The Mystery of Words/Part 1/Chapter 6

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


Signs, Processes and Associations

Assuming that the conception of a word varies more or less according to viewpoint, its reality at once becomes shadowy. Perhaps a word has no reality in the sense of a dominating essential character, unless the acoustic image be so designated.

We have seen that a word is not merely a sign expressed gesturally, phonetically, or graphically, etc.; for it also is a physiological function, a physical process, an acoustic impulse bearing an image, or capable of arousing an image, which amounts to the same thing: a psychic phenomenon revolving around a central concept, or a sensorial phenomenon with a peripheral sway over certain emotions, etc. It is not merely the name of a thing, nor is it a symbol only of the thing’s functions, actions, or qualities; but also very frequently it is the sign of another sign, even unto the third and fourth generations of signs.

It would seem, therefore, that a word is the matrix of associations. Consider that these associations may be expressed in linear form as the links of a chain, or their unity suggested by related parallels, by intersecting circles, helixes, and so on. The phenomenon is composite; its character is complex; and to those of us who insist on seeking realities, the simplest word will remain forever an abstract mystery.

For practical purposes, it is necessary to admit a certain arbitrary meaning to the term sign, as used in a linguistic sense. Thus in the treating of words as signs, the process is made easier if we let the term embrace the total associations, the complete transmutation of energies, and the combined characteristics which articulate the acoustic image with the concept.

Another significance of sign in this respect becomes apparent at a glance. If the soul of a word is its acoustic image, as it seems to be; if it is the one element or trait which all the others make possible through their synthetic action—the one element which, if lacking, would render the others inchoate—then the term sign is more logical, even, than it appears to be on the surface. This is quite apart, of course, from its arbitrary character as it relates to different tongues considered as conventions for purposes of comparison, etc.

For the moment then let us consider words as signs. The sign first of all is based on convention, custom, habit. Its primitive value in itself was lost during the period when pre-historic man began to hunt in packs. As he became communal the rules governing his expressional signs began to crystallize, and so the signs became relatively fixed and arbitrary. Language being the most widespread and complex of all the systems of expression, naturally became the most characteristic of all.

Admitting the arbitrary character of sign, it is impossible to regard the word symbol as a true synonym. The symbol never is wholly arbitrary; it always maintains some more or less direct, natural relationship with the object for which it stands; it has an obvious raison d’être. In the words of de Saussure: “The scales as the symbol of Justice could not be replaced by anything else, for instance, not even by the chariot.”

We inherit our signs, in a way, as truly as we inherit our complexions; and if we take liberties with either it is at the peril of being too well understood. The character of our earliest signs, even down through many generations of them, may be guessed at pleasure. No one supposes that we can define them other than approximately. They have varied according to racial groups; their individualities evolved from the spirit of the hunting pack and the communal necessities of the tribe; adown the ages they have been modified by the various principles prevailing under different religions, governments, and by the changing social habits of ethnological clans.

There always have been reciprocal relations between communities of signs and groups of people. At one time the ethnic force predominates over the linguistic; and at another period, or in other circumstances, the linguistic influence spreads more victoriously than arms. This is proved by the history of peoples and their institutions, as well as by the relics of their tongues.

If one would inquire into the fundamental traits of prehistoric civilizations and peoples, a great deal might be learned from a study of linguistic palæntology; but unless the study embraces much else, unless it goes beyond researches in ritual signs and fossils, word-signs or vocabularies with their unreliable etymologies, many erroneous if not wholly worthless conclusions must follow as a result. Without doubt, linguistic signs form a valuable historic document; but it is one that must be deciphered accurately; it must be studied with its corollaries; and it must not be too literally translated. The spirit of truth will be found oftener in a broad and liberal interpretation than in an attempt at exact and definite deduction.

All etymologists have labored with uncertainties, and not a few have been baffled. The wisest are slow to announce that they have succeeded in the tracing of true origins. Etymological ancestry is like a family tree: the thing looks well on paper, but it does not always trace the new blood that has been injected from time to time; alien strains often are mistaken. Meanings change with the shifting of residence, with altered environment, with the entrance of a new spirit such as accompanies a revolution in a community, and so on.

