Popular Science Monthly/Volume 79/October 1911/Language Study and Language Psychology

1538829Popular Science Monthly Volume 79 October 1911 — Language Study and Language Psychology1911Edwin Whitfield Fay


By Professor E. W. FAY


In The Popular Science Monthly for June, 1907, Professor Alexander Hill, the master of Downing College, Cambridge, contributed an entertaining article on "The Acquisition of Language and its Relation to Thought." What he had to say about the proved value of the study of Greek and Latin sounds like a brief for the classics, and ought to be more valuable as testimony than the arguments of any professed classicist. It is thus that Presbyterians who value tradition are fond of quoting Dean Stanley's admission of the priority of their system of church government. So I am fond of quoting one of my candid colleagues of the anti-classical battalions, who admits that much first-year laboratory work in science is as valuable, educationally speaking, as dish-washing. But, after all, the conclusions of Mr. Hill's essay lead away from the classics, at least as a medium of general education; and his generous admissions of their tried worth as instruments of training might, though unfairly, I think, be construed as the sort of admission a skillful debater, flushed with anticipated victory, will make of the strong points of his opponent's case; not to provoke a verdict for his adversary, but to gain credit for fairness on his own part.

A magazine article has some of the limitations of a sermon, due to the special advantage that it either never gets answered, or the answer must be addressed to different readers: even if it reaches the same public, no real debate results after long lapses of time. But an essay so stimulative and provocative as Professor Hill's calls for comment, and in the main rather for approval than for contradiction. There is instruction in it, too, for classicists, which a classicist may do well to urge on his fellows. There are observations to challenge, because they seem mistaken, and it may be well to point out that Mr. Hill's conclusion is a recommendation of change, to see what the result of change may be: it is not a consequence drawn from the observations of fact that went before it.

In the comment I am about to make, where considerations of space do not admit of full quotation, I shall do my best fairly to state the purport of Professor Hill's remarks, if for no other reason, for the sense of personal obligation I feel toward him for his pleasing and instructive "Introduction to Science" in the series of Temple Primers. But I make free, by virtue, perhaps, of the classicist's hysteron proteron, to rearrange the order of the original argument, even by transposing sentences from their own paragraphs, the which aim at no formal logical development.

I. On the Part of Language in Education.

Language ought to occupy a predominant position in school life.

II. The Classics in Language Training.

The mind-making property of the classics has been established beyond all doubt by innumerable experiments made upon juvenile minds of all types. It does not appear to me that, in the face of this mass of accumulated evidence, it can be regarded as a question open to dispute.

III. The Classics vs. the Modern System.

The essential difference between the classical and the modern system is the difference between training and teaching. A classical education is practically a training pure and simple: a modern education is a combination of training and teaching with mainly a teaching aim. . . . Like most other questions, there is no absolute distinction between the two systems—their difference is a matter of degree.

IV. The Classics still Promise the best Training for the Professions.

V. The Classics not suited to Commercial Training.

On this point I would make the obvious comment that the preparation for commerce, business and the trades, formerly entrusted to the apprentice system, has now been systematized through the "business college" and is being taken up in the omnium gatherum of the state university. So the "engineer" now gets his practical experience in the form of laboratory work at a technical school—but must often go over it again in the shops when he leaves the school. However much the classics might clarify the judgment and purge the taste of such students, it may well be that the classics have no closer claim upon them than when they were trained under the apprentice system. But sincere reflection would, I feel sure, persuade the most radical that classical study includes what is, for young people, the best training element in scientific study, viz., the accurate observation of phenomena, and the analysis and synthesis of the language crystal is a sort of crystallography of thought, with a subject matter intensely human. Students of my own who have gone over to the practical side have had no sort of doubt, that they carried with them minds trained for the apprehension and combination of phenomena.

VI. Substitutes for the Classics.

After all his generous recognition of the tried educative value of the classics Professor Hill concludes:

I have but one explanation. It was the rebound on to English which the classical drill produced. We were ceaselessly searching the pages of the dictionary. We were learning new words. We were studying English syntax.

These be fine words. We must admire them for their style, and we may fancy that this style is due to the classical study to which Professor Hill pleads guilty in his youth. Far from minimizing the force in these words we may as well admit that they contain truth, but is it the whole truth? Many persons have learned to write English without having studied any foreign language and without having studied English, even, in any way worthy the name. But school systems are not devised for such as these. Speaking generally, the English stylists have caught their trick from their classical studies, as Calverley's matchless versification has been attributed to his rigid training in classical verse-making. On the other hand, the lucidity of French prose, the stylistic excellence of which none but the French ever seem disposed to question, is supposed to be due to the direct study of their native tongue. A writer in The Athenæum,[1] put it this way:

As our best English writers have learned how to write clear and accurate English from their long training in the subtleties of Greek and Latin grammar, so the French have attained their skill through the scientific teaching of their native tongue.

