The Mystery of Words/Preface


Language first of all was a physical function. Even to-day, a man is known less by his looks than by his words. Language gradually became a mode of conduct, a symbol of emotion, a crude means of expression, and at the same time a social convention or the flowering of a gregarious instinct, as it were.

Then, as all things change under new angles of vision, language turned into a delicate, if not precise, instrument of reflection and expression. For as vision grew keener and broader, the ever-shifting points-of-view increased in number until language became so complex that man's greatest and rarest achievement is the simplicity of speech.

Finally, language long has been more than all that; if it remains the fine yet inadequate measure of individual thought, it also has become in a sense the thought of the race and a law of the mind. We are born under its dominion. We can not escape its requirements and remain either social or thinking beings. And it is not improbable that if human beings have spirits capable of surviving bodily death, these spirits will be found only in the personality that each gives to his own combination of words. No two persons ever speak alike. No man ever hides himself under his words, though he pile them mountain-high. We all are bound by the fatalism of our words.

Language, as we are accustomed to regard it, was put forth by the will; but when it reaches a certain stage, the will becomes powerless to alter its course, or at least to shape its destiny. In everything but pure science, language runs away with us, and there it balks. No one ever mastered his mother-tongue—but his mother-tongue always masters him. The mystery of words is inextricably associated with the mystery of higher consciousness; and greater than either is the mystery of the Faculty of Speech.

Language is of human origin—that should go without saying. Although its purposes are definite, it has remarkably indefinite aspects. Regarded as a law, we must accept the law as man-made. Subjected to the continual stress of subconscious habit, vivified by ceaseless activity, language has escaped the dominion of the will whilst deriving its powers from the mind. As a law, language parallels, the laws of life—but on a different plane, in common with all other laws of art. It is organic in the sense of its parallelism; and thus only is language a “natural” law. Treated as an organism, its relations in the broad conception of them are threefold: physical, physiological, and psychical. Because these relations are threefold is one reason why even group tongues or individual languages are slow to change. The co-ordinate processes are too delicate for rude or hasty readjustment.

Again, the obstinacy of language-change is one aspect of racial inertia. Thus it is easy to see why language is loath to respond to the help of learned coteries, and the reason why it is almost wholly deaf to the ablest pleadings of individuals in its behalf. When it yields quickly, it seems to react to spiritual inspiration or to succumb to spiritual slump.

Language submits to reason always grudgingly. It is such a large thing of so much complexity—it is so much a part of the race which it both serves and dominates—that it can be dealt with effectively only by the race itself. This obviously is true of language as a whole, and it is very largely true of separate tongues, as parts.

The English language is in continual use by many millions of people. We call it a “living” language, with good reason; and we know that living languages never remain static. English has undergone many changes, some of which have not seemed good. While it lives it must continue to change for better or worse. If we lengthen our time-scale, we perceive that the change in its big aspect parallels the principles of true growth, including of course those of decay. This is the rational view. For we must be aware that the span of a few centuries is not long in the life of a language. If we adopt a large standard, we find that the rules of scholarly deduction are less important to a growing language than the broad and fluent facility of service is to those who use it,—since they show so little respect for these rules.

This view may be accepted perhaps without assuming that individuals, and scholars with their collective learning, owe no obligations to the mother-tongue. For the mother-tongue is the kindest of mothers, even if she is capable also of exactions that are cruel. Indeed language, like ethics, has individual as well as social bearings. There must be reciprocal relations between the unit and the group. The one excuse for moralizing in a dissertation on linguistics is this: Just as each member of society owes wholesome conduct toward all others for the common good, so does every person owe judicious consideration to his tongue.

In morals this obligation is emphasized and made effective rather more through the spirit than by the enactment and the execution of statute laws. That is to say, enlightenment has done more for morals than force ever has done or ever could do. A sensitive regard for the feelings and the opinions of others is one very real source of ethical progress. The development of strength and purity in a language—its growth and efficiency—likewise must come very largely from the spirituality within us. For knowledge and spirit are the synchronous acquirements of mankind as it approaches a civilized state. A man’s words are his viewpoints which have been localized by convention. As he sees, understands, and speaks, so he is. Moreover, a delicate taste for wholesome speech is in some subtle manner associated with the utilitarian fitness of a language. Carelessness in speech, as in other conduct, leads to the callous indifference that precedes chaos by a step. A due regard for the sensibilities of others probably has done more for correct and decent speech than have all the books that lay bare the faults of language or those that extol its perfections.

