Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 79.djvu/385

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
381
LANGUAGE STUDY AND LANGUAGE PSYCHOLOGY

phrase at once, as the mind, not the eye, sees a complete circle of fire when the burning tip of a reed is turned rapidly about. False phrasing is like the false word division that misled Mr. Pickwick, the antiquarian, when confronted with the inscription

+
BILST
UM
PSHI
S.M.
ARK.

It may seem de trop for an Englishman to indicate gender and Dumber in his adjectives, but all the Romance peoples do it, and a German further indicates case. My experience as a teacher has shown me that the Latin ablative absolute, when you allow a slovenly translation, is a thing the dullest student fails not to recognize. Given the full phrase, and it is a blunder to give a student less, there is little more likelihood that even a dullard would, in our Cæsar sentence, for one moment think of the dative than the average reader would be likely to think of "bier" if he heard the sentence "Malt was used in making this beer." The fact is that what is theoretically equivocal in language is rarely so in experience. So true is this that only a few years ago French scholars went to the extreme of denying in toto the possibility of conscious effort to avoid verbal confusion: as though the whole stylistic juggle with synonyms—a phenomenon, to be sure, scarcely to be reckoned with in unlettered speech—did not look the other way.

On this point, I can contribute an interesting observation of a child's feeling for homonyms. My small niece, still under two, called her father, among other things, something like "baba," and we could not distinguish this name from her pronunciation of "barber," a word she probably had never heard till her little brother Jack went down the street one day to get his hair cut. Several of us, wishing to test whether she also confounded the two individuals, asked her questions like "Did baba cut brother Jack's hair?" But we never tripped her. The answer was always prompt as rhyme, "No, no, the baba." Were the two "baba's" she pronounced the same to her ear or did her acoustic image of the word "barber" contain the two very slightly trilled r's of our southern accent—though to the best of our observation they formed no part of her vocal reproduction of the image? Or was the differentiating factor in her mind the article "the"? The same child was not troubled by shifts in word order. One name she used for her father was "daddypops," and in trying to confuse her over the two "babas" I reversed it to "poppy-dads," which she instantly appropriated without a hint of confusion. A very simple shift of order will confuse an adult—perhaps the adult is more easily confused in this way—as I feel confused when I read from the Marseillaise hymn—