Certainly there can be small question that Quintilian's system of teaching, which laid stress on the mother tongue, failed not to teach the art of clear writing. But, given a method so thorough and detailed, one can not imagine his pupils to have saved any time as compared with Cicero, who attributed his attainment of style to his translations from and into Greek. Still, the Greeks, like the French, learned to write by studying their own language—which proves nothing against the value of discipline in a foreign language, for they also got their education without any substantial drill in mathematics.

Yet, after conceding much of what is claimed for the possible sufficiency of a modern language or the native tongue to meet the boy's need of language drill, it remains an open question whether, in giving up the classics, the loss in thoroughness and in interest might not exceed the supposed gain in time. There are two points we must not overlook, the value of the finger in the dictionary—twice emphasized by Professor Hill—and the great syntactical variety of the classics. These values, and particularly the first, can hardly be overestimated. In seeking to realize their peculiar part in classical study, we can do no better than begin with Professor Hill's own happy figure in which the Greek chorus is represented as a puzzle which the student has to rearrange into English. This accords with a favorite illustration of my own, which I point with Lewis Carroll's familiar line:

He set them conundrums to guess.

In the puzzle lies a strong element of human interest. In my boyhood I used to notice how some puzzle of fox and goose and corn would set half a village to work to get them carried by twos across a stream—so stringless is puzzleland—without one animal or the other being left free to devour its natural food. A simple arithmetical catch would exercise the idlers at a cross-roads store for hours. Let us insist upon the human interest and the educational value of the puzzle and the riddle, and if my simple illustrations drawn from modern experience do not suffice to carry conviction, a pretty paper on "Riddles" in Mr. S. Baring-Gould's "Strange Survivals" will furnish better ones. Nor can we put his essay by without having been brought to think of how Carlyle was fain to ring the changes on the cunning of the king.

In the study of Greek and Latin we are confronted with language puzzles of the very best. Their solutions are in the reaching difficult, but when reached inevitable and convincing; and I do not hesitate to say that the means for reaching them are the best adapted to the end of any means now in existence. This means much. The natural boy likes a puzzle. He is rarely unwilling to work it out to a convincing solution. He does not shirk difficulties, but he wants to be sure of his conclusion. With a limited supply of books at his command, he can be more sure of his conclusions for the classics than for any other language puzzle whatever. To take the case of Latin, it is probable, in view of the narrow range of school authors, that a boy's Latin grammar more nearly accounts for his every possible difficulty, whether of form or construction, than does the grammar of any modern language. Such complete codification of usage as he commands in his Latin lexicon can never be anticipated, so far as I can see, for any modern language. Certainly no dictionary of equal convenience in the using can compare as an instrument of precision with the lexicon of Lewis and Short. Let me confess that the first fact that gave me the temper of the student was the discovery that I could find in Andrews's "Latin Dictionary," the inferior predecessor of the one mentioned, nearly every puzzling passage explained; and for some reason the condensed explanation of the lexicon by citation of parallel passages convinced and interested me more than any possible translation by an indulgent annotater. I suppose, to use one of Professor Hill's own figures, I more enjoyed my own piecing-up of the mosaic. A note seemed "telling" and I did not like to be told.

I keep within the bounds of truth and soberness, I think, speaking not as an enthusiast for the classics, when I assert that the modern-language puzzle can never be as difficult as the Greek, and more particularly the Latin puzzle. The reason for this, granting its truth, is not altogether apparent to me. The secret of the difficulty does not lie, I am persuaded, in the synthetic character of Latin. It does not rest primarily in the greater difficulty of Latin forms and syntax. Greek was always easier for me than Latin, and this experience is general, though not universal. I admit the greater difficulty of Greek forms. I agree that its vocabulary is more extensive, while English does not so easily help us to arrive at it. I believe the Greek syntax to be the more complex, and to involve rather more than fewer rules and principles. Yet with considerably more preparation in Latin, Demosthenes in the "De Corona" was easier to me than Cicero in the "Second Philippic." Easy and hard are relative terms, I know, but it might be possible to secure and tabulate a large number of opinions of students as to their sense of the relative difficulty of languages. My personal experiences have been entirely convincing to me. While still a college student, but with five or six years of Latin behind me, I began one summer to study German privately, and after a careful reading, not conning, of the grammar, I set out to read a German novel. In a few weeks I could get on with it with some ease, and much more rapidly than I could then read Latin. In the next year's work at college Lessing's "Minna" and Schiller's "Tell," in long assignments, caused me much less labor than Latin authors did. Even now, after two decades of Latin teaching, with forms, syntax and vocabulary under good control, the Latin language puzzle at times presents difficulties. True, I require of myself greater accuracy with the Latin, but after a few weeks desultory dabbling with Spanish, I can read with enjoyment and a fair understanding a play of Echegaray or a novel of Galdós with far less concentration of attention than it requires to read a fresh bit of Ovid, or to reread for class preparation any but the most familiar satires of Horace.

