The Mystery of Words/Part 2/Chapter 3

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


Problems and Powers

We are both masters and servants of our words. How they serve us has been seen. Their mastery over us begins with infancy and ends with death. They are our first teachers, our last counselors.

The necessary influence of language over mind becomes clearer when we reflect that we are born dumb. The mother-tongue must be learned at the cost of long and continuous effort. Will-power makes possible the effective concentration of attention through several faculties in synchronous operation. The attention becomes habitual, almost subconscious. Changes are wrought in the brain by a complicated process. When we have learned to speak, we have become in a manner artificially reconstructed, physiologically modified. We, ourselves, have had to produce these changes in nervous substance. The processes are our own, only the method, as a pattern, was supplied to us. In this sense the mother-tongue dominates us as a law of governance. Thus our greatest lesson in psychology is the language that we first learn.

Nothing perhaps wields greater power over the inner life of the individual than does his struggles with language. These ceaseless efforts not only determine his attitude toward what we call life, but they mould the character of his thought. Continually spurred by necessity from the days of resilient youth to those of rigid age, man must struggle with the problems of language. He encounters mysterious things during every moment of consciousness; these he must harmonize, somehow, with his conceptions; he must associate cause and effect; he must link up word and image; he must learn the valyes of signs and the accepted standards whereby values are appreciated: weighed and measured. He meets with formulæ of the past which he must learn to utilize. He uses analogy; he suppresses; he harmonizes and unifies in order to attain a solution that is practicable. His very subconscious processes in turn are reflected in his speech; these again crystallize into precedents which future generations will accept as he accepts those of generations past.

Man employs a large number of words and phrases instinctively. He has slight conscious recognition of their meanings, but he is conscious of their utility. As he seeks the shade of a tree or water from a spring without thought of the laws of light and chemistry, so he uses these formulæ of speech whilst vaguely sensible of their meanings, and without regard to their phenomena. Again, thrilled by some unusual circumstance, his intellect awakens to new possibilities of expression. He becomes conscious for a moment of some old creative power that has lain dormant. His understanding quickens: wisdom stirs in his brain and blossoms from his lips. New ideas, fresh imagery, new-born concepts and emotions must find suitable signs to represent them in the objective world, since the word itself must remain forever subjective.

There is another aspect of this matter that is too common to be overlooked: the sign of the concept, image, or feeling, takes the place of the concept, etc., by a kind of reflex action. This phenomenon accounts for the desert wastes in language, for the infinite mediocrity of literature, for the inanities of current speech. The relations between word and concept are displaced by relations merely between words. The longer process is sacrificed to the shorter. Words become empty of meaning; they multiply hollow sounds; they are as tinkling cymbals.

This phenomenon has little to recommend it as the conservator of intellectual dignity and integrity. It is admirable only for the facility which it lends to automatic expression. It saves time and it spares thought. Yet regarded as one of the facts of linguistics, it is not open to reproach. It serves mediocrity very well indeed; that is to say, the majority of us. Also it satisfies the useful purpose of revealing to us the huge proportions of a tongue, to say nothing of language in general of which the most perfect tongue never is more than a part. The purpose of language is as limitless, as fluctuating, and as ceaselessly progressive as human thought is itself. The majesty of language inheres in that creative power which dwells in the faculty of speech. Even the superiority of one tongue over another no doubt lies in the better facility with which one tongue uses its creative powers when contrasted with another. The power of language over the mind of the masses is no less marked than is the influence of a tongue on the mind of an individual. Great currents of thought sweep through the mentality of the masses. Popular idioms tally the currents. Just how much the language affects the thought and the thought the language (since thought and language are not identic) is of less moment than the fact that they do influence one another. The thought of the multitude creates a world of abstractions that are signified in the popular speech; and the popular speech reacts on the mass-thought.

Language, in one of its aspects, is a social institution crystallized in the fluid medium of intellectual activity. In everyday speech these crystals are used much as builders employ ready-made material in the structures they erect. The innumerable ready-made abstractions, generalities, and classifications admirably serve the popular need; they supply a useful translation of fact, easily transposed to the purposes otherwise difficult of execution. Notions of magnitude, duration, number, phases of change, relative conditions and situations, could not well get on in a popular way without this vast intellectual preparation made in abstract linguistics.

The intellectual activities of man brought forth his language. Order, which is indispensable to intellectual activity, finds its parallel in the laws of linguistics. These laws are so nicely related to what they govern that we loosely call language an organism. It is evident, however, that its organic character arises from similarity rather than from actuality; and it is owing to the order in mental processes that language has its being. The human will, socially expressed, is as apparent in the orderly development of language as is will-power associated with the faculty of speech. The individual will delimited by the social will, as exemplified by the institution of language, has given rise to the misleading theory of blind organic laws as the basis of language.