The Mystery of Words/Part 1/Chapter 1

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

The Mystery of Words

I

Beginnings and Ends

Beginnings and ends are provisional conceptions. They enable us to study the changes of growth and decay between the two hypothetical extremes. We follow an endless chain of events in one direction. Having gone as far as we can go, we think of the just-beyond as a beginning. We follow as far as we can in an opposite direction, and that we call the end. But the terms beginning and end properly apply only to phases. Thus we may think of events as an endless chain having neither beginning nor end, since the beginning of one phase (or festoon of phases) links up with the end of another.

Philosophy can not deal with the origin of language as a simple phase since at this point roots in linguistics the science has many divergent roots leading to biology, physiology, comparative anatomy, the gregarious instincts, anthropology, and the basic principles of psychology. But philosophy may deal with the origin of the parts of speech, or other factors of a tongue, as a relatively simple phase of an equally complex phenomenon.

Mystery, nevertheless, veils the origin of words even from the philosopher. He may study the phenomenon of their origin; but thus far he has not succeeded in explaining it to the satisfaction of his own mind. The faculty of speech seems to be inexplicable. How words came about, and just what they were at first, no man knows. Yet all men know that countless earlier forms have perished utterly, leaving no appreciable trace behind them.

The development of speech must have been inconceivably slow. Man did not become human at a bound, but by one of the slowest of processes. When the human stage was reached, progress in certain directions was far more rapid, relatively, than that along any similar line in the prehuman stage. Still, there is no reason to suppose that speech far outstripped the other evolutionary phenomena active in primitive mankind.

Somehow, capability follows need in all the organized complexes of life. Fulfillment and desire are twin links in the chain of higher development, As the more advanced stages are reached, the energy of growth and the facility of unfolding seem to be released more readily through conscious than through subconscious effort. Aspiration may be the spiritual aspect of this general law of life as it arises from subliminal depths to the heights of consciousness, so to speak.

The humanity within us appears to be a synthesis of nature and art. Therefore, in a sense and to a degree, the nobler nature of man is self-created. Through this synthesis we catch the few glimpses of ourselves, just as we see something of our own earth in a ray of light from the sun. Art, of course, is natural but it is not nature. A poem is more than words, however skilfully combined: soil, air, moisture, and light are the least of a garden rose. Nature gives capability; art implies skill; science supplies knowledge; and the synthesis of nature and art implies a mysterious x. Consciousness is inherited; capability also is transmitted through generation; skill and knowledge must be acquired through the power of will; but x remains x.

The mystery of words lies in the faculty of speech; the secret of their origin is physiologic and psychic. That is to say, word-making is a mental process effected through physiological means not only, but a process inherent in physical function. Nevertheless, words are born of the mind as truly as children are born of the womb—with this difference: words never are separated from the mind, since they can not exist alone. The finest word in the world if uttered by an idiot has no meaning and therefore no being; it conveys nothing from one idiot to another. It may be pronounced perfectly, clearly written or plainly printed, yet it can not exist as a word apart from mind. If the absolute exists, it may be found in the subjectivity of words.

One of the early stages of speech passed through man’s desire to communicate with his fellows. It hardly had satisfied this purpose when it aspired, as it were, to a higher: that of aiding thought. In a parallel manner, writing arose above the level of the communicating of ideas to the function of better thinking. And here it is interesting to note that as writing (and printing) becomes more general the gestural element of language becomes more restricted.

Early in the history of language, signs and sounds co-operated to increase the effectiveness of both. The organs of speech aided by others, especially those of sight and hearing, developed. Words were invented. Simple speech developed into complicated language; and language assumed the important rôle of clarifying the understanding. Yet language never was adequate to thought, or its matrix—perhaps never will be, surely not as long as language is vivified by the spirit of progress; but words came to be the indispensable tools with which the soul must work out its destiny. What the hand was to the brain, the tongue is to the mind. Thus humanity found one of its authentic gods in itself. In that discovery lies the chief hope of the race.