My own experience aside, Professor Hill's surmise that the classics might be advantageously replaced in the educational scheme by a modern language or English seems to me not to weigh against the actual experience of a master in an English public school, Mr. John Charles Tarver, who thus expresses himself in his "Observations of a Foster Parent";

The claims of history and geography are on the surface so obvious that I am tempted to a little piece of autobiography. Be it known, then, that my first ambition in teaching was to teach history. I had as little faith in Greek or Latin as the most ignorant of self-made men. I believed that great weight should be given to English literature and English composition; and as for language teaching, I saw no necessity for anything but French and German. Therefore when I speak of Latin as the best educational instrument, I speak with the authority of a person who has tried others. My opinion would be of no value at all had I never stirred out of the classical routine. Similarly, if I do not share the popular views about history and geography, it is after, not before experience (pp. 174-175). . . . The one great merit of Latin as a teaching instrument is its stupendous difficulty. Greek, in spite of its wealthy vocabulary and infinitely numerous inflections, is child's play to Latin (p. 79).

But why is Latin so much more difficult than a modern language? I find it hard to advance a reason. The differentiating factor lies not, I am convinced, in the forms. The German noun—unless its article were so helpful—is certainly as difficult in its forms as the Latin, and the Spanish verb seems to me even more difficult; but I make a fair headway in finding out the sense of Spanish or German, in spite of a very poor knowledge of the forms. This can not be done in Latin. Perhaps one reason lies implicit in the modernness of the modern languages. Their sphere of thought is modern and therefore mine. At least, I once heard this explanation advanced, with somewhat explicit reference to the ethical value of classical studies, by a great scholar a a wise man, the Reverend Dr. John A. Broaddus, of Louisville. The only other reason I can divine lies in the greater variety of word order in Latin, the capacity of the phrase for variation, its unfixedness, as compared with the modern phrase. This is the only reason I can give myself for the close attention I must pay to get Horace's meaning in the "Satires," where language and syntax are thoroughly in possession, and the thought is plain and even bourgeois.

In the debate as to the respective educative value of the classics and the modern languages, the facts seem to justify the statement that the solution of the classic language puzzle requires greater effort, attention more concentrated and for a longer time. If this be true, and we abandon the old for the new, we must anticipate some necessary loss. It remains for the advocates of the change to demonstrate the contrary. In my opinion, the rebound from Spanish or German does not promise so active a motion. Possibly a language of a type very different from our own might produce a greater rebound. The Japanese who is learning English may well feel it a severer training than a German would. For myself, I can but think that the study which requires the greater concentration, like Latin, is more educative than the easier study like Spanish or French. I can but believe that the puzzle of a game like whist furnishes a higher recreation than the lesser puzzles of a game like euchre.

But Professor Hill thinks it likely that the due linguistic training of an Englishman might be had from the study of English, and above all of Shakespeare.[2] Supposing this to be true, who shall tell us that English would require, in the end, less time? Or that the study of English might not prove humanly less interesting? It is by no means clear that the paraphrase can replace the translation. Cicero, who tried the paraphrase of Latin as well as translation from the Greek, forsook the former as involving, if his stylistic model were well chosen, an almost sure replacement, in the paraphrase, of the better by the worse. In my mother's generation children were taught to parse and paraphrase Milton. I have heard them as adults describe the awful tediousness of it, in the tone of those who attribute their disregard for formal religion to a training in "The Shorter Catechism" and the strictness of the Scotch Sabbath. And what becomes of solving the language puzzle if we study English? Puzzles enough and to spare in Shakespeare, yes. But the puzzles appear in spots as compared with the somewhat continuous bepuzzlement of the classics, and their solution involves, in the main, only some bit of glossarial definition; it does not often demand a complete rearrangement of the thought.

