The Mystery of Words/Part 1/Chapter 4

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


Linguistics in General

Words can not be satisfactorily studied by themselves. Important as they are, separately considered and in their relations with each other, their categories and their wider kinship are even more important if one would pry into the secret of their significations. Although the popular conception of language is that it is merely a mass of words capable of combination according to rule, at need and will, it really is much more than the whole bulk of nomenclature in the world.

Language is a social institution of a special nature; and its peculiar province is to express ideas by means of a nicely organized system of signs. Thus the science of language embraces the study of signs employed by the intellectuality of mankind with reference to social necessities. We learn what the signs are, what governs them; and by this means we perceive the more definite boundaries of linguistics, which occur inside the general scope of the science of signs.

To the psychologist falls the task of determining the scope of semiology; the linguist is concerned chiefly with the characteristics of speech or tongue, whereby a part is used with which to explain the whole. The sociologist is interested in the relations that connect the broad institution of language with associated conventions.

History shows that the psychologist devotes himself too exclusively to the metaphysics of the individual mind; also that usually the physiologist is too much engrossed with the working of the mechanism of the speech-centers, the muscles, etc., of the individual; and so forward in a different way with the grammarian, the philologist, and the others. Each neglects more or less some characteristic of language as a whole for the characteristics of the tongue as a part. Specialists also seem to overlook the fact that there are traits of language no longer subject to the will; and other scholars over-emphasize the voluntary control of speech.

While the mysterious energies of language forever at play are many and diverse, the basic problem of linguistics is that of signs. It is from the study of signs that we borrow our most telling significations of a language. The sounds of words in themselves are of secondary moment since they serve mainly to distinguish one system from another of the same order. One only has to listen to a strange tongue to realize what a small part of a word is its sound; and at the same time, one is compelled to feel that language is a very large social phenomenon.

It is plain that words can not be regarded solely as symbols of ideas. One aspect presents their relations to each other; another side reveals them as pure sounds; again they may be viewed as orthographic units, having much to teach one who has the patient industry to inquire into their histories and changes. Both as thought stimuli and continua, words afford an attractive field of investigation. Their capability of associating ideas, and their powers as evocatives of images, emotions, and physiological processes are recognized. Moreover it is suspected that they may be capable of determining point-of-view not only but that in divers respects they are the mere creatures of view-point; and that they may be colored by methods of observation or enriched by experience.

Words may be decomposed into letters and syllables which in turn compose themselves into separate and composite symbols. Letters and syllables coalesce into word-sounds through the magic of phonation; yet they can exist only by means of-the co-ordination of vocal and auditory functions. The faculties of co-ordination, of association, play necessary rôles; and until these faculties are better understood, the mysteries of words must remain rather thick.

The spoken word, simple as it seems, requires a great number of muscular movements with extremely complex associations. All this is difficult to understand and harder to explain. Indeed oral speech has several strong characteristics which we are wont to ignore. Some of them pertain to the individual; others are social; some are essential; others are accessories; some are invariable; others are accidental or whimsical.

Let me illustrate the simplest relations of the spoken word, although reference has been made to it in another chapter. Not fewer than two persons, of course, must be assumed. A psychic phenomenon arises with one. This phenomenon affects the center of speech which, as we have already seen, is situated in the third frontal convolution. A physiological process follows when the speech-center starts the phonetic organs in action. The sounds signify the psychic image in a series of sonorous waves rolling from the mouth of one person to the ear of the other. This is purely a physical phenomenon which started as a psychical and passed into a physiological, as an intermediary step. Through an inverse order the physical phenomenon starts a physiological process involving the organ of hearing and its center in the brain. This process conveys an acoustic impulse which, in turn, arouses a psychic phenomenon whether it be an image, an emotion, or a concept, according to the standards of meaning accepted by both parties to the act. In conversation these phenomenal series follow in alternate repetition. To make language possible, there must be, at least, an approximate standard of values for signs, gestures, conceptions, and feelings. This social crystallization took place before words were invented, or rather as they were invented.

This is the simplest illustration that can be made of the circuit of speech. It does not take account of many co-relative phenomena such as active acoustic impulses that awaken latent acoustic sensations, the muscular images of phonation, etc. It is sufficient for the moment to show the essential relations in the circuit without any attempt to differentiate the various images produced. The circuit starts in the mind of one person, passes exteriorally, and enters the mind of the other. It is (a) psychical—(b) physiological—(c) physical. With the second person it is (a) physical—(b) physiological)—(c) psychical. The circuit always has two opposing parts, active and passive; or, let us say, one part is projective, the other receptive.

