Page images
PDF
EPUB

CHAPTER XV.

MEANINGS OF WORDS AS DEVELOPED BY ASSOCIATION

AND COMPARISON.

Instinctive Ejaculatory Sounds, and Reflective Imitative Sounds, becoming

words by Agreement, in Fulfilment of the Principle of Association or Comparison, can represent but a few Ideas—Other needed Words may be due to Agreement in using Arbitrary Symbols ; it is Philosophical to suppose them largely developed by Tendencies underlying the Formation of Primitive Words-How these Tendencies lead to the Use of the same Word in Different Senses—In the case of Words whose Meanings depend on Association-How what refers to the Material comes to refer to the Immaterial-Words whose Meanings depend on Comparison-What refers to the Material is by Comparison used for the Immaterial—Great Varieties of Meanings are developed from the same Word by Continued Processes of Association and Comparison-A Knowledge of this fact, and its Results are Necessary to an Intelligent

Use of Language. IN the former part of this work we have considered ejac

ulatory and imitative sounds and the influence of the methods of their formation and arrangement upon poetic form, so far as sounds determine this. We have found that it is reasonable to suppose that by associating certain utterances with certain circumstances in which they are used, or by comparing them with the sounds of objects to which they refer, men in primitive ages learn what the utterances mean, and, consciously or unconsciously, agree to accept them as representative of similar meanings whenever or wherever heard. How to produce at will these representative sounds solves the first

problem of all language. But it requires no proof to show that no large number of the objects that engage our thoughts can be represented either by their own peculiar ejaculations or by imitative sounds. For this reason it is held by some that perhaps the majority of our words are merely arbitrary symbols, by which they mean that agreement which is undoubtedly a chief factor in giving definite meanings to sounds is also a chief factor in giving us the sounds themselves. While there are reasons for this theory, it may be pushed too far, and hardly seems to accord with what we know of the action of the mind with reference to other analogous matters. It seems more philosophical to attribute the enlargement of the primitive vocabulary mainly to further developments of mental processes in some way analogous to those to which the formation of the very earliest words is attributable. Facts, too, so far as they are known, sustain this view.

To show that this is so, let us recall for a moment the methods of forming a word from an ejaculatory or imitative sound. This will start us in the right place from which to observe how continuous operations of the same method necessarily lead to the formation from the same sound, or the same slightly modified, of a multiplicity of words. Attention was directed in the former part of this work to the fact that the organs of speech are so constructed that usually the earliest articulated sounds made by the babe are mama and papa; and that the earliest persons to whom they are addressed are the mother and father; and that, for this reason, people speaking in scores of different languages have come to associate mama, which, as a rule, is uttered first, with an appeal to the mother; and papa with an appeal to the father. In a similar way, but attributed to comparison

rather than association, it was said that imitative sounds become words. A man says whiz because the sound that he makes compares, at least sufficiently for his purpose, with one that he has heard; and when he and others have uttered it many times, it comes, by common consent, to mean what it does, and nothing else.

Now, with these facts in view, can we not perceive that, after a few words have been formed, the formation of others from them is inevitable? It is so, in the first place, because of the tendency of the mind to carry further in the same direction the same processes of association and comparison that have led to the formation of these earliest words; and, in the second place, because of the mind's tendency to economize labor. After men have accumulated a stock of primitive words, and have begun to reflect upon them, and to perceive the relations which they sustain to other things, they seem to recognize, in some subtle way, that they can save themselves the trouble of originating new sounds by using the terms already in vogue in more than one sense. A word applying to one thing can be made to apply to an altogether different thing, if only the two are similar in certain of their features or relations. If the principle connecting the two is merely one of association, if they are merely allied, then the new term is produced by a continuation of the process underlying the formation of words from ejaculations. If the principle connecting the two is one of comparison, if they are really alike, then the process continues that of forming words from imitative sounds.

Very often the two are only associated. Thus, a man is named after his employment, a Baker, a Smith, George a husbandman, Edward a protector of property; or after his country, York or Lancaster. Thus, a town or city is

named after a man, like Columbus or America. Thus, things very subtle in their nature are named after others easily apprehended. Take, for instance, one of the earliest terms used to indicate that in man, which, as immaterial, cannot be adequately represented by any thing ejaculatory or imitative. “When," says Max Müller, “man wished for the first time to grasp and express a distinction " (and it will be noticed that he could never have wished to do this until he had entirely passed the period of the formation of the very earliest words)“ between the body and something else within him distinct from the body, an easy name that suggested itself was breath. The breath seemed something immaterial and almost invisible; and it was clearly connected with the life that pervaded the body, for as soon as the breath ceased the life of the body became extinct. Hence the Greek name puxń, which originally meant breath, was chosen to express at first the principle of life as distinguished from the decaying body, and afterwards the incorporeal, the immaterial, the undying, the undecaying, the immortal part of man, his soul, his mind, his self."

There are other cases, however, in which the two things for which the same term is used may be compared ; and in these cases, as has been said, there is a process analogous to that of forming words by imitation. As in imitation, a sound produced by the mouth is made to refer to an object producing a similar sound, because the two sounds are alike; so here a term used for one conception is made to refer to another, because the two conceptions are alike. Trench's “ Study of Words," contains a large number of exemplifications of this. Notice, for instance, the way in which the word kind is derived from the word kin. In olden times, all were supposed to be enemies, except

those belonging to the same tribe or of the same kin; only these therefore were kind to one another. But after a while all whose actions could be compared to those of kinned-men were called kind. Again, for centuries subsequent to the time when Christianity had been accepted by the cities of the Roman Empire, the inhabitants of the villages, or the pagani as they were termed, remained heathen ; after a while all those who could be compared to the pagani, on account of their religious beliefs, were termed pagans. Later, in Europe the disciples of the great theologian Duns Scotus, were called Dunses. After a while all who might be compared with these, in that their views differed from those held ordinarily, were called dunces.

In forming words by comparison, as by association, terms applicable literally only to material conceptions come to refer after a time to those that are immaterial. Take words, for instance, describing the operations of the mind. We say that a man's thoughts are pure, clear, mixed, muddled, or clouded, and that he expresses and impresses them upon others; but only to material things like water, wine, or the atmosphere, can the former class of terms be applied literally; and only into or out of a material thing can another, and this only a material thing, be literally pressed. Evidently terms of this kind are used as a result of comparing the mental to the material process, to which in some regards it is analogous. Were it not possible to symbolize the one process in the other, it is obvious that many things which we desire to communicate, would remain forever unexpressed. We see, therefore, how essential to the very existence of language is this power which enables us to figure or picture an object or operation through referring to something which, though

« PreviousContinue »