Herein lies a cardinal distinction. As we read or study our own tongue we enjoy immediately something like a three-quarter apprehension of it, because it is English and because it is ours; and being what we are it is irksome to apply ourselves to getting a full comprehension. The truly educative thing in language study is, I take it, the effort to convert loose apprehension into thorough comprehension, and the greater the immediate apprehension, the less the effort and the less the stimulus to pass on to full comprehension. This point has been well made by Dr. Arnold:

It has been my wish to avoid giving any pupils any Greek to do on a Sunday. . . . But I find it almost impossible to make them read a mere English book with sufficient attention to be able to answer questions out of it; or if they do cram themselves for the time, they are sure to forget it directly after.[3]

Plato-Socrates made this point long before in the Meno by asking whether one would earnestly seek and endeavor to learn what he thought he knew already, not knowing it—until at last, having fallen into embarrassment by being shown his ignorance, he longs to be taught.

In hearing or reading our own language we largely anticipate what is coming and this is what renders us liable to be bored. Thus the very ease of our apprehension makes us inattentive. With persons who speak like a book and with parsons at sermon, it is often enough to hear the beginning of a paragraph and wake up again at its end, quite sure we have absorbed the contents of a long stretch of discourse. Psychologically speaking, we stand in a very different relation to our own and to a foreign language.What we speak or write our motor currents, starting in the brain, we will say, transmit to our vocal organs or our pens, along nerve-fibers so habituated to such impressions that the consciousness does not become alive till we hear what we have said, or read what we have written. This is proved by the not uncommon experience that, while writing unconsciously, we spell correctly words that we misspell if we consciously attempt them: which shows how trite the native word and phrase become. On the other hand, when we read or listen, our sensory currents, transmitting to the brain what we see or hear, throb the more actively in proportion to the novelty, the strangeness of the object of consciousness. The only real stimulus is the novel stimulus. Our native speech, whether in motor or sensory transmission, provides less stimulus of novelty. It less quickens the attention. It becomes automatic. In our own language we read along cheerfully, with a very benumbed consciousness, not realizing how little we are understanding. A foreign language rouses our attention, and all the more in proportion to its strangeness. The modern tongues are modern and in part already ours; Greek and Latin, by their strangeness, more pervadingly quicken the attention.

And what becomes of the finger in the dictionary—a very different thing from a glance into a glossarial index—if our language study be English? Conceding that the same diligent attention might gain as good results from the English dictionary, how are we to drive students to give it such use? Driven they must be, for they think they know already. The strangeness of Greek and Latin furnishes the spur, does the driving for us.

VII. Teaching Literature.

Boys, whatever their career, must have some literary training, say the apologists for the present system of teaching classics. This is my contention also, but I advance it with still greater emphasis. The literary training obtained whilst learning Latin and Greek is indirect, accidental. It is too serious a part of education to be thus left to chance.

What a problem Professor Hill broaches here, literary training! President Woodrow Wilson, on the other hand, thinks that literature may be learned, but that it can not be taught: it certainly seems as if, in Teutonic lands, there is no developed method for teaching literature successfully. Nearly a score of years ago a despairing reviewer in The Athenæum wrote the striking phrase that courses in literature inevitably dwindled into "chatter about Shelly and the Harriet problem." One who like Professor Hill has admitted that "A man who has had a classical education has a craftsman's feeling for literature: he regards it as an artist regards a picture," has answered in advance his objection that "The literary training obtained whilst learning Latin and Greek is indirect, accidental." Granted, but what a splendid by-product—and I believe it to be only a by-product—" a craftsman's feeling for literature."

VIII. On Practical Studies.

There is the utmost haziness in the popular mind as to what studies are "practical." Nine out of ten would put mathematics at the head of the list. Only the simplest arithmetical processes are in general use, however. Only an infinitesimal proportion of those who have studied algebra, plane and analytic geometry, or calculus have ever made use of them. Adding machines and computation tables keep the bulk of the world's commerce straight. But nobody has studied Latin without being or feeling himself surer of his control of a third of the words of his daily speech. I have never thought the etymological a particularly strong argument for studying Latin, but it has been given me by students of my own whom I didn't think I had succeeded in getting to learn Latin. That the close study of an English dictionary might do much the same thing for the boy, I freely admit; but the mass of mankind when they read are casual readers, and the casual reader does not use a dictionary.

