the second, our idea of euphony is little beyond that which is easily said, and therefore we like to say; and the third is undoubtedly laziness, pure and simple. But the three will at all events serve as a basis for classification. As regards inability to utter particular sounds, we English folk suffer very little from that. Among all the Aryan languages, the Sanscrit is in its system of sounds the fullest, and next to it I should be disposed to place our own. Of almost all the modern nations of Europe we alone can utter distinctly both v and w, can distinguish between vine and wine, and we alone have the complete system of palatal sounds. One important sound however we lack, the X, the guttural aspirate. From the dislike to this, which has developed into inability to utter it, has resulted that great standing anomaly, the varying pronunciation of the terminal gh which gives foreigners such annoyance. But a Latin could as little articulate X as an ordinary Englishman; and besides this he could not utter θ at all. And so our good English verb to greet looks as if it were derived from the Latin gratus, acceptable. It is the same word, but not because of its similarity, but in spite of it. For the root in Latin ought to have commenced with X as it does in Greek, as we know from the word Eucharist; but failing the X, the Romans used their nearest sound, the hard g. Again, you might have expected the English deer to have found its equivalent in Latin, as it does in Greek, in a word commencing with th. But given th impossible, what were the Romans to do? Much what we did in the case of enough, draught, and other such words; they took the nearest aspirate, f, and accordingly the Latin analogue to our deer is ferœ, untamed creatures generally, whence, ultimately, our fierce and ferocious.
The dislike to particular combinations of sounds is very strongly marked in all nations, but is peculiarly dissimilar. For instance, if in Greek a dental sound and a guttural came together, they must be made precisely alike in character. The familiar English word practice, which is Greek in origin, will illustrate what I mean. The k sound which precedes the t ought to have been a hard g, but was modified to suit the following tenuis. But our English forefathers had a positive hatred of two aspirants coming together, a collocation of sounds in which a Greek's ear would have delighted, and hence you will discover in English anomalies in the formation page 149 of derivatives. For instance, long gives length, and strong, strength, but high gives not heighth but height. So till gives you tilth, but from give is derived gift, from thieve, theft, and the k of think and the old y of may were changed in the derived substantives into gh, the aspirate in thought and might.
To the third cause, however, the great change in the forms of words is mainly due in our own as in other tongues, and it has taken effect mainly in the gutturals, which are after all the hardest and most troublesome letters to sound. What has become of the k and the g which are still written in know, knee, gnome, apophthegm, and phlegm? What of the h which once preceded ring and raw, the loss in the latter word concealing its identity with the Latin crudus, our crude? I pointed out to you, in the instance of the word shoe, that nearly all our words commencing with sh, shall, share, shape, shell, and many more, had all once an initial sk. Try the difference in time between saying skip and ship, and you will recognise at once the cause of the change. Similarly, nearly all our words now commencing with ch originally began with a k sound, and this whether English pure or Latin adopted through French; churl is the old English ceorl as surely as charm is the Latin carmen. Nor is it at the beginning only of words that the gutturals have suffered this maltreatment; they have fared as ill at the end. All our adjectives that end in y once ended in ig; our adverbial termination ly was once like at full length; hedge was once hage; edge once eg, as you see it in the name Egbert, the bright edge, or in the verb to egg a man on, to whet or sharpen him. Nor are the gutturals the only class of letters which our desire for speed has crushed. No one now says nātiōn, bnt nāshōn; and some years ago it appeared as if picture and nature were to become in English piktcher and nacher. The great spread of education, and the fixing thereby of our standard of speech, has done much to arrest this tendency in our language, and probably we may now consider the pronunciation of English as approximately fixed and permanent.
My task is done, I know too well how imperfectly, and I much regret the haste with which I have been driven to pen my few remarks. My object is attained if I have excited in any of my hearers some desire to give heed to language, not alone for what it conveys to us, but for the thing it is in itself; and to note how the purpose of man has, half unconsciously it may be, yet still intelligently, been shaping this page 150 wondrous gift of God to him. Language is but words, words are but human breath; and yet the language and the words live on independent of those who first gave them being, and those in whose mouths they live again from century to century. Well for us if we remember that not only the language of a nation thus has life, but that to the words of each of us is given the like abiding permanence; for one day out of our words shall we be justified, or out of our words condemned.