Words unite in phrases to produce synthetic phenomena; words are related to the organs of sight and, as we have seen with the deaf and blind, words also are related to the organs of touch. Words have special areas in the brain, some of which areas are provided with motor-mechanisms for propulsion, and others with sensory mechanisms for registration.

Thus words do not exist in sound only, since the sound merely is an instrument of the idea; neither can a word exist fully in its written or printed form, for the form is a symbol. It can not exist as a word merely in physiologic function, because the physiologic function must pass into a psychologic process before the mind can interpret the final phenomenon as a word.

Words, therefore, are one of the many complex elements of language. Their broader relations and subtler significances may be perceived only through various avenues of approach, as we shall see presently. It also will be clear to us that words have two notable phases: one that reflects the individual, as it were, and one that reflects society,—neither phase of this aspect of the phenomenon can stand without the other.

Besides, words have time-functions that affect them each instant with the consciousness of duration. They are influenced by the three tenses: conception of time present, past, and future. And so it appears that a word can not exist in any one simple phase through which it passes, but that it must maintain its complex being in many phases at the same instant in time, or lose its integrity. Any other conception of words only leads us in a circle.

The mystery of words therefore forces us to consider several sciences: physiology, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, physics, semiology, comparative grammar, philology, linguistic and grammatic norms.

Of course the great grammar exists in the mind of the multitude. The grammar of our books is more or less dead and more than less embalmed. The only perfect grammar is a mutable sea of laws bearing on its bosom flexible but constant relations between series of phenomena in a system of signs. Through the mind of the masses this sea ebbs and flows, forever beating on the shores of consciousness. Never does the individual mind perceive more than a narrow horizon of this mysterious sea.

Linguistics, or the broad science of language, seeks to ascertain the general principles which govern the multiform manifestations of energy throughout language. The more special aim of this science is to render intelligible the affinities between different tongues. It does not restrict its inquiries to any epoch or family group of speech. It is as much interested in an obscure idiom of a savage tongue as it is in the most polished period of classic utterance. The decaying and archaic forms of speech comprise a field as fecund as that of the younger, virile growths. In a word, linguistics is concerned to its full limits with all forms of expression common to language past and present. It can not neglect the history of language in general if it would discover the history of its families. One’s mother-tongue is not actually known until one has formed some sort of acquaintance with related tongues. Something should be known of the universal forces engaged in the phenomena of language. The study promises well when it proceeds from general laws to particular phenomena—from the history of language as a whole to the historic incidents of its parts or groups.

Linguistics has many tasks: First, it must limit and define itself. Then it must recognize the affinities between itself and many other sciences; and it must group the relations that pertain especially to each science, although these relations can not always be clearly separated. It must consider man not only as a biologic species but as a sociologic order, and it must accept language as a social fact. It must study not only the race, but the psychology of the race. It can ignore neither nervous structure nor nervous function. It must take note of the differences between oral and written speech, and it must find the law that correlates these differences. It must determine the points of contact between philology and linguistics—understand how one science varies from the other, and, at the same time, how one supports the other.

Linguistics is interesting to scholars not only, but it should be attractive to all persons who, inclined toward general culture, aspire to enlightenment. Not that it is possible for any one person to master the science, but it is easily within reach of multitudes of persons wishing to profit intellectually and spiritually by a study of this subject.

At present the science is too closely identified with specialists; the lay mind has not found it very inviting. The average person regards it as ornamental or dry. Yet its board usefulness, its cultural uplift, and its special utilities must rely upon its universality of interest—upon a popular awakening to its educational facilities, to its intellectual benefits, and to the value of its leavening force as applied to finer ideals.

One great task of linguistics should be to clear away the popular misconceptions springing like mushrooms from the fantastic errors of specialists, and to displace absurd speculations and dry lingos with reasonable deductions alive with human interest.

Already a great deal has been done. The relations existing between effects of linguistic energies at play, have been discovered to be orderly. Wherever order is established, successful investigation is possible. The science of philology has not been idle; on the contrary, it long has been a favorite field of research. The mistake made by philologists, however, has been in assuming that philology is the principal means of understanding the phenomena of linguistics; whereas in truth it is only one means of studying them.