IX. How the Classics should be taught.

Professor Hill's views on the teaching of the classics, and his strictures on certain proposed innovations, seem to me eminently sound. He has probably not heard of sundry American proposals to "enrich" the study of the classics, though the greatest enrichment would be to restore prose composition to its old place of importance. The indispensable value of the classics is the concentrated effort required in construing and writing them, the piecing-out of the English-classic language puzzle: this, and the finger in the dictionary, constitute the values that a modern language or the native speech will never—I do not say, can never, save in so far as what will not be can not be—replace. Whatever "enrichment" impairs these values is like a drug that would sap the heart while making the hair grow. It is abundantly right to say, with Professor Hill:

For schoolboys Greek and Latin are exercises in grammatical expression, and nothing more. . . . Neither legend, history, philosophy, nor art has influenced the vast majority of the boys who have thriven on a grammar-school training. Stultify the grammar, distract attention from accidence, syntax, prosody, and the value of the gymnastic is reduced to nil.

X. On the Relation of Language to Thought.

If we but knew the most rudimentary principles of the psychology of speech! What form of language is best suited for the expression of thought? What form of language is most favorable to thinking?. . . The test of the elevation of a language, from the evolutionary point of view, is its simplicity, freedom from ambiguity, correspondence in the order in which words are used with the sequence in which ideas successively occupy the focus of consciousness. "Amabo, love, future, I," is as swift an expression of thought as "I shall love"; although it does not place the constituents of the idea in the order in which they pass across the mirror of my mind; my personality, in the case of such a general proposition, takes the lead. "Lucretiam amabo," no doubt, gives the order aright. But neither conglomerate allows of the inversion ' ' shall I love?" Picking up the schoolbook nearest to hand, I have essayed the "sors Virgiliana." This is the sentence which my finger touched: "Relinquit animus Sextium gravibus acceptis vulneribus "[4] It seems to me incredible that this sentence expresses the thought as it formed itself in Cæsar's mind: "Leaves it the soul Sextius by or to grave by or to received by or to wounds." Surelythe idea of the personality of Sextius preceded the idea of some one fainting? What purpose is served by three times explaining that it was by or to (leaving it at the end an open question which) wounds?—"ibus," if it does not impress the mind of the reader as the really important constituent of the phrase, is unduly heavy for a mere inflexion. Cæsar did his best with the language which his unlettered ancestors had bequeathed to him: but he was to be pitied in that his thoughts when they went abroad must walk in irons.

We know little indeed of the psychology of language—which leaves us perhaps in little worse case than when we stand before the psychology of anything else. But our analysis of the main language problems must at last rest, I think, on the following observation: Language, the joint creation of the organs of speech and the hearing ear, became, by the invention of writing, a thing of written tracings addressed to the eye. Mere speech is not, in the nature of things, an object of study. The child learns it by ear, but his ear no more studies it than the eye studies optics to improve the sight. What we really want to know, and what we study in school, is written language, and we must always bear in mind the artificiality inherent in the strange medium. It can matter nothing to the infant who hears it whether he hear Greek or Zulu or English. He learns what he hears as unconsciously as a dog wags his tail. The conditions under which one tries to learn how to speak a foreign tongue are usually quite abnormal. That involves some conscious effort, doubtless, but whether the learner be a prince or the boots in a hotel, his most effective means of learning will be by ear, he must let himself be taught to hear. The rest is easy, provided he is young and has not been made self-conscious by a half-knowledge of grammar. Learning to speak a foreign language is, however, not a school problem, and I can foresee no conditions in the near future under which it is likely to become one. It would be well if those who prate of the practical value of the modern language would candidly add that for use as speech the French, German or Spanish that they recommend are, under the conditions that obtain, practically—if not potentially—as dead as Greek or Latin. It would be instructive, too, to get a statement from a thousand random men, who studied a modern language at school ten years ago, as to how many times it has been necessary, or would even have been convenient, to speak the language. Not but I would have persons learn to read or, if they could, to speak several modern languages, but if the Latin grounding has been thorough the acquisition of a reading knowledge of a modern language—and this is for people in general the practical thing—is a mere bagatelle. Again let me repeat it, for school purposes language study means the study of written languages, which is artificial and secondary. But though written language has developed habits and turns of its own; and writing has given to the registered phrase stability, variety, intricacy, whence the written word has acquired a special psychology of its own: yet it has never lost its inherited traits as speech.