Language is full of pitfalls, contradictions, and traps. Serious speech not always is the sign of serious character. Stinging devils use honeyed words, good men speak plainly, and wise men not always well. Only poets are the magicians, for they have mastered the mysteries of words. Only the poet understands the different characteristics of words: their tones, shades, colors, tears, and smiles. He sees that some words are as clear as dew, and that many are as smeared glass. He finds that some are harder than flint, colder than ice, hotter than fire. He knows that others are as gentle as the South breeze on the bosom of a flower; but better than all others, the poet knows that words are valued by the company they keep and that they are judged by their relations. His words may nudge each other but they never are boisterous about it; rather they are like birds on the wing, or flying arrows,—never like snakes in the grass. He sees that self-conscious words flow like molasses from the mouths of hypocrites and fools; that spontaneous words, like eagles, fly fearlessly in the face of the sun.

The trouble is, there are very few poets scattered amongst the many millions using and abusing human speech. If the masses largely were poets, our own words would not be our worst enemies, nor would our best friends necessarily be the words of others. We should have some confidence in the parts of speech and more pride in their relationships; neither should ten follies escape the tongue to one the hand, as now. The attics of our language would be cleared of rubbish and all the good, useful objects restored to use.

Some of the best pieces of furniture often are discarded and stowed away in the attic of an old house. Something like happens to many good English words. They are relegated to the accumulating dust of neglect in the attic of our dialectal or vernacular speech, called the Dictionary.

All such words (and phrases) are of historic value to linguistics; but certain of them also retain their original dynamics and beauty; and many of these no doubt could be rescued from approaching archaism to the enrichment of our tongue.

Public characters now and then give new life or fresh currency to semi-forgotten words. Desuetude, strenuous, and normalcy were galvanized into artificial vigor by Presidental patronage, as it were. The example is less felicitous than conspicuous; but the thought back of it is this: What fortuitously is possible to commonplace words in a mediocre way, clearly is possible to better words by more intelligent design.

Men and women whose utterances are scrutinized by the public, naturally have wide facilities for rescue work of this kind; but any person of knowledge and taste, however modest of station, may help to recover worthy parts of speech from the rubbish piles of our vocabulary.

There are many such words. Each person would make his choice, and the public would adopt for rejuvenation those words that should make the best appeal for usefulness to the needs of the mass-instinct.

A large number of plain words of great strength and rugged beauty have been cast aside for less virile words of effeminate taint. It may be too late in the history of English to expect a return to the shorter stronger words of an earlier epoch: the saber strokes of Saxon Speech; but it never is too late to regret their loss. A very ordinary example of the telling use of words of one syllable is given by J. A. Alexander:

Think not that strength lies in the big, round word,
Or that the brief and plain must needs be weak.
To whom can this be true who once has heard
The cry for help, the tongue that all men speak,

When want or woe or fear is at the throat,
So that each word gasped out is like a shriek
Pressed from the sore heart, or strange wild note
Sung by some fay or fiend? There is a strength
Which dies if stretched too far or spun too fine,
Which has more height than breadth , more depth than length .
Let but this force of thought and speech be mine,
And he that will may take the sleek, fat phrase,
Which glows and burns not, though it gleam and shine;
Light but not heat—a flash but not a blaze.

Nor is it mere strength that the short word boasts;
It serves of more than fight or storm to tell—
The roar of waves that dash the rock-ribbed coasts,
The crash of tall trees when the wild winds swell,
The roar of guns, the groans of men that die
On blood-stained fields. It has a voice as well
For them that far off on their sick beds lie,
For them that weep, for them that mourn the dead,
For them that laugh and dance and clasp the hand .

To joy’s quick step as well as grief’s low tread,
The sweet plain words we learn at first, keep time
And though the theme be sad or gay or grand,
With each, with all these may be made to chime
In thought or speech or song or prose or rhyme.

Our language needs all its plain, short, strong words—all its clean words, for they challenge attention and they court inspection; their nakedness is their shield. We can say all we have to say with the very best of words, and we can get along admirably without any of the worse. Outside a few technical subjects, we have no occasion to invent words. It is very dangerous business in polite society. We should be able to express ourselves without the help of tireless and tiresome intensives. We have no use for nine-tenths of our synonyms. And while a man may be known by his expletives and a woman by her giggles, we should be as well off, all round, if they were not.

Now the question arises, how may the desire to use good language be stimulated, and how may it be gratified? Partly at least in education and in emulation discreetly practiced. Some knowledge of linguistics of course would be suggested; but we should not make the mistake of overloading linguistics with dusty science. An interest in the mysteries and the meanings of words stimulates one to study. Education enables one to discriminate between correct and incorrect forms of speech. Spiritual dignity leads one to a noble choice. Example is powerful. Faults exposed, often lead to their avoidance. Bad example by recognized authority leads thoughtless folk to evil ways in speech, as elsewhere. Also exemplars of virtue are sure to have their followers. This is true in linguistics. ‘The rule is general, and it is broad and big enough perhaps to excuse an occasional book of this kind.

R. H. B.