Modern philology may be said to have had its beginnings in the latter part of the 18th century; and its father was Friedrich August Wolf. The subject is broad, having to do with literature, criticism, history, interpretation, comparison, explanation, archaic researches, etc. Its great weakness has been a tendency to concern itself too much with written language and too little with the spoken forms.

Philology naturally led up to the comparison of one tongue with another, to comparative grammar. Franz Bopp, early in the 19th century, although not the first to do good work of the kind yet rendered useful service in showing the affinities between Sanscrit, Greek, Latin, and the Germanic tongues. The forms of one language are clarified by an exposition of paradigms selected from another.

Following Bopp’s came Jacob Grimm’s well-known work before the middle of the 19th century; and then the researches of Pott, Kuhn, and others. In the train appeared Max Müller and his school, with the result that a great deal was added to the knowledge of language. Müller, especially, did much to popularize the subject. In due course Schleicher accomplished considerable in the detailed codification of his own and previous research. He systematized indeed the work of Bopp and that of other predecessors.

All this work is meritorious, for it opens up to the science of language hitherto unsuspected fertile fields. The most obvious defect is the emphasis thrown, consciously or not, on the study of the comparative relationships of tongues. Moreover the tendency of this work is to ignore, or at least to slight, other vital relations; consequently many erroneous conceptions of language as a whole were encouraged. Confusion was wrought in the study of linguistics by strange statements and by fantastic speculations which were accepted, if not given, as true explanations.

About the middle of the 19th century or a little later, the conditions involving the life of language began to receive more rational attention; and since that time they have been questioned to a better purpose. The study became more and more concrete. It was perceived, for instance, that language is not a self-developing organism, but that it is a product of the human spirit at work in a collective manner; and therefore that the “life of a language” is a figure of speech, since language lives only by virtue of those who speak it. A more careful study of the Indo-European family of tongues threw much new light on the Romantic and the Germanic groups. This fresh light made it necessary to revise many of the earlier conceptions.

Whitney’s Life and Growth of Language gave a new impulse to the study of linguistics. The impulse soon was followed by a school of neogrammarians, conspicuous in which school were Brugmann, Osthoff, Braune, Sievers, Paul, and Leskien. This school cleared up the historic perspective of achievements in the comparative method of research; and it rendered the further service of placing the facts in their natural order.

In more recent times the most notable contribution made to linguistics—the most rational and comprehensive—is that of the late Ferdinand de Saussure of Geneva. Unfortunately Professor de Saussure died without publishing his work—indeed without leaving notes of any material value on the subject. But his work lives in the minds and in the note-books of his disciples. As recently as 1916, thanks to their love and loyalty, some of his distinguished pupils and colleagues conserved in book form at least the spirit of the master’s thought. The unavoidable defects of a work of this kind are modestly acknowledged in the preface; and the brilliant achievements are in evidence throughout the 336 pages of the Cours de Linguistique Générale.

Much may be said of the work done in all the special fields of linguistic investigation. For immediate purposes it is sufficient to note that the requirements imposed by the several allied sciences render the subject hopeless of mastery by any one person—certainly by the general run of mankind. This truth seems all the more pointed by a contemplation of the failures of so many of the specialists whose very successes have not always been convincing even if now and then dazzling to the layman.

It is plain, therefore, that simpler conceptions must be sought if popular interest in the study of linguistics is to be awakened and sustained. For as I have said, popular interest is the only practical means of attaining the broad, permanent, and beneficial results desired of this science.

What then are these simpler conceptions so much needed by the masses? I should say they were two: (1) A conception of a provisional order which for practical purposes disregards the special subtleties of the phenomena of language as a whole. For these things and their intricate relations may very well be left in the philosophic domain of linguistics—problems for specialists. (2) A conception, also provisional, which permits the consideration of one of the great parts of language—preferably one’s mother-tongue—as a social, moral, and intellectual medium capable of circulating the necessary conventions amongst individuals and groups. For although the laws of language are many, and although the relations are subtle and diverse—appearing now and then even whimsical and capricious—and, although some are physiological, some physical, others psychical and what not, yet the principal (because it is the practical) significance of linguistics is social.

Thus, while language in general may be classed as a natural phenomenon, a particular tongue must be regarded as an acquired means to an end—an artifice of conventionality—one, therefore which is subordinate to the purposes of society—one that is superior but helpful to the individual; and happily one that is somewhat amenable to conservation and to improvement.