This observation brings us to consider the order of words in language, a point on which Professor Hill betrays, sit venia verbo, some aplomb. He likes not an arrangement of thought in a different sequence from his own. Taking "amabo" for his instance, he rethinks it as "love, future, I," with some cavil at the relegation of his personality to the rear. In "Lucretiam amabo" the beloved, as he hints himself, might happen to prefer the Latin emphasis: if there were any emphasis. The truth is amabo is a crystal, a synthesis, and it appeals to the mind as a whole. It is as much an entity as an icicle, the perception of which need not involve the thought of water, much less of hydrogen and oxygen. Qua analyst, I may divide amabo in one way for its syllables, and in another way for its root and stem, its tense and person signs. Qua hearer or reader, the unit is amabo, which I think I can mentally realize in rather less time than I realize "I shall love." My eye may see ama-sooner than it does -bo, but my consciousness appropriates them simultaneously. It is more probable that my eye sees amabo all at once, just as it is immediately aware of a flag, which it may then analyze as a tricolor, and last as three colored stripes. It requires no special act of enumeration to be conscious that a group is composed of five or six individuals, but the group is probably first to rouse my attention and my perception of it is a synthetic perception.

It was only the little lad learning to read from a hornbook at his grannam's knee that ever passed through Spencer's struggles with "the black horse," for it is an utter fallacy that "black horse" and "cheval noir" are, in speech, ever broken up into "black" [here ponder on "black"] and "horse"; "cheval" and "noir." And we shall not be entirely brutal if we disregard the distress of an American critic of style who thinks of "bay-horse" when he hears "cheval" and is pained to have his impression corrected by "noir": What an agony "the [bay] horse is black" must cause him. Nor need we make a prolix appeal to grammar or psychology to prove that "black horse" is, in the evolution of speech, shorthand for "the horse is black." This probably did not trouble our savage forefathers any more than it troubled the Romans, to whom either niger equus or equus niger alike meant "black horse" and "the horse is black."

Equally unhappy is Professor Hill's analysis of the Cæsar sentence cut at random after the manner of the sortes Virgilianæ. In its own context the sentence stands in the middle of a paragraph, and the reader coming upon it knows that Sextius has jumped from a sick-bed to rush with a few followers upon the attacking foe: paulisper una proelium sustinent. . . relinquit animus Sextium. . . gravibus acceptis vulneribus. To me also it seems incredible that the thought that formed itself in Cæsar's mind was anything like "Leaves it the soul Sextius by or to grave by or to received by or to wounds." The thought of Cæsar was in three phrases, "for-a-little together the struggle they endure. . . swoons Sextius. . . from dangerous received wounds." It can not be said too often that for the understanding the phrase is the unit. Ay, whether the medium of interpretation be the ear or the eye, the hearer or reader is simultaneously conscious of the whole phrase. When I say hearer or reader I mean, of course, Cæsar's predetermined hearer or reader, not the tiny learner spelling out r-e-l, etc., nor the older dullard who calls out words like sums standing in a column to be added. There is a trick of rhetoric, to be sure, in Cæsar's chiastic order, meant to bring the verbs together in contrast, but it is easy to overstate the better adaptation of one word order than another for the understanding. The plain church-going American seems to find no difficulty with the line "Hangs my helpless soul on Thee" which, for rhythmic reasons, I always want to sing in the form "Helpless hangs my soul on Thee"; and "departed this life" is a formula very like relinquit animus Sextium. The desire to put the verb or other predicate forward has given rise to English turns like "There comes a stranger" or, in German, with wider reach, "Es klingelt die Glocke," "Es sperren die Eiesen den einsamen Weg." Our American newspaper headlines are particularly given to this sort of striving for emphasis. I have seen examples of it occasionally in such carefully edited papers as The Evening Post or The Courier Journal. It runs riot in the text as well as the headlines of our local daily. Precious instances I recall are "Singing were "—A, B, C,—" Tyro is he "—who didn't enjoy so and so. And even in the high literary realm our now "Englished" minds still retain a great flexibility for word order, as for instance in parenthetic interruptions of the stream of thought, such as we find in the following: "No one else can feel the same interest in them [the boys], and no one else (I am not speaking of myself personally, but merely by virtue of my situation) can speak to them with so much influence."[5]

Shall Professor Hill assess Cæsar's feeling for the natural order of thought? Then he must take Echegaray, and many a Spanish author besides, to task, and ask them to make their stream of thought flow Englishly. He must ask the Germans to think more naturally. I can not think Cæsar was less natural than an Englishman and the natural order for Cæsar's thought was the order bequeathed to him by his untutored savage ancestors who spoke Latin; for the order of words in any given language is, I suppose, conformed to the order of thought—but hardly to the extent American Latinists were asserting a decade or more ago; as though every Latin sentence were arranged for emphasis in a diminuendo, beginning with a scream and ending in a whisper.