Again, the absence of a word in the vocabulary of a people at a certain epoch is not always reliable evidence that the civilization of that time was ignorant of the thing for which the word stands. One may as well infer that the French, according to the old saw, have no home because la maison, le chez nous, le foyer, are used by them as equivalents of our English word. Everybody admits that no people ever were more keenly awake to the finer significance or clearer meaning which we give to the word home, than are the French. Neither is the frequent occurrence of a word in an ancient idiom necessarily the proof that a certain corresponding thing existed in the civilization of the people, or that a corresponding feature was present in their more immediate environment. To assume this would be to ignore the exotic instinct—the tendency to borrow—which we know pervades all human states of being and virtually all tongues at all times.

Language regarded as a system of signs, no matter how expressed—phonetically, gesturally, or graphically—is conservative and inert. Its initiative is repressed by the mass-habit, the inertia of which is owing somewhat to its arbitrary character. The system more or less is bound by precedent; it is hampered by inherited tendencies; it derives some of its meanings from tradition, and it takes on others from the times.

Opposed to this system of signs, so arbitrary and sluggish, are the mutable energies of fluid speech. This phantasmagoric sea ever is beating against the more solid shores. Innumerable and fluctuating factors disturb its surface. An infinite number of ephemeral signs, like waves, eternally striking the great land-masses of language, leave their impressions and thus effect those changes, which we recognize as inevitable. But the opposing orders of phenomena are less contradictory than they seem at first glance. The logic of change is unbroken when language is regarded in the light of its double aspect. Note must be taken of shifting phonetics, of mutations between image and concept, and of the impossibility of treating separately the different factors of a phenomenon without regard to its unity,—all which add to the difficulties in trying to solve the mysteries of words.

Signs only can be effective and constant through the law of standards. An idea is represented by a sound: the sound must have a distinct value in order to condense the image from the shapeless cloud of thought or feeling of which the idea is a part. When the sign-standards are relaxed, the word-values diminish and ideas of a similar order are confused—the bête noir of careless speech.

This necessary conformity of signs to standards is the basis of the nomenclatorial conception of language. But the conception fails to recognize the “plastic stress” and the positional values of words, neither of which lessens the force of the law of standards, since speech, phonetic and graphic, is vastly more than the words that enter its composition. The relations of the words to each other, the value of their position, their synthetic action with regard to the thought, and even their rhythmic unity, etc., are all as important to the function of language as the words are themselves. That is to say, the phenomenon of language must be considered as a whole rather than in its parts, for the parts can not be detached. A study of the separate parts, however carefully conducted, can not afford a clear comprehension either of themselves or of the function of their ensemble. The relationships between the parts of speech are the medium through which articulation is possible between ideas and signs, whether sounds or graphs—the medium by which one manifestation of energy is capable of transmutation into another so that the series of transmutations shall result in the intelligible phenomenon called speech.

Virtually, this is the only known means whereby the chaos of thought may be resolved into precise form. Il n’y a donc ni matérialisation des pensées, ni spiritualisation des sons, mais a s’agit de ce fait en quelque sort mystérieux, que la ‘pensée-son’ implique des divisions et que la langue élabore ses unités en se constituant entre deux masses amorphes. (de Saussure.)

The relations between the idea and the sign are as vital to language as the etheric impulses are to a system of radio-telegraphy. Either system is intelligible only through accepted standards; and each is effective only through its articulate impulses or continuity of relationship. Thus linguistic signs, conventionally standardized, are capable of giving definition to ideas and suggestive meanings to emotions, although no unification of signs is capable of giving substance to the things for which they stand. The concrete elements and the unity of language can not be defined because they are unknown. All linguistic signs are relative in value; and the law that governs their relativity is arbitrary or conventional. The individual must conform to the collective spirit of this law. He can not alter it; and his moral obligations are satisfied only when he uses his best efforts to live up to the law.

The simplest practical deduction from the foregoing is concerned with the value of words as we use them daily in our lives. Their function is facilitated by our care in choosing the words that are most appropriate to the ideas which we wish to express. The liberty of exercising care in the choice of them, as we have seen, is the chief liberty of the individual under the collective laws of language, established by society.