Professor Hill's rethinking of gravibus acceptis vulneribus—"by or to grave, by or to received, by or to wounds "—is scarcely less than grotesque, though I believe there is a recommendation abroad in the land to use as one reads Latin some sliding slotted card which shall reveal to the reader gravibus alone, leaving him to ponder the "from," "to," "by," relations before he passes on to acceptis, where, another wait, and so on to vulneribus. The propriety of this method may be tested by reading, with long, reflective pauses, as indicated, the following English sentence: "The chief made his son. . . a present. . . to the king." Here, stopping short, with false phrasing, ruins the sense. The truth is, the sentence is not "connected up" by consciousness till the last word, king, is reached. The mind, if not the ear, hears the whole 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


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—

Contre nous de la tyrannie l'êtendard sanglaut est levé—

though it is so easy to rethink it as "Against us tyranny's standard of blood is raised."

No, the phrase is the unit. Of this I once had an almost convincing demonstration. A class was beginning Cicero's essay on old age and, as there were no books at hand, I began to read the first chapter aloud, slowly, and by phrases, with the result that I secured in this oral way a much better translation than the class brought up next day for their prepared lesson. If any one wants to convince himself of the superiority of Virgil in the narrative style to any other Latin poet, I know of no better test than reading him aloud by phrases: his brief phrases—not his words—move with a simplicity and naturalness not unlike the prose style of King James's version.

XI. Analytic versus Synthetic Languages.

We can not resist the impression that modern Greek and Italian, as they are but the ruins and vestiges of the languages in which Demosthenes and Cicero spoke, afford by comparison but miserable accommodation for thought. From our extremely small experience of the speech of the world we judge that, in the case of the few languages which we know, evolution has proceeded backwards: the better organized, and therefore, from the evolutionary standpoint, the higher language has given place to the lower. . . . Greek and Latin were not made by cultured Greeks and Romans. The language took form in the converse of their illiterate ancestors. Literature, upon which the beginnings of culture rest, closes language building in the larger sense. Zulu is a more highly flexional language than Greek. . . . The language of the Zulus is not great because it is complex in form. Every language becomes great when greatly used—Greek from Demosthenes 's mouth; English from Milton's pen. . . . The only evolutionary tendency in language which we can recognize is this tendency towards analysis, toward dismemberment. So great an authority as Sir Charles Eliot, vice-chancellor of Sheffield University, who perhaps knows a greater variety of languages than any other man, from Portuguese to Russian, from Turkish to Japanese, languages of central Africa and of the Polynesian Islands, tells me that he considers that this progress favors thought. Gender, number, case hamper language, restrict its flexibility, impede thought. A monosyllabic root-language, such as Chinese or Burmese, is a swifter and more precise solvent of thought than are the highly inflected Bantu tongues. If this be true—and it does not seem to me open to doubt—it is easier to think in English than in Latin.

I have not the least doubt that it is easier for Sir Charles Eliot, Professor Hill or me to think in English than in Latin. The great educative value I assign to the study of Latin lies precisely therein. The rethinking of Latin into English can not fail to be tremendously more difficult than the rethinking of any modern cultural tongue into English. But Professor Hill is dealing with postulates, not demonstrations. Who shall show us that Cicero's Verrines cost more effort in the thinking and phrasing or appealed less simply and directly to his audience than Burke's "Impeachment of Warren Hastings"?

The scientist is very apt to carry a chip on his shoulder when the word evolution is mentioned. He seems to feel it treason to science if evolution is not regarded as a universal principle, as absolute in its operation as the law of gravitation. Because he believes in progressive development and the survival of the fittest, he mechanically postulates that whatever is is better than all that has passed away. Applied to the institutions of men this principle is abundantly untrue. If it comforts one to classify the differentiation of organ and function from diatom up to man, and the general simplification of structure observable in the historical development of languages as they grow older, under the one label, evolution, he is welcome to do so, but he must meet the difficulties and see the differences. If it is a simplification that the Romance languages have replaced Latin synthetic cases by prepositional phrases, why, after having acquired an analytical future, did they convert it into a synthetic: why has Spanish developed hablarèis "you will speak" from hablar habéis "you have to speak"? Who will assure us that the Latin case-endings did not similarly arise from some sort of attachments of prepositions to their nouns? Why is-(i)bus too heavy for a mere termination? [What is there about -bus that catches the ear of persons who hear Latin? Shakespeare's Costard hits off some of the catching elements of spoken Latin in his honorificabilitudinitatibus, and I can testify to the prominence of-bus in the gibing attempts at Latin word-formation I have heard from mockers.] Who can seriously maintain that-"bus" attached to a Latin stem is inherently any more ambiguous than "by" or "with" prefixed to an English noun? What-bus was to start with, philologists surmise, they do not know. But they do know that Spanish migo is Lat. mecum synthetized and reanalyzed again in con migo which is cum mecum. The psychology of the doubling they understand, but they don't drop the -go from migo; and they accept the fact for the fact, content with the unlettered ancestry of Spanish or Latin or English. Who then, I repeat, shall assure us that the Latin case endings did not originate similarly from some prepositional affix? It is absolutely certain that Latin amabat "he was loving" has been synthetized from an independent word meaning, either "loving" (ptc.) or "for-loving" (infin.) plus -bat "was."

The truth is that all along the line language submits itself to synthesis. We have an interesting exhibition of this in the colloquial American "kinder" and "sorter," for which our language has, I conceive, a real need as a verb modifier. At least I can not express in formal language the very pretty group of associations suggested to my mind by the phrase "He sorter sidled up to her and whispered." Analytic and synthetic are but relative terms and sometimes the synthetic form of expression is the simpler. To me at least, in the French line quoted above, de la Tyrannie, though analytic, presents to me in a blur, as through a glass darkly, what I see crystal clear in the synthetic possessive Tyranny's by which I have rendered it.

As I have already said in another connection, German in its noun and. Spanish in its verb are at least as synthetic as Latin, spite of an evolution longer by two thousand years. That these languages with their rich flexional systems and their concords for gender, number and. case are instruments more difficult in the use or less apt in the expression of the thought of Germans and Spaniards than English is for us is sheer assumption; and it were a peculiarly chauvinistic obsession to call German or Spanish languages of a lower type than English. In the estimation of the difficulty that attaches to learning and using a national tongue, no foreigner's opinion can possibly assess the difficulty for the native. As regards the adequacy of a language to express the thoughts of its native users, it may be said that no type of language has ever been found inadequate. Homer's Nestor of the honied tongue with many flexions; Demosthenes with fewer; Cicero with his adjective cases and genders and his verb moods; Burke in a nearly flexionless English: who shall say that one of these commanded a language of less flexibility, a language less apt for the expression of thought, than another? Did Greek flexions hamper Demosthenes, restrict his thought? The appeal of Demosthenes to-day is in part due to Demosthenes, but in part to what used to be somewhat sentimentally called the genius of the Greek language. I can conceive of a Zulu approximating Demosthenes before a Zulu audience, but not of a Zulu Demosthenes whose appeal could reach me, unless he had been steeped in a Zulu literature accessible also to me.

Language is the expression of thought, but it is more, it is the prompter of thought. A word is not only what it means, it is all that it suggests by association. Rhyme, often decried as a meretricious embellishment, has helped modern poets to many a richer thought. Metaphor so completely triumphs over the worn and literal expression that it may be said to do our thinking for us. But metaphor continually wanes in the word till all becomes literal again. The metaphors of a foreign language, of Greek and Latin, where they differ from our own, freshen thought. Other freshening of metaphor is—slang. Demosthenes, the heir of all his ages, put his thoughts in Greek, but Greek no less put her thoughts in him. Man is the weaver but words are the yarn, and the yarn is delivered to him spun and dyed. Its strands are thought, its color emotion. The weaver has, in fact, little to do. He can at best but a little vary the conventional pattern, handed down to him by his unlettered ancestors. Or again, changing the figure, we may say that language carries its own organic ferments. These ferments set the poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling. These ferments supply a vapor aglow with light that never was on land or sea. Some flash of a word—and we see the stars; some sputtering word—and our noses flinch.

  1. October 13, 1900, p. 473.
  2. This point is well answered by the following citation from Dr. Arnold (Stanley's "Life," II., letter cxxxviii): "My delight in going over Homer and Virgil with the boys makes me think what a treat it must be to teach Shakespeare to a good class of young Greeks in regenerate Athens; to dwell upon him line by line and word by word, in the way that nothing but a translation lesson ever will enable one to do; and so to get all his pictures and thoughts leisurely into one's mind. . . . And how could this ever be done without having the process of construing, as the grosser medium through which alone all the beauty can be transmitted, because else we travel too fast, and more than half of it escapes us? Shakespeare, with English boys, would be but a poor substitute for Homer. . . ."
  3. Stanley's "Life of Dr. Arnold," letter No. 8, v. 1, p. 74.
  4. "De Bello Gallico," vi.
  5. Stanley's "Life of Dr. Arnold," v. 